There are many of definitions of comics out there. One French theorist Thierry Groensteen decided to not define comics, but instead create a system for them. Part of this system is the frame. The frame is a panel and its boundaries including the margins and gutters. The frame has various (actually six) functions. One of the functions of a frame is the rhythmic function. This is the part of the frame that deals with time and temporality. Groensteen compares this function of the frame to Jean-Luc Godard’s famous definition of film, which is “making music with painting”. Both comics and music have a similar kind of temporality. When one reads music, there are different time signatures as well as types of notes, rests, measure etc. to say how fast one should play the music and many other things. This kind of temporality can be found in comics with panels in a frame, which can be a page or double page spread. The size of the panel, its place in the frame as well as the number of word balloons, text boxes etc show the dual nature of time in both the story world and the reading world. With the rise of decompression, these are extremely different. For example, the eight issue DC Comics event Blackest Night takes place over a single, restless night in the DC Universe, but the recent Vertigo comic Bodies skips between four time periods (1890s, 1940s, present day, 2050) with four different art styles and detectives with four different personalities solving the same murder case. A comic that goes beyond this temporal duality and creates of kind of musical comic is the recent Image Comics series The Wicked + the Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie.
Throughout their collaborations, it’s an understatement to say that music has been a big element of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s work. Their first comic Phonogram (Image Comics; 2006-2010) is centered around the theme that music (especially Brit-pop) is magic), and their run on Marvel’s Young Avengers concluded in a huge dance party featuring Marvel Boy (the Kree Noh-Varr) on turntables. Their latest comic The Wicked + the Divine is about various gods reincarnating every 90 years as young people and only living for two people. This time the gods are pop stars ranging from Daft Punk helmet wearing Wodan to the Rihanna-esque Egyptian cat goddess Sekhmet and the main divine character Luci, a female, David Bowie inspired version of Lucifer. However, Gillen and McKelvie don’t just use the physical images of pop music; they make use of the rhythmic function of panels to create their own “single” in comic book form.
From the first pages of The Wicked + the Divine #1 (which are set in the 1920s), the “1-2-3-4” count and the 4/4 time signature that most pop music is written in are huge parts of the writing, art, and panel structure of the comic as well as its plots and characters. It starts innocuously enough with a full page splash followed by four skinny rectangular panels showing the young gods of the Jazz Age. In four beats, Gillen and McKelvie introduce what are presumably the protagonists of this comic. But a few pages later, they introduce the literal “1-2-3-4” count via a four panel square grid then four smaller panels with snaps. Then, there is an explosion, and this generation of gods are over. This format introduces the musical nature of the gods as well as visually showing their short life-spans, which is ironic because most gods are considered to be immortal. (Unless you’ve read the “Brief Lives” arc of The Sandman.) These opening pages are the first of many times that Gillen and McKelvie use the rhythmic function of the frame in their panel structures to give their comics a musical quality and to show the glory and tragedy of their gods, who happen to be pop stars. (The connection between popular music and divinity is easy to make; just listen to “I am A God” by Kanye West.)
I think a shared sense of rhythm and timing can connect music and comics. And creators other than Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie have explored this connection. Off the top of my head, there is the beloved Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley which has its own universe of indie bands of varying musical talent and the scene in Asterios Polyp where Kalvin Kohoutek talks to Asterios about his multi-layered, polyphonic symphony. If there are any comics with music as a part of its story as well as panel structure and frame, please comment below so I can spend all my money on them.