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.
interesting read here…and i generally agree with your thoughts on structure and pacing. the quiet before the storm…and the quiet after the storm as it were. but we do run into some problems. you are thinking hard here and correctly-if it does feel a bit conformist. i really did enjoy your musings on perspective and grids here as well http://sequart.org/magazine/3557/another-reality-%E2%80%93-the-spatial-imperative-part-2/ . but again there is that but…
you seem to completely ignore the aesthetics of comic art…or to put it another way-adam hughes draws a superior babe to john romita jr :D. to me mr romita certainly has a firm handle on comic book storytelling and is very good at his craft…which is fine on say a book like incredible hulk. but on a book like avengers i definitely find it more satisfying to see frank cho draw ms marvel or valkyrie.
how to we account for the fact that despite art spiegelman’s superior storytelling, having him pencil new mutants would be an umitigated disaster for all parties involved. i definitely don’t want to see scott mccloud on birds of prey or batwoman. altho i would love to see art adams draw an issue of love and rockets. the demands of main stream superhero comic book work(and what is demanded now is almost pitch perfect ‘realistic’ anatomy) battle with story telling a bit. or perhaps there isn’t really a battle at all…superior anatomy wins out for me and i suspect it wins out for most comic book readers.
this isn’t to say-storytelling be damned…but we should probably be comparing apples to apples-say neal adams to ivan reis versus daniel clowes to jim cheung or spiegelman to bianchi.
Greg, thanks for the comment! It seems like it’s -actually- a comment on my other article, but what the hell, I’ll take it!
New Mutants by Spiegelman would most likely be a disaster. Because that’s not what Spiegelman’s interested in – the subject matter is not to his taste, and his aesthetics don’t match it. Of course he shouldn’t draw it, and more to the point he wouldn’t draw it. But the principles of storytelling remain constant whether you are drawing superheroes or jewish mice – in terms of form, the subject is absolutely irrelevant.
Aesthetics probably draw something like 90% of the mainstream comics fanbase – things that look cool are very popular. This is also true of Hollywood – a sterling example being James Cameron’s Avatar. Derivative plot with a boring story and cliche characters – and yet it sold millions. Because it looked really damn good. People like things that look really damn good, and that’s not necessarily bad.
But what will stand the test of time is not flash – surface flair and aesthetics will change and develop with the times – they are a wonderful spectacle upon first sight, but upon repeated viewings their effect is highly curtailed, to the point where it’s actually nauseating to watch any more. These kinds of aesthetics-only affairs will fall by the wayside after a decade, and in a century they may even be entirely forgotten.
I’ll bet you that in 2100, people will still know about Lord of the Rings. I’ll bet you most of them won’t know about Avatar.
Now that said – aesthetics are important. Artistry is important. Being able to draw realistic anatomy is very important! As you said, a lot of people will turn away from a comic book because it doesn’t look good enough – that’s because being able to draw in a manner that replicates the natural world is a great way to reach people. It’s like speaking fluently in someone else’s language – they’re much more interested in what you have to say when they don’t have to work to decipher it.
(As a side note, mainstream comic books’ hyper-anatomical style is not the only way to connect with people: witness the popularity of cartooning: Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Looney Tunes, Manga, etc… But to the comic book fanbase, it is expected you draw superheroes with a reasonable amount of muscle and grinding teeth involved.)
That said, aesthetics and storytelling are not at odds. They never have to be. The only reason I choose to use examples like Maus vs. Bianchi’s X-Men is to illustrate the fact that aesthetics don’t actually hold bearing on the craft of storytelling – they are separate entities. You can have a simply drawn story that has wonderful storytelling and poor artistry, and you can just as easily have a well drawn story that has awful storytelling but beautiful rendering. The two concepts are not at odds, in fact, when both are present, they help each other. Take Silver Surfer: Requiem, a series I did an article on as well. Esad Ribic’s wonderful renderings are highly realistic (actually, his grasp of human anatomy is exceptional – most comic artists tend to exaggerate into hyper-anatomy. That’s another discussion though.) and yet I find the story was told exceptionally well. But I also find that Maus is an exceptional comic – the aesthetics it uses are different, perhaps cruder (though that is a point up for serious debate), and most importantly, they suit the story being told. Superhero comics lend themselves to certain aesthetics. Even within superhero comics, different aesthetics are used – Batman: Year One looks different from The Killing Joke, and both are decent stories, where the art fits the story being told.
