We are used to seeing comics as a succession of neatly ordered panels, each containing images and words that combine together to tell a story. In my last paper for Alluvium, 'Panel Transitions in Trauma Comics,' (Alluvium Vol. 2, No. 1 [January 2013]) I discussed gutters and closure – the most essential part of the comics form that allows each individual panel to be woven together into a narrative. Here I wish to discuss a relatively under-appreciated (but increasingly popular) artistic technique that can break the continuity we come to expect in a comics narrative – the bleed. ‘Bleed’ is a commonly used printing term to define an image that is printed to the edge of the page (as in posters, for example). In comics, however, this term takes on a much wider relevance.
Contrary to what many people believe about comics, not all pages employ panels. A single image on a page, usually large enough to fill it, but still surrounded by a border, is called a ‘splash page’. These are most commonly used as the first page of a comic to display the title and hook the reader. Understandably, this attention-grabbing technique is very common in mainstream comics and, due to advancements in printing methods (not to mention a reduction in costs) these are often printed to the edge of the page. The splash page has been used in comics since the 1940s as a method of introducing the story and main characters – as well as giving the first page a massive dose of action and colour. The bleed, however, is much younger.
When the images fill an entire page to the edge, it is called a ‘bleed’. They differ from splash pages in that they are not usually used at the beginning of the story and are often devoid of words. Bleeds have a relatively short history in western comics art, being far more common in Manga and Manhwa (Japanese and Korean comics respectively). It is only in the past 20 years that bleeds have become more widely used in the West. Unlike in eastern art, where bleeds appear with great frequency, the rarity of the bleed in American comics – especially mainstream publications, in which they are even rare than usual – makes it something of a novelty and, moreover, very powerful when one is employed. Scott McCloud writes of bleeds that ‘time is no longer contained by the familiar lines of the closed panel, but instead haemorrhages and escapes into timeless space’ (103). Bleeds are, by their nature, dramatic and often violent. The image’s domination of the page is striking and demands the reader’s complete attention. The removal of frames from the page edges removes any sense of constriction or confinement – the image has total control of the page. Furthermore, it removes the reader’s ability to control the timescale of the narrative, which is usually regulated by the gutters and panel borders. If the bleed page follows a series of ordered panels, its presence breaks the flow of visual uniformity and shakes the reader’s sense of security. It is for this reason that Frank Miller drew 300 (1998), which depicts the conflict between Sparta and Persia, culminating in the violent battles at Thermopylae, entirely in two-page bleeds. The heavy black artwork that bleeds off the page sits well with the gory nature of the plot.
GB Tran’s 2011 comic Vietnamerica details his family history across several generations, culminating in his parents’ escape from Saigon just before it fell to the North Vietnamese communist forces in 1975. Running parallel to the (mostly chronological) family history thread is Tran’s own story of growing up in the USA and the aftermath of his parents’ experiences. The first member of his family to be born in the USA, he writes bluntly of the conflict between his family heritage and his American upbringing. Tran’s artwork is heavily influenced by two distinct sources: his father’s ‘past life’ as an artist and the Franco-Belgian (bandes-dessinées) tradition. Though the second source may seem like a non sequitur it is important here to remember the French colonial presence in Vietnam, a factor that influenced Tran’s father’s art as much as his own.
Chaotic scenes: G. B. Tran uses bleeds in Vietnamerica to depict violence and pandemonium
[Image used under fair dealings provisions]
Tran uses a vivid and ominous shade of red for the sky in this image (above), drawing the eye, unnaturally, to the top right-hand side of the page. The eye then moves to the exclamation mark in a jagged bubble. The fact that this is the sole bubble in an extremely chaotic scene is immediately disconcerting; as readers we would naturally expect such a large image to have more bubbles. In this example, the bleed gives the artist space to force this unnatural eye movement. The removal of frames adds to the chaos of the scene. It seems as if the confusion and pandemonium is bursting out of the page, especially as the crowded nature of the page makes it uncomfortable to look at (at first glance, this bleed is reminiscent of Martin Handford’s Where’s Wally? series, which featured densely-packed crowd scenes). The bleed, then, is a violent device, removing constraints and encouraging chaos. The size of this image, as well as the fact it is a bleed, allows Tran to use atypical coloration. From the vivid red of the sky, which stresses the pugnacity of the situation, the colour fades from the top left-hand corner downwards. The further down and across the page the reader moves, the duller the colour becomes until the image is completely black and white in the bottom right corner. The unusual coloration makes the reader move across the top of the page from right to left (not at all expected by western readers) before moving diagonally down the page from left to right, a more typical movement but still not what a typical western comics reader will be comfortable with. Tran uses bleeds frequently in Vietnamerica. The location of bleeds within any comic is carefully orchestrated for maximum effect and Tran’s work is no exception; he uses them to give extra emphasis to moments of extreme chaos and confusion. A two-page bleed depicts Saigon Airport, just before the Fall of Saigon on the 30th April 1975. Thousands of people descended on the airport in the hope of escaping the country (Tran 262-3).
