Panel layout is a vital part of comic book storytelling. Often overlooked and sometimes simply accepted as a necessary part of producing a comic, the layout is the structure on which the comic page is overlaid. It is the foundation of the comic and without it the intentions of the writer, artist, colourist, and letter, will falter and be lost.
There are a number of different approaches to panel layout. These will be affected by a number of things, not inclusive to genre, publisher, visual intention. The purpose of the layout and its importance to the overall storytelling process has to be decided from the beginning. Once that decision is made, the layout then has to conform to the original principal or lose integrity as the story progresses.
Obviously comics like Watchmen have famously adopted a style that has been much discussed. The use of the recurring 9 panel grid throughout the comic forms the foundation of the story and the patterns that are created from this highlight elements of the narrative.
In the 1990’s DC’s Death of Superman story line adopted a similar formalised structure to build up to the final confrontation between Superman and Doomsday. Each leading issue was based around a set number of panels per page with the number decreasing by one each issue until the final part of the story which was presented in a series of single page spreads.
Other comics, or comic strips in particular, are restricted by panel layout, having limited space to start with. Comic strips such as Dick Tracy or Peanuts have a single row to play with, limiting the potential layout. This however does not limit their storytelling ability. If you have a set panel structure, altering it slightly has a great effect on the narrative and the reader.
One artist who understands the importance of Panel Layouts is Christian Ward and his work on Invisible Kingdom is a prime example of exactly how the panels can improve and affect the storytelling of a comic.
Standard practice is to use panels as a way of expressing moments of time within a narrative. The length of these moments is often dictated by the images within the panels in conjunction with those that came before and those that come after. The panel itself is just a border, surrounded by a gutter, marking the moment like the hand on a clock marks time. A series of square or rectangle boxes marking the tick tock of a comic’s narrative.
This approach is adopted in large by Ward for Invisible Kingdom, especially in the earlier issues, however he is also doing something else within the comic. It’s noticeable in Invisible Kingdom because of the nature of the panel in the first place. The standard panel, square/rectangle box, is marked out with such a heavy, thick black line. The artwork within the panel is fluid and organic but this is restricted, contained even, within these definitive black lines. Ward’s artwork represents a rich and expanding universe, packed with endless possibilities. He then forces the reader to focus specifically on one moment or sequence of moments by trapping it inside this box.
Ward then breaks this box. He stretches this box. Twists it and subverts it, almost as if the world is too big to be contained. Elements of the image escape from the panel, breaking the border and passing into the gutter. Sometimes the gutters themselves disappear as a sequence of events is over laid to reflect the chaotic or immediacy of the moment.
Some of the panels become extensions of the scenery or costumes of the characters prominent within them. It is as if the comic is organically finding ways to represent the narrative, searching for a shape that fits. This is a major theme of Invisible Kingdom, with several of the central cast misfits in their surroundings. The panels and their positioning/interaction on the page is a direct reflection of the main characters psychological states at that time.
As the series progresses, Ward pushes the panel layouts even further to make them an integral part of the storytelling. In the most reason issue, there are several pages where the panel layouts accentuate the action and even highlight a subtext that the writer, G. Willow Wilson, has included.
During one action packed sequence, the space vessel Sundog is attacked by a larger, more ferocious ship. The Sundog and her crew are buffeted as the might of the enemy is made known. At one point the attack is so violent that, not only is Vess through across an observation room, the very layout of the page is knocked off kilter. The standard, stacked rectangle panels are leaning, almost as it they are toppling over after the violence of the attack. The images give the reader enough information to understand that the ship has physically been affected by the attack but the panel placements relay the extent and the force of the attack.
In an earlier scene, the Sundog comes across a junkyard in space. The visuals show the space ship as it enters a spiral of debris, which in turn becomes discarded Lux waste. From the images it appears to be a river of plastic bottles polluting space. The image itself is fairly poignant , but just in case the reader misses it, the panels form the shape of a giant exclamation mark! The stacked panels help to illustrate the passage of the Sundog through the pollution, acting as per a standard panel layout however the overall page layout subconsciously emphasises the point the page is making.
To get the best out of the medium, the title has to embrace the whole comic; from cover to cover, page to page. This includes concentrating on script, art, colours, lettering, design. The best comics embrace every aspect of the medium, such as Image Comics’ East of West which is finely constructed in every detail. To a large extent the same can be said of Invisible Kingdom. The narrative and art embrace the adventurous nature of space operas and Christian Ward extends that playfulness to the layouts of each page, using the positioning of the panels as an extension of the narrative structure.
