Picnic, Lightning:

Panel Economy as Art

More is better. This seems to be a mantra reverberating through Western culture, finding its way even into comic books. But this is nothing new. Most readers will be more than a little acquainted with the speculator boom of the 90′s. It was a lot of hype for comics that most readers can now find in a quarter bin but the memories of those stories most likely long forgotten. After all, do you remember the story from Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood# 1, 2, 3, or even 4?

In many ways this was due to the philosophy: more is better. It is also a philosophy that is at the heart of DC’s new 52 strategy. If this example is a bit over kill at this point, it could easily be taken out and the X Event Schism could replace it, as well as almost any major Marvel or DC comic for that matter.

What we are witnessing is the idea that big, flashier comics equal more for your dollar. Sure, you are not getting as much story as you were before. But, now you are getting more explosions, fights, blood and gore than ever, especially in the new 52 which had a disturbing amount of blood and dismembering. Also, we are getting big, bolder ‘no’s’ as displayed by the panel from Aquaman #1:

Keep in mind this panel is almost half the page. This ‘no’ is obviously the result of something dramatic, right? Instead, John’s uses half a page to have Aquaman respond to a policman’s joke of asking Aquaman if he needed a glass of water.

I get that John’s is having Aquaman make something of an existential stand in this panel. That the overall purpose of this panel is to stand up against the jokes people always make at Aquaman’s expense. Instead, it seems childish and insecure. What could have been done in a much smaller panel, and better was instead blown up for supposed dramatic effect. There is an economy of panels and reader’s dollars that is just not being paid attention to anymore.

What makes this situation all the more insulting is when we look to literature for inspiration. There is no shortage of economy mixed with beauty.

“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three.” – Vladimir Nabakov Lolita

It may sound absurd, but Nabakov is giving us one of the greatest examples of how to panel comics. Dolores Haze is telling Humbert Humbert about her mother and inside this telling, she gently puts us in the scene with her mother, we witness it the picnic with countless beautiful things and the lightning that struck her mother. This is a story in a story.

While Nabakov’s aim was never greed, but art, it is safe to say he did not pen this line with an eye to the reader’s wallet. Instead, he was trying to exemplify how quick, how tragic her mother’s death was. It struck like the parenthetical discription out of nowhere.

There is an obvious dichtomy between the Aquaman panel above and this little snippet from Lolita. But, what happens when we compare other panels to the sparse text/description above?

This is from the JM Straczynski masterpiece Supreme Power. Revolving around real world implications to the  revelation of actual super-heroes, Supreme Power is a cautionary tale that, at some point, all weapons back fire.

While not an original idea, what is shockingly novel is the economy of panels throughout the series. It can be easily argued that Straczynski and artist Gary Frank are pushing panels in some interesting directions. In this lone panel alone, what we the reader witnesses is a super powered serial killer on the prowl. Now, the creators could have easily just shown a man hacking pros up left and right. What we have, instead, is a smart and sharp panel that brings the reader along for the ride.

Examine the elements of the panel. From the POV established in this panel, the reader would be placed somewhere in the backseat, looking forward with him. But, if we glance to the rear view mirror we notice he is staring back at us, with just a glint of light in his eye. This sliver of light, it can be surmised, represents the only light, or joy, in his life: murdering.

This panel is not just working on 1 flat level like the Aquaman panel. Instead, like the Lolita passage, it is working on several levels at once. There was thought and care put into the passage and the panel beyond deadlines and fashion. There was a level of care put into this that far surpasses whatever inspired such a yawn inducing panel as we see in Aquaman or almost any mainstream comic book.

Now, this is not to bash mainstream comics. After all, Supreme Power was a collective hit and could easily be considered mainstream.

