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COMICS PAGE COMPOSITION

The foundation of an effective comics page is a solid, carefully-thought-out composition.

It starts with deciding where to place the panels borders. The size of panels and how they're arranged determine a great deal about the finished page. The number of panels, for instance, determines whether the page will be simple or complex; contrasting small panels with one large panel suggests to the reader to focus more attention on the larger panel.

As Eisner demonstrates in Comics and Sequential Art, and as McCloud points out in Understanding Comics, panel shape can suggest the passage of time; narrow panels being a short interval, and wide panels being a longer interval.

The width of adjacent panels can contrast with each other-- a narrow panel followed by a wide one suggests compression and release.

Panels can be grouped by shape within the page. A series of narrow, tall panels, for instance, will tend to form a group; the same effect may be accomplished by giving the panel borders different attributes-- thicker, irregular, decorative, etc. In general, panels that occupy the same row are automatically grouped to a degree.

Our eyes tend to follow along the length of a line, suggesting motion. A panel border is, therefore, a kind of motion line. Grid panels with every panel the same size tend to have the most neutralized sense of motion, focusing more attention on the motion within the drawing (Jack Kirby tended to use simple four-panel grids in THE FANTASTIC FOUR).

When the vertical panel borders drop at varied locations along the page's rows, the composition itself tends to seem more dynamic. A narrow panel on the first row, with a wider panel below it, will seem dynamic because the second border 'steps in' towards the center.

Varied sizes of panels suggest a living, breathing narrative. The uniform size of panel in grid compositions are less humanized and natural. The nine-panel grid used throughout THE WATCHMEN, for example, subtly adds to the atmosphere of dread.

The above discussion assumes traditional panel borders that are straight and parallel to the borders of the page. If you take this conventional composition with lines at right angles to each other, and shift the whole thing to a slight diagonal, it takes on a much more kinetic feel. If you shift it further so that the panel borders are at acute angles to each other, it will crackle with kinetic tension. If the borders are curved, a more gentle kinetic effect is created. The drawback of these kinds of panel compositions, though, is that they tend to overwhelm a page, distracting the reader from the drawings themselves.

Another option is to eliminate panel borders; this is discussed briefly in Understanding Comics.

The panel borders of course are little more than the containers of all the other visual elements. A proper study of page composition must focus on these, working from the largest and most obvious to the smallest.

The major lines, diagonals, and curves in each panel work as a group to create the overall page composition. These lines must not only be properly composed within the panel, but must have the proper harmony and dynamic in relationship to adjacent panels. For example, if one panel has a strong diagonal, the adjacent panel may need another diagonal going in a different direction, to balance it.

Normally in comics, the major lines of the page composition don't extend past the panel borders. The exceptions are multi-panel effects, like having a large oval that continues across three panels at the top of the page. Major lines within two or more panels that have a coinidence of edge between them will tend to call attention to themselves. A famous Neil Adams page from the DEADMAN series is carefully composed so that the individual panels portray their specific actions, but when the page is viewed as a whole, a large face of the hero 'emerges'.

Among the shapes within panels, the text containers (caption boxes and word balloons) and sound effects deserve special attention, because they usually reside above and apart from the illustration. Like other elements, they contribute to the kinetic effect of a page.

The stems of word balloons are visual arrows that impell the eye along their path. The reading of word balloons and captions also impose a flow to the eye's progress across the page. Series of text containers are often arranged in arcs that curve towards the outer borders of the page and then back inwards.

The positioning of the text containers can direct the eye towards details to improve the story's flow. For example, in a large panel showing a dungeon, with the caption 'The dungeon was dark, musty... and filled with vermin...' the phrase '...and filled with vermin...' could be positioned next to a small detail of a rat, so the reader will more readily notice the animal.

The shapes on the page need to be arranged so there is an overall dynamic balance between concentrations of detail and 'breathing space.' Comics pages must contain a higher concentration of detail than conventional pictures because of their narrative function; it's imperative to keep this detail under careful control.

It's also important to vary the size of panels' subjects, to maintain the illusion of a three-dimensional world through which the reader is traveling. The comics narrative must constantly be suggesting change, and differing sizes carries forward this theme.

