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Existing in grids and swerves.

You know that London swings.
New York’s a grid.
Chicago swings.

Just about every writer who’s tried their hand at a comicbook script has when describing a scene or a panel to be drawn said something like ZOOM IN or TRACKING SHOT or SMASH CUT. The artist, when they get the script, will roll their eyes heavenward in a silent prayer of not again, before taking up their pen to attempt, once more, to suggest the dynamic motion of cinema with the one-fixed-image-after-another of comics.

(Fun fact: that writer and that artist can easily be the same person.)

It’s jargon creep, is what it is. —“Jargon,” we are told, “is the inevitable outcome of the specialised communicational needs of professionals, who require terms for things and situations when they, as a matter of necessity, have to deal with every day of their lives, but which do not enter into the world of the man on the Clapham omnibus except as occasional ‘technical’ matters,” and that’s all well and good insofar as it goes, but when one’s specialised communicational needs are themselves relatively abstruse, expressed in terms of art only haphazardly taught or even studied, with critical apparati that have only just begun to assemble themselves, well: it’s only natural, to reach for something closer to hand, superficially similar (bright colors! pretty pictures! explosions!) but colossally more popular, more easily reached from the Clapham omnibus, and thus more familiar, more well-known—superficially, at least: an approximation of the tools it’s built to satisfy its own specialised communicational needs, osmotically assimilated from backstage tell-alls and glandhanding chroniclers eager to demonstrate an almost professional grasp of the technicalities, and voila: a tracking shot that zooms in to a smash cut. In comics.

—Which isn’t to say there’s never a point in trying to evoke in pen and ink the cinematic swoop of the one, the celluloid abruption of the other, or that interesting effects couldn’t be gleaned from the attempt, but you need to think about how to do that in comics, and what that will do to your comic, and whether the effect is right for the moment, the scene, the story, and reaching just for the closest jargon to hand isn’t doing that thinking. At best, it’s offloading that thinking to our weary, prayerful artist (see above). —Nor is this some sort of Hulked-out Sapir Whorffery, where because you’ve turned to the jargon of cinema, you can’t think in comics at all; but. But: the trick of unthinkingly reaching for metaphorized jargon is that you just don’t bother to think it. You think you already have.

It is possibly the predominant narrative mode in Western movies, television, comic books, what-have-you. And now I learn (via Warren Ellis (via Gene Ha (who cribs it from Dennis O’Neil who deems it “the best imitation of life possible in a work of fiction”)))—it has a name: The Levitz Paradigm.

Speaking of which. —The Levitz Paradigm (also known as the Levitz Grid, which it isn’t) is not a narrative mode, much less the predominant one of anything West of anywhere, and while it’s a useful tool for (a not inconsiderate number of) television shows and (quite a lot, really, though less than before, of Yankee-style) comicbooks, it’s got nothing at all to do with movies as they are currently practiced and produced, to say nothing of novels, and as for your what-have-you, well. And Denny O’Neill’s remark must be approached in a context of specialised communicational needs that straiten severely the very meanings of “best” and “imitation” and “life” and “possible” and “work of fiction” to make the sense it does: “Basically, the procedure is this,” he tells us:

The writer has two, three, or even four plots going at once. The main plot—call it Plot A—occupies most of the pages and the characters’ energies. The secondary plot—Plot B—functions as a subplot. Plot C and Plot D, if any, are given minimum space and attention—a few panels. As Plot A concludes, Plot B is “promoted”; it becomes Plot A, and Plot C becomes Plot B, and so forth. Thus, there is a constant upward plot progression; each plot develops in interest and complexity as the year’s issues appear.

That’s it: the Levitz Paradigm.

The Levitz Grid (which isn’t a grid) is likewise simple enough: jot your issue numbers or chapter titles or whatever designation you might have in mind for your buckets-of-story along one side of a piece of paper; scribble whatever it is you’re using to keep track of your possible plots (whether I, II, III, or A, B, C, or the One Where Her World Explodes, the One Where He Turns on His Left Side) down the perpendicular, and where each of them meets, make a note: in this episode, this plot will make up the A story (not the A plot—we just crept into sitcom jargon), and this one the B, this one the C, and this one’s taking a smoke break:

Not, I repeat, a grid.

But ceci n’est pas un paradigme! The Grid (not a grid!) is just something you use to grasp, manipulate, note and recall the thing itself: the swirlingly fluid interplay of rising and falling actions of ever-churning never-ending storystuff braided in regular packets that nevertheless in their hurly and their burly, their ebb and flow as each crescendoes and recedes in turn to be replaced by the next already swelling, seeming thus to provide an eternally returning imitation of life at least as convincing as their illusion of change: misshapen chaos lent a decently utilitarian but deliberately none-too-well–seeming form. “It’s a fairly simple and useful charting tool for doing serial comics,” says Levitz himself, and there, that’s why it’s got nothing to do with novels, or movies, or short stories, or plays, or much of anything at all that even glances at an Aristotelian unity: this is a tool for comicbookers, soap operators, serialists: θεαμάτων διευθυντές, in the original Greek. —Novels have no need to juggle advancing and retreating plots with an abacus like this; movies-as-such shouldn’t have to twiddle plot-sliders on a giant storystuff equalizer: they’re of a shape, done in one, start to finish: there’s braiding, sure, advancing, retreating, but not on a long-term, continuing basis that requires a grid (that’s not a grid!) to track the paradigm used to keep hold of the writhing swerves of it all.