"And summon The Black Coats."
(From Tommy Gun Wizards #3 written by Christian Ward)
A couple of quick links this week to my reviews.
Firstly, Horde from AfterShock Comics. A one and done horror comic that starts off extremely well but is swallowed up by fancy demons and the need to create a grand spectacle. Kind of like The House on Haunted Hill TV series. The range of horror influences is obvious and it will keep most people entertained to the end, just doesn't quite land the finale.
I reviewed a Marvel comic this week. A 'superhero' one at that. Shh, don't tell anyone! I'm enjoying Jonathan Hickman's X-Men revival and the first off shoot, Marauders, marks it's own territory fairly quickly. With a cast list including some of my favourite X-Men characters, this was kind of a must read for me but I also think it's a damn good comic. I'm not sure how many of the other titles I will read, but Marauders is staying on my list.
Final review of the week (technically, my first review of the week) was the outstanding Tommy Gun Wizards #3. I love this comic and all those who have created it. Every aspect of it is pure enjoyment: a mesmerising, yet outlandish, story; spectacular art; mood enhancing colours; fun, inventive, lettering. I say good things about all of it and well deserved my praise is. This year has been flooded with great comics, but TGW is easily one of my favourites.
(note the final issue will be published under the title Machine Gun Wizards, not sure why but you don't want to miss out)
The new issue of Angel is out as well this week. I was worried after the first issue of Hellmouth that the tie-in stories would also loose some of the brilliance of previous issues but Angel is still going strong. A tie-in in reference only, the latest issue of Angel focuses on Fred and Gunn, hunting down wayward vampire Spike in a high class nightclub. Action and character development galore.
I've also found a new comic related blog to follow this week. I've only read a couple of entries but so far I am liking the style and the choice of collections for review. It's called The Literary Comic and can be found via the link. Not that I want you all to leave but it's good to share.
Finally for this week, something a bit different.
I don't normally share preview stuff, veering more towards comics I've actually read and enjoyed, but anyone who has read my reviews for Faithless will know, I love Maria Llovet's art work.
Her art style is fashion influenced and would definitely be described as European (living and working in Barcelona would probably effect that). She has a fluid approach to composition and creates emotional characters out of the simplest of inked lines. Faithless was visually seductive and this appears to be the case with her new title Heartbeat due to be released from BOOM! Studios in November.
It's not too late to order a copy of issue 1 and based on the preview provided by BOOM! (below) it looks like another title not to be missed.
"How can there be despair when everything we ever knew and ever loved is right here with us?"
(From Trees: Three Fates #2 written by Warren Ellis)
I seem to be reading a number of comics at the moment that have a strong philosophical bent. I love a bit of introspection and cosmic existentialism. Maybe it's an age thing, or maybe I just notice it a lot more theses days. Anyway, I'll come back to Trees:Three Fates from Image Comics.
There are a lot of good comics out this week. And by 'good', I mean outstanding. A number I had a hunch about before picking them up but there have been a couple of surprises. However, before I start on this weeks stack, I picked up a late copy of The Batman's Grave, written by Warren Ellis, pencils by Bryan Hitch, Inks Kevin Nowlan, colours Alex Sinclair, and letters by Richard Starkings.
I've not read a Batman comic in a number of years, not since dropping Scott Snyder's New 52 run after about 12 issues. I only picked this title up because of my love of Warren Ellis' other work.
This is is a great little comic. It is a character driven, exploration of Batman and his obsession with crime. There are a number of enticing scenes and Ellis seems to have a deep understanding of Bruce Wayne. The fact Batman puts himself inside the victim and not the criminal is a wonderful touch. It humanises him and creates empathy for the character.
The artwork is equally expressive, capturing the energy of Batman but at the same time keeping the action realistic. It reminds me of the early Legends of the Dark Knight series that began in 1989 as a reaction to the Tim Burton movie. The concentration on realism and character makes it much more fascinating to me than a lot of Superhero comics.
There is a review of the first issue on MonkeyFightingRobots here.. (not written by me).
Next up, and the first surprise of the week, is Dark Horse Comics new The Mask comic, I Pledge Allegiance to the Mask.
Surprisingly poignant, often funny, and definitely as violent as the original Mask comics, it's a blast from the past with a modern twist. I thought it would be a read and throw away comic but it's probably a keeper.
