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.
Life long comic book reader, collector, and reviewer.