The Unflappable Captain Mwai

A study in panel borders Part 2: Digging Deeper

Okay so this one studies fewer comics but talks about what the writers are doing with them in more detail. Very particularly, let’s talk about Pacing, Writing, and Tone in each of the comic examples above.

First example: I am the President of Ice Cream. This comic is “deep indie” in that I have a ratty copy on newsprint, folded over into an oversized magazine with no thicker paper for the cover. It is also one of the most intentionally delirious, weird comics ever. Plot lines appear and disappear, characters go mad, die, and are forgotten in a whirlwind of weird. But look at how orderly the panels are! Every page is sliced into five strips and then divided up however the script wants it to go. Panels which use even two of these strips are rare, and as such they have a big impact. I think there’s one that uses three and it packs a whallop. Pacing in I am the President of Ice Cream is mostly done with segments in the five-strip grid, in a rhythm that goes from staccato to very slow, often (although not quite always) by having tiny panels as nearly instantaneous moments and big ones as slower ones. Sebesta also uses varied amounts of words to change perceived panel length. The tone of I am the President of Ice Cream and the panel style stay out of each other’s way, because the job of panels in this work is to keep the bass line of the comic pumping, NOT to bathe you in crazy. That’s what the art and writing style are for. This comic’s main goal is to deliver a sense of frenetic delirium. Making something feel “trippy” is easy to do with hard-to-parse panel layouts, but such layouts will never feel fast. I am the President of Ice Cream keeps a super-tight lid on its panel dynamics to keep the reader reading at breakneck speed. The casual reader might conclude Sebesta is very crazy. Yeah, Crazy like a fox.

Next, Zot! by Scott McCloud is a pretty great read, mostly because it represents McCloud “imitating an Anamist” to use a term from his better-known Making Comics. Like with I am the President of Ice Cream, Zot! keeps the panels from getting too crazy for comprehension reasons, but he isn’t trying to make you read super-fast, and in fact quite often he wants you to slow down. He sometimes mashes panels together to cause the reader to halt, or presents a few panels in an organization that causes the reader to briefly consider an image by itself rather than as the flow of the read. Panels in Zot! are rarely meant to be read in rapid succession: McCloud wants you to savor this baby. When there are a lot of small panels close together, they’re often what he calls “aspect to aspect” transitions, creating a sort of cinematic in-out-fade effect. Tone often couples tightly to panel design in this work: Strange panel layouts usually mean something is happening that demands attention and emphasis. It’s important to note that, being Scott McCloud, you can rest assured he’s doing practically everything on purpose.

V for Vendetta relies on a highly regimented panel layout, with one big exception being the opening of Book 2 in which Moore puts an entire musical score directly intertwined with the action in extremely high aspect ratio panels. This creates a very potent sense of strangeness to the panels. Everywhere else, the page is divided into three horizontal strips, although, unlike in Watchmen, they are allowed to “breathe” and change height relative to each other, and also may contain up to four panels, sliced into narrow vertically-oriented slips. Alan Moore once wrote that your job as a writer in comics is to prevent the reader from questioning what they are reading, to the point of hypnosis. The layouts in V for Vendetta are organized to do just that most of the time: the eye never has to ponder its next move across the page, so it just does it. Short panels are frequently used to pack in more dialog without creating walls o text, although it’s worth noting this is a comic that “got rid of thought balloons” in a time when they were pretty much ubiquitous. Panel design doesn’t interact much with tone in the comic, except for the sideways pages.

Transmetropolitan is a prolonged exercise in barely-contained craziness. “Barely Contained Craziness” is actually a hugely central theme in the comic, so it is entirely natural that it would have a treasure trove of seriously messed-up looking layouts. Panels slide over each other, dumping background and foreground elements on top of one another. Done for its own sake, this sort of thing leaves me feeling a little tired and frustrated, but in Transmetropolitan, it’s there for a reason. Like with the drug abuse, violence, and wall-to-wall depictions of a world that is at once amazingly interesting and trainwreck disturbing, the whole point is to make you feel queasy but interested. This isn’t entirely uniform, sometimes the panels get organized, but usually only to set up a drumbeat which will later get interrupted by a horn trumpet of weird panels again later. Tone and layout are working together “harmoniously” here, although the word should be used a little loosely: in a way not all that much unlike Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Transmetropolitan is actively mixing things you want to see with things you don’t, and it does this at every level. Putting this into straight-laced panels that read easily from left to right would be like asking Spider to stop cursing. Not gonna happen.

Perspective! For Comic Book Artists is a tutorial in graphic novel format, and as such its panels are organized from concept to concept, clean, neat, formal. There wouldn’t usually be much to add here except to draw your attention to the middle page I put up there: while it’s a very formally organized comic (despite it using a nicely balanced amount of humor to keep it engaging) you sometimes get big, weird, zigzaggy panels whose purpose isn’t any fancy thing with tone or story: it’s to provide a canvas onto which can be dumped a lot of examples.

Digger might not (quite) be my favorite comic of all time, but you should be warned, I’m not really objective about it. I really LOVE this comic. Mostly, it’s doing about what V for Vendetta is doing: being readable so you won’t think about the fact that you’re reading a comic. But every once in a while Ed will tell a story from Hyena lore and the comic borders fuzz out into soft blurs of grey which barely serve as separators. These areas feel strange, not-quite-there, and important for this reason. It’s a really effective way of making the audience perceive an entire aspect of the story in a really different way. This is not to say that Vernon doesn’t pull off a few clever tricks with panels though: one trick she uses quite a few times is the “panel bleed” where the background of a panel extends out into the gutters around other panels, pulling the reader in. This effect is used subtly and sparingly though. Like Moore, Vernon doesn’t want you to think about the fact that you’re reading a comic.

Final thoughts: the more straightforward a layout is, the more it starts to look like text: horizontal lines with vertical separators. “Clean” layout isn’t necessary for legibility, but it can definitely be used to make your audience read faster, or think about the book less. The more regimented your system, the more impact it will have when you break the rules. The same goes for panel size: the less your panels usually vary, the more serious it will feel when they vary by a lot.

Rules are made to be broken, but if you break them often enough, broken rules become the rule.

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    UM— that’s a typo. I had IaTPoIC right here. I think I might even have noticed it at one point but then thought “eh,...
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    If you’re going to compare me to Scott McCloud and David Lloyd, I *guess* you’re allowed to misspell my name. Probably...
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    Art 2 the effect of layout on pacing.
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