Textlessness and Attention in Lazarus 15

…poetry is a short story missing 99 percent of the words.

Greg Rucka

I wish I had the rest of the above quote, made by Rucka at the New York Comic Con in 2013, but to paraphrase, Rucka was suggesting that an intimate understanding of the form of short stories would prepare writers for every kind of writing except poetry. I’ve always seen a resemblance between Rucka’s taut comic work and great short stories, but what truly struck me about that quote was how it seemed to contradict the oft-quoted axiom that the required efficiency of short stories aligns them more closely with poetry than novels. This seeming contradiction may boil down to the inadequacy of our definition of “poetry”, but I couldn’t help but think of this quote as I read Lazarus 15, one of the most poetic comics I’ve ever read.

For me, poetry is about the elegance of form, from rhyming to meter to symbolism to the very concise nature that Rucka mentioned at NYCC. We may think of this as a limiting affect, but the purpose is to elicit an effect greater than the literal meaning of the words. As a visual art form, comics are inherently greater than the dialogue and narration they feature, but how the words and art interact is where the real magic happens. I’ve long been a lover of Rucka’s work with artist Michael Lark, and while I may have singled out the previous issue as exemplary of their collaborations, their work here is even better.

As an extended, largely wordless “trial by combat” between Forever and Sonja Bittner, this issue is a clear showcase for Lark. It’s a bravura fight sequence, to be sure, but before we get into just what makes it so fantastic, I want to focus on how Rucka sets him up for success. This isn’t to say that Rucka isn’t crucial to the success of the fight scene, or that Lark is any less crucial before and after it, but I do think the way Rucka prepares us for 13 copy-free pages is key for maintaining the integrity of the issue. Moreover, it’s executed so elegantly — so poetically — I really can’t help but pause to marvel at it.

For me, the skill here lies in ramping us into (and out of) the text-free passage — slowly cranking the textlessness of the pages to 100%. I struggled with ways to summarize and quantify this quality (can you tell I don’t typically analyze poetry?), but ended up producing this graph:


This is the number of text-free panels divided by the total number of panels, taken per page. Even leaving out the huge text-free middle section, it’s easy enough to draw a trendline showing a clear ramp up and down here. This series has always featured some fantastic copy-free panels — Lark’s bread and butter, really — but they seem to be used here in a decidedly more directed way, normalizing the textlessness even before page seven hits.

Ultimately, that attempt at quantification falls woefully short, as the issue actually feels decidedly more text-free. No single page exemplifies this better than page six, the last page to feature text before the fight begins.


It sounds silly, but I still have a hard time believing that over half of the panels here feature dialogue. Now, that certainly speaks to a failing of my quantification system — the wide-screen panels aren’t exactly text heavy, but count as texted panels, all the same — but I think it also reveals something about the simple amount of words Rucka is using here. Sonja says four words. Forever says three. Sonja says three. Forever says two. They’re effectively counting down to their own fight. Moreover, they’re steadily acquiescing their agency, using fewer words than Malcolm, Hock, and Morray, who collectively decided their fates.

(Actually, that counting down reaches its logical conclusion 13 pages later, when Sevara Bittner cries out to stop the fight. I think there’s an intriguing feminist message in here [especially given that Sevara and Bethany Carlyle are the only characters to utter fewer words than Forever and Sonja], but I want to stick with Rucka’s use of space for now.)

The lazari’s acquiescence of agency roughly tracks Rucka’s own acquiescence of power to Lark, turning over the keys to the story, trusting his art to carry the story for the next 13 pages. It’s reductive and perhaps ultimately wrong-headed to suggest that the amount of attention we pay to the art is inversely correlated to the number of words on the page, but I do think we evaluate dialogue-free panels differently than we do panels with dialogue. There are no words to set the tone and pace of the moment, which puts everything on the art, but Rucka’s clever way of acclimatizing us to textlessness tunes us in to picking up on those cues. Lark’s art is ultimately what sells that fight scene, but, at least according to Rucka, it’s the lack of words that truly makes this issue poetry.

Adapted from the original at retcon-punch.com

The (landscape) 16-panel grid

When I sat down to make the first page of Disconnected, I had to make a number of formatting choices. As with any choice, they carried with them both benefits and drawbacks, which I hope to discuss here. First, let’s identify some of those choices:

Page dimensions

Page Dimensions

Opting to orient the page as landscape seemed like a no-brainer to me — this was conceived as a web comic, which means folks would mostly be reading it on screens. Landscape felt like it would take advantage of screen space better. Additionally, I had just finished reading Chris Ware’s Lint, which made stunning use of its landscape pages. I doubt Disconnected will read anything like Lint, but it serves as an important formal inspiration for what I’m trying to do.

Freed of any printing dimensions, I mostly had to settle on an aspect ratio, I settled on a golden rectangle (or something close to it), partially because I’m such a nerd, and partially because I thought it might give me some flexibility in layouts, allowing me to embrace squares and golden points naturally as the series continues.



Every comic I’ve ever drawn has been built on a grid. I think they’re incredibly useful for controlling pacing and emphasis, and they appeal to my sense of logic and order. This would also help establish an aesthetic for the series and help give me a substantive starting place for each new page — each layout would be a variation on a theme, rather than a whole new undertaking.

I could have opted for a 9-panel grid, or some non-square number, but as I was laying out the first page, 16 fit my needs a bit better. It’s a lot of panels per page, but I very rarely actually have 16 panels on the page — it’s just the starting point.

One thing I hadn’t really considered when combining a landscape format with a 16-panel grid is just how different pacing is. The rows in a 9-panel grid can’t help but flow together — a feature savvy comics makers can use to create discrete story beats. There’s no better example than Watchmen, so forgive me for using it to illustrate this point.


Part of why this works is that we can easily see all three panels in a row at once — we automatically group them because of it. That doesn’t work as well when there are more panels, and it works even less when the panels are wider than they are tall. It’s just harder to take in as a unit. To look across just a single row in Disconnected forces your eye to move, losing that sense that the panels naturally fit together.

I’m already framing that as a negative, but there are benefits, too. The way the format forces the readers eye to move can create a sense of motion I don’t usually achieve in my comics. That is; it can be used well, but I requires a set of skills I’m mostly just picking up on. Look at how poorly I handle it early on:

Disconneted 2.jpg

The three panels in the bathroom might fairly be read as a group, but I couldn’t muster any real flow in the rest of the page, opting instead to lean into the disjointedness, resorting to a kind of hard-cut montage.

Each page since has addressed the grid in different ways, but as far as creating meaningful groupings, none pleases me more than my most recent page:

Disconnected 8.jpg

The double-tall panels that frame the top half of this page are an affect borrowed from Ware, but they do a remarkable job of framing the four panels between them as a natural group. Moreover they provide a contrast to the full-width rows that follow, highlighting just how wide they really are.

One element I’m still struggling with is just how far the eye has to travel to start the next line — it’s much harder to build flow, or even direct the eye backwards naturally. Thus far, I’m inclined to think scene-to-scene breaks (or at least significant changes of “camera” angle) are my best option, but I’m looking for other ways to tackle that particular oddity.