What is a panel in a comic book? Or to be more precise, what is the purpose of a panel in a comic book?
The general consensus would be that it represents a moment of time within the sequence of a narrative, a snapshot of the action. When read in conjunction with the preceding panels and the panels that come after it, the single panel forms and informs the narrative.
This, however, is a very simplistic view of the panel and its function. For starters, the idea of a ‘snapshot’ belies the passage of time within the panel itself. It is true that the gutters, the space between the panels, is the leading generator of time shift in a comic strip, but the panel does not simply represent a single second of time: it is not like a still taken from a movie. The panel can, and in most cases does, contain a variable period of time which is dictated by the image and text combination.
You simply have to look at a page from Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins’ Watchmen to see this in action. Pick any page and it becomes obvious that each panel is not equal from a timing perspective. Within the nine panel grid that the creators adopted for the comic, a number of panels are merged to create emphasis on certain pages, even to the extent that a single image is used for a full page spread. However, even comparing panels of the same size it is obvious to see that they do not represent a single second of time, or even an equal amount of time. Some panels are text heavy creating a slower movement through the panel, while others lack text and even background detail, thus pushing the reader forward at greater speed.
It is surprising how much the background, or environment, featured in a panel can affect the reading of that panel by creating additional time as well as influencing the foreground narrative. In a large number of cases, the environment has this effect by creating additional false panels within the main panel, artificially elongating the period of time within that image.
To start with, let us look at the fifth page of issue 2 of Cry Havoc from Image Comics.
The first thing to note is how much work the text is doing in setting the scene. The language used within the speeches, and the emphasis that Simon Bowland gives to certain words and letters, makes it clear that the two characters are in the middle of an argument. Bowland takes this even further by using the speech balloons to act as a barrier between the two characters. In panel three, there is a clear separation between the lovers which would exist even if the speech balloons were empty. A thick, while line has been drawn down the centre of the panel.
This concept of the environment within the panel separating the two women, is followed through into the next panel. Panel four is the main focus of our attention here as it clearly uses the environment to inform the reader that these two characters are at loggerheads. The destruction of the flat creates a physical barrier between them and, combined with the edge of the wall at the back of the panel, it produces a split down the centre of the panel. This, in effect, creates two panels, lacking a recognisable gutter.
The result is twofold. Firstly, it makes a clear schism in the relationship. And secondly, it stretches the time within the panel. With the image bleeding to the edge of the page, the blunt separator down the centre of the panel breaks up the reading of the image, stopping the reader in the centre. It gives the impression of a large pause between the speech on the left and the reaction on the right.
Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba use this technique a lot in The Umbrella Academy.
In the first volume, Apocalypse Suite, Way brings back together the pupils of the Umbrella Academy after years of separation. Throughout the comic the back stories of the characters are revealed and their animosity towards each other is explained. However, the story is very fast paced, covering a lot of ground in 6 issues, if you have seen the Netflix TV series you’d be forgiven for thinking that the series covered many more of the comics.
One of the ways that the creators cover so much in such a short run is by using visual imagery to express character development and relationships. By far the most successful technique that Way and Ba use is to make the panels feel larger than they are and provide much more information than a simple snapshot of a moment.
A major theme of The Umbrella Academy’s first arc is character isolation. Number Five spends a large part of his time in the future, literally by himself, a circumstance that forms the backbone of his character. Way and Ba have a number of ways of depicting Number Five’s loneliness, including a mannequin which acts as a friend and a confidant, however they also have much subtler ways of illustrating the isolation between the characters.
On the second page of issue 2, for example, when Rumor returns to the mansion and meets Spaceboy for the first time in years there is a distance between them. A distance that is made wider by creating an obvious empty space between them. On the final panel of the page the speech balloons fill the top of the panel while the bottom is cluttered with the characters' legs and a suitcase creating a small, physical barrier between them. The gap from the top of the suitcase to the bottom of the speech balloons is dead space. It is empty. There isn't even any background details.
