A study in panel borders:
Inspired by this awesome post about making comics quickly, I took a look at some comics I own to get some sense of different kinds of panel design choices.
I came away feeling like I’d learned a little less than I’d hoped, but here are some takeaways:
* You can get away with smaller panels than you think
* Extremely weird comic panels CAN work, but when it fails it looks painful and forced.
* Simple is not bad.
* There are actually a LOT of possible combinations.
Scott McCloud uses a 4x3 sliceup of the page, and it’s four VERTICAL slices and three HORIZONTAL ones, which is weird because it makes the panels, on average, LESS square. This works with the particular comic really WELL though, because he draws himself in closeup, talking, a LOT.
DAR and Narbonic both are webcomics mashed into book format, but both worked surprisingly well as page layout in the end.
Blacksad is REALLY variable and the page layouts are hand-crafted on a per-page basis. No speed gains here, but perhaps a message that full custom has its place.
The Resonator is fairly formal but never *too* rigid with panel choices. Lots of narrow or tall panels, which works as a way to alternate between big establishing shots and dense dialog. Very tall panels for single speaker, long ones for two-person dialog or to combine a lot of text and visuals. In general, Resonator is print-native and has TINY text…
Ultimate X-Men is a fun read but the panel design is a disaster. Almost none of the choices of graphic design work at all. Occasionally an establishing shot hits home, but in general the layout is trying WAY too hard.
Watchmen. Formalism raised to the ultimate. It’s precise, it’s a 3x3 grid, it’s piss-on-a-plate-with-no-spills precise and that’s fine, for two reasons: one, everything is about time, and two, it gets the panels the hell out of the way of the story.
Augustus is an example of what Ultimate X-Men was trying to do, except it succeeds. Lots of variation, but on average very orderly. Kind of strikes me as the sort of thing you “have to be GOOD” to pull off well.
Panel design is one of the most fun parts of making comics for me. Creating the structure and rhythm and timing of the page… based on the flow of the story and characters, is where the real magic happens for me.
It is that wonderful in between place where the script first takes shape into the visual. And the arrangement seems to spring from the flow of the script (often with dozens of layouts for possible solutions for each page) and the infinite possibilities always surprise me. Sometimes it is a matter of simplicity, and sometimes it is a matter of contrast. And it always seems like problem solving. It’s a puzzle where ideas first get their visual blueprint onto paper in terms of making that new dimension of “time” in making image have sequence and suggesting the pace of that sequence… encrypting it into the design so it will only live, only be unlocked, inside the readers mind. I don’t consider the page the actual art. I consider the real art, the real “happening” of this art form, as taking place inside the readers mind when what is encoded on the page is turned into movement and reality in the stage of the readers mind. And each person decodes that a little bit differently, and the same person experiences the same comic differently when read at different stages in their life, based on the life experience that they bring to the reading. The comic page is a navigational tool, a road map, an atlas, but it is very different from the actual geography that the atlas is meant to point to. That magic that happens in between the panels, is what happens in the readers mind, and it is such a joy to craft a page and panel layout that you hope makes the most of that catalytic effect. You are using imagination in the layout to trigger the readers imagination which will be activated by the panel layout. and in turn make the panels move and sing.