Patric Reynolds' artwork is as gritty as Christopher Cantwell's script. It's disturbing on a number of levels but strangely entertaining. I would recommend this to a number of people but if you're not a fan of the mindless violence scene, maybe give this a wide birth. If your knowledge of The Mask is solely based on the movies, this might come as a bit of a shock.
Quickly onto the next..the surefire hit that is X-Men # 1. If the creators don't sell this to you (Jonathan Hickman, Leinil Francis Yu) then the fact that it's the dawn of a new mutant age should. Hickman has already made massive waves with his HoX/PoX 12 issue run so the start of the monthly tsunami of X-Titles must be something to, at the very least, be intrigued by.
And X-Men #1 is a great introduction to the new X-World order. It mostly revolves around Scott Summers and his place in the grand scheme of things, but you can see the ground being laid for future events. Knowing Hickman, his entire run is probably hinted at somewhere in this single issue, we'll just have to wait and see what the clever little tyke has planned.
There are many, many X-Men comics coming out, and to be honest I won't be reading them all. My bank account can't take the hit. However, I am looking forward to the Marauders which is out next week. I just love Kitty Pryde, and Gerry Duggan.
But mostly Kitty Pryde.
The final issue of Killer Groove can out from AfterShock Comics this week. It has been an amazing series. It has been nice just to read a bit of noir action that hasn't resorted to supernaturalism, or sci-fi shenanigans, not that I have a problem with that but I do like the occasional, pure thriller. Killer Groove has been that and more. The artwork by Eoin Marron is emotionally captivating and brings the characters to life is a real and engaging manner.
The ending is bitter sweet; smartly written with a satisfying finale. You can read my full review of the issue here, if you haven't managed to pick this title up, watch out for the trade.
Some comics I like to keep for myself, choosing not to review them because I don't want to think of them as 'work'. East of West is one such title and Trees is another. I mentioned Trees: Three Fates at the beginning and said I would come back to it.
This is me coming back to it.
I love it, go buy it. Together Warren Ellis and Jason Howard create comic book magic. And that's all I have to say on the matter.
Finally for this week, another surprise for me.
I feel a little confession is in order first, I'm not a fan of Kick Ass. The first mini-series was okay but I didn't really like the film. I found it problematic (I watched it last weekend again and didn't hate it as much, I just have a general disinterest in it now). I turned the second film off so can't comment on that, except to say I detested the beginning. I also gave up on the comics in pretty much the same manner, so I haven't read Kick Ass 2, the further adventure of Kick Ass, Kick Ass the Next Generation, Hit Girl: The Spin Off, and Hit Girl Keeps On Hitting..or what ever the titles are (some of those sound like they should be Tank Girl comics).
So, to get to the point, I only picked up Hit Girl #9 because I have always been a fan of Peter Milligan, ever since I first encountered his writing in Revolver Comics back in the early 1990's, and I adored Alison Sampson's Winnebago Graveyard.
To my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed this comic. It has the quirky story that I associate with Milligan melded the horror inspired art style of Sampson. Somehow it work's to produce an enthralling, often disturbing, engaging comic that is suited to it's location. It manipulates the reader's expectations and makes you fell uncomfortable while reading it.
Yes, it has Hit Girl in it and, I suppose, it is a Hit Girl comic but it's not what I expected. It is so different in style and motivation to what I thought it would be, and so far removed from the Kick Ass comics I gave up. Hit Girl #9, India part 1, is a triumph and has me hooked.
Getting ahead of the game today as I have a lot to share.
It's a New Comic Book Day tomorrow but before I get to comic reviews last weekend saw the New York Comic Convention take place! Thanks to SYFY Wire streaming, I was able to watch a number of the panels live and see some great comics people get interviewed.
The panels were mostly TV related, but very exciting TV! Star Trek: Discovery and Picard cast member's giving away a few details and releasing brand new trailers. Picard is out in January next year with Discovery following shortly after . Excited? Hell, yeah! Discovery has just grown in leaps and bounds. The ending of series 2 was a jaw dropper and the prospects for series 3 are infinite.
That wasn't the only exciting sci-fi series with New York presence, Lost In Space series 2 has finally got a trailer and release Date. Christmas is going to be fun for me and the kids this year. We loved series 1 and can't wait for series 2.
It's been 20 years since Angel first aired, so watching the cast get back together for a Q&A was fun. I love Angel (more than Buffy) and this just reminded me why.