What there is, is the illusion of a break in the panel. An invisible line down between the two family members producing an uncomfortable, dramatic tension. This is a motif that flows throughout the comic and the arc as a whole. A number of panels have this artificial pause placed up on them due to a barrier inferred by the environment. It carries onto the third page of the second issue with the arrival of Seance and a wonderful example is from page 15 of issue 4.
Some members of the family have gathered together and there is real animosity between certain characters. In panel 2 the family unit are split down the middle thanks to the inclusion of a pillar. The thick, mostly black column acts in exactly the same way as a gutter between panels. The speech that Spaceboy makes is harsh and the unnatural pause produced by the fake gutter gives the speech extra weight. The insult is made and the reader is forced into a long pause before taking in the speaker and moving onto the next panel for the reaction.
Way wants you to concentrate on the speaker as much as what is spoken. The focal point is not Diego, who has been insulted, but Spaceboy and his reasons for speaking this way. The insult seems against character and the forced pause makes the reader question what is going on.
If you described the above examples as creating ‘soft’ panels within a structured panel, i.e. a border-less panel inside a bordered panel, then the only description for what Stan Lee and Marcus Martin do in the back up strip for The Amazing Spider-Man #636 is ‘hard’ panels.
The two page spread is broken down into three main panels with three inserts across the main panel. However, the main panel is itself broken down into a number of additional ‘panels’ using the architecture of Peter Parker’s apartment.
The first two panels are standard scene setting shots: the villains following Spider-Man in their helicopter followed by a long shot of Spider-man in the foreground, his pursuers in the background. These images are presented in a recognisable format with borders and gutters separating them.
The third panel however is something wonderful. It encapsulates an entire scene using the rooms of the apartment like panels. The walls become the borders and the space between the walls become the gutters. The action is played out using the speech balloons as guidelines, leading the reader from one picture of Peter Parker to the next. The inserts act as grounders for the narrative, making the transition from one part of the apartment to the next flow smoother. They also provide additional information in relation to the timing of the scene.
At no point does the reader question the number of times they see Peter in the apartment: the concept of the character moving from space to space is obvious and the walls create the panels needed to tell a coherent narrative. Peter moves through his lounge, gets changed in the bedroom, washes up in the bathroom, and finally gets to work on his machine in the kitchen. All of this is in one sweeping movement. It could be presented in separate panels, with the inserts slotted in between however this would alter the fluidity of the scene and make it pedestrian in nature. Presented as it is, the mundane actions of a man are elevated.
Martin has presented something eye catching that toys with the standard comic book format. By creating false panels, using the walls of the building, he is able to instruct the reader in the reading. We instantly accept that Peter is moving through the space and our interpretation of time is dictated to by the series of actions methodically undertaken. It is like a series of steps that we can follow all taking place in a confined space.
As a reader we are reminded of the greater world outside of the apartment but this itself reinforces the idea that the apartment is Peter’s world.
These examples of panel usage show how comics can comprise a complex structure fusing narrative and form. The manipulation of one can, and most often does, inform the other. The interpretations of intent and content opens up a whole world of critical theory and narrative dissection. One aspect that is raised here is, what is the function of the gutter and is it integral to the comic strip? The later example above adopts a form of border/gutter usage, although in a slightly different format, but the other two forego the formality to a certain degree, allowing the image to lead the story and dictate pacing. Panel layout and the importance of a gutter is, however, an entirely different and much larger discussion.
Each page of a comic, especially weekly American Comics, have the same field to play on. The dimensions are the same, with the same area on the page. However the creators can break up that field in a number of different ways to produce wildly different tones, concepts and narratives. Each panel is different and the manipulation of the images within the panels opens up a world of storytelling techniques and possibilities.
Cry Havoc. Published by Image comics, Writer: Simon Spurrier, Artist: Ryan Kelly, Inks: Barbara Guttman Letters: Simon Bowland, Colours: Nick Filardi, Lee Loughridge, and Matt Wilson.
The Umbrella Academy. Published by Dark Horse Comics. Writer: Gerard Way, Artist: Gabriel Ba, Colours: Dave Stewart, Letters: Nate Piekos.
