Mind the Gap

This week, working on the editorial cartoon for Charleston City Paper left me in my mind in the gutter. Or, more accurately, on the gutter—as in that magical break between panels in sequential art. Depending on the panels bookending the gutter, that break can represent a quick millisecond of time, or a huge context switch as the reader’s mind does the heavy lifting to fill in the gap between the two images. My weekly cartoon is usually a multi-panel comic strip, so I’m no stranger to the gutter. But this week served as a nice reminder of the impact the gutter can have.


As you may have heard in the news, my state of South Carolina is currently the third worst location on the planet in terms of infections. A major contributor to this has been the state government’s response—or lack of, more accurately—and the citizenry’s apparent disregard for wearing masks to help prevent the spread. As the case numbers continue to climb, Governor Henry McMaster—although he’s often referred to as Foghorn Leghorn based on his southern accent—finally issued an executive order to help stem the tide. However, his order wasn’t to enforce mask-wearing or ease social distancing with a new stay-at-home order; rather, he halted the sale of alcohol at 11:00PM across the state. Given COVID-19 doesn’t become an issue around midnight like something from Gremlins, closing bars early seemed like a questionable place to start; in short, great fodder for a SC-based editorial cartoon. 


Like I said, my cartoon is usually a multi-panel strip, but when I sat down to draw this installment, I realized a single image did the trick much better. I envisioned McMaster as a bartender, reminding a late-comer that it’s Last Call at 11:00; however, it’s COVID as the latecomer, complaining about its long day among the unmasked all over town. Given the bar setting, a single image of the exchange running across the entire bottom of the page—my usual spot—seemed perfect. I even got in some fun with the art form by having the virus’s list of places it’d been all day run off the panel, a list too long to be contained. 



As I emailed the strip to the art director to lay out on the pages sent to the printer, I realized that one continuous image wouldn’t work for the website. Well, it could run on the website, but it’d be too small given its width, illegible especially on mobile. Usually, we’re able to simply rearrange the panels from a horizontal sequence to a vertically stacked version. But without the usual panels to work with, the strip posed a problem. In the past, I’d been able to rework single image strips by rearranging elements in the art to fit the more vertical space as a single image, but that was a no-go for this horizontally contiguous strip. Which left trying to figure out a way to create a multi-panel strip from the artwork. And that’s where I had to factor in the gutter.


Breaking a single image into a multi-panel strip meant turning a sudden moment into even more of a back-and-forth interaction. The gutter introduced a pause and a progression of time, something that I had to figure out where—and how many—to include. I could break the conversation into two, three, or four panels; how would that flow? Where should those breaks occur? Should it separate the governor’s reminder of Last Call from the COVID retort? 


In the end, I broke it into two panels, easily stacked. This was partly due to the art itself; thanks to the magic of Photoshop, I could copy and crop the image in different places to create two distinct panels. The other part of the choice of two panels was the flow enabled by the single gutter between them. The most organic break was within the response from the virus—one balloon an immediate reaction to the governor, the other a follow-up expansion. 



Reading the two versions back-to-back, it’s easy to see the impact of the gutter and the single vs. multi-panel layout. The same material, the same joke and punchline, the same art, but the reading experience is noticeably different. While the single image happens all at once, the two-panel approach introduces a deliberate pause and emphasis on the follow-up dialogue—all thanks to the magic of the gutter. 

Thoughts on gutter magic? Discuss in the ShoutFyre forum!

Steve Stegelin

Editor, Artist, Letterer, Colorist Steve is the long-running cartoonist at the Charleston, SC alt-weekly Charleston City Paper, where he skewers politicians and criminals (and criminal politicians) alike with editorial cartoons and police blotter illustrations every issue. Steve was best known his indie comic book (and subsequent webcomic)  BOONDOGGLE