In this second part of our series on studying the aspects unique to comic books, we’ll be diving into panel structure. Panel structure refers to the layout of a page (also called panel layout), the size and sequence of panels and how they inform the story whether through subtle or overt cues. Makingcomics.com has a great primer on the whole concept you can access on their website.
Since this article pertains to a subject that requires images and visual examples (even more so than usual), there is an appendix in the bottom that I will reference with figure numbers. It would be advisable to keep a separate tab open so the images are in the proper size as you read the article and all the minute details I reference are much clearer. Also, the next few paragraphs are going zip in and out of dry exposition on the basics and general terms needed to properly follow this analysis.
There’s No Wrong Way…
Comics are composed of images arranged in a sequence, so it stands to reason that the order of the images and how we vary their shapes and sizes are cues as to what details we wish to emphasize in the story. Among the many tricks in the comic creator’s arsenal, overt structural design in panel layouts is somewhat scarcely praised. Panel structures are often subtle, so they don’t draw all that much attention.
The rules of panel structure are the same as the rules of reading English. Left to right, top to bottom. (Unless it’s manga, in which case the horizontal axis is inverted). Generally speaking, movement from left to right indicates passage of time whereas one panel indicates one unit of space (i.e. how much the artist and writer want you to see and how it is framed). Comic artists have a unique position in that they can alter the frame sizes quite frequently unlike films where it would be disorientating if the aspect ratio of the camera kept altering (not to say TV shows like American Gods don’t experiment with aspect ratios to emphasize different story segments). A great example of this is John Totleben and Steve Bissette’s work on Swamp Thing (Fig.1), where panel sizes vary constantly and the entire page is marked with the looming presence of those paranoia inducing, crimson eyes on the top of the page.
While Fig. 5 is an extreme example of how artists can often go wild when setting up panel arrangements, this is rarer than a traditional 6 or 9 panel grid with occasional variances. This is because it can distract from the story. How an artist or writer chooses to present the whole page is a stylistic choice. Alan Moore once commented on how the simple 9 panel grid, a staple of comic legend Steve Ditko’s art, induced a claustrophobia of sorts. Moore would go on to apply the simple 9 panel grid throughout pretty much all of Watchmen and use it to full effect (as discussed below).
You could choose block grids that are simple and made up of units divided into evenly arranged segments that avoid distracting from the story at all costs, like a Steve Ditko page or a classic comic strip, or you can shake things up by having the action break in and out of panels, have panel boxes within others or have no set shape or size from page to page and embellish the story beats – a la Jim Steranko or John Tottleben. It’s important to remember none of these artists invented these forms and all have experimented with multiple styles. In fact, most artists employ a healthy mix of both approaches.
Space. The Emphatic Frontier
Free-form modes of panel structure tend to be more showy. Creating panel structures that deviate from a strict symmetry is called panel staggering. Staggering is when panels tend to forego a traditional grid format to create an effect where the gutters aren’t strictly aligned in evenly divided spaces over the course of the page. Staggered panels give some leeway for artists to add a diversity of panel placements within the page layout.
As a general rule, more space implies emphasis. The larger the panel the more time the artist and writer want you to focus on it. In fig. 2 from Hawkeye issue #10, you’ll see what is essentially a splash page with staggered panels over it. It gives us an establishing panel that shows us one of the main settings of the whole book, the anchoring point of the narrative, and sets up the size and scale of the building. The rhythm of this page is interesting in that it’s a series of zoom-ins that elaborate on the content and importance of the splash page and introduces the 2 main characters of the story in a series of ‘silent’ images save for the last one.
It also makes great use of colouring scheme. Starting from the top, we get a tasteful use of purple in the corner (Hawkeye’s signature colour), azure blue as we go downward with specks of orangish-yellow from the lit office spaces mixing into a magenta-pink mixture in the bottom third. The panels mimic this pattern beautifully starting off blue in the first 2, then mixing in the yellow which provides excellent contrast to both colours, especially considering they are on opposite ends of the colour wheel. The panels that stagger towards the right and move downward add more purples and pinks coalescing in the final panel which uses all 4 colours, as if a culmination of the ones preceding it, as our main character asks the big question of the comic in that solitary word balloon. Adding to all of this, the outlines of each panel are a plain white, giving additional impact to each colour.
