116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Performing Trauma and the Reader’s Role: Responding to the Bush v. Gore Election in Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons!

Brett Driben, Boston University

To date, there has been an over-attention to the gutter the space of formal experimentation. This paper analyzes the positional and cause-and-effect cues that structure time within a single comics panel. In One! Hundred! Demons!, Barry uses speech bubbles to manipulate narrative sequence within the panel to perform the drawn-out temporal strain of the Bush v. Gore Election. Barry integrates the trauma of the unresolved delay into the reading experience, making the reader integral to her performance.

Proposal: 

In comics criticism to date, there has been an over-attention to the gutter as the space of formal experimentation. This paper argues that the individual comics panel is an atom we need to break open and analyze. By graphically dissecting a panel from Lynda Barry’s 2002 One! Hundred! Demons!, this paper highlights the overlooked ways that comics creators can structure time within the borders of the individual comics panel. In the section of Demons! titled “The Election,” Barry performs her traumatic experience resultant from the 2000 Bush v. Gore Election by creating a panel with a group of events that cannot be ordered. Barry’s feeling of trauma, what Hillary Chute argues is expressed through “temporal scrambling” (119), is replicated through the reading experience when the reader cannot order the events as they expect. Since Barry’s performance of her emotional state is realized through the reading experience, the reader’s role becomes integral to Barry’s performance.

When depicting her reaction to the election, Barry creates panels in which it is impossible to order the events. She represents events like a television blaring the headline “We have breaking news!”, her husband asking her if the election is “still too close to call,” and her own frantic attempts to tell her husband to “Don’t talk!” so she can hear the TV (196). While each event is clear, their order is not. Barry makes the sequencing cues in this panel ambiguous and contradictory. The result is that reader engages in “panicked reading” where they frantically read and reread the panel, trying to find an order that does not exist. The experience reading this type of panel matches the panic and irresolution that characterized Barry’s mental state in the weeks after the election. In this performance of trauma through formal technique, the reader is not a passive audience member in relation to the spectacle of the panel. Rather, they become an active participant who is necessary to create Barry’s performance of her trauma.

In 1993, Scott McCloud presented the first theorization of panel time in Understanding Comics. To date, this is also the only theorization of panel time. McCloud argued that, while we generally view the panel as an instantaneous frozen moment, a single panel can actually contain lengthy durations of time. McCloud continued by characterizing the order of events in a panel as fixed and linear. Taking up where McCloud left off, this paper shows that, unlike the sequential presentation of events in a novel or a movie, events within individual panels do not have to conform to a singular, linear order.

Comics has more flexibility than narrative genres, for which the order of events presented is dictated by a linear organization of material. Works of prose begin with the first word, move through a linear sequence, and end with the final word. However much a film plays with time, the film frames are projected in an unchanging sequence.

The space within a comics panel, by contrast, does not have a default organization of material. Comics creators must sequence time anew in each comics panel. While comics panels do have detailed ordering conventions, these have been underexamined in comics criticism. Positional cues work to sequence a comics panel through the general left-to-right, top-to-bottom reading order. Most of the events in a panel can be sequenced just by looking at their relative positions and without looking at what people are saying. Cause-and-effect cues sequence a comics panel through implied causal relationships. For example, if someone screams in a panel and a door slams unexpectedly, the door slam causes the scream, so the door slam must occur first and then the scream. These cues give comics creators flexibility in structuring time within a panel, a flexibility that Barry manipulates to create a tense yet futile feeling of waiting to see who will be president.