—Which is not to say you couldn’t, if you so wished, apply serialist tools to a unitary project (yes, you in the back there, a picaresque, of course, now sit down)—but much as when you set out to draw a tracking shot, you need to think a moment, at least, about how, and why, and when. —I’ve never played with the Levitz Paradigm myself, for all that I am a serialist; I can appreciate what it does, and smile to see it at work behind the shapes of comicbooks and television shows, but I don’t keep track of storylines braided in that fashion, which anyway isn’t so much a braid as a splice, or maybe a graft? (Jargon creep…) —However it is I approach the structure of my own storystuff is bound up in a synæsthetic proprioception that I can barely describe and mostly leave alone to do what it does out of fear that I’ll break something by poking at it. The way I feel it in my hands doesn’t translate to abecederial beads strung on an armature of criss-crossing wires: it’s more, I don’t know. Tidal? It does slosh. Sort of. —Anyway.

Into the grid.

Not to go on, though, about that post (none of this is to say), a four-year-old recapitulation of an efflorescence of enthusiasm for a simple, careworn charting tool, mostly unspooled in long-since unravelled Google+ threads, which I found because I was looking for another grid, an actual grid, a fabled, magical grid:

When I started out with this I was living in a state of such terror that I would get to the end of a story and not have an ending for it, or would not have at least a satisfactory ending for it, that I would plot my stories out almost to the finest detail. If I was plotting a 24-page Swamp Thing story I would have a kind of rough idea of where I wanted the story to go in my head, I would have perhaps vague ideas of what would make a good opening scene, a good closing scene, perhaps a few muddy bits in the middle. I’d then write the numbers 1 to 24 down the side of the page and I would put down a one line description of what was happening on that page. This kind of developed to the point of mania with Big Numbers.

When I plotted Big Numbers I plotted the entire projected 12-issue series on one sheet of A1 paper—which was just frightening. A1 is scary—it’s the largest size. I divided it along the top into 12 columns and along the side into something like 48 different rows across which had got the names of all the characters, so the whole thing became a grid where I could tell what each of the characters was doing in each issue. It was all filled with tiny biro writing which looked like the work of a mental patient, it was like migraine made visible, it was really scary.

I mainly did it to frighten other writers—Neil Gaiman nearly shat, the colour drained from his face when he saw this towering work of madness. I’ve still got it somewhere, I just don’t look at it very often, it doesn’t make me feel good, it’s sort of: “Where was I?”

And much to the credit of that post, it offers a glimpse of the beast:

Big Numbers, little words.

Now: that’s a grid. But it’s not a Levitz Grid. (Which, anyway, isn’t.) It’s got nothing at all to do with the Levitz Paradigm: superficially similar, perhaps (there’s the issue numbers along the top! there’s the characters, written down the side, just like possible plots!), but the plots-as-such aren’t jockeying for position, each taking their run at the top as the previous focus retires; there’s no Story A or B or C, to track and note their relative placements in time. There’s just a grid (just), a map in time, of who needs to have done what by when, to pull it all off. —Big Numbers was episodic, in that it was strictly structured around 40-page issues that had specific beginnings and endings (at least, the three that managed to make it out into the world from the shelves of Kupe’s library)—but it isn’t (wasn’t) a serial. Or at least what was serialized about it wasn’t the start-and-stop of rising and falling repeating and returning stories, per se; I mean of course it’s a serial, any writer as devoted to rhythm and rhyme and structure as Moore, any artist as formally impishly devious as Sienkiewicz, they’re going to rank and arrange elements of their work to unfold in a serial manner, yes, of course, hang the swerves on an unrelenting nine-panel grid just to show how much it isn’t, can’t be, couldn’t, repeat and return to reach for what can’t, and yet—

My specialized communicational needs exceed my grasp. (Where the words do fail.) —Christ, I caught myself just now looking up serialist composition, just to maybe have something to say it with. (Talk about jargon creep.) —I went looking for a Big Damn Example of something I might want to think about using, myself; stumbled over a post that mildly annoyed me with its innocently inaccurate enthusiasm; started to think my way through how, and what, and why, and I’ve ended up in an unlooked-for existential crisis, over what is a serial, and what isn’t, and why I think I feel as strongly as I do about this bit, or that. Or that over there, God damn.

Thus, the problem of argument: one talks oneself onto a branch that ultimately must break. I should maybe get back to the thing-that-argues? (This was all a procrastination from the thing-that-argues.)

Bombay’s a grid.
Delhi swings.
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