I have been reading through The System of Comics by Thierry Groensteen and when I reached the section where he talks about the ‘double page spread’ it made me think about the modern American comics I read and the fact that they don’t appear to take advantage of the full, two page vista very often.
I could think of a couple of examples from older comics but could not put my finger on any recent reads which had struck me, except for one which I will get to later.
In light of this I went looking for a reason why this might be the case but what I found is a surprising number of perfect examples of comics using the two adjacent pages as a visual tool to aid the storytelling of the comic.
It is not a technique which is used often, even from issue to issue let alone from page to page, and there are potentially a number of reasons for this. However, it is not a tool that has been forgotten entirely and is still used to great effect.
The concept of the Double Page Spread is simple: when you read a comic and open it up, the very first thing that you see is a two-page spread of panels, each containing an image. Then you focus on the left hand page and finally on to the top left panel where you begin to read. Subconsciously you have already digested the visual layout of both pages and made a mental note of anything out of the ordinary.
A clever creator can manipulate the readers view of the pages before they have even started reading simply by the design and overall aesthetic of the two pages. For example, if each page contained the same number of panels in exactly the same layout but one of the panels on the second page had a distinctly different colouring, the readers eye would be drawn to it before reading either page. On one level the reader would acknowledge the stand out panel, maybe even engage with it, which in turn will influence the way the narrative is taken in.
A perfect example of this is in Daredevil #228 by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli. In the story Matt Murdock confronts the Kingpin at the bottom of the seventeenth comic page. As you turn the page you are greeted with two pages of conflict (Fig. 1). The most noticeable panel out of all 14 panels is the final one at the bottom of the right hand page. It is a page wide panel coloured entirely in red. The panel above is similar but with jagged black lines detracting from the pure block of colour. Compared to the rest of the panels, which contain figures fighting and very little else, the last panel is visually striking. Having acknowledged the final panel of the last page the reader knows that a fight sequences is to follow and in conjunction with this blood red imagery on the right hand page, the reader is lead to a certain conclusion about the fight; you instinctively know that it isn’t going to end well for one of the characters. This heightens the suspense of the scene because it is no longer just another superhero fisticuffs, there are going to be serious consequences, there is going to be blood.
These two pages are designed in a way to tease the reader with an ending that in turn enhances the narrative across all the panels. This type of layout design, to create an involuntary response, is similar to the use of dramatic music in a movie. The creator is gently nudging the viewer towards a particular mind set, to expect a certain outcome, and therefore readying them for the scare or violence or whatever is to come.
The same thing can be accomplished on a single page in a comic or even throughout an entire issue but the double page spread is a rarity. One of the reasons for this might be down to the lack of editorial control that the writers and artists have, especially in the Big Two publishers. A superhero comic may get commissioned with a set number of pages but the layout of the final published comic may be out of the control of the creators. Unless a double page spread is submitted which actually contains panels or images that cross the centre of the page, as seen below in Fiona Staples’s beautiful splash page from Saga #6 (Fig. 2), then there is no guarantee that the pages will end up side by side. Mainstream monthly comics tend to have adverts inserted throughout which breaks up the momentum of the page turning narrative, especially if the page transitions are not fluid. Trying to match one page against another is hard enough, and when you factor in reprinted collections or digital reading, the position of the pages often does not remain reflect an artist’s intention.
In DC’s New 52 Supergirl comic which started in 2011, the side by side page layout in the monthlies did not always match the soft cover collections. In most cases this did not affect the narrative but if you look at a particular sequence from issue 4 (Fig. 3) you can see how moving the page can affect the storytelling.
In the initial printing of issue 4, comic pages 7 and 8 sit next to each other as a double page spread. The panels, all the width of the page, depict Kara breaking out of her incarceration and fighting through armed guards to escape. At one point Mr Tycho, the villain of the piece, requests that a particular artefact is kept safe. This page contains an element of mystery and there is a determination in Kara, the purpose of which is yet to be discovered by the reader. Turn the page and the answer to both of these mini-mysteries is revealed as Kara is reunited with her Supergirl costume. As narratives go it is not the biggest, most suspenseful of story elements but it does set a pace for that part of the comic and for a number of pages. It is a sequence that makes the reader question the motivations of the characters and therefore helps with the development of said characters.
In the soft cover collection Supergirl: Last Daughter of Krypton published in 2012, the way the pages fall is slightly different. Pages 8 and 9 are the ones that share the double page spread. When you look at these two pages together at a glance, the first thing that you notice, before starting to read, is Kara in her Supergirl costume. This is because it takes up half a page and the bright colouring is contrasted against the dull browns of the space ship and its crew. As a result, the preceding page is taken in a different light, the reader now knows what Mr Tycho is trying to protect and where Kara is heading.
The overall narrative is not changed but the pacing of the moment has. It could be argued that from a visual perspective, pages 8 and 9 work better side by side because panels 3 and 4 depict Kara flying directly towards the final panel of the right hand page. Her destination is evident and the intended outcome obvious. The three panels are linked by the narrative element and, in the collection at least, by the panels positioning; they work together in the overall page layout. The top half of each page features the villains fighting against Supergirl, whereas the bottom of each pages features Kara’s progression back to Supergirl.
Whichever layout works better, the fact that the short term narrative is altered poses a problem for creators when producing the original work. If the book layouts can potentially alter the narrative and pacing it would surely be in the best interests to limit this, the easiest approach of which would be to concentrate on single page layouts instead of a double page layout.
