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Past Tense and Point of View in Comics

Contemplating the differences between prose fiction and comics, some things about prose call attention to themselves:

Prose fiction has the attributes of tense (as in past tense, present tense, future tense) and point of view (as in first person, third person, etc.). Comics have only approximate equivalents for tense and point of view.

In general, a comics sequence is always in the present tense, and is always from an omniscient point of view. That's because of the nature of pictures; there's no explicit equivalent for what language can imply. But there are indirect ways that comics can achieve what language can, and that is the subject of this essay.

Even though almost all prose fiction is told in the past tense, popular fiction usually has a sense of 'happening now.' When you read 'He said,' 'She said,' in fiction, you generally interpret it as 'He's saying,' 'She's saying.' Fiction is almost never written in the present tense; and although it would be logical to tell an SF tale in the future tense (as in 'Captain Kirk will beam down to the planet,') I've never seen this approach used in any commercially-published story.

Although the prose past-tense may be implicitly present-tense, prose shifts quite easily into the mode where the events depicted are less in the 'now' and more in the 'past.' This is important, because we tend to feel differently about the past than the 'now;' it has a less immediate, more sentimental atmosphere. Sex, suspense, and humor are best associated with 'nowness', whereas romance, horror, and (obviously) nostalgia work better when associated with 'pastness.'

In addition, a period story may not seem quite right if it has too much of a 'now' feel to it. Also, in a complex story, contrasting 'past' with 'now' is a necessity to make it understandable-- this is particularly true when a story has flashbacks.

Comics stories often need to project this sense of 'pastness.' There are a number of ways to do so:

- Indicate in the captions that a past event is being portrayed.

- Normally captions are written in the present tense. By writing the captions in the past tense, some sense of 'pastness' is suggested. However, this is not a very noticable effect.

- The more verbiage (captions, dialog) a panel contains, the more they slow it down, bringing on a feeling of 'pastness.'

- Captions tend to suggest 'pastness.' Dialog tends to suggest 'nowness.'

- When the setting of the picture is some place that is remote from the reader, a subtle sense of 'pastness' is created. A scene on board of a ship, for example, may seem more in the past than a scene in a shopping mall. Once again, this is not a very noticeable effect.

- If the scene is obviously in a previous historical period, it will tend to have a sense of 'pastness.' However, period comics can assume a sense of 'nowness'; Lieutenant Blueberry fleeing on his horse from an Indian war party has a sense of immediacy, even though it's supposed to have happened over a century ago.

- If the pictures are rendered in a recognizably period style, the sense of 'pastness' may be suggested.

- Rendering that gives the pictures a 'weathered' look will suggest 'pastness.' Large amounts of cross-hatching and texture, for example, tend to 'age' a drawing. A similar effect occurs when the rendering is more delicate and intricate.

- Rendering that suggests a mistlike effect around the characters suggests 'pastness.'

- In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud points out that when a panel border is dropped from a panel, it suggests a pause in the action. When panel borders are often interrupted or take different forms (what Dr. Joseph Witek calls the Baroque style), the sequence takes on a sense of 'pastness.'

- If the panel-to-panel transitions* represent larger passages of time, the sequence loses its 'nowness'. Many scene-to-scene transitions help create a sense of 'pastness.'

Conversely, to emphasize the 'nowness' of a sequence, comics should:

- Have a familiar contemporary setting.

- Use present tense in captions.

- Minimize verbiage.

- Avoid captions; use dialog instead.

- Use a contemporary drawing style.

- Use a streamlined rendering style that avoids the use of texture.

- Use standard straight-line panel borders.

- Emphasize moment-to-moment. subject-to-subject, and action-to-action panel transitions.

(* The panel transitions referred to above are from McCloud's Understanding Comics.)


In prose, the 1st person point of view is especially interesting, because it puts the reader in the drivers seat, and imposes certain restrictions on what the reader 'knows' about the story-- they know what the narrator knows, including what they're thinking; but they don't know anything else.

Comics can create the equivalent of the 1st person simply by having captions narrating in the 1st person. But there are two problems with this approach:

1) It requires enough captions to continually remind the reader of the 1st person point of view, hobbling narratives that may want to minimize captions.

2) The reader senses the pictures more strongly than the captions. So if the pictures don't suggest a 1st person perspective, the captions will seem rather detached, like a voice-over in a film.

The 3rd-person limited point of view can more effectively be simulated in comics. This is a point of view that is outside of the character, but focuses consistently on that character, so that the reader identifies with them. That character's thoughts can be known, but the narrator is separate from them.

In comics, the 3rd person limited point of view is suggested as follows:

- By showing the character frequently in the panels; and having the character appear in every scene.

- By using thought balloons only to show the POV character's thoughts.

- By showing what the POV character is seeing. An effective way to convey this is to show in succeeding panels: 1) the character looking; 2) what the character sees (showing it from the same angle as the character sees it from is important); 3) the character reacting to what they see.

- Show the POV character frequently in closeup and in one-shots. Avoid showing the character in a way that looks like someone else's point of view.

- Show the characters is feeling. Identification with their emotions helps us put ourselves in a character's place.