Comics are known for their broad and branching narratives, especially among those that have managed to syndicate for nearly a century. However, the comics’ syndicated story often overshadows the truly unique part of the medium: widely syndicated weekly stories told through visual art. The inking and lines in comics help tell a story in a way that is hard to imitate in prose, poetry, or even most visual media.
One of the subtle tricks that comics visually use to convey important narrative information is called “tracking.” This is widely used in comics and other visual media, but is especially useful in comics due to their static nature and what they need to visually convey to ensure a great narrative example, if slightly under -estimated, comes in the simple form of a cup of coffee in harley quinn #19 by Stephanie Nicole Phillips and Georges Duarte.
Tracking in Harley Quinn is a subtle art with a purpose
As the term suggests, tracking is the act of following a particular visual cue in a space. In comic media, this tends to happen either by having an element always on the same side or in the same place relative to a character. In harley quinn #19, it’s done in the opening pages with a simple coffee mug that manages to convey the tone of the comic and helps the reader establish relationships between the characters without needing them to be explicitly stated.
The very first panel of the comic focuses on the cup of coffee, the drink juxtaposed with an ongoing discussion about military postings. The drink is then handed over from the person who made it to a senior officer in military uniform, which is never explicitly stated but implicit in how the conversation unfolds. Finally, on the second page of the story, this person is drawn into a room with completely different lighting. He then orders the activation of some sort of missile system after he drops his coffee, with the cup shattered the drink’s final appearance in the number.
Although subtle, this coffee mug serves a number of narrative purposes without being intrusive. First, and more concretely, it helps the reader understand relationships and characters without ever having seen them before and never seeing them again. It doesn’t matter who this commander is or why he can fire missiles with impunity. However, his ability to command other characters and make them perform menial tasks shows that he is seemingly as powerful as his military position implies.
Second, it helps the reader to literally follow the characters. The scene has three major coloring changes in as many pages. The coffee cup is handed to the Commander in a bright, lightly yellow-tinted page, then follows him to the next dark blue page, before being dropped onto the green-tinted page. The steam from the cup almost sends up a flag, reminding the reader that this character is the same as the one on the previous page even though it looks very different in the lighting.
This is perhaps the most important use of tracking in the issue and in visual media in general. By establishing that a character is in possession of an item, it’s easier to mentally codify that it’s the same character across multiple pages/scenes, whether incognito, morphed, or just not easily recognizable. It subtly prompts the reader to do the hard work for the narrative, building relationships and character consistency without having to explicitly state it.
By doing this, harley quinn successfully gives an example of how tracking can help a story reach its goals faster. With the somewhat frantic pace of harley quinn #19, each sign is real estate that needs careful attention so you don’t get bogged down in an overabundance of text. Tracking is just one of the many tools writers use to accomplish this feat.