Spider Sundays ( backup strip in The Amazing Spider-Man #636). Published by Marvel, Writer: Stan Lee. Artist: Marcus Martin, Colours: Munsta Vicente, Letters: Joe Caramagna
In just under two weeks time it’ll be that most special of days: the release of the final issue of East of West.
For six years now Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, Rus Wooton, and Frank Martin have been wooing the readers with their pre-apocalypse, Manga inspired tale of the End of the World. We’ve followed Death on his search for his son, watched the remaining three Horsemen as they’ve wreaked havoc across The World, marvelled at the backstabbing politicians from every nation, and basically been in awe of the majestic storytelling.
Before that final issue drops on 25th December (I’m not sure if my local comic shop will be open but breaking in on Christmas Day can’t be a crime, can it?) I thought I’d look back at some previous posts and reviews about East of West.
East of West #19
Balloon, Babylon’s technological teacher, has instigated some new programming and advanced the son of Death’s educational regime. This involves instigating situations where Babylon will be forced to kill for a number of different reasons. There are three lessons to learn; you have to kill to eat; you have to kill to survive; you have to kill to protect your future. Needless to say Babylon rises to the challenge and after a blip at the beginning he learns with incredible speed. Unfortunately the Squirrel and the wild hog family only learn one thing; how to die.
Babylon’s reaction to the situations which Balloon puts him in raises questions regarding the idea of Nature versus Nurture. To start with he is nervous and even unwilling to kill as if he has a sense that what he is being asked to do is wrong. However the underlying family instincts kick in and Babylon takes to killing in such a way to make his father proud.
There are two outstanding parts to this issue. Firstly, there is the deeply philosophical script by Jonathan Hickman. There are layers within layers to the seemingly simple narrative that is on show. Whatever level you read at, whether its surface or depth plunging, this issue will keep you occupied for a long time. I’m sure there will be dissertations written about this sometime soon.
Secondly, the artwork is superb and also as simple as the script. The two worlds of Balloon are expressed in such a simple format using a rose tinted colour wash for the world as portrayed to Babylon and a murky blue wash for the real world. I can’t say this enough: it’s so simple yet absolutely brilliantly realised.
With these long running monthly comics, especially ones written by Jonathan Hickman, it’s easy to just accept that they are good and take it for granted that they reach a high standard month on month. Sometimes it takes an extra special issue to remind us why we continue to keep these comics in our pull list and this month Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, Frank Martin, and Rus Wooton have done just that.
East of West #21
It starts with a juxtaposition of ‘Love’ and ‘War’ and shows how the manipulation of one can influence the other. Doma has become a pawn in the game between the Nations and despite her confidence it would appear that she is out of her depth and clueless to what is really going on.
The pre-credits sequence this month has an incessant tapping to accompany the secret dialogue and this is cleverly illustrated with broken text spread across each of the panels. The repeated tap, tap is like the ticking of a clock counting down, building the intensity within the scene. Sly looks between the characters and constant close ups help to build the suspense so that when things finally explode it’s almost a physical shock for the reader. This shock is then turned to horror at the grotesque panel that follows.
All of this is book-ended with the intimate relationship that Doma is in and the erotic lighting of these panels is a stark contrast to the greys of the drool meeting and the blood red images of death.
All of this makes the opening of this issue superb, proof that Hickman can still write a compelling comic. Unfortunately some of this is lost over the next few pages as another meeting, this time with a deep blue backdrop, unfolds rather like every other dull meeting of the Nations. This meeting is nothing more than set up for Narsimha to go walk about in the land of the Dead.
The final third of this issue recaptures the opening in style and pace and builds up to another act of violence. The design of the machines and the characters is wonderful and makes me wonder how much these guys have been influenced by the work of Frank Herbert? There is an element of Dune about the style and pacing of East of West and one that is enjoyable, if you like your sci-fi deeply political.
Hickman has been a bit hit and miss with some of his work in the last couple of years, leaving long gaps between issues been the greatest miss, but his standard of writing for East of West is always of a high quality. Whereas the Marvel event story Secret Wars is slowly drifting from its brilliant beginning into something less than farcical, East of West maintains, if not exceeds, the brilliance of its beginning. Even when dubious moments make their appearance, such as meeting number two in this issue, the art work lifts the quality of pages up. I have yet to see a bad panel by Nick Dragotta in this title.
