A comic is not simply a sequence of images. What makes the comic medium distinct is the concept of the page. When reading a comic, we are experiencing the comic page simultaneously both in whole and in part.
The first and more frequently discussed function of the page is what I call montage. This is that incremental experience, the “sequential” in sequential art. It engages our brain by comparing the previous panel to the current panel, and filling in the change that happens in the middle.
But we don’t strictly experience comics like this. There is also a constant awareness of our place in the page, as well as a peripheral sense of the page as a whole. This is integral to the experience of reading comics, and I call it collage.
The collage gives context to the montage. Collage is, quite literally, the bigger picture. Every comic page has a collage element, and the most sophisticated creators use it to further our experience of the story. Collage is one of those elements that the reader may not be aware of, but is strongly coloring their perception of the story.
Examples are going to be the easiest way to see this:
J.H. Williams III is a great person to start this discussion with – his awareness of collage is very evident in his work. His entire catalogue is a master class in pushing the boundaries of collage. On just about every page he infuses meaning beyond the contents of the panels.
Instead of trying to describe everything going on here, I invite you to try a little thought experiment. Imagine if the panels were laid out in functional, traditional way, and read them that way. The context of the scene would be totally different – it’s the collage element that brings in this idea of duality and yin and yang to an otherwise straightforward scene.
There’s a tendency to think that collage/montage discussion is only relevant to really flashy comics with crazy page layouts, but that’s not the case at all.
Fell by Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith is a supreme work of mood and tone. The stories are told mostly in 9-panel grids with monochromatic color schemes.
So while the layout may appear to be fairly standard, there’s a lot going on here collage-wise. Almost every page is practically monochromatic, preventing the eye from drifting across the page to splashes of color. The linework is subdued and direct, again, preventing eye drift. The thick gutters hem in the action unnaturally; every panel feels like it could use a little more room. The grid becomes a prison, trapping our eye inside each panel, if only for a moment.
Oh, and the story is about Fell being trapped in Snowtown. Coincidence?
I’ve avoided using any examples from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run, mostly because it’s just a bottomless can of worms when it comes to theory discussions. But it’s hard to ignore Moore’s grasp on both montage and collage. This page, the first of Moore’s seminal Swamp Thing story, is downright playful with the two concepts.
It almost makes your brain do a little backflip. We start with 3 standard panels, and from that perspective, the page appears to open up. But when your eye reaches the following panel, you realize that the montage and the collage have been fused into one. The panels of glass become the panels of the comic, lending the narrator an almost omniscient presence over the proceedings.
There’s plenty more that could be said on the topic. Every comic page has montage and collage – but just like the other techniques we’ve discussed, some creators are working this to their advantage and others are not.
So what examples do you have?