Monday, May 21, 2012

Erenan asks about panels

On an e-mail, friend of the blog Erenan inquires:
I am not an artist by any stretch of the imagination, but I am nonetheless interested in learning about comic design. Specifically, I'm curious about how you feel you developed your ability, not so much in terms of the actual artwork, but rather in terms of layout, flow, what should be happening in the story when a page turn happens, how each panel should be framed, how large each panel should be, etc. Was this an academically learned skill or did it develop primarily through raw experience? If the former, then could you possibly recommend some sources to which I could turn for information about this kind of thing? If the latter, then am I out of luck except for the option of hunkering down and actually trying to put together a comic or two?

Below is my response.

Sadly it *is* mostly experience in developing an inner visual language. There are texts you could read and I do especially suggest "Understanding Comics" and "Making Comics" by Scott McCloud. But in that whole latter book he never once talks about bracketing and what panels mean. At least as far as I remember.

There's a lot of different approaches to what you're asking. I'll outline below some of my basic thoughts on the matter:

1. 90 degree panels = rational gaze / uneven panels = emotional gaze
1b. 90 degree cuts = smooth exposition / radical cuts = action!
1c. Super straight panel outlines = super rational / hand-drawn 'shakey' panel outlines = more subjective

2. Fat panel outline = important or focused / thin panel outline = the reader will read faster through, best as part of a sequence. I made a mistake with ZX by having too fat 'default' panel outlines, mucking up the pace a bit.
2b. Especially wobbly panel outline = can be an outburst or something else of questionable epistemology / NO panel outline = dream sequence, or limbospace, or a pervading moment in time in an otherwise sequenced event

3. long panel = takes more time to read, landscape perhaps, setting a scene / thin panel = makes the reader look at both IT and what came before it and what comes after it on the strip with 'one gaze' more. This is a useful tool.

4. background value to the page (behind the panels) being white = all as normal / background value being black = change of mood, possibly flashback or dream sequence. I play a lot with grains and gradients as emotional information to the reader.

5. How many panels per page tell the reader if the pace of the comic is to be fast or slow sometimes. Curiously, more panels per page make the pace slower, not faster. Comics are not music. There are two paces, to make it clearer. The inner pace of the story, and the outer, of the person reading the comic. More panels fragment the inner pace more, it's like slow motion. And they also make the reader spend more time on each page. The comic becomes laborious. Interestingly, there isn't a faster panel to make than single-panel-per-page. The act of turning the page excites the reader and makes them complicit. The more you can make them do it, the faster they'll read.  But that's also how they sometimes don't pay enough attention or miss details. And you can make the reader pay for that. It's great!

5b. HOWEVER, if the page is full of panels but they're mostly empty or sparsely drawn, then the reader will pick up their pace, even if the pace of the comic will still be perieced as very slow. This starts to feel like an artsy film with long, laborious shots of walls, an empty street, the sky. Vice versa, single-panel-per-page comics where each panel is super-laboured on the rendering becomes a storybook. Imagine a few Gustave Dore paintings in a row. The reader will read that sequence very slow. But the inner pace could be three seconds. Good for injecting gravity in a sequence. Remember the car crash in ZX.

6. Furthermore the choices of how a page is constructed are not clearly about only pace. There's also aesthetic considerations of how the page looks 'on the whole', or to say, if you move a few feet away from the screen and look at it from afar, as if it's some sort of cubist painting. The balance of blacks and whites, so on. Some peculiar intuitive rules on construction, somewhat akin to compositional guidelines for painting seem to apply. This means there shouldn't be too many primary focal points on the page and they should be arranged in some harmony. Unless the artist is pushing it on purpose, which I enjoy.
6b. A different solution to this problem is setting up a utilitarian grid for the page that is always the same. Then the reader will stop looking at the page 'on the whole' and focus just on each panel. This makes the comic more cinematic, for good or worse. Check out Watchmen for very serious grid work, and some cheeky subversion of this rule too (forcing the reader to look at the page on the whole, or hiding meanings if they do at least).
There's a million other things, but we should talk with examples. Show me some pages you're interested (from any comic, not just mine) in if you want to discuss how they're constructed. 


Erenan said...

Thanks for the info! I believe I am going to check out those books you mentioned, and I've been meaning to read Watchmen for a long time anyway, so I might as well get on that one as well.