The story marches ever on to War and the creators of this comic make sure that the reader’s journey is always worthwhile.
East of West #22
When a creator owned comic runs for long enough, especially when you have confident artists/writers working on it, it will eventually reach a ‘concept’ issue. Issue 22 of East of West is an example of such a comic.
In this issue silence is golden and, in the hands of Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta, ‘golden’ is definitely the word for it.
The simple story revolves around an assassination attempt on Mao Xiaolian. A group of armoured unknowns sneak into the citadel and murder their way to Mao’s inner chamber where they come face to face with Death’s Ex. All of this with no speech or sound of any kind.
Sometimes it can be difficult to review an ongoing comic; there’s only so many ways to say that the comic is good, or bad, especially if each issue is of the same standard as before. But of course there is always a way to make readers sit up and pay attention again; guest artists; out of arc standalone stories; crossovers; or, in Hickman/Dragotta’s case, produce a stunning work of art. There are illustrious depictions of stealth and speed, subtle moments of pause and one truly kick ass scene of uber violence.
Okay, the assassin’s find Mao in the bath, naked as the day she was born which could cause some worry but this situation isn’t dealt with coyly, there isn’t any school boy tittering to be heard over these pages. In fact her nakedness allows the character to move in ways that serve her situation, unlike the bulky, stealth costumes her assassins wear that ultimately hold back their abilities in such an uneven fight. The way that Dragotta handles this fight scene is magnificent and it has such a powerful energy to it.
The movements flow from one panel to the next forcing the reader to flip from page to page eager to battle through the bloodletting and get to a moment of calm. The silence deepens the trauma because there’s no distraction there; you are forced to witness the violence and desperation in the emptiness left by the lack of text.
The splash page of Mao at the end of her fight is haunting, soaked in red and black, but there is also an unquestionable beauty to the character that makes you understand why Death was attracted to her in the first place. Beneath the arm wrenching, disembowelling and blood splattering violence there is a subtle character dissection happening.Hickman is showing the reader exactly who Mao is and what you can expect from her. He is portraying her strength physically and emotionally. Mao is a force to be reckoned with so Gods help the Seven Nations.
This issue is an outstanding example of what you can do in the comic book medium. It will take your breath away. And speech or no speech, this issue screams out about the talent behind this comic
Page Transitions in issue 40 of East of West
A more exciting use of a page transition can be seen in issue 40 of East of West. Image Comics provides an advantage for its creators, like Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta, over the Big Two publishers because it gives them greater control over their comics. This works in Hickman and Dragotta’s favour because they design each issue of East of West from cover to cover, choosing the layout and content for every page.
The transition from page 14 to page 15 (Fig. 5) is especially interesting because, not only does it lead the reader from one page to another, it breaks the usual conventions of reading an American Comic book page. Page 14 reads like most of the other pages in the comic, starting with a widescreen panel and stepping down in a usual Z-path reading pattern but when you get to the bottom of the page, where the character Death ignites the engine blast, your vision is drawn uncontrollably directly to the right and then up, across the large panel on page 15 to the top of the page where you read the first panel on the page out of the usual order.
Dragotta and Martins image in that large panel is a direct line from the bottom right of the left page to the top right of the right page. The simple, arrow like image forces the reader to buck convention and read the page in reverse. The dialogue at the top of the right page links directly with the dialogue at the top of the left page and the entire double page spread acts like a circle leading the reader from the top of the left page, down and round back to the top. It is an extremely clever piece of art work and also has narrative merit as it portrays the strength of Death’s character. By manipulating the reader physically and subconsciously the creators are expressing Death’s strength of character and influence on the world around him.
A double page spread can be used for a number of different reasons, in a number of different ways. This East of West example demonstrates that two pages of well-designed layout can speak a lot to a particular character. When used wisely creators can use the two pages to reflect upon and even compare specific characters within their narrative.
Life long comic book reader, collector, and reviewer.