An aura of timelessness: this unframed image emphasises the flowing blood, in stark contrast with the subdued colouration of the background
[Image used under fair dealings provisions]
If we consdier the image above, the bleed is on the left-hand page and so it accosts the reader as they turn the page. It is not only the violence of the subject matter that confronts the reader, but also the violent use of colour. Though Tran is not shy about bold colour, it is used sparingly throughout the comic. The relatively subdued colouration for the background of this image creates a dramatic contrast with the red of the blood. The use of a bleed in this instance not only mirrors the violence of Vinh’s situation with a violent confrontation of the reader, but also suggests a sense of continuing action. Were this page to be framed, as is typical, we would see this incident as ‘closed’. However, the lack of a frame lends the image an aura of timelessness; the blood continues to flow. The fact that the blood flows off the page attests to this – the severity of the injury is show in the careful use of the bleed. Vinh continues to bleed for as long as the reader looks at the image. Bleeds are most commonly used for chaotic crowd scene in Vietnamerica. However, in another section, Tran recounts the serious wounding of his uncle, Vinh, in a fire fight during his time in the army (Tran 178). The bleed comes at the end of an epistolary narrative; a letter from Vinh’s sister (Tran’s mother) acts as captions to the narrative, coupled with images of Vinh reading the letter and then being ambushed by the Viet Cong. The banal domesticity of the letter jars with the images and so, even before reaching the bleed, the reader is on shaky ground.
While GB Tran uses bleeds at intervals throughout his text in conjunction with nonconforming coloration to create chaos and disrupt temporal structures, Joe Sacco’s black and white artwork utilises bleeds on almost every page. His journalistic comics include Palestine, describing his experiences as a journalist in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in late 1991, and The Fixer, which is a recollection of his time spent in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. Like Tran, Sacco’s bleeds are designed to create an atmosphere of chaos and unrest. However, this is not Sacco’s only intention in using this technique. Unlike Tran’s work, which is a carefully constructed, multi-levelled family narrative, Sacco’s work is a piece of journalism rendered in comics form. In Palestine, his use of heavily-crowded page bleeds creates confusion but also replicates a stream of consciousness narrative, as well as having a similar feel to a journalist’s notebook. The overall effect makes it feel like a raw work of conflict journalism – which is exactly what it is, just in comics form.
Sacco does not use ‘straight’ bleeds, as shown in the example from Tran – single images that span an entire page or double spread. Rather, he will use a bleed image as the basis for a page, while overlapping it with inset panels and bubbles. This serves to exacerbate the sense of a stream of consciousness, as well as mimicking the atmosphere of the place itself. In one example from Palestine (see image below), in Sacco is being driven through a refugee camp in a mini-bus, the double-page bleed conveys a sense of the place itself, while giving the image a feeling that it lacks closure (Sacco, 2003: 146-7). The angle of perspective places the viewer above street-level, as if looking down from a great height. The image’s many small details (a goat eating from a skip; a fight between two men; children jumping in muddy puddles) suggest that this scene is bulging with potential stories that Sacco could pursue if he was able (and willing, of course). The hint at stories untold destabilises the reader; we expect closure in all we read but receive none here.
Journalism rendered in comic form: Joe Sacco's use of heavily-crowded page bleeds replicates a stream of consciousness narrative
[Image used under fair dealings provisions]
If a bleed can create a heightened sense of chaos and unease then it can do the same for other emotions. In The Fixer, Sacco uses a bleed image of his hotel in Sarajevo (Sacco, 2004: 12-13), as seen in the image below. As with the Tran image of Saigon, this image does not immediately draw the eye to where it is expected. The imposing monolith of the hotel dominates the page; it appears to be drawn in a much clearer, cleaner style than the other building, which makes it stand out even more. From the hotel, our eye moves to the small figure of Sacco, drawn as if to be a silhouette against the white of the road. His figure appears insignificant in the image, an afterthought in the landscape. What is most striking in this image is the startling loneliness it conveys. The grey, stormy sky and derelict buildings – together with the poorly-maintained road and Sacco’s slumped body language – combine to form an overwhelming atmosphere of desolation and depression. Sacco’s use of a bleed here allows him to represent another side of the conflicts he covers – the destruction of the economy and the urban infrastructure. When we consider the addition of the pathetic fallacy, this image stands in the text as a bleak reminder of the destructive power of conflict. That it is a bleed rather than a bordered panel suggests that this state is timeless and all-consuming.
Joe Sacco's The Fixer: A bleak reminder of the destructive power of conflict
[Image used under fair dealings provisions]
That bleeds are currently rare in comics adds to their ability to create heightened effects in the reader. It may come to be that, as they become more common, this effect is limited. However, given that bleeds are used in conjunction with a variety of other techniques to create their overall effect, this is unlikely. It is more likely that their increasing popularity will lead to artists combining more and more techniques with the basic concept of the bleed to create effects as yet unseen in comics.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’] https://www.alluvium-journal.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/40684_540146896858_6907120_n1.jpg[/author_image] [author_info] Harriet Earle is a first year PhD student at Keele University, under the supervision of Dr James Peacock and Dr Tim Lustig. Her research focuses on traumatic representation and conflict in American comics published since the end of the Vietnam War. [/author_info] [/author]
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: HarperPerennial, 1994).
Sacco, Joe. (2003). Palestine (London: Jonathan Cape, 2003).
— (2004). The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004).
Tran, G. B. Vietnamerica: A Family's Journey (New York: Villard, 2011).
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