Canadian artist Mark Laliberte has been publishing his 4Panel experiments in the pages of Carousel magazine and on the web for quite some time now. They are the product of a less restrictive version of OuBaPo-style constrictions, which give artists certain parameters they have to work with, like including certain elements on a page, telling the story as a visual palindrome, or using the same images but different words in multiple panels. The sole constriction for this particular project is that each artist has to work with the old comic strip standard of four panels at a time forming a single, coherent unit. What goes into those panels is up to each artist, and for the first print volume of 4Panel, Laliberte chose three artists whose visual styles are certainly varied.
The results are visually quite interesting, especially given that the anthology is in full color. Each piece has a four-page prologue of sorts where each page is a single panel, and Laliberte's mostly abstract section starts off with a birth and ends with a death. Each four-panel strip after that ranges from a sort of color reset for the eye (the "slip" strips: blue, yellow, red, etc) to naturalistic images to DayGlo pop art images to highly cartoony art. There's a sense of discomfort on each page, a sense of stillness before something awful happens. There are also other resting points, as well as Laliberte's playing with the form itself: Ben-Day dots, collage, playing with colors over photos and especially the use of word and thought balloons as stand-ins for characters. Conceptually, his section feels thin compared to the work of the other three artists in the book, and I'm not sure the constriction of the four-panel set-up had any kind of formal impact on what he wound up drawing. Any tension on the page comes from the images themselves, not the formal qualities of how they were ordered.
Far more successful was Jesse Jacobs, who begins with four single-panel pages, then moves into the regular format, and finshes with four more single-panel pages. Jacobs came up with a narrative to fit into the project's constrictions and made the format a crucial part of the narrative. The story's about a perfect garden on another planet, or perhaps another aspect of the creator myth story he loves to tell. The first four pages are about the perfection of the garden, and he carves up each page into diagonal sections that represent different areas of the garden, neatly divided by his use of angles and colors. It allows the eye to digest each page as a whole as well as explore the details on each page. Then he shrunk down his narrative to fit in four small panels, with the page formatted in portrait, instead of in landscape like the rest of the book. Despite that loss of detail and a new hyperfocus on elements being introduced in the narrative, those initial four pages remain burned in the reader's mind, making it easy to retain while the story unfolds.
What follows is a story of the garden's creators having to deal with an invasive plant hurting the garden. First they introduce insects to eat it, but they start devouring other plants. Reptiles are brought in to eat the insects, and then a vicious dog-like creature is introduced to kill them. When the dog proves savage and impossible to control, they send in humans, and that's when the real trouble began. Humans start small, but create religion, industry, and rebellion, and so have to be set on fire. That's when we return to the single-panel pages, with the garden rebuilt and the characters having learned nothing. The story itself is not especially remarkable, as anyone who's ever followed an ecosystem could have predicted it. What makes this such an interesting read is Jacobs' shifting use of color as a narrative marker and the way he contrasts rigidly arrayed shapes against bizarre monsters that radically upset the balance of each panel. His work juxtaposes interestingly against Laliberte's, since both rely heavily on color patterns to drive their stories, but do so in completely different ways.
The third entry is Mark Connery's black and white lunacy, featuring many of the characters from his long-running series Rudy. Connery's strips have always mixed absurdism, wordplay, eye-pops, collage and good old-fashioned comic strip fundamentals. That said, it's not unusual for him to use an open-page layout in addition to a standard three- or four-panel layout, so it is odd to see such a rigid format for him on page after page. His response is to use the strip titles as something for the visuals to bounce off of, either as a punchline of sorts or at least a referent. That referent doesn't have to make sense, other than staying within the internal logic of the strip, like "Eternal Combustion" being both a pun and a way to understand the quasi-abstract images in the panel. In some of the strips, there's a definite punchline in the sense of how it should function in the context of the panel, only its actual connection to the events of the strip are tenuous at best. It's most certainly not random, but it is deliberately disorienting.
Take "Life In the Sewer", for example. The first panel features a floating head talking about Donatello of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The second panel, which features a floating bird head and has a heavily stippled background, reiterates that reference with another Turtle's name. The third panel is a close-up of a drooling creature, and the punchline panel features Rudy with the creature, colloquially asking for a drink. The pop culture reference and the expectations generated by the figures in the first three panels seem radically disconnected from the punchline, yet the strangeness of it coheres. That's the key to Connery's success: a measured approach to the reactions certain sets of juxtapositions create. That's just one strip, and it's clear that Connery carefully considered the cumulative effect of his strips, each of which has a different set of elements that are funny, weird and strangely familiar.
Anuj Shrestha is the final artist in the book, and his clear-line, sci-fi body horror is an interesting match with Connery. Like Connery, he plays around with the notion of punchline or a concluding statement in the fourth panel of his strips. He also uses titles for each strip to provide a strong context, allowing him to use a variety of of narrative approaches. While most of the strips do have a linear narrative, there are frequently vast spaces of time between each panel that are connected by visual "rhymes." "Bargains", for example, depicts a Native American in panel one, a European explorer in panel two, a ship sailing on the ocean in panel three, and a drawing of supermarket butter with the Native American's image on it. These strips feature progressions, which doesn't necessarily mean growth or even evolution; it's simply cause-and-effect, the inevitable consequences of some seed act. The events of the story all take place on what looks like the moon, which makes sense since colonialism is a running theme throughout the story, culminating in exploitation and self-extinction. That's balanced by the four-page, single-panel-per-page coda, which features a hopeful final panel that balances the birth and death that appear in Laliberte's intro.
One problem with the anthology is Laliberte's need to overexplain everything. It's one thing to provide a history of 4Panel and OaBaPo-style comics, but it's quite another to literally spell out the meaning and themes of each creator's comics. Laliberte should have had a little faith in his readers to figure things out, because it is all there in the comics themselves. Sean Rogers' postscript is more useful, as it goes much further into the history of comics with constraints and it discusses the work of each artist in the book after the reader has had a chance to actually read them. Hopefully, further volumes will allow the reader to figure things out for themselves, because it's an interesting project and Laliberte certainly has a sense of which artists would be good candidates for this format.