Panther Beat:

The Use of Beat Panels in Priest’s Black Panther

From literally beginning to end, Christopher Priest’s Black Panther made use of so-called ‘beat panels’ for comedic effect. Although Priest had incorporated beat panels into his repertoire prior to Black Panther, and would continue to do so throughout his career, they remain a distinctive presence in his Black Panther stories, especially in how they enhanced scenes involving Everett K. Ross by suggesting the character’s awkwardness and deadpan comic timing.

Pausing is an important skill in comedy, honed by many great stand-up comedians. For example, Jack Benny practised his comedy in Vaudeville, on radio, film, and television. Critic John Crosby said of him, “Jack Benny does more with a shamed silence or artful pause than any comedian in the business.” Perhaps the best-known example of Benny’s ‘artful pause’ was the routine (first performed on radio in 1948) in which a hold-up man accosted Jack and demanded, “Your money or your life.” A silent pause followed as the live audience began to erupt in laughter. The hold-up man repeated his threat to Jack, who answered quickly, “I’m thinking it over!” As Joe Franklin’s Encyclopedia of Comedians recounts, “the audience went into paroxysms of laughter, realizing that for their Jack Benny, it was an impossible choice.”

Said John Crosby:

“Benny has whittled away at the classic formula of the joke until it has assumed an entirely new shape. A simple ‘hmmm’ takes the place of the punch line, which the home audience can fill in for itself. James Barrie once remarked that the most dramatic parts of his plays occurred when nothing at all was happening on the stage; similarly, the funniest parts of the Benny program occur when nobody is saying anything. The silence at these points is so pregnant with meaning that nothing needs to be said.”

In explaining how the technique of a ‘pause’ can be translated into comics, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics asserts, “Our eyes have been well-trained by the photograph and by representational art to see any single continuous image as a single instant in time.”

Kurt Busiek explained how he perceived this technique:

“Panels with no copy in them whatsoever, no captions, no word balloons of any sort, no sound effects, have a peculiar power to them. Panels with words in them convey a clear sense of subjective time passage to the reader—the events of the panel take as long as it takes to read the copy. But a panel with no copy whatsoever is static, and often seems frozen in time. A large silent panel usually has much more impact than it would if it had copy in it. A series of small silent panels detailing a series of actions focuses the reader on those actions, and as a result they seem more deliberate and time-consuming. For example, four silent panels of someone staring out a window will seem to take forever. Those same four panels, with conversation in them, will move much faster.”

John Lamothe has noted how comics use this technique differently than film:

“A film can use similar techniques to tell a story by removing the soundtrack in order to tell a strictly visual narrative. Many war movies contain scenes of bombs exploding or people shouting, but the protagonist (and audience) hears only silence or a dull ringing before the volume suddenly is reinstated, forcing the character abruptly to recognize the surrounding chaos. Unfortunately, in this typical scene, the director dictates the amount of time that the silence lasts. All the audience can do to make the silence linger—to allow themselves to experience the silence as deeply as they would like—is to pause the film, an obvious break in the narrative, or to stick their fingers in their ears. Such is not the case with comics, where readers have complete control to pause and have a deep immersive experience without breaking from the narrative.”

“Although many narrative media can achieve some form of immersion for those partaking in the art, few can allow the audience to feel deep silence in the same way that comics can. Comics certainly have advantages over text-based media when it comes to silent narration, and, even when they are compared to other visual or performative media that can move a story forward without sound, comics have an advantage because they allow the audience to control the temporality in the narrative.”

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud used an example of a beat panel to demonstrate how it can be used to indicate the passage of time. Commenting on his example he wrote, “From a lifetime of conversations, we can be sure that a ‘pause’ panel like this lasts for no more than several seconds.” Ultimately, McCloud concluded “When the content of a silent panel offers no clues as to its duration, it can also produce a sense of timelessness. Because of its unresolved nature, such a panel may linger in the reader’s mind. And its presence may be felt in the panels which follow it.”

John Lamothe concurs:

“A silent panel is an exclamation point (irony intended) for the visual. It can cause readers to stop and take notice of the image, considering its implied meaning within the context of the narrative. Readers tend to spend more time on textless panels, taking in the visual, especially when that panel depicts an internal epiphany within a character. When the panel is not bound by time, this lingering can have an immersive effect on readers.”

In the specific realm of humor in comics, Neil Cohn has described how the technique has been used in comic strips:

“A commonly used pattern places a ‘silent’ or ‘beat’ panel with no text into the narrative sequence. In comic strips, it most often occurs in the next-to-last panel position. This silent penultimate panel is actually part of a larger pattern, coined by artist Neal von Flue (2004) as the ‘set-up-beat-punchline’ pattern (the SBP construction). It begins with panels ‘setting up’ the humorous dialogue or situation, only to then give a ‘beat’ or ‘pause’ with a panel that has no text in it. Finally, the last panel delivers the punchline of the joke…”

Indeed, this pattern became so notable that for some time a blog titled The Silent Penultimate Panel Watch collected examples culled from contemporary newspaper comic strips.

