Capturing the imagination

Capturing the imagination

There is a “method” of laying out a comic book page (I put “method” in quotation marks because it really isn’t…it’s a lazy, ignorant way of doing things) that I see taught (by lazy ignorant people who don’t understand what is good about a comic book) where you basically make it like a storyboard from a movie.  You take what is important in the panel, but it in a box..repeat.

Using this approach removes all possibility of you achieving the goal of capturing the readers imagination, or making them believe they are looking into some other world or actual event…and may even remove the possibility of them even finishing reading the story.  And it removes all the advantages of storytelling that the comic book format can have. It is like having a box full of specialty tools that no one else has…and throwing all of them out and using only a hammer and a screwdriver.  Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about…

Below are two pages, each drawn by renowned illustrators. In one page the illustrator is using visual tools unique to comics and in the other page the illustrator is a basic 6 panel layout with very few of the tools I’m talking about being used.  To be clear, I’m not ragging on either of these guys, I specifically picked a page that would highlight the use of the tools and page that did not use them. Give them both a good look.

Both are very well drawn, but the one on the right captures your imagination a little more, sucks you in, makes you feel less like you are going from one scene to the next and more like you are in the action.  One the right your are reading the a story and on the left you are part of the story.

I won’t bore with ALL the tricks and techniques and ways to use panel sizes to give a sense of timing or mood, or ways to lead the eye with the images and even word balloons.  Just know that you can grab the subconscious of the audience with a comic book story in ways that no other medium can, if you care to learn how.

I’ve gone on before about the path of the eye. The eye reads from left to right, top to bottom. SO, whenever possible you want the images to go with that flow. If it goes against it, it becomes less comfortable for the eye to follow, because the images are going one way and the path the eye wants to read is going the other. Here’s a very basic, skimming of how Barry Windsor Smith combined the images with the path of the eye.

Notice in panel 3 all the word balloons converge on the beginning of the arm that extends towards the next panel.  And how about that transition from panel 4 to panel 5!  See, the thing is even though every panel is it’s own thing, you also want them all working together because like it or not the eye sees everything at once.  If you keep giving the eye a direct start and finish you’ll keep the reader sucked in. There is also some interesting uses of camera angles and where he set the horizon lines…but that’s a whole other can of worms I won’t bore you with.  and of course he used the panel sizes, shapes and layout itself brilliantly.  Just try to imagine this in a standard 6 panel “draw it out like a storyboard” format.

So there is a lot of things you can do in a comic book that you simply cannot do in any other medium…if you know what you are doing.

I know what I’m doing.  Comedy and horror rely heavily on timing, mood, and directing the readers eye. If you want that kind of story to have impact in a comic book, you don’t have a choice. You have to learn all this stuff.  If I’m writing for t.v. I have sound, and actual pacing at my disposal.  In comics I don’t, I have other things though. Those things can be advantageous.

I try to continue to learn…

This often leads me to studying comic book illustrators of the golden age of comics, or the start of the Marvel Age, but there are, sadly, examples from all eras that I can still learn a thing or two from.

One of my favorites was a guy called Basil Wolverton. That guy could capture your imagination and keep it as long as he wanted.

Here is what vexes me about Wolverton, he wasn’t very good at visual storytelling.

“what? are you drunk?! Who the hell do you think you…”

HOLD ON…Let me explain…

When it came to using panel sizes and shapes, camera shots, vanishing points,  leading the readers eye, he was average…sometimes a little less.  He used basic camera shots, the panels didn’t work together much, he used a basic 6 panel template most of the time.

Now back then it was very common to have a standard 6 square panels a page.  Some of this was because a lot of the illustrators came from or practiced for story books, where you would have one image and some words below it.  So, that blended into their work when doing comic books.  Some of the reason could simply be tragically tight deadlines back then (which led to more than once suicide…that’s a blog for another day) and little time for experimenting.  Some of it could have been editors who didn’t want a lot of experimenting because back then comics sold by the millions and dared not risk a 10% drop because casual readers flipping through at the newsstand couldn’t get their head around some off beat page layout.  So you got a lot of standard 6 panel pages, but there was also a good amount of illustrators using panels themselves as a tool as far back as you can look…

That last image is by Windson Mccay and it’s brilliant.  Compare his skill of panel use and leading the eye to this page by Wolverton.