Instead, what we are facing is a trend, one that uses decompression the way Michael Bay uses explosions, to cover up the startling loss of story. There is a reason John’s could not do a panel like the one from Supreme Power and that is because there was not that type of thought process put into. So, perhaps along with a change in fashion towards needless decompression, we are seeing a change in creative processes. Where as Nabakov or Straczynski may have labored over crafting their works, John’s works read so quickly, slickly that it barely begs for your attention at all.\

While decompression, like any tool, should not be retired forever, we should perhaps be more judicious in our usage of these tools, unless we forget that there is an infinite amount of tools in the shed. Panels are one, if not the, most important part of comic books. Heavy decompression use in panels cheapens the effect and makes the book read to quick, without a break to stop and reflect on what has been read. This can, after a time, cheapen the artifact, making a perishable effect to it all.

I am not saying that compressed is better than decompressed. Instead, I am saying there is something important in panels and placement we are missing. We are skipping over the rhythms of how readers read and for this, we may lose more than the readers attention.

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Kevin Thurman is a writer based in Chicago. He blogs about comics, life, and music at errantghost.tumblr.com.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Kevin Thurman:

Warren Ellis: The Captured Ghosts Interviews


Voyage in Noise: Warren Ellis and the Demise of Western Civilization


Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan


The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil


a feature-length documentary film on celebrated comics writer Warren Ellis

creative consultant

Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide



  1. David Balan says:

    Very nice example from Nabokov.

    I agree that decompression isn’t necessarily bad – but it’s like watching a movie or a TV show that lingers too long on each and every plot point – it just becomes dull. If everything is paced dramatically and slowly, nothing is really dramatic.

    By contrast, if you just smash as much story as you can into the pages, it all reads so blindingly quick that we can’t keep up.

    ‘Compression’ and ‘decompression’ are really just terms for fast and slow pacing. Any good writer should have a mastery of all speeds of pacing, or his writing will suffer. Simple as that.

  2. Thank you David!
    I wish I could emulate Nabakov or even Faulkner. I imagine their style is a bit on the outs with the current generation though.
    Yeah, it very much reminds me of true soap opera directing. When your camera lingers on every single character for 5+ seconds to show their “emotions” it becomes a cheap tactic like Eli Roth and jump cuts.
    But, Nabakov was one of those rare writers that seemed haunted by literary angels that fed him whole stories. Not to say these angels were not some type of misfit as well. Read the first few pages of Lolita and you can see it plain as day there. Or read the first line of his wonderful Pale Fire. The first line alone is elegant and substantial: “I am the shadow of the wax-wing slain” Fuck, that is about as momumentous as Pynchon’s opening for Gravity’s Rainbow: “A screaming comes across the sky.”
    These are powerful openings for sure, but more so they are representations of the books inside. To me, that is where decompression fails in its current use and to badly paraphrase Shakespeare, but it is all sound and fury ultimately signifying nothing.
    I want substance, meat. Something to cut my teeth on and not just this feeble pap they keep feeding us. But, why we keep eating it is a whole other article.

  3. Ben Marton says:

    A timely commentary, Mr. Thurman. And another facet of the ‘Nu52′ that has underwhelmed me. There really only is one solution: mandatory attendance for all DC (and most Marvel) creative staff at a Panel Composition 101 masterclass hosted by Frank Quitely and Paul Grist (or Chris Samnee if we can’t get either of them).

    • Thanks Ben!
      I have to say if such a class did exist I would hope for a ticket! Paul Grist is definitely one of those inexplicably overlooked creators/masters. I remember seeing ads for his work in the back of a few Cerebus comics from my teens. I was always attracted to the mystery around this dark figure, stoic, holding this frightened child. The image alone made you wonder: what was going on there.
      I miss that feeling. I am no longer a visitor, but an audience member used only for money, laughs, and the occasional “ah!”
      Yes, I think this type of class should be mandatory and DiDio chill on the deadlines a little. We won’t kill you if a good comic is late, but we will butcher you on the internet if it sucks.

    • Miguel Rosa says:

      I’m sure I read somewhere that New 52 had the goal of going back to economic storytelling. Given how most first arcs are going to be six issues, and judging from the art I’ve seen, that’s easier said than done. A lot of widescreen panels, little dialogue per page, and an overreliance on captions.

      New 52 is looking very old already.

      • Thanks for the comment Miguel.
        I suppose you could call it economic storytelling in how frugal DC creators have had to become with storytelling. But, I would hardly use that as a compliment.

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