Christopher Priest’s Black Panther overlapped with his and Mark Bright’s Acclaim comics series Quantum & Woody, one of the works that drew Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti to offer Priest Black Panther. Priest & Bright used beat panels frequently and even audaciously in Quantum & Woody, such as a sequence on pages 10-11 of Quantum & Woody #3 (1997): both pages were rendered in 9-panel grids, taking 18 panels to illustrate a sequence of Quantum and Woody returning to their car from a skyscraper. The first four panels on page 10 depict Quantum performing dynamic acrobatic maneuvers to finally arrive in his car. The last five panels on the page show him silently waiting for Woody. At the top of page 11, Woody finally arrives, having used the elevator to reach the ground floor. He clumsily and slowly retrieves his car keys and gets into the car. After eight silent panels, Woody breaks the silence to ask Quantum, “What?”

As McCloud notes in Understanding Comics, while a single beat panel may indicate a brief silence, several beat panels increase the sensation of time passing. Hence, the reader understands Quantum’s wait was a lengthy one. The nine-panel grid used on both pages suggests each panel depicts a similar duration of time passing. Thus, the four panels in which Woody struggles to remove his car keys from his pocket appear to take twice as much time for him as the two panels he spent walking from the front door of the building to the driver’s seat of his car.

Moreover, this two-page sequence works to emphasize their personalities without relying on dialogue: Quantum sees himself as the definitive super-hero who defies death and lives a life of excitement and adventure; Woody does not take himself or his ‘super-hero’ career seriously at all and prefers his mundane life.

These comedy techniques were evident from Priest’s first issue of Black Panther. On page 21 of issue #1 (1998), Mark Texeira depicts Everett K. Ross answering the door and discovering the hideous demon Mephisto waiting for him. The image occupies the entire page and has no dialogue. On page 22, Ross closes the door and remains still, staring outward framed in an identical pose for the subsequent 4 panels (as though making one of Jack Benny’s artful pauses to the audience). Two panels pass with only sound effects (first of the door slamming, second of something breaking inside the apartment, likely due to the inebriated Wakandan warrior Zuri). The third panel has no dialogue or sound effects – this is the beat panel. Finally, in the fourth panel, Ross states: “It’s for you.” A perfect deadpan delivery.

This comedic style continued as other collaborators joined Priest on the series. In issue #7 (1999) Joe Jusko depicted perhaps a quintessential Everett K. Ross moment; on page 13, the Black Panther interrogates gangster Manuel Ramos then sets off in pursuit of his adopted brother Hunter, ordering Zuri to “see to Agent Ross.” As the Panther climbs up the side of a building, Ross is left behind with Zuri and Okoye & Nakia of the Dora Milaje. Ross – his suit singed and smoking from nearly being lit on fire by Ramos – glares after T’Challa (or possibly is addressing the reader), the three Wakandans standing behind him: “—Cripes, you believe that guy?!” A beat panel follows; Zuri, Okoye and Nakia retain the same poses and expressions, but Ross turns his head to look at them, having seemingly forgotten that he, a foreigner, had started to criticize their sovereign king. In the last panel, Ross’s head turns back where he had been looking before (toward the reader) and he raises both hands in a ‘thumbs up’ salute (the Wakandans still holding the same poses and expressions): “Magnificent, isn’t he? Huh! What a man. I tell you – if I was black – and gay – well, there you go.” Whereas the previous example drew comedy from Ross’s stoic reaction to the sight of Mephisto, here the comedy hinges on the stoic reactions of Zuri, Okoye, and Nakia to Ross’s disrespect, causing Ross to quickly alter his speech.

In Black Panther #14 (2000), artists Sal Velluto and Bob Almond drew a sequence on page 1 in which Ross is awakened from his sleep by a loud drumming noise. Ross walks to his balcony and calls out to unseen figures (essentially, Ross is again addressing the reader): “Hey. Heeeeyyy! Enough with the drums already, huh?!” One beat panel follows in which Ross places a hand on his head. The drumming sound effect has ceased (ergo, there is no beat; pun). In the last panel, Ross turns away from the balcony: “’Preciate it. Y’all stay cool.”

Artist Jim Calafiore likewise used this technique in Black Panther #34 (2001). Page 2 is a full-page image of Ross seeing himself in the mirror and discovering he looks visually identical to the demon Mephisto. Page 3 begins with a beat panel of Ross’s reflection in the mirror, his expression unchanged from the previous page. In the second panel, Ross speaks: “I’ll just bet this is not good.”

