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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

I’m on sabbatical this year, completing the textbook Creating Comics with Leigh Ann Beavers based on the spring term course we developed and taught together. Here’s the draft of a section on how to make images stand-out on a page.

Ivan Brunetti calls a grid “democratic” because panels “are all exactly the same size … from which we can infer their equal weight and value in the ‘grand scheme’ of the page” (2011: 45). But Joseph Witek warns that “highly regular grids tend inevitably toward both visual monotony and flatness in narrative action” (2009: 153). Abel and Madden recommend a middle position, working with “a basic grid of equal-sized panels” but also varying from it “by introducing a tilted panel, to name one variation, the effect is much more powerful because the tilted panel jumps out at the reader to emphasize a mood, plot point, or dynamic motion” (2008: 71).

Comics creators have a range of techniques for accenting images. Here are nine. The key is scarcity. A page can include one and sometimes two accented images before the layout becomes so irregular that nothing stands out because there is no underlying norm. While accents prevent visual monotony, they also give greater attention to the story content of the accented image:

  1. Size is the most obvious means for establishing a panel’s importance over other panels on the same page. The larger the panel, the greater the implied significance of its content.
  2. If frames are rectangular and aligned with page edges, frame tilt is a visual accent mark, drawing attention to an otherwise identical panel. In film, tilting a frame means tilting only the content of the frame while the frame itself must remain unchanged. In comics, an artist instead has three tilt options: tilt the frame and the content; tilt the frame but not the content; or tilt the content but not the frame. All three work as accents.
  3. Because perpendicular rectangles are the overwhelming norm, individual images may be accented by any variation in shape.
  4. As discussed above, if gutters are otherwise parallel, individual panels may be highlighted by differences in spacing.
  5. A reverse technique to spacing, images can draw attention by appearing to be placed overtop other images, creating the effect of playing cards arranged with their corners or edges overlapping.
  6. Insets, which appear as if placed entirely within the borders of a larger image, are a variation of overlapping.
  7. Even if images are similarly sized, shaped and arranged, the drawn quality of frames can highlight content.
  8. Frames can also accent image content if elements of the content are drawn as if breaking the frames and entering the negative space of the gutter and possibly the space of other images—and so another form of overlapping. Broken frames are often used to depict movement and violence, as if the frame is unable to contain the image subject due to the subject’s speed and power.
  9. If images contrast other images through differences in style, they may stand out in the page composition too.

Here are four pages by our students, each with a different layout, different accent techniques, and accents on different action sequence parts:

1. Hung begins with three rows of slightly irregular heights. Although the first two are divided into two panels each, the bottom full-width panel is less accented by size because the middle panels are taller. The primary accent is instead the overlapping panel positioned in the center of the top four panels. It is also tilted, and its black background with white letters stylistically contrasts the rest of the page.

The page details Hung’s main character’s acceptance into a soccer team, with images of him performing multiple actions: getting the news on the phone, jumping for joy afterward, flying in an airplane, and arriving at the team’s city. There’s also a panel of a sign with the team logo and the accented caption panel with the words he presumably says to his parents after the first phone call. In terms of sequences, the accented panel is its own one-panel action, since nothing else on the page depicts that phone conversation. The news he delivers to his parents shakes up the status quo and so is both disruption and climax.

2. Grace begins with an irregular four-row layout, progressing from two to four to three panels in each row, before the final accented panel. While the circular shape clearly breaks the rectangular norm, Grace further accents it with wide areas of white space on both sides. And though the gutters are consistent width above it, the gutter shapes create an additional overlap effect, suggesting that the last panel occupies the space that would otherwise belong to the third row.

Grace’s page also tells a complete story that combines at least three actions. The first row disrupts the character’s walk home; the second depicts the emergence of the cat from the garbage; the third depicts their first interaction; and the final, accented image skips a range of implied actions—walking the rest of the way home, putting away groceries, etc.—to end on a new balance that resolves the combined plot of the whole page. The wide white margins of the final spacing also seem to relate to the narrative leap to that much later moment in a different location, as if additional gutter space is needed conceptually too.

3. Henry draws a regular 3×2 grid—with every panel identical in size, shape, frame, tilt and spacing, with no overlapping or frame-breaking elements and no insets. Henry instead accents the bottom left panel through a stylistic difference. The background of the fifth panel is heavily shaded in black, a sharp contrast to the white and uncrosshatched backgrounds of the five other panels.

The page continues an action sequence from a previous page, with the narrator being electrocuted in an attempt to trigger his mutant powers. The first three panels complete that action, followed by a one-panel action of the guards untying him and giving him water, before the torture continues in the last row. The accented panel includes captioned narration explaining that every time he nearly falls asleep he is jolted awake as shown in the last panel. The last row then is a two-panel action sequence, beginning in balance and ending in disruption, with the climax and new imbalance left implied as well as cyclical. By accenting the first balance panel, Henry highlights the character’s moments of near peace.

4. For his second layout, Hung uses a mixed path approach, beginning with a two-panel column paired with an unframed second column, and ending with a bottom row of three panels. The lack of a frame around the second column accents it through contrast with the other framed panel, while also effectively expanding the image content by merging its background with the white of the page and so accenting it by size too. To a less degree, Hung also accents the first panel in the bottom row with a contrastingly thicker frame.

Like Hung’s previous page, this one includes the narrator performing at least three actions, each condensed to one or two images: receiving a pass and then scoring; speaking to his father on the phone; and reading in his new home. Again, Hung accents the phone conversation to a parent, establishing a link between pages that creates a suggestive pattern about the main character. If the panel of him scoring was accented instead, it would appear that winning was more important than connection to family. The secondary accent is also on the high five between players, further emphasizing relationships over the sport itself.

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