Like any visual medium, as in painting and cinema, there are particular ways of seeing that are useful, even essential, when studying the mechanics of comics. Mise-en-Scène or Depth of Field is a fascinating aspect to comics that occurs more often than you might think. Sometimes it’s done more formally and explicitly and sometimes not so much. But, when done right, it can be very striking and truly enhance the comics experience. First, consider the picture plane, an impression of space, like the imaginary wall separating the audience and overlooking the space on the stage. Then think of foreground, middle ground, and background. We are considering everything. The term, Mise-en-Scène, in French, literally means “put into the scene” but I like to also emphasize it refers to making the most of the three planes depicted in a scene.
You are looking at a scene, in a painting, or a film, or in comics, from the close range, mid-range, and way in the back range. What you might place in these three planes can significantly move your narrative forward. A reliable trope would be to set up your scene to include past, present, and future: cast the middle as present tense for the main character, with the past set in the back; and the future set up front. That’s what I ended up doing with the above image after noodling around for a while. But it can be anything you like, anything that makes for an interesting composition.
You can call this process, “The Three Plane Method.” That comes to mind. Or you can use the term used in theater and cinema, Mise-en-Scène. In film and photography, think of this as playing with Depth of Field. In the end, you’re exploring what this technique can do for you as you compose a frame or a scene. If you want some truly riveting examples, take a closer look at how images are stacked upon each other in layered scenes in Citizen Cane to create mesmerizing montages. Some are stable landscape type moments and others are dazzling scenes which have the camera rolling for one long dizzying shot like the one that begins outside during a gloomy snow storm and snakes its way into a cozy cabin.
The best comics tend to be, at least for me, thoughtfully composed. While comics has its own language and techniques unique to its medium, it does manage to borrow from other mediums–and make it its own. That said, it was interesting to go about finding a decent example in comics of true Mise-en-Scène. I think my initial impulse is proven because it wasn’t easy to just stumble upon something. Paul Pope? Nada. Blutch? Nada again. David Mazzucchelli? Frank Quitely? No and no again. You can’t ignore the fact that comics is a sequential art. In general, comics is mostly invested in a steady flow of a concise combination of words and pictures. Those visionary auteur cartoonists will, on occasion, create panels or whole pages with bravura artwork but these are usually some attempt at detailed exteriors or interiors to establish time and place. Not necessarily work making the most of all three planes. The long and the short of it is that a lot of comics involves people speaking to each other or going from one place to another and not much else. Many exceptions exist and hurray for them. I finally found the above excellent example to share with you from The Leaning Girl from The Obscure Cities series by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.