Winston Rowntree’s SUBNORMALITY! is a web comic which deals with social, cultural, or even political dilemmas, either humorously or dramatically. However, Rowntree’s comics are most notable in how they play with both visual and textual styles to either impart a message or tell a story. While some things remain constant, such as the art style, elements such as panel count, the use of text, and perspective vary by strip.
The above strip is an example of Rowntree at his least experimental. There isn’t much difference between each panel, and the events of the strip are mundane. However, there is still some form of experimentation in the way the panels are organized. There are two clusters of panels, with the first cluster being dedicated to the woman and Pete introducing themselves, and the second being dedicated to Pete’s story. There are also isolated panels between the cluster and at the end, both of which indicate a tonal transition. Another important detail lies in how the story is told. The second panel cluster is structured more like a ramble than a story, since the presence of text is used in lieu of a flashback. The art, meanwhile, is dedicated to Pete telling his story. What this tells the reader is that the contents of the story, though important, are secondary to the character’s depiction as he tells it. In this sense, we might call the art minimalistic as compared to the dialog.
This strip plays with the panels as well, though in this case it is less of a narrative device and more of an attempt at imagery. Here the panels are made to match the setting, in this case the diagram of an airport hallway. The two characters, Ethel and the nameless flight attendant, are positioned in the middle of a hallway for the bulk of the strip, and the panels reflect this by being stacked in a narrow, vertical line. However, as the dialog progresses, the panels get wider and wider, until the final cluster of panels forms into a trapezoid. Similarly, the strip ends with both characters chatting at the end of the hallway. By tying the panels to the dimensions of the room, Rowntree creates a greater sense of closure.
However, the rest of the airport is also played with. Ethel enters the hallway from the airport lobby, in which the phrase “Say Nothing” is scrawled across the floor. This same wandering image is seen in later panels: when Ethel describes her job-searching exploits, her calendar is drawn in connection in the airport, which is contained in the trapezoidal structure at the end of the hallway. The flight attendant shares a similar panel, where she is seen investigating jobs in a manner similar to Ethel wandering around outside of the hallway. All of these images not only play with the panels and the setting, but also serve to tie the characters together. Since both characters are going through the same job-related turmoil, and have ended up together through similar circumstances, Rowntree’s panel structure is incredibly purposeful.
This strip, a splash panel, casts off dialog while throwing the entire weight of its imagery into framing. Although text is abundant, it exists only to label different parts of the human mind. Furthermore, the actions portrayed within these individual departments attract much more attention than the attached labels or internal dialogue, and one might argue that the role of each department would be obvious without a written aide.
Similar to the lack of all but one panel and minimal dialogue, any notion of a story is absent. There are conflicts, tribulations, and resolutions within the panel, but there are no central characters and no guiding plot. The character designs are also simplified, though because the characters themselves only exist as parts to an artistic machine this is understandable. It is likely that, by making everyone look the same, Rowntree seeks to capitalize on how different thoughts and impulses connect with one another. Alternately, it could be seen as a means of verifying that the reader identifies with these little people as parts of themselves.
This experimentation with panels, as well as stellar writing and artwork, make SUBNORMALITY! well worth reading. Whether or not you’re a fan of essay-length comics, eacg comic should be appreciated for its unique structure.