All of my comics (all four or five) are in boxes right now after a move, so once I'm able to find them and dig them out, I might scan some pages that I find interesting. You already provided at least a little analysis about the comics of your own that were the most interesting to me, so I guess I have some spelunking to do.

Erenan said...

So... I found my comics, and aside from a single graphic novel from Stephen King's Gunslinger universe, it's just Robert A. Kraus's Chakan books that my brother gave me a few years ago as a gift. I hadn't really read these very carefully at the time, and looking at them again, they strike me as fairly ugly comics and very, very busy visually. I might scan a few pages just to get your take on them, but in the meantime...

I'm wondering about two short strips, which mostly serve just to provide an example of a couple things that I've been wondering about. : The diagonal panel break between panels two and three. So many of the comics from PBF have nothing but straight vertical panel edges, so I'm trying to figure out exactly why the artist might have chosen to use angled ones here. Similarly, here: which I imagine is paneled as it is to emphasize the intensity of the action going on. But why in the crayon example? : What sort of purpose might it serve to do the old white figure on black ground thing for a single panel? In this instance, it seems a little random to me, like Randall felt like doing something comic-ish that
he had seen someone else do somewhere.

Helm said...

re: perry bible

I cannot understand that sidecut on the first pbf strip at all. As you say, perhaps on the second one it's about vibrant action, but I'm not sure on the first one. Only thing that comes to mind is some sort of emotional 'slide' or slipping away. If you ask me that first strip isn't working very well.

I think xkcd was just thinking 'how can I add some visual interest in this strip with stick-men?'. I don't think there's any comics theory behind that negative image.

Your instincts seem to me to be very good. Absolutely scan these pages so we can talk about them. There isn't much use for A/B right now, we might as well talk comics theory.

Erenan said...

Here are some pages from Chakan the Forever Man. This is Chakan telling another character his story at the center of the book, and in my opinion it's a lot better looking and much more interesting than the non-flashback parts of the book. Specifically, I'm most interested in the last four pages here, but I included all twelve just for completeness sake.

I guess the main thing that I can put into words about how I feel about this sequence is in page 9 where Chakan has his hands up in a victory pose. I feel like the relative smallness of the first two panels here doesn't work very well because most readers' eyes would probably jump ahead to the third panel (mine certainly did) and then have to backtrack. What's your opinion, and how do you suppose this page might have been structured better?

Is there anything else here that is of interest that you can see?

Helm said...

The thing I immediately like about these Chakan pages is the ornamental design. There's small sequences of a baby's face growing unto death, passage of day/night with the sun and the moon, stuff like that. A good way, as far as visual storytelling goes, to connote the passage of time during the battle.

You are correct, on page 9 I immediately saw the death of the hero before I saw his victory pose. But perhaps that sort of 'spoiler' in the linearity of the strip is a good thing, as, well, of course death would win. Death always wins. We knew it before it happened. If the artist did this on purpose, that's a pretty skillful display of irony, wouldn't you say? His victory pose is small because his victory turned out to be small.

That might be overthinking it, but I do not think that is a big problem on that page. I am really impressed by how he structures his pages, like right after where his dead body lies in he foreground while he goes through his unlife's many vocations in the background. The only constant is his eternal damnation. Good stuff.

This artist's biggest problem is body language and drawing believable and emotive human faces. Did he get better with time? It's telling that the artist knew his limitations for making his hero have a death-grimace-like face.

Erenan said...

That's an interesting point you make about the victory pose. Putting into a comic this kind of meaningful link between the narrative and the page layout is exactly the sort of thing I'm interested in. I hadn't really thought about it this way, but now that you mention it, it makes sense.

The ornamentation around the edges of these pages is one of the reasons I found them interesting. It also appears to help differentiate between the flashback and the rest of the story, as only these pages are so ornamented.

Yes, what you say about the artist knowing his limitations may be true. As far as I can tell, his heroes are often masked, and the villains are often monstrous demons.

I picked up the McCloud books you recommended, and so far I'm finding them very interesting.

Thank you very much for the insight. I really appreciate your willingness to take some time to talk about this stuff.

Helm said...

No problem. I appreciate the dialogue! Never hesitate to follow up.