The relationship between left and right page, and the transition from one to the other, does not have to contain any narrative importance. The link may purely be for emphasis of a moment in time or even just an easy way to get the reader from one panel to the next without breaking the flow of the story. A recent example of this is in The Amazing Spider-Man #1 (legacy numbering 802) published in 2018. Comic Page 10 ends with Spider-Man, cast half in shadow, looking up towards the top panel on the right hand page. He has just crashed a party and received a surprise from the Kingpin which has left him shocked. At this moment Spider-Man is the underdog, caught unawares and unprepared for the situation he has just dropped in on. The upper hand is with the Kingpin who stands tall in the centre of the top panel on page 11. The final panel on the left leads, via Spider-man’s desperate glare, directly up to the Kingpin at the top of the following page (Fig. 4).
Through this page transition the reader is shown both the vulnerability of Spider-Man and the majesty of the Kingpin. It’s an important moment for both characters and the story but it could still easily work with a page turn. You would still move from the bottom of one page with Spider-Man looking up at you to the Kingpin looking down. The emotional impact is still there either way however, in this particular moment, the page transition makes the moment more fluid and is a nice touch to the page layout.
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. The East of West example above 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.
In the 1990’s Grant Morrison story Gothic for Legends of the Dark Knight published by DC. The story pitted Batman against a supernatural villain called Mr Whisper. With Klaus Janson on art duties, they use the traditional ‘destroy Gotham’ plot line to highlight Batman’s modern sensibilities by comparing him to a villain stuck in the past. The costumes that the character’s wear are a good example of this comparison as they couldn’t be much more different: one dressed in an outlandishly designed bat outfit and the other looking like a University lecturer from the 1970’s.
In part 2, issue 7 of Legends of the Dark Knight, there are two pages that, next to each other, highlights the differences between the two characters brilliantly (Fig. 6). On pages 22 and 23 the hero and villain are in the middle of a high rise struggle resulting in each of them in turn taking a tumble towards the ground. On page 22 the reader is shown how Batman fights against the fall, struggling to save his life and even sacrificing elements of himself, as represented by his clock, to survive. On the opposite page the reader gets to witness Mr Whisper’s fall and his reaction, which is to do nothing.
The pages are layered out in a similar style with a series of long panels on the first half of the page followed by a single page-wide panel and then two panels in the final row. Each page starts with a character facing the long drop to the street below, followed by their actual decent and ends with a panel illustrating their survival. The character contrast is in the images depicted in each of those panels but the reader is drawn to examine this contrast because of the design and layout of the two opposite pages. Instinctively the reader notices the similarity in page layout from an initial glace at the double page spread and then, when reading the pages, compares what is happening in each sequences.
In the first row you compare the desperation of Batman to the arrogance of Mr Whisper. In the second, single panel, row the comparison is between heroic, Batman, and the maniacal, Mr Whisper. And in the final row, the survival panels show us the resilience and determination of the hero against the flippancy and disregard of the villain.
The colouring of these panels by Steve Buccellato, helps to guide the reader through the comparison process by making each row have a similar colour pattern: lighter colours for the first row, blue wash for the second row and dark shadows for the final row. Together the two pages are designed to be viewed as a single page of work and leads the reader as much as possible to compare the characters.
There are some comics that take the ideas and possibilities of the double page spread and apply them to an entire issue, the most notable example of this is Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons where in issue 5, Fearful Symmetry, the design work, layout and narrative all revolve around the central two pages making for a lot of flipping backwards and forwards through the comic.
Another wonderful example is Days of Hate issue 5 from Image Comics. In this issue each page is broken down into three rows, each with a single page-wide panel. Each row features one character’s story so that over a page the reader is passed from one location to another. The design of the comic means that you could, in theory, read only one of the rows throughout the entire comic without taking into account the other rows and their story lines. Each row can be taken in in isolation so on each double page spread you have two panels from each story reading across the page (Fig. 7).
But just like the Watchmen example, the narrative structure of the entire issue all links together and the misdirection of the creators in the way they layer the rows leads the reader to believe that each of the stories is happening at the same time. You could reorganise the panels so that each page features just one character’s story, or even split the comic into three sections telling one story after the other but you would lose the narrative punch. The drama of the story and the brilliance of the structure would be lost by re-editing it. The entire narrative structure relies on the layout of each page and the interpretation the creators force upon the reader.
On each double page spread in issue 5 of Days of Hate, the readers absorb each panel individually, then each row across the page and then the entire two-page spread all as one narrative, not as separate stories told on the same page.
There are many ways to deal with a double page spread within a comic. A brief overlook of the current American Comics published each month may suggest that the creators are moving away from utilising the potential the layout has to offer but if you look closely it is surprising how many different ways that the pages are being used. For simple aesthetics, to character development, or narrative structure, the writers and artists embrace the possibilities afforded to them by two pages of canvass that all readers initially take in as a single whole before starting to read.
Some of the more modern developments in comic book reading, such as trade collections and digital downloads, may have impacted some of the work being produced but it appears that enough creators working for the monthly market concentrate on the single issue layout of the physical product which gives the reader some beautiful double page spreads.
Index of comics
Published on August 2012 by Image Comics
Writer: Brian K Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples
Published on March 1986 by Marvel Comics
Writer/Artist: Frank Miller and David Mazzzucchelli
Published on February 2012 by DC Comics
Writers: Michael Green/Mike Johnson
Artist Mahmud Asrar
Supergirl Vol1: Last Daughter of Krypton
Published in 2012 by DC Comics
For creators see above
The Amazing Spider-Man #1
Published on September 2018 by Marvel Comics
Writer Nick Spencer
Pencils: Ryan Ottley
Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #7
Published on May 1990 by DC Comics
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Klaus Janson
Days of Hate #5
Published on May 2018 by Image comics
Writer: Ales Kot
Artist: Danijel Zezelj
Colour: Jordie Bellaire
Letters: Aditya Bidikar
East of West #40
Published on November 2018 by Image Comics
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist Nick Dragotte
Colours: Frank Martin
Letters: Rus Wooton