Fig. 3a uses a similar splash-page technique — breaking one larger picture into a series of segments — to a very different effect. Fig. 3a is a Neal Adams page that uses one of my favourite techniques in comics: the multi-panel pan. As mentioned earlier each panel represents a unit of time in a comic. Sometimes artists break up what appears to be one image into multiple time segments to display a series of actions taking place in the same space. Fig.3a is a great example due to how Adams captures the stillness of the background as a character plummets towards the foreground, giving the moment more urgency and economizing angles whilst avoiding needless re-framing with additional panels for essentially the same action.
Another example of multi-panel panning is in Immortal Iron Fist issue #3 (Fig. 3b). On this page we follow a series of parkour jumps down from a rooftop. What’s interesting about both these examples is that they subvert the reading format the viewer is used to. In fig. 3a, the Neil Adams drawing from earlier, our eyes are encouraged to move from bottom left to top right. The artist achieves this by having the middle 3 images tear through the page diagonally, making their immediacy paramount.
In fig. 3b, we see something similar as our line of sight moves from left to right in the top row, and then from right to left in the middle row, only to go back to normal for the last section. Cues to the eyeline inversion come in the form of caption boxes and the character’s limbs running across panels along the direction the artists want to lead us through. This eases in the transition and makes it feel natural, subverting our usual mode of reading.
Welcome to the Grid
Lastly, I’d like to make the case for symmetrical grids as a way of embellishing the story and giving it a creative flair. When most people talk about panel structure, they are often referencing free-form structures as opposed to the purely symmetrical grids. While one is certainly more technical than the other, both styles are equally valid and are often used in conjunction with each other. In fact, the symmetrical panel grid gets a bad rap in many instances because it simply isn’t as flashy as designs like fig. 1.
However, there are many things that can be done with symmetrical grids. Symmetry provides an excellent chance to have images reflect or mirror each other, whilst taking advantage of the evenly divided images. One of the best examples comes from Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire’s run on Moon Knight. In figure 4a, the comic starts off with 8 symmetrical panels. In figures 4b and 4c, characters start getting knocked off as part of a countdown. As we lose characters, narration appears at some of the empty spaces. We witness each death and clues to the murderer’s reasoning as the pages go blank one panel at a time. It’s an excellent means of conveying tension over the course of a few pages and simultaneously utilizing that claustrophobia, Alan Moore was talking about.
Speaking of Alan Moore (as I often do at length), another excellent display of panel symmetry comes, once again from Swamp Thing. On this page we can see a series of panels bookended by 2 congruent images of an eagle. This particular issue of Swamp thing uses variations on image reflections all throughout the book with varying designs. The uses of images on both sides of every page corresponds with the theme of that particular series of panels. Using symmetrical images that mirror each other is a neat trick Alan Moore would revisit later, in Watchmen, albeit on a far grander scale.
“Fearful Symmetry,” chapter 5 of Watchmen, is a master class in panel mirroring. Not content with one page, Gibbons and Moore mirror the entire comic itself. The first page and the last page mirror each other in terms of events, colour scheme, and panel structure. This continues for all the pages in the book right down to the middle which has a 2-page spread to accentuate the symmetrical nature of the whole book.
In fact, one of the main symbols in Watchmen is the 9 panel grid itself. Which brings us to the featured image at the top of this article. I chose it because it’s a clever little visual gag inserted by Moore and Gibbons. That image is a meta-reference to the art of panel structure itself. It is Ozymandias looking at various scenes through 18 surveillance screens, the equivalent of two pages of symmetrical 9 panel grids. Ozymandias, the character largely absent during the course of Watchmen, is watching the events of the book unfold just like the viewer. In that one instance, we see an awesome example of how the subtext of a book can be buttressed through clever references like this.
Panel structure can be more than simply a series of pictures strung together. It can set the mood for the whole page, control the pace of the comic by varying the sizes and placement of panels and guide the viewer’s eyeline across the artwork. Structure is core to the reading experience in comics, whether minimal or complex, and can even serve as a delivery mechanism for the story, giving just the right touch in terms of presentation and rhythm.