Panels on Panels: The House that Groaned
Karrie Fransman’s debut comic The House that Groaned is not only deeply fascinating but is, somewhat conveniently, utterly delightful to look at. Fransman’s book is set in a large Victorian tenement block that is home to six varyingly eccentric inhabitants. Drawn in a muted palette of blues and black Fransman’s characters are all round of cheek and concerned of eyebrow and each character is representative of a different psychological condition. The story itself is superb, it is engaging, moving, and funny, but the thing that I like most about Fransman’s work is the way in which she constructs her stories.
The following pages appear in the middle of the book, as one of the residents, Janet, a fitness-obsessed single woman comes face to face with her neighbour Marion, a woman who uses her flat to host gluttonous orgies for the Midnight Feast Front. The meeting between these two women sees Janet’s storyline reach crisis point and Fransman uses the structure of her page and the confines of the panel to make the physical experiences of this woman come to life.
Fransman’s limited colour palette is always effective but these pages show in particular the impact of her choices. The tight range of colours make the house itself seem more spooky and the situation between Janet and Marion feel all the more claustrophobic and dramatic. But it is in the figures and use of panels that Fransman’s style really comes to life. On the one hand we have the tight and compact figure of Janet, obsessed with exercise and constantly preoccupied with her weight. However she is made even smaller by the way in which the figure of Marion towers over her, voluptuous and tumbling out of her clothes. Where Janet appears in panels that are tight, even, and rhythmic, Marion is barely contained within the large panels she appears in. Indeed she is even visible, in the form of her shadow, in panels she doesn’t truly appear in.
Janet’s neat and ordered life is challenged not only ideologically by Marion’s manifesto but also physically by her form and words. Where the words Janet speaks are presented in a neat and ordered font, Marion’s words are large and curvaceous, their irregular forms spilling across the page like the luscious sauces she describes. Her speech balloons press at the edges of the panel, bulging out beyond them and spilling into the gutter. Everything about Marion is designed to reflect the ways in which her personality and passions exist outside of traditional boundaries.
As these pages continue we see the focus of the story shift back to Janet. Where Marion’s two panels at the top of the page take up more than a third of the space available, in the bottom two thirds of the page Janet occupies 12 much smaller spaces. Janet rails against Marion’s excesses and as her ire continues we see the size of panels contract further until the bottom row consists of five small, relatively evenly shaped panels. Yet despite this literal contracting of the space occupied by Janet the panels themselves do not remain unaffected by Marion. These later panels begin to lose their structure in the wake of Marion’s entreaties. Fransman draws Janet’s hands pushing through the edges of the panels into the gutter, as though in her anger she is beginning to escape the boxes she has created for herself. Meanwhile in the middle of the page Janet’s speech balloon has escaped the panel itself. Fransman’s literal zooming in reflects how Janet’s thoughts become preoccupied by ideas of food and by alternating images of Janet’s mouth with the delicious food she is imagining we are pushed to identify with Janet’s physical and emotional hunger.
Prefacing, as they do, a double page spread depicting a gluttonous orgy, Fransman’s use of the page’s structure and the boundaries of a panel to reinforce her story is strikingly effective. She forces the reader to experience the world as Janet does and deftly controls their reading pace and response. Fransman uses the tools of text/image storytelling to the utmost effect and it is always worth taking time and space to think about how and why she has put a page together the way she has.
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