Abstract Space

abstract space; when key people and/or items in a panel exist without a background or with an abstract background, despite other information indicating that they are actually in physical/furnished places

Abstract Space isolates key figures in a frame. This reduces reader focus to just them. It can also denote the rest of the world ceasing to exist for the character, for this moment. This moment could even be happening entirely in their head.

If coupled with bleeding edges, they are adrift in an intense experience.

It can also be economical for the artist to remove implied and time consuming environments, and it adds variety. This is one of Wallace Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work, as “Profile; no BG”. The panel he shows is a man and women facing each other in  a moment made only more intimate by the fact they seem be the only people in the world (this is the visual equivalent of figurative language).

A sudden return to contextual space with an interlocutor can make the people Abstracted seem absorbed in their own business.

Especially in Japanese comics, abstract space can have a background that indicates speed, anxiety, glory or any number of things, (using line and colour in combination with the subject).

Similar results can be achieved by framing action in such a way that there is little content in the background of the frame. To elicit specific emotions, consider the potential emotional value of contextual background textures or shapes in the environment.

A page from Strange Nation - art by Juan Romera, written by Paul Allor.
A page from Strange Nation – art by Juan Romera, written by Paul Allor.

On this page, we see Norma and Jesse walking down a suburban alley. The panel following also has traces of the environment in the background, and the colouring is consistent with the first panel; we’re still in that same space.

(Note that the increasing level of abstraction is actually safer the sequence of six smaller panels is begun with a background that links to the first and after that point, unless we’re told otherwise, we can assume they’re still in the same place.)

Panel 3 is in an abstract space. It is a warm space, with strange black brush shapes. Combined with the text, it confirms Jesse’s mixed sense of compassion and danger.

Panel 4 is even more abstract. While Panel 3 vaguely resembles the warm lighting of a sunset, this space is entirely unreal. There are two people in frame, and both of there moods are shown in the background (which avoids confusion). We can’t be sure whether the black is dripping (an dread and fear symbol) or the red is flaring (an anger symbol), and so they are both happening. Jesse feels fear and Norma feels anger.

And then Norma gets real. She’s making a practical decision, based on her reality, and so we see her in a real environment again. This panel is preceded and followed by two panels on either side which are much more abstracted, making the realness of this panel an exception.

Panel 6 has a simple background but it also seems to be in real space, with the suggestion of skyscrapers. This page is still all about the conversation, so it’s reduced to just that, a suggestion; we are back in the zone of the conversation, more so than an alleyway. The cool blue also seems sober, like her decision.

This last panel makes Jesse look smitten. His eyebrows say surrender, while his background says affection with a figurative shadow of uncertainty.

In the same way that music in a film is an emotional surrogate, telling you how to feel, so too is colour in comics. If we look at just the colour and composition of the panels — without even looking at facial expressions — we can infer the emotional flow of this conversation:


see also silhouette (soon)