Earlier this month, I had a look at Scott McCloud’s The Right Number, an experimental web-comic with a unique format based on digital technology. The zooming format and the forward reading convention were both novel and effective. But this analysis left the big question – how does The Right Number’s change from the traditional comics format affect the presentation of its content?
Put more simply, what does The Right Number’s panel structure do to the story?
1. The Purpose of Structure
To answer this question, we need to step back a bit to define the purpose of panel structure in general. What does it do? The obvious answer is it allows the audience to be able to read the page – but that is not its only function. Beyond legibility, panel layout provides the reader with a sense of rhythm.
In the last article, I talked a little bit about rhythm, and how the zooming format of The Right Number helped capture the sense of turning a printed page. But readers also experience rhythm inside of a page – depending on how many panels are on it, what size they are, and where they are placed. A page with four panels of equal size on it portrays a different rhythm of reading than a page with nine panels that vary in size – regardless of the content inside of the panels. To compare this to prose, it is like the difference between reading a sentence with five short words or twenty long ones – each have their own rhythmic character, regardless of the actual words chosen. The former is chopped short, direct, and to the point, while the latter is drawn out, descriptive, slower.
This rhythmic difference, when put together over a number of pages, can establish a beat. Much like a piece of music, once a rhythm is established, it is generally kept constant for the majority of the song, because that makes understanding the melody easier. If a song’s rhythm does change, it often denotes a change in emotion or subject. This is analogous to a change in pacing in a comic – as the tension heats up, so might the number of panels – they might get smaller and thinner, until the climax warrants a large widescreen panel, or even a splash page!
But in order for this kind of visual flair to have any effect, it must be preceded by something consistent – some type of beat. In the music analogy, one long note held out over four measures is not powerful unless it has been preceded by an ordered set of shorter notes before it. Thus, many comics establish some type of consistent panel structure, because without one, the dramatic moment would have no other moment to be contrasted to!
As an example of successful use of panel structure versus unsuccessful use of panel structure, have a look at both of these compilations, from Jeff Smith’s Bone: Eyes of the Storm and Todd McFarlane’s Spawn #11, respectively. I have presented four pages from each book, sized down to highlight the panels’ structure rather than their content.
Note how Bone uses a simple, clear, and easy to understand panel structure – reading it is very easy, and it flows well. Not only that, but it also remains at a constant beat. The four pages follow a general six-panel grid layout, deviating slightly to accommodate the story content on each page. The panels get thinner on the first page as the protagonist looks down to see his pursuers, thin enough to add an extra panel! On the next page, the six-panel grid holds when the assailants attack, the largest panel on the page being the defense from the protagonist’s companions – highlighting its importance. The third page is three widescreen panels which allow the tension built from the attack to relieve itself and breathe. The fourth page once again reverts to the six-panel grid, allowing the story to progress after the tension and release of the first attack. Jeff Smith’s layouts are simple, legible, and effective.
Spawn, on the other hand, seems haphazardly pieced together. While the panel size does sometimes indicate the drama of the content, there is no consistent beat whatsoever, so the story becomes very hard to read, and loses all impact. On the third page, I cannot even discern where one panel ends and another begins! There is no structure to the content, and thus virtually no pacing, which is not only difficult to read, but actually counter-intuitive to creating drama. Any dramatic moment must have less dramatic moments to stand out against. A consistent beat and rhythm allows that.
2. Making the Rules
Back over at The Right Number, Scott McCloud is thankfully aware of how important structure is, and thus imposes a very rigid and consistent approach to his panel layouts in this story. In fact, there are only four different ways he will organize the image area. The panel may fill the entire screen, it may be divided into a grid two panels, a grid of three panels, or finally a grid of four panels.
It is not that Scott is unimaginative, but rather that his format is actually restricting in this regard. Due to the image area’s small size, these four grid types are virtually all that would be both legible and rhythmically effective! So with these restrictions, how does Scott proceed to use these different panel types? Does he have a basic grid that he sticks to, and then brings out the others for drama?
