Reducto Reflections

The first three pieces we ran–“Death of an Astronaut,” “Good Fortunes,” and “Work Reducto”–were all in the reducto form created by Neil Cohn. If you’d like to know the details of how the form is structured, you can find an explanation in our About page. We then spent the following three weeks in a second form, before returning to the reducto again with “Crouton,” a longer piece that that treats the reducto form as a repeating pattern rather than a self-contained form. I’ll come back to the dissociation form and the concept of a reducto series in future posts; for now, I’d like to share some thoughts on working in the reducto form proper, as originally proposed by Neil.

As you’ll see in the description, the reducto finds its form in doling out a precise number of active elements in each panel. The chief challenge of the form lies in the first and last panels. The middle five generally come more quickly, as they carry the main actions of the piece, alternating between a primary image or action and then a “refiner” that serves to punctuate that image or action. This establishes a rhythm, comparable to meter in traditional poetry.

The first panel, of the class Neil calls “polymorphic,” is not a kind of panel I’m normally given to using–the trick of presenting an action in multiple states is classic cartooning, but less naturalistic than my normal style of exposition. And while it has a certain efficiency, it’s challenging to jump immediately into an action without any buildup to it–which is precisely what you must do in every single piece created in the reducto form. The trap here is to break down a trivial action simply for the sake of meeting the requirements of the form, rather than choosing an action that has an intrinsic importance that will be accentuated by the protraction across the panel. I’m sure I’m guilty of this mistake, even if not in the pieces we’ve run so far, then almost certainly in some of the scripts I’ve written that we haven’t run yet. It’s tough obstacle to avoid, but it really forces you to think through: “why am I depicting this particular action? Why is this the best action to show in this piece? What does this add to the mood or theme of the piece, that warrants giving it such distinctive treatment?” Comics by their nature demand a high degree of efficiency in how much information each image conveys, so these are always important questions to ask, but I’ve found woking in this form really accentuates the need to develop that skill.

By contrast, the final panel has no action at all, nor even any living subjects, for the most part (depending on your interpretation of “active elements.” Nothing can happen in the final panel–it can only suggest events that came before it, pure aftermath, no event. This is not an unnatural way to end a piece at all–much more natural than beginning mid-action. The challenge is that ending on a still scene inherently gives that scene moment–which is both a vital tool to giving a piece significance, but is also easy to squander on facile images. And it’s often hard to judge whether the weight you sense in writing the panel is genuinely earned or artificially forced. It’s easier to pick content for this final panel than it is for the first panel, but it’s also much easier to pick the wrong content and erroneously feel satisfied with it. And while I suspect that I have and will make the kind of mistake I described as innate to working with the polymorphic panel, I am absolutely certain that I have and will make mistakes in selecting amorphic panels.