It's generally considered important for the comics page (especially in black and white comics) to have a number of areas of solid or near-solid black, to give the art weight and make it feel substantial. These concentrations of black must also be carefully balanced over the page.

Finally, we should consider the story characters as elements of page composition. They have a privileged place in the viewer's mind because of their repeated appearance and the meaning the story invests in them. So their position in panel compositions literally change the way the panels are viewed.

For example, if the scene is a crowded restaurant, and the protagonists are sitting in the foreground, what's behind them is merely backdrop that the viewer's eye will not much explore. On the other hand, if the protagonists are sitting in the background, the composition takes on the depth needed to focus on them.

By the same token, the position of the protagonists (especially when it is a single protagonist) on the page has special significance. It must be compositionally balanced above and beyond the balancing of other visual elements. Which way they're facing, the direction they're moving in, and especially the direction of their gaze, imparts a palpable force on the momentum of the composition.

An effective page composition tells its own kind of story. In fact, it's beneficial for comics scripts to include a few 'empty' scenes, where nothing of consequence occurs, to allow the compositional story to come into the foreground. In its subtlety and its playing upon subconscious recognition factors, the composition by itself can speak with a surprisingly authoritative voice.

Regarding three-dimensionality in comics page composition:

Comics artists can profit from a study of cubism, since the comics pages have a similar spatial effect-- alternately two-dimensional and three-dimensional, seeming to represent different places and perspectives and moments in time, all within a single composition.

Each panel on a page has its own representation of space. But these adjacent spaces affect each other, and must be designed to work in harmony.

In general, a panel's spatial effect can be:

* Flat.

* Projecting outward from the page towards the viewer.

* Representing a foreground that appears to be a few feet beyond the surface of the page.

* Representing a background that pushes back into a depth from the surface of the page.

* Representing lateral space, showing how far apart two subjects are from each other.

A large, complex panel can include two or more of these spatial effects at once.

If a series of panels use the same spatial effect over and over, it becomes repetitious and boring. Shifting from one spatial effect to another keeps the composition lively and kinetic.

Spatial contrast can have a dramatic effect. A closeup that seems to project outward from the page, followed by a background projecting into depth, can create a 'slingshot' effect with a great deal of kinetic energy.

The structural devices of comics, panel borders, word balloons, caption boxes, and sound effects, have spatial representations that must be taken into account.

Panel borders ordinarily set on the visual surface of the page. However, a composition can have a panel layout in which one panel overlaps another, creating an interesting effect, as if the panels are screens floating above the surface of the page.

The panel border tends to shift the image within it backwards into the page. When the border is eliminated, the image has more of a tendency to project forward above the page. (McCloud has an interesting observation in Understanding Comics about the effect of eliminating panel borders on the sense of time.) An image on the page can also be drawn to overlap the panel border, pushing the image above the surface of the page.

Captions tend to stay on or above the surface of the page; the caption box or border is often eliminated, so that the text resides against a plain white or black background.

Word balloon borders are less frequently eliminated. The word balloon has much more of a tendency to occupy space within the depth of a page-- an image in the composition may overlap the word balloon, and one word balloon often overlaps another.

Sound effects are the most three-dimensional of the structural devices; they're normally drawn as if they occupied space. One favorite device is to overlap the letters of the sound effect, so that the effect looks like a set of cut-out letters that have been flung into the air.

The structural devices can be used to alter the spatial effects within a panel. When an image overlaps a word balloon, it is pushed towards the surface; images that the word balloon overlaps are simultaneously pushed back into the depths of the page. Word balloons and captions can divide a panel into two or more compositions, acting as quasi-panel borders. Of course a flashback can be set within a thought balloon, literally being a picture within a picture.

With their ever-shifting spatial effects, comics pages are excellent metaphores for the Einsteinian, electronic, multicultural perspective of the modern global village. How's that for a big idea, folks?

For more ideas on comics page compositions, see the many fascinating examples from his own work that Eisner discusses in Comics and Sequential Art!