To determine if this is true, we need only look at the amount of times each type of grid occurs. The overwhelming victor is the first option, that of the panel filling the entire screen. Out of 109 possible pages, 76 of them are this type, making approximately 70% of the story filled with one panel images. This is the ‘default setting’ of The Right Number, and it establishes a strong, consistent beat which the story follows. Scott knows his structure.
The second most used type of layout is the two-panel grid. 27 out of the total 109, or almost 25%, are of this type. The last 5% is rounded out by both three and four-panel grids, only appearing 6 times out of a possible 109. 3 of these instances are of three-panel grids, and 3 are of four-panel.
It is worth noting that in every instance where a two-panel, three-panel, or four-panel grid appears, the story has some element of rising tension. In fact, in Part Two of the story, the portion containing the protagonist’s breakup with Julie and subsequent frantic search for ‘The Right Number’, there are 22 instances of multi-panel grids, compared to the 11 instances in Part One. Part Two is a faster, more intense, more frantic portion of the story, and thus it contains twice as many multi-panel grids, to keep things moving at a faster pace. But this would never have worked if the consistent rhythm of the single-panel grid had not been previously established. It is only through contrast that we achieve drama.
But how much contrast can we really have with only four options? Over a prolonged period of time, wouldn’t this small pool of variables grow stale? Is The Right Number hamstringed in this sense, eventually falling into a tired pace and becoming a vintage novelty?
Not necessarily. To explore this quandary, let us compare The Right Number to another comic with a rigid, regimented structure. Perhaps the solution will lie there. There is even a perfect candidate – the printed comic, Watchmen.
Unlike many other comics that might mix and match their panel grids, Watchmen sticks to its guns. It has a nine panel grid, and it stays a rigid, perfect, nine panel grid the whole way through. For emphasis and contrast, Watchmen will combine its panels together, perhaps forming a double panel or a widescreen panel – but otherwise it never deviates.
But even with Watchmen’s strict self-imposed rules, it still has a much greater variety of potential layouts than The Right Number. Taking into account double panels, widescreen panels, half-page panels, and splash pages, along with the incredible variety allowed by the placement of multiples of these on the same page, the number of potential layouts is exponentially larger than that of The Right Number. Watchmen, one of the most strict and rigid printed comics in existence, has more presentation options than our web-comic here – we haven’t really found a solution in print.
This is because the solution for variety lies not in The Right Number’s predecessors, but in its technology.
3. Breaking the Rules
Once again, the saving grace of The Right Number lies in its digital zoom function. While the variety of panel layouts in the web-comic is dwarfed by any printed comic on the market, the zooming aspect opens a whole new range of possibilities in terms of dramatic effect. While a printed comic might be able to have part of an image pop out of a panel border or even drop that panel border altogether, The Right Number can flip a panel around as it zooms up at you! Or it can prolong the zoom time to affect the perception of the next image. It can even have an animated movement occur inside of a panel.
The rhythmic varieties are endless, because the zooming function itself is a part of the beat of the comic! As I mentioned in the last article, it is analogous to a printed comic’s page break. But no print comic is going to change the way we turn a page – while The Right Number can mess with the way we zoom all it wants. There are literally no discernable limits to the possible permutations, and each effect can be hand-tailored to fit the content at hand. This is a kind of rhythmic variety that remains largely unexplored, and there is much uncharted territory to be discovered if this format continues!
Yet despite the dizzying possibilities of technology, the primary reason the zoom effects in The Right Number are so powerful is because of scarcity. These special effects are only used in 7 out of a possible 109 instances. That’s 6% of the comic’s entire real estate.
This brings us back to the same principle I discussed at the beginning of the article with Bone and Spawn – dramatic contrast. If Scott McCloud had made 40 out of the 109 shots have a flashy zoom effect, it would have greatly decreased its emotional effect. When every panel of every page hits you like a thunderbolt, you’re going to get tired of being struck by lightning pretty quickly. But one crack of lightning – well timed, well paced, and well presented, can shake your emotional foundations far more than any excess of formal flair.
What does this mean? It means that whether one is walking the tried and true path of the printed comic, or tinkering in the clouds with an experimental digital offering, the primary goal is always to tell a damn good story. Do that, and the rest will follow.