Away from the TV shows, I was able to watch interviews with Chris Claremont, Jason Aaron, Joe Hill, and even a live draw with Bill Sienkiewicz, although not much drawing actually got done. The guy loves to chat, and I loved the chance to listen to him.
It's rare I get to see stuff like this, so being able to watch it at home, in my kitchen, drinking coffee and eating crisps, was a great way to spend a weekend.
Okay, so this weeks comics. There are a lot of good titles out this week. A LOT.
Image Comics have the start of the end of East of West. I have not read this yet but I am looking forward to this quite a bit. I have loved the series, it is easily one of my favourite comic runs of recent years, and I can't wait to see how Hickman, Dragotta, and Martin tie everything up.
Also from Image is Coffin Bound #3. A brilliant, but must be said, disturbing, psychological comic which I describe as Tank Girl with a death wish. I review the issue here, and it is one of my favourite releases this week.
I also review Shoplifters Will Be Liquidated #1, a new title from AfterShock Comics. A strong start to a series with a few things to say about consumerism. The central characters aren't particularly endearing which could be a turn off but it's worth checking out.
BOOM! Studios has been building towards their first Buffyverse crossover and Hellmouth #1 is out this week. Buffy started of as one of the best comics of the year and Angel has had an equally as good start. Unfortunately, the crossover does not have the best of starts. It is a disappointment coming after the parent titles and left me a little non-plussed. For my full take check out MonkeysFightingRobots here.
Other titles hitting the shelves and picking up:
Doctor Doom #1 and Powers of X #6 from Marvel
Postal Deliverance #4 from Top Cow
Supergirl #35 from DC (review will be up at MonkeysFightingRobots.co tomorrow)
and finally, Pretty Deadly:The Rat #2 (cover below) from Image Comics. Visually spectacular, this title is fighting for comic of the year.
Before I go, still comics related, BBC Radio 6 are in the middle of a special season of their Paperback Writers series which a current Graphic Novel theme. Basically, they have a number of comic book writers host an radio episode for an hour or two, playing their favourite, inspirational music and chatting. So far I have listened to Alan Moore, whose episode was produced more like an interview, and Neil Gaiman. Coming up are Hannah Berry, current comics laureate, and Warren Ellis, comic book genius.
The episodes can be found here... some great music and fascinating chat. Go listen to comics people while reading comics.
I finally picked up my comics from the shop. Three weeks since I was last there so I had quite a stack. Luckily for me today has been rain free so I could read and walk.
There are a number of titles I'm waiting to get my teeth into. Not least among them is the latest Criminal from Brubaker and Phillips. I'm really enjoying the current run, it has a really engrossing, noir feel to it.
Also in my stack is the new Dark Crystal title that ties in with the Netflix series I have been meaning to watch. I loved the first episode but haven't got around to watching the rest yet. Guess now I have the comic to urge me on.
There are also the building mountain of X-Men comics. I have three House/Powers Of to catch up on. But I'm looking for to indulging in a quite hour or two of reading, especially as I also have Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz's The New Mutants: War Children to feed my X-Men craving. Check out the cover below, I mean, why wouldn't you want this comic?
Despite the pile of comics I have to read, my number of reviews this week have been minimal.
There was an okay-ish comic from Berger books, Ruby Falls (review here). It has potential but just didn't get me enthralled enough.
Dead Eyes #1 on the other hand...Although a re-branding of Dead Rabbit from last year, this Image comic was a whole lot of fun, while still getting a serious message across. Gerry Duggan, John McCrea, Mike Spicer and Jo Sabino have done a great job with this comic, and an even better job of sticking with it to get it released. I can't wait for issue three to see how the series develops beyond what was originally released last year. If you fancy checking out my review, you'll find it >>here<<.
That's it for reviews, however I do have one last recommendation. If you fancy a laugh, have a darkish sense of humour and not put off by some nudity, then try to get your hands on a copy of Soft Wood. An off shoot of Heavy Metal, this anthology has some cracking comic strips and some absolutely laugh out loud gags. A multiple of creators have produced an array of different strips, from four panel gags, to one page Haiku's, and even parodies of Watchmen taking a broadside shot at DC over the handling of Alan Moore, and other creators.
Soft Wood is a brilliant ensemble of comics for some amazing talent. If you can get hold of a copy, do so, but watch out for the Newsflash strip, it'll take you by surprise.
Life long comic book reader, collector, and reviewer.