So, in all cases, whether Maus, Batman, or Silver Surfer, the primary function of all art is to tell the story – not be pretty. If it wants to be pretty, so much the better, but when the primary function becomes aesthetics and not storytelling, you end up with illegible messes like those I mentioned in some of Bianchi’s work on X-Men. There are plenty more examples throughout comics history – it’s certainly not a modern issue.
I enjoy a masterfully drawn image as much as the next guy, but when it’s in my comic book, I want it to tell a story first!
thanks for the reply and i enjoy reading your work-keeps me thinking about panels and storytelling..and i think i did sort of piggyback on the other article for my reply-in fairness i do think it was spurred on a bit by the juxtaposition of the spawn pages with mccloud’s comic. For me mainstream superhero work is what i like and what i focus on-spiegelman or mccloud or clowes or the hernandez bros all have their place…its just not a place i want to go visit.
But what are we to make of the fact that the notables above couldn’t draw a satisfactory superhero comic? I mean certainly it is a matter of sensibility-they have chosen other subject matter and styles…but if pressed could they draw say an issue of avengers? i don’t think for all of his storytelling acumen that a scott mccloud avengers book would compare favorably with an ivan reis avengers book. So in a sense what we are dealing with is not only an issue of storytelling but instead an issue of artistic chops(anatomy, dynamic posing etc…)-the ability to draw the story in an understood fashion.
How do we work around this to discuss a common story telling language with superhero work-well i think you are right there are things to be learned from other styles but for the artist wouldn’t that time be better served studying say neal adams run on batman?
Of course the very nature of collaborative work contributes to the difficulty by a factor of about 10 :D. For spiegelman or mccloud largely they are working on titles that they have written and are illustrating-for them art is the extension of story…not to say it makes it easier to work this way as you still have to have the story and the ability to draw. but they do avoid the bad scripts or the curse of the great artist and storyteller working with a bad script-sadly we see this a great deal(just as one example amongst many-the truly masterful art adams and a string of bad stories in ultimate x).
Which does raise the question can a series of masterfully illustrated drawings overcome bad scripts? I would answer yes, more of my enjoyment comes from the drawings than from the stories-most of which even if done well come across as too melodramatic and confused. Comics aren’t novels and the conventions and understanding of storytelling can help the artist explain otherwise confusing or just frankly pad pages(lipstick on the pig as it were).
But conversely a good(or at least plain/straightforward) storyteller like steve dillon is poison for me on a book-no matter that i can tell what is going on…i don’t like looking at the flat stiff figures. Just as john buscema(workmanlike effective storytelling but no flash) left me flat on scores of conan books-i could clearly tell what was going on but i had no interest in the characters or environments because they were so unenthusiastically rendered. Can one tell a story effectively with uninspired or stylistically ‘wrong’ artwork((again i don’t want to see an x-men issue drawn by robert crumb)? my answer to this would be no…i will not read that comic.
I think happily what we find most of the time nowadays is at least a happy medium(good art and good script) and we do find the occasional moments of brilliance(johns and reis on blackest night-where artist and writer are completely in sync and making some truly spectacular pages…if from above the whole enterprise does seem a bit silly, its just the nature of comics and why i love them).
“Which does raise the question can a series of masterfully illustrated drawings overcome bad scripts? I would answer yes, more of my enjoyment comes from the drawings than from the stories-most of which even if done well come across as too melodramatic and confused. Comics aren’t novels and the conventions and understanding of storytelling can help the artist explain otherwise confusing or just frankly pad pages(lipstick on the pig as it were).”
I’d have to disagree with you. A good script can’t really save poor art, but nor can good art really save a poor script.
I think we’re also at an impasse of what defines ‘good art’ – is good art something well-rendered, or is it something well-told? Is the art’s first purpose to communicate, or to be fun to look at – again, these purposes are not at odds, but which one you place first certainly defines your viewpoint on things.
