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Tricks Of The Eye

“It’s just…hard to see… Think man. How is this happening?”
Tom Woodwind

“If you could read my mind love, what a tale my thoughts could tell.”
Gordon Lightfoot

Thought balloons have become uncool in comics. Those traditional, puffy cumulonimbus clouds billowing out of people’s brains have all but disappeared from contemporary graphic novels. Instead, these days the thinking process is more likely to be represented by a character’s interior monologue unraveling in a series of rectangular caption boxes. Warren Ellis and D’Israeli do things differently in their latest collaborative experiment published by design consultancy Berg.

In the innovative graphic novella SVK, they make secret thoughts visible, readable, thanks to a combination of light-sensitive ink illuminated by an accompanying ultraviolet mini-torch, known as “SVK”, an acronym for “Special Viewing Kit” or “Strategic Vigilance Key”. Thoughts light up here as blockish-shaped speech balloons with truncated tails emanating from the head rather than tapering tails from the mouth. In Tom Woodwind they devise a comic character who can read the banal, repressed or sometimes revelatory world inside other people’s minds as text messages all in capital letters straight out of a comic book. In this only partly fictionalised London, with ballsy, phallic skyscrapers and surveillance cameras sprouting everywhere, people become an open (comic) book, from wannabe bomb-builders to nuns on acid.

This sort of perceptual magic trick, however, where information in a comic is hidden and only revealed by some device or intervention, is not quite as 21st century revolutionary as you might think. Back in the Fifties, closely following the trend in the movies, American publishers thought they were on to a winner with 3D comic books at 25 cents while regular titles cost 10 cents. The rush was ignited by the successful September 1953 debut of Three Dimension Comics starring Mighty Mouse, soon followed by The Three Stooges, Batman, Superman, even a new superhero Captain 3D. Using the anaglyphic stereogram system, each panel had to be painstakingly modified into dual layers on acetate and these two different versions, one red, one green, were printed together. Putting on red- and green-tinted glasses would trick the eye into seeing the 3D effects, though these looked more like flat cut-outs or theatre sets than fully rounded, interplanal depth.

This craze is documented by Craig Yoe in his forthcoming IDW book, Amazing 3D Comics with stories and samples from across a variety of genres by artists like Joe Kubert, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Bob Powell, Al Jaffee, Russ Heath, Milt Stein and Alex Toth. By early 1954, though, the fad was already fading and the boom turned to a bust, preventing Captain 3D’s second issue from reaching the racks and leaving one publisher with a warehouse piled high with unwanted 3D specs.

“No you see them, now you don’t.”

If only they could have waited, they might have cashed in on the second, bigger and longer 3D comics craze in the 1980s. In fact, many more 3D comic books were published then, championed by Ray Zone. Switching from red-and-green to full-colour and polarised 3D techniques, Zone has been closely involved in more recent revivals, notably the mind-expanding 17-page climax to The Black Dossier, the 2007 League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill. Far from being a mere gimmick, here the extra dimension is integral to the story.

In addition, some 3D comics have used the red and green filters to hide different images and story details in each colour. For example, according to bande dessinée historian Bernard Joubert, the notorious Chilean film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky of El Topo fame conspired with French artist Georges Bess to show their magical twins Aram and Mara walking for three pages through giant sweets in red. But when readers of the episode in Le Journal de Mickey #1843 (October 1987) used the free gift of a special red lens to read this section, the bonbons vanished and their true nature was revealed as sinister monsters printed in green.

Travelling back still earlier, there are wonders to be found in America’s turn-of-the-20th century newspaper strips, especially the early Sunday ‘Funnies’ supplements, often on whole broadsheet pages and in colour. Italian researcher Alfredo Castelli has unearthed examples of remarkably advanced print experiments in these classic comics, marketing weapons in the fierce circulation wars between the two great press barons, Pulitzer and Hearst. Around 1904-1905, invisible inks were occasionally used on little postcards given away with the papers which, when made wet or gently heated by a lamp, revealed gags or punchlines as part of the narratives for such strips as Buster Brown, The Katzenjammer Kids or Happy Hooligan. The final panel of the Sprinty strip in the New York World of May 7th 1905 was an ‘Invisible Joke’ made visible by running a warm iron over it, while the Philadelphia Inquirer of March 31st 1902 included a page of mystery ‘Rub-Up’ Pictures revealed by scraping away with a coin like a scratch-card.

Invisible Ink:
Images on the slates appear by wetting them with water.

Invisible Ink:
The brown image appears by heating the card.

Hidden images:
The images appear by scratching them.

Invisible Ink:
The brown image appears by heating the card with a pressing iron.

But perhaps the single most astonishing transforming comic of all time uses no special inks or fancy technology, only one man’s imagination and skill. From 1903 to 1905 in the New York Herald, Gustave Verbeek crafted The Upside Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo. Each story begins conventionally with six panels left to right, and then you can turn the comic strip upside down and continue to read the same panels inverted, now forming panels 7 to 12, and follow the rest of the story. Verbeek designed Lovekins and Muffaroo as reversible characters, her hair becoming his moustache, her dress his hat, her ribbons his trousers and shoes, and he also made the sky become the sea, or treetops shrubbery, and vice versa. Optical tricks like these were hardly new, but making them work as a bizarre yet complete flip-able comic is a mind-boggling achievement, all the more so as Verbeek somehow managed to devise no less than sixty-four of these miniature masterpieces of topsy-turvy surrealism without going insane. All of them are lovingly restored and reprinted at their original size by Peter Maresca’s Sunday Press Books. Not surprisingly, apart from a handful of tributes including one by Holland’s Joost Swarte, hardly any other cartoonist has attempted this since.

Posted: July 3, 2011

An edited version of this Article is published by Berg in SVK.


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Featured Books

by Warren Ellis
& D’Israeli

Amazing 3D Comics
edited by Craig Yoe

The Upside-Down World
by Gustave Verbeek