After Velluto and Almond left the series with Black Panther #49 (2002), Priest largely dropped the beat panel from his scripts as the new series protagonist Kasper Cole replaced T’Challa as the Black Panther. Appropriately, the final issue of the series (#62, 2003) featured many supporting characters – unseen since before issue #50 – returned for a send-off, including Ross (as did artist Jim Calafiore). Page 4 of #62 is laid out in six panels of equal size (two rows of three panels) framed on the door to Ross’s apartment, a composition which recalls that of Texeira in issue #1; in these panels, Ross, clad in his underwear, answers the buzzer at his door. When the door opens in panel 4, Ross finds Kasper standing before him, dressed as the Black Panther. This serves as a beat panel; instead of staring out from the panel (as in prior examples), Ross’s face is concealed from the reader as he takes in the sight of the new Black Panther. In panel 5, Ross stammers: “…Ah…” then in panel 6 slams the door: “Not again…”

Lest it appear that Ross was necessary for the use of the beat panel, there are many other beat panel sequences where Ross is not present, two of them appearing in Black Panther #15 (2000) as drawn by Sal Velluto and Bob Almond. First, on page 4 – as the Hulk is about to throw a car at the Black Panther – Queen Divine Justice attempts to reason with him, arguing in panel 2: “—You can’t just come around here breakin’ folks’ stuff up. That’s somebody’s house you just ran through. Don’t you think it’s hard enough for the downtrodden, disenfranchised minority class to face their daily struggle—without some big ol’ green muv stepper runnin’ through the hood kickin’ up all that drama?” A beat panel follows, using the same art as panel 2; then in panel 4, the Hulk speaks: “…Yes…” Here the comedy arises from QDJ arresting the Hulk’s rampage not because her argument is well-reasoned but because the simple-minded Hulk is clearly confused and doesn’t understand what she’s saying.

Later in issue #15, pages 10 and 11 depict T’Challa in his civilian garb seated before Nikki Adams’s desk, as he clears up some information Ross had shared about T’Challa in an earlier report. The two pages each contain five panels, the panels occupying the entire width of the pages and framed on the same visual of Nikki’s desk. Although T’Challa and Nikki’s postures change in some panels, the two-page sequence of ten panels is mostly bereft of actions. In panels 1-2, Nikki clears up some details about T’Challa fight with Hydro-Man. In the third panel, Nikki checks some papers on her desk. Panels 4-9 have no dialogue but do have a “tap tap tap tap” sound effect coming from Nikki, suggesting she is tapping one of her feet. While Nikki maintains the same pose from panels 4-9, in panels 7-9, T’Challa pours himself a cup of coffee. Finally in panel 10, as T’Challa raises the cup to his lips he asks: “Is that all?” This two-page sequence used beat panels to create a sequence of awkwardness more so than comedy. It had been established by this time in the series that T’Challa and Nikki had briefly been a couple in college and (obviously) they were not at ease in each other’s presence. Hence, the lack of dialogue and Nikki’s repeated foot tapping.

There are many more examples of beat panels from Priest’s work on Black Panther that could be cited, but it’s important to mention that despite the high volume of humor in Priest’s work and the particular use of beat panels to break up dramatic moments (such as the previous example of T’Challa and Nikki) he also had the sense to avoid beat panels when they were not appropriate. The last Velluto & Almond issue, #49, has very little humor despite the presence of characters such as Ross and Queen Divine Justice. When T’Challa refused to acknowledge Hunter as a true son of Wakanda in issue #12, there were no beat panels to disrupt the drama of their confrontation; issue #24 – with the deaths of Nikki and Killmonger, plus the debut of Nakia as Malice – left no room for artist Mark Bright to slow down the action for comedic effect.

Beat panels are only one of the storytelling tools Priest employed in his work on Black Panther. Although they appeared throughout the series, they were not an overindulgent excess, nor his only tool where comedy was concerned – as future essays in this series will discuss.


Cohn, Neil. The Visual Language of Comics. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

Franklin, Joe. Joe Franklin’s Encyclopedia of Comedians. Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1979.

Fuller-Seely, Kathryn. Jack Benny and the Golden Age of American Radio Comedy. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018.

Lamothe, John. “Speaking Silently.” Studies in Popular Culture, Spring 2019, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Spring 2019), pp. 69-94.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.

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Michael Hoskin is a librarian and archivist with strong interests in Africa and comics. As a freelance writer for Marvel Comics (2004-2012), he headed up writing projects such as the All-New Iron Manual, Annihilation Saga, Marvel Monsters: From the Files of Ulysses Bloodstone, and Marvel Westerns: Outlaw Files, and he served as a contributing writer to the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

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