As far as knowing how to use the visual tools at your disposal…Wolverton looks like an amateur (to be fair…pretty much everyone looks like an amateur next to Windsor McCay).

Aside from a standard layout where the panel sizes and shapes do little to help the images capture your imagination…he’s fighting the path of the eye a lot.

And YET…the Wolverton page…it does suck you in.  it does capture your imagination.  Here’s another page by Wolverton that is also just so-so as far as utilizing the tools of comic book storytelling, that really vexes me.

I said I wouldn’t bore you with explaining every obscure technique, so you’ll just have to trust me…there is a lot wrong with this one.  Wrong like you build a car with the Muffler on the roof and the radio welded to the outside passenger door. And yet…this page is like looking into another world.  Nothing about it is distracting, and all of it captures your imagination.

That is pare for the course with Wolverton, sub pare panel use, inconsistencies in leading the readers eye, very few examples of any camera angle other than normal height, pointed right at the scene.  No odd shaped panels, no camera peaking from behind an object or looking down or looking up…just basic as basic gets.  Compare it to this…

and yet…they both grab my interest equally.
The “why” is what eludes me. Of course on a scale of one to ten of how skilled and unique the style is, Wolverton is about a 15.  But there are many illustrators now and in the past with such skill who’s story telling was bad…who’s work didn’t capture anyone’s imagination and they went nowhere.  So there is more going on here than just a unique style..but what?  Is there some method to his madness, are the errors and standard/boring layouts, and inconsistencies and lack of camera movement all working together in some way that I just haven’t figured out? perhaps.

Most of my pages use a fairly standard panel layout, but that is for a reason that applies to the age we live in, where readers have seen books of every age and genre.  Certain types of layouts are recognized the second the page is opened as being for a certain kind of scene.  Much like if you get a flyer in the mail with a Chinese looking font you are clued in, without even reading it, that it’s for a Chinese restaurant. Standard panel layouts don’t attract attention, don’t clue you into anything and are equated with calmer Sunday morning comics. I use it to lull the reader into a false sense of ordinary, not tipping my hand to the bizarre tale that is going on.

If I had used a wild layout on those, it would have taken away from how casually such a bizarre conversation is going on.  Even with this type layout I’m doing other things to keep the eye moving around and doing things with the pacing that wouldn’t work in another medium.

So it is for the sake of subterfuge and contrast…and often set up to a wilder looking page, that I use standard layouts.  But that’s wouldn’t be a likely reason Wolverton did it since comics were in their infancy during his peak, and there is never a lead up to some wild looking page layout.

There are other ways to use a standard format to your advantage. A book called Stray Bullets by David Lapham uses a standard 6 panel page and with it creates a wonderful sense of timing.  I’d post a page of that but you wouldn’t get the feel with just one page…it’s set up and builds over the course of an issue.  So you can go standard and use it to your advantage by using the other tools of the trade…but as near as I can tell Wolverton just wasn’t.

Maybe he just found the right balance of contrast between his wild style and the ordinary layouts in a way that makes them work together. I dunno…I don’t know why his stuff captures the imagination so well while leaving so many tools in the tool box unused…could be he was using tools I haven’t figure out yet.  If I do figure it out, I’ll let you know.  I could just be as simple as “it’s good because…it is.” and there isn’t anything quantifiable about the “why”.  I hate that, it’s disconcerting and there’s nothing you can learn from it….other than maybe not to overthink it.  …Too late.

By the way, if any of this talk of the old greats caught your interest, but you’d like to just read about them and see their work without someone dissecting it until all the joy has been wrung out, I recommend   Pappy’s Golden Age Comics Blog-zine A couple times a week he puts up a reprint and gives some back ground on the people who worked on it. I don’t know who he is, but he knows his stuff.


When Douglas is not here, he and his work can be found at

sign up for the email updates and get blogs, rants, sneak previews, and discount codes sent directly to your inbox

sing up for that HERE

Bookmark the permalink.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Archives