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
Life long comic book reader, collector, and reviewer.