If you want to place “fun to look at” before “tells a story” then yeah, your argument totally works for you. You find looking at Neal Adams, Ivan Reis, and other masters of illustrative craft appealing and gratifying – no one can deny that. But someone else might find Steve Dillon or John Buscema fun to look at. I personally am quite the fan of Buscema’s work – but you see, if we work off the idea that the art’s primary purpose is to look appealing, then we have absolutely nothing to discuss.
Because what is appealing visually is entirely based upon opinion. Someone else might really like the way Steve Dillon draws. If all we’re doing is comparing how well artists measure up to one another technically, then what are we judging them on? Anatomy? Dynamic posing? What does “anatomy” mean? Does it mean David Finch anatomy? Ivan Reis anatomy? Classical Anatomy? Exaggerated Anatomy? What does dynamic posing mean? Does it mean Neal Adams posing? Jack Kirby posing? Classical posing? Animated posing? Pin-up posing?
When the primary purpose of art is said to be about looking appealing, then we lose all grounds for any meaningful discussion, and it will boil down into the oft-repeated fanboy argument of “Nuh-uh!” to be redoubted by a equally intelligent, “Yeah-huh!”
On the other hand, if we make the primary purpose of art to be communication of an idea… Then we have a bench on which to mark our work. The aesthetics of the artwork still matter – but only in so far as they contribute to the idea being conveyed. In this mode of thought, Art Spiegelman and John Buscema may be of equivalent skill, and yet draw entirely differently. Spiegelman draws the way he does in Maus to compliment his story, to keep it simple, symbolic, and iconic, so that anyone could understand it. Buscema draws the way he does in Conan because he wants to have a style that is clear and economic, yet dynamic and powerful, much like the character of Conan himself. Each aesthetic fits the story being told – but more than just aesthetic, we now can evaluate how each panel conveys an idea, conveys a part of the story, that panel’s place in the story, what it contributes and how it functions as a part of a whole.
We can discuss. Debate.
I actually can’t debate with what you’re saying because it’s all based on opinion – it isn’t up for debate! You’re operating on the assumption that the first thing you want out of a comic is appealing drawings with dynamic poses and anatomy – more power to you! Keep buying those comics! But I can’t really debate with you about the merits of aesthetics, because the way I view aesthetics is so different – in my view, it’s sublimated to the task of communication.
Good points, David.
good points and well written david…i find myself largely agreeing-but what am i agreeing with i wonder? great artists draw great :D. do we ignore the appeal of the well drawn figure or face-the sexiness of frank cho’s ms marvel vs the manlike ms marvel of steve dillon…the sensual figures of esteban maroto vs the workman like figures of buscema.
does this have no value in how we view art…or is it just figures and heads(shapes really) on a page and arranged in a way that it is coherent. and of course we can debate this endlessly…and it as you noted this type of argument has no winner(except we both think we are right :D).
i just wonder do we divorce craft-the ability to draw fluid eye pleasing anatomy from storytelling completely., isn’t one measure of an artist his ability to draw figures/faces/wild creatures in a convincing fashion..if not then wouldn’t well placed stick figures do the trick just as well?
i really do think you are on the right track and of course fundamental story telling has its definite place(one could say primacy) but it isn’t the whole story….storytelling to me is one big part of a whole-with aesthetics making up a not insignificant portion. i would be remiss here if i have in fact implied that someone like maroto(besides being superior with the lines) isn’t also a superior storyteller-he is a superb storyteller as well.
in all honesty instead of reading a steve dillon comic i would prefer to read a short story-his art has zero value to me and in fact removes the ‘suspension of disbelief’…the entire time i am thinking(hand is wrong, face is ugly, bodies stiff). i just have a harder time divorcing the aesthetics from the storytelling. in the collaborative process for me the illustration side is at least as important as the script…i like that you have thought on this and again you are making me think about layout and flow-good discussion.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that craft is unimportant in storytelling – it’s just that in my view, the primary purpose of craft is to tell the story and assist the message of the story in all possible ways – and do nothing more. In that way, of course the illustrative part of the story is just as important as the script – the script is not the story. By choosing what to draw, how to draw it, and where to place it on the page in relation to other panels and pages, the artist is directly affecting the delivery of the story.
In your Steve Dillon example, his art is actually distracting you from the story – it’s calling attention to itself by being unnatural. That means it’s not fulfilling an important part of storytelling – remaining engaging and transparent to the message.