December 7, 2015 Analyzing Comics 101 (Layout)
The downside to teaching a course on comics is discovering that no textbook quite matches the way you want to teach it. The upside is writing the textbook yourself. And so here’s the first draft of an intended series of “Analyzing Comics 101” blogs. My actual course is called “Superhero Comics,” but I’m hoping this will be useful to other students, teachers, fans, etc.
So here goes . . .
Layout: the arrangement of images on a page, usually in discrete panels (frames of any shape, though typically rectangular) with gutters (traditionally white space) between them, though images may also be insets or interpenetrating images. Page layouts influence the way images interact by controlling their number, shapes, sizes, and arrangement on the page, giving more meaning to the images than they would have if viewed individually. Layouts are the most distinctive and defining element of graphic narratives.
Layouts tend to be designed and read in one of two ways, in rows or in columns.
Rows: panels are read horizontally (from left to right for Anglophone comics, but right to left for Manga).
Regular grid (2×2, 2×3, etc.; 3×2, 3×3, etc.; 4×2, 4×3, etc.): rows are divided into the same number of panels, and panels are the same size and shape. 3×3, 3×2, and 4×2 are the most common regular grids.
Irregular grid: rows are divided into the same number of panels, but panels are not the same size and shape.
2-row, 3-row, 4-row, etc.: rows are divided into a different number of panels. One of more rows may feature a full-width panel extending horizontally across the whole page. 3-row layouts are among the most common, followed by 4-row and 2-row.
Regular 2-row, 3-row, 4-row, etc.: rows are the same height.
Irregular 2-row, 3-row, 4-row, etc.: rows are different heights.
Columns: panels are read vertically, from top to bottom. Because of the Anglophone tendency to read horizontally before vertically, columns are less common in Anglophone comics.
Although columns can be divided into grids, row and column patterns are indistinguishable without content to determine reading direction. A 4×2 layout, for example, may be read as four rows divided into two panels each, or it may be read as two columns divided into four panels each. However, because Z-path reading (first right then down) is the norm for Anglophone comics, 4×2 is typically read as a 4-row layout not a 2-column.
Because Anglophone comics are read horizontally before vertically, column grids are limited almost exclusively to full-height panels extending vertically down the whole page to prevent reading path confusion.
Regular column grid: columns are undivided and so are the same size shape as full-height panels.
Regular 1×4 grid:
Regular 1×3 grid:
Irregular column grid: columns are undivided, but they are different sizes and shapes.
Irregular 1×2 grid:
Irregular 1×3 grid:
2-column, 3-column, 4-column, etc.: columns are divided into a different number of panels. To break horizontal reading, a full-height panel often establishes column layout, with a second column divided into multiple panels. 2-columns are the most common column layout.
Regular 2-column, 3-column, 4-column, etc.: columns are the same width.
Irregular 2-column, 3-column, 4-column, etc.: columns are different widths.
Rows and columns can also be merged by including only full-width panels within a single column.
Combinations: panels must be read both horizontally and vertically, combining rows and columns on a single page.
Combination layouts typically feature one or more paired sub-columns: two side-by-side columns shorter than that page height, usually with the first undivided to establish vertical reading.
A single sub-column, however, does not trigger vertical reading when followed by panels that can be read as rows:
And ambiguous combinations provide more than one reading path:
Horizontal columns: If a row of three or more panels occupies half or more of the page, the panels are effectively columns, though they do not break the horizontal reading path.
Diagonal layouts: panels do not follow vertical or horizontal divisions, and so are neither clearly rows nor columns:
Diagnals may also intersect:
Caption panel: a panel that contains only words. These tend to be smaller, subdivided panels.
Inset: a panel surrounded entirely by another image.
Overlapping panels: a framed panel edge appears to intrude into or to be placed over top another framed panel, with no gutter dividing them.
Broken Frames: image elements of one panel extend beyond its frame into the gutter and/or into the frame of an adjacent panel.
Insets, overlapping panels, and broken frames are often combined:
Interpenetrating images: two or more unframed images with no distinct gutters or borders so that elements of separate images appear to overlap.
Page panel: A page-sized panel, typically visible in the gutters between smaller panels. When white, black, or otherwise uniform, the page panel appears as the page itself and so as a neutral space outside of the actions and events of the drawn images. All other panels are insets superimposed over the page panel. If the page panel includes drawn images, those images should be understood as the underlying and so in some way dominating background element to all other images on the page. If one panel is unframed, its content may be understood as part of the larger page panel.
A page panel with no insets and a single unified image is a full-page panel:
A full-page panel with author credits is a splash page.
Two-page panel: two facing pages designed to be read as a unit. A two-page spread are two facing pages not designed as a unit.
Panel accentuation: a panel may be formally differentiated and therefore given greater importance by its size, frame (including shape, thickness, and color, and by being unframed) or position on the page (first, center, and last panels tend to dominate).
Panels accentuated by border shapes:
Base Layout Pattern: a panel arrangement repeated on multiple pages.
Strict: repetitions from page to page contain no variations in a base pattern.
For the Superman episode of Action Comics #10, Joe Shuster uses a strict 4×2 regular grid, as does Fletcher Hanks for “Stardust the Super Wizard” in Fantastic Comics #12:
Flexible: some variations, especially through combined panels and divided panels. Often the base pattern is only implied.
Watchmen is the best known example of a flexible 3×3 regular base:
Comics more often use a flexible 3-row regular base. Steve Ditko fluctuates between rows of three and two panels in Amazing Spider-Man:
Open: no base pattern.
The Avengers #174 fluctuates between 3-row and 4-row layouts.
If more than one arrangement repeats, each pattern may be distinguished descriptively (3×3, 2-column, etc.) or by chronological appearance (layout A, B, C, etc.). Pages that repeat earlier layouts may be said to rhyme. A comic book’s page scheme may be analyzed for layout repetitions, creating a page scheme. But let’s save that topic for later . . .