DC Comics' new Sandman Universe has been ripping out some incredibly innovative books since its inception last year. The line, based entirely around Neil Gaiman's Sandman character and his subsequent universe from the late '80s, has oftentimes found incredibly cool and unique ways to tell stories about magic, dreams, nightmares, demons, sorcery, etc through formal manipulation.
This week's Books of Magic #9 was no exception. That's why this week's page comes from the soon-defunct DC Vertigo comic! Check it out:
There is some formal brilliance happening on this page and it really works!
At its most basic, this page is a full-page splash to the bleed. At first glance, it depicts embedded closure (which occurs when repetition of the same person occurs in a single panel) as Ellie tries to escape the prose prison of the book that she is trapped in. The beauty here is that the words in the book act as her prison bars.
Now, on its own, thats a pretty cool concept! But what the creative team does here has another layer of formal experimentation that subconsciously adds to the power of the page.
While the words are acting as bars to keep Ellie in the book/prison, they are also acting as panel borders. This is called iconic substitution. Rather than simply depict the panel frames in a traditional manner, they replace them with an element that is ripped from the story, giving it a much more meaningful connection to the narrative. When this is done, they actually install a gutter function (when we read traditional comics, the movement between panels is what creates action in our minds) where there really isn't one.
So while it LOOKS like a giant splash-page with embedded closure, it doesn't READ like a giant splash-page with embedded closure; it actually reads as three separate panels. This adds an interesting flavour to the visual communication that would otherwise not stand out had they utilized a more traditional concept.
It also wouldn't have allowed for the neat formal-narrative manipulation that occurs in the "second panel".
This is, of course, the most interesting moment on the page, and actually is designed to draw the reader's attention as a result of its placement on the bottom of the page and its nearness to our protagonist.
Here, Ellie is literally trying to force her way out of the page by squeezing beyond its formal limitations. The words that act as bars also limit her existence within the space of the "panel" boundaries. She simply cannot extend beyond the words/panel frames to move out or into another panel. It is a powerful moment that emphasizes her restriction both narratively and formally.
The linguistic element of the substitution is also very interesting. The words are coded so as to be the thing that holds her back. Ellie mentions that the words forming the bars include words like "strong," "lock," and "unbreakable." These linguistic elements that have been transformed into pictorial icons (the bars) demonstrate the power of words. It is the WORDS that hold the magic which keeps her locked in. A wonderful example of the unification of words and pictures that happen all the time in comics, these words and bars have turned against us here, and are being used for malevolent purposes.
Iconic substitution can lead to some of the most incredible formal storytelling in comics, and it's incredible to see creators using it in such a meaningful way here!
Books of Magic #9 by Kat Howard, Tom Fowler, and Brian Churilla is published by DC Vertigo and available in comic book stores June 26, 2019.