Even if you are a casual comic reader, it is not very hard to notice that there are two types of layouts that a comic page can have. One is the regularly spaced Grid layout with equal size rows and columns evenly laid out and the more complicated free form layout where the panel shapes and location vary rapidly.
So why are these used? Till recently most of the “Craft” of comic book writing that I had learnt had come from reading movie screenplays and/or visualizing the scene being played out in my mind as a movie scene. That my friend was (as I learned the hard way) a big mistake! Comic books while they share certain visual motifs with movies are an entirely different and independent beast.
Let us examine the primary reason why. In a movie, you can actually control shot length (fancy name for amount of time a viewer sees a certain visual). In comics the entire page is there right before the eyes of the reader and you have absolutely no control how long a reader spends on a particular panel.
Well the previous statement is not entirely true. Layouts and visual storytelling scripts of the artist can “lead” the eye making it follow a particular pattern/path across the page. But that’s it. So how do we deal with passage of time in a comic book page or rather while visualizing / scripting a comic book page.
The answer lies in the layout. The human mind is a powerful thing. Imagine a comic book page. The panels are static snapshots of the action and our minds fill up what Scott McCloud calls in his books the “gutter action” (Gutter being the gap between two panels).
A grid by definition is a regularly spaced layout and most readers take this subconsciously as an indication that passage of time is uniformly regular across the panels as opposed to a freeform page where a smaller panel might register as a shorter length visual than a larger one (There are exceptions to this as well). This is a really handy tool in the scripter’s toolkit.
Grids when used properly convey a very regular flow of time. So it is possible to use them as (The list is by no means exhaustive only indicative) is by no means exhaustive only indicative:
- decompressed storytelling (lingering on a particular shot) where only a minor visual detail changes from panel to panel
- set up a checkerboard pattern by alternating between two shots (of say two people talking or one guy talking and some other stuff happening elsewhere)
A grid sets up the reader into a lull from which you have a platform to blow their socks off by for example setting up a magnificent splash or a two page spread.
Coming back to our discussion on shot length, this usually is pretty handy. Remember all those movies where mind blowing action is preceded by a sequence of slow deliberate shots? The contrast is what makes the action more explosive so to say.
Imagine a splash of a bomb going off. A good artist puts in a lot of energy and dynamism into the scene. But in itself the impact is not as potent as it should be.
Let’s say the preceding page set up a checkerboard pattern of a guy entering his house vs. a close up of the timer on the bomb. Let us say we’re using a nine panel grid.
- Panel 1: a shot of the timer showing 0.15
- Panel 2: a shot of a man fiddling with the doorknob on the door to his apartment.
- Panel 3: a shot of the timer showing 0:12
- Panel 4: the man loosening his tie
- Panel 5: a shot of the timer showing 0:05
- Panel 6 : a shot of the man from profile as he hears something perhaps the ticking of the timer?
- Panel 7: a shot of the timer showing 0:02
- Panel 8: an extreme close up of the man’s face as he has noticed the bomb.
- Panel 9: a shot of the timer showing 0:00
Next page we have the magnificent explosion splash.
The second sequence is definitely much more powerful than just the explosion splash.
So remember grids are a handy tool, when used they provide a context / regular rhythm to your unfolding action that serves to underline the dynamism / energy of a sudden “sharp” action sequence that much more eye catching.
But the caveat here is that when used too much, grids lull the reader to a degree that they simply don’t care anymore 🙂
So as with all things, use wisely.
Page from Dark Knight Returns
Page from Leage of Extraordinary Gentlemen : CENTURY 1910
Interesting to note in the LXG page that the middle row is a single panel that uses up all three slots of the grid.
You may also check Warren Ellis’s FELL, which is told almost entirely in 9 panel grid format.
Page from FELL
See ya when I see ya…