What is a Panel?
Just so we’re on the same page, we first need to define what a panel is in comics. According to Merriam-Webster, a comic panel is: a frame of a comic strip.
a frame of a comic strip…
Well, that doesn’t help much. Why is it limited to a comic strip?!? Needless to say, we need a better definition for what a comic panel is. Luckily, I stumbled upon quite an adequate one on Wikipedia of all places:
A panel is an individual frame, or single drawing, in the multiple-panel sequence of a comic strip or comic book. A panel consists of a single drawing depicting a frozen moment.
This is a lot better than the Merriam-Webster one for sure! Doesn’t limit a panel to a frame, or a comic strip!
Not really sure about the “depicting a frozen moment” part though. Below is a panel from issue #1 of Glow. Here, Caszy and Koken tag-team to capture a contraption that is on the fritz. As you can see, we follow the actions of Caszy by “ghosting” her movements across frame. Since you see multiple moments using this technique, wouldn’t this image NOT be considered a panel according to our definition?
A panel is an individual frame, or single drawing, in the multiple-panel sequence of a comic strip or comic book.
Perfect! Simple, and to the point.
Panels are the smallest “beat” of a comic. If you think of a story that is made up of three acts, these can be broken down into scenes, which can be further broken down into panels (in the case of comics). This is where the play-by-play happens. One panel can be an action/cause, swiftly followed by the next panel, being the reaction/effect. By stringing together a selection of well-placed panels, you can create an action-packed fight sequence, or quietly reveal deep secrets between two characters in a conversation.
For the cinematically inclined, one can compare panels to individual shots in a scene. Hitchcock said it best in an interview, where simply juxtaposing similar shots in different ways, the director can create different scenarios in the viewer’s mind.
Now that we know what a panel is and its value in the medium, let’s jump into the history of panels, their cultural variances, and some tips on developing an awesome story through them.
History of Panels (Yay…)
Believe it or not, panels are older than comic books. Since the dawn of painting and art, artists have had to tackle the big problem of how to visually represent time? The solution? Create panels. Separate the images so people can follow them visually and generate the story in their minds.
Some of the earliest examples can be found in Egyptian Hieroglyphs, as well as Greek and Roman sculptures and friezes. One of my favorites is Trajan’s Column. It depicts the victory of Rome over the Dacian people.
These early forms of paneling were crucial in visual story development. It gave guidelines to the viewer on how to digest the story. These advancements can still be felt today. As the Ancient Greeks and Romans wrote left to right, their visual stories were also designed to be read in the same direction. Today, western comics still adhere to this tradition, with readers reading from the top left, to the bottom right. In Asia, the movement was in reverse, hence manga and other Eastern comic literature must be read from top right to bottom left.
By the 19th and 20th centuries, new printing and art techniques pushed comics towards what we are more familiar with. Comic strips (stories contained within four panels or less) became a staple in newspapers. Terms like “panels” that make up “sequential art” were coined by Will Eisner and other creative giants of the era. Entire comic books were being created, and a new industry was born.
In this period, cinema also found its foothold in the world. Being both visual mediums, filmmaking and comics went hand in hand. Storyboarding became a helpful tool for filmmakers to visualize movies. Comic artists and creators often utilized film footage to help their drawings and panel work. Walt Disney married the two mediums though animation. Indeed, a story of panels is as much one of cinema as it is for comics.
Over time, artists learned to create new meaning, moods, and ideas through the panel. Not only were panels used as a technical tool keep the story moving, it became an artistic tool to emotionally charge the story.
Panel Size (Super-Size Me!)
Unlike cinema, comics aren’t limited by the size of the screen. While most movies now adhere to some form of frame size (16:9, 2.35:1), comics have the distinct difference of creating panels of varying sizes. You can have a Splash Page (full page panel), or perhaps a selection of consecutive box panels (like a comic strip). The options are limited only by the page.
There is no right or wrong when picking a panel size. Art is subjective, and artists often have to deal with varying requirements or constraints. Nevertheless, there is a basic language when it comes to panel sizes.
With Size, the main value comes in pacing the story. This deals with how much art the reader’s eye has to digest before moving on to the next image. A Splash Page, for example would technically take up the same viewing time as a selection of smaller panels in the same space. The splash would therefore be a longer “time beat” as you focus your time on only one image. Splashes are great for establishing shots, or wrapping up a scene. They give the reader a moment to set the scene, or digest what they’ve just read.
One technique that plays on panel sizes is the fade to black or white. As in the example below from Wicked + Divine, you can visually represent a cinematic fade by shortening the panel boxes until it’s nothing but white or black. It’s a nice touch to slow a reader’s pace to a halt and prime them to start a new scene.
Defining panel shapes is another great way to imbue your story with tension and feeling. Though box panels tend to be a pervading force in comics and its history (think Tintin), artists have continually tried to push these boundaries for different effects.
The slanted, or canted, panel style is a great example of design for emotion. As humans, we like things to be straight, whether horizontally or vertically. When something is a bit off, it sets off alarms. Our brain kicks into gear - “Wait, are we off balance? Something’s not right…”
A staple in horror movies, we can translate this into comics not only by the image, but also by the shape of the panel.
As we saw in the Sandman example, crooked lines can create tension. But, using the same technique, another artist can create a sense of childish naivete to match their style.
Panel shapes and size are simply variables with limitless combinations and designs. By understanding the basics, artists can think outside the box (see what I did there? :D) and come up with new ways to inspire the reader to think and understand.
That’s All Folks… For Now.
There is so much more that can be discovered about panels and what you can put inside them (or even between them!). But, that’s for another time. People have spent their entire lives on the subject and there are many books out there that can give you a more detailed insight on the subject matter.
The Five C’s of Cinematography by Joseph V. Mascelli is a great book for the technically and theoretically inclined. Yes, it’s a filmmaker's book, but since a ton of comics are making their way to the silver screen, it’s probably the more suitable choice. Also, check out the Visual Language Lab. This guy puts the science into art and it's all really cool!
Till next time,
Vince out ;)