The anatomy of a comic book

11 Sep

I’ve been thinking about comic books a lot lately. This is partially because I love the hell out of good comics (and we are living in a time of appallingly shit comics and astonishingly good comics, more or less in equal measure).

But it’s mostly because I’ve got a big comic series on my brain that I’ve been tooling with for a month or so now, in a lazy way (thinking it through, while working on other projects).

Now, I don’t write comics. I dunno why. There’s just something in my brain, a big BLOCK, that does not let me flow storytelling neatly into the comic form. I suspect it’s a matter of self-confidence, because there have been a couple of occasions when I’ve done very quick comic scripts to show other people how it’s done, and both times,  it flowed easily.

So while I’m working on it, I’m reading comics, and I’m studying them and thinking about them. It’s worth doing. It’s worth doing with novels, too. don’t take the sentence for granted. Ernest Hemingway used tiny sentences, but each one had the gravity well of Jupiter. I’ve read plenty of shit novels where the sentences are windy, wobbly things that are just scribbled out as if someone is writing a very silly e-mail. You don’t have to be Hemingway, you can write windy sentences if you want. Just do it on purpose.

I think increasingly, that’s the sentence that defines not only my life, but how I react to other people and art. DO IT ON PURPOSE. (possibly LOVE WHAT YOU DO is a camera-finish second).

Anyway. comic page layouts. Panels.

You can put as many panels on a page as you want, of course. It’s just for effect. Frank Miller did this great page in, if I remember right, The Dark Knight Returns, where he had a huge page of tiny panels, showing Batman fighting a room full of bad guys in shadow while a single droplet of water fell in the foreground. It was brilliant.

Neil Gaiman’s use of panels varies, in the Sandman, as much as the storytelling varies. It SHOULD vary. Some pages, the panels fell out, or spiraled away, or were made of a bunch of shapes — circles and ovals and no-border boxes and things — depending on the storytelling need. Alan Moore did that a lot too. That’s fine and dandy, if you’re Gaiman or Moore. I’ve read too many comics where someone tries it and it’s just unreadable. It becomes so hard to decode, you just can’t follow the story.

Hell, that was most of the 1990’s superhero comic scene…

Joe Hill’s brilliant Locke & Key very rarely does more than six panels per page, and sometimes goes for less. That’s good, by me, that gives you clear, big pieces of art, plenty of room for the dialog without crowding the art.

I’m reading Warren Ellis’ FreakAngels right now. I don’t think I’ve come across a page that has more than four panels. Four big quarter-of-the-page panels. Or less. That’s VERY clear, very sharp. It means that the panel becomes invisible as the word balloons, and you’re left with nothing but the action in the art, and the audio in the dialog. I’m really impressed.

And these are CLEAR panels I’m talking about. I remember a double-page spread of an X-Men Comic (from the 90’s. God you sucked, the 90’s, when it came to super-hero comics. Then again, the 2000’s sucked for super-comics too, on the whole). It only had four panels, scattered around a huge double-page piece of artwork. And across the page must have been five hundred words in a dozen dialog balloons. It was incoherent.

I don’t remember what the ‘rule’ is about dialog. I think it’s that you should never have more than about 25 words per panel. I need to look it up, for my own edification.l It was an amount of words-per-page. And you broke that down per panel. So if you were allowed 100 words per page, and you had four panels, you were allowed 25 words per panel. Or two silent panels and 50 words in the other two. Or whatever.

It’s not a solid rule, just a wise rule-of-thumb to follow. the point is to stay coherent. Will Eisner — master of comics — pointed out that to most people, comics are unreadable. I’d say that BAD comics are unreadable. good comics are clear comics, and are readable to anyone if they take the time. (Will Eisner was the master of readable, simple comics.)

I’ve done three or four pages of the first issue of the comic I’m tooling around with…and I keep fiddling and fiddling for clarity. Took a page of script I had that called for six panels and reduced it to four big ones.

What I’m sort of planning is to pick a number, an unwritten-rule number (four? six? Those are the two I’m bouncing with) and then stick to that, call that the DEFAULT for the series. So ideally, you might get an issue where each page has only six panels on it. Hell, maybe all the same shape. It’s not a bad idea. It then makes it SO much more effective when, suddenly, you turn the page and you’ve been released from these six panels into this huge double-page single-panel spread.

Yakkity yakk.

Anyway, that’s what i’m thinking of at the moment.

And having shared it with you, I’m going to go do the dishes.

Love & ice cold water

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Posted by on September 11, 2010 in Uncategorized


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