Panels are useful, so useful that we start to believe that they’re an essential element of comicking, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Panels are merely a means to an end, a straightforward way of conveying a visual narrative; they enforce a clear sequence of images with dividing lines. This is fine, but if we rely on this formula too often the sequence can get stale, and we tend to miss more exciting opportunities. Complex layouts are good for the brain: if done well, they excite the reader and allow for a greater vocabulary of techniques to get your point across.
Here’s a basic guide to some nontraditional techniques, in order of difficulty.
This should really be in every cartoonist’s armament. Panels can take any shape you want. So long as the content is clear and readable, anything goes. For example, you can use it to insert a less-imposing panel into a sequence to let the reader know what’s going on somewhere else:
You can use the silhouettes of other images to create a different mood, or to imply the contents of an environment without drawing them:
Or shape panels to indicate where a character or object is in a composition:
Or just reshape them for stylistic purposes:
Like any tool, it shouldn’t be overused. Often, it’s good to insert irregular panel shapes within a sequence of rectangular panels to emphasize a contrast. All the techniques used to emphasize focal points and lines of action can actually be applied to the panels themselves, so never underestimate their significance.
Objects Crossing Panel Borders
Having an image breaking out of a panel onto another panel is an excellent way to draw attention to that image. It holds the reader’s focus, and also can be combined with other advanced techniques for some really creative compositions. This is another skill that cartoonists of all kinds can utilize.
The risk is low for this, so long as it isn’t overused. The results can be very effective.
Removing Panels Entirely
(Aside being the greatest webcomic of all time, A Lesson is Learned is also especially good at this technique). This is a complex approach, but the rewards far outweigh the difficulty. The comic can take on a very organic, etherial quality where the composition of the images takes over entirely. This can leave the reader vulnerable, as you take away the scaffolding of the narrative and the tempo becomes looser as more is left up to the reader. Because the reader can lose their footing, it’s possible to deliver powerful emotional moments, catching them off-guard.
It’s important to note that all the standard composition elements must still be present. If anything, they become more indispensable, as the challenge of directing the narrative becomes more intense:
You force them to think on their feet, but also allow them to wander a bit in the image. This doesn’t mean for a second, however, that panel-free comics can’t be exciting, adventurous and funny:
Also, switching from no panels to panels and vice-versa is a useful way to emphasize a scene or mood change in a story. In this example, Kimiko hooks herself up to a machine and goes from her panel-free scene to a strictly paneled virtual world inside her computer:
Just because comics are visual narratives doesn’t mean the narrative has to move in a straight line. Unlike films, which are inherently one-dimensional in their direction (one frame after the other), comics have two dimensions within which to play, and this opens up lots of fun opportunities for conveying information.
In the above image, the “boss” character hangs himself, but his hanged body doesn’t occupy one particular panel. It overlaps several, and different parts of the body are interacting in different scenes. It also dominates the entire page as a whole, making it clear what the most powerful image of the composition is:
We’re not limited to a single image either. Entire panel sequences can run parallel, indicating that two events are happening simultaneously:
It’s also possible to tie in two simultaneous sequences to indicate where they specifically meet:
In the above image, the first and last panels illustrate the same images, but from different distances. They serve to provide continuity to the sequence. The man realizes his sight has returned while the other Time Travelers are speaking with Dmitri. Instead of splicing these images in a single line like in film, we simply line up the two sequences side-by side.
Reversing the Flow
It’s possible to successfully change the comics flow from "left to right" to "right to left," but I’m going to warn you: this is Dark Side stuff, used only when absolutely necessary and when you’re absolutely sure you can pull it off. Here’s the best example I know:
In the second row, instead of moving back to the left side, the composition keeps us on the right, takes us down the waterfall and moves us from right to left back to the other side. This isn’t a superflous technique: it accentuates the character’s winding path and journey into the underworld:
How does it get away with this? By incorporating techniques we already know, guiding us in the correct direction. Let’s break them down:
- No panels - This softens the reader’s eye. We as the viewer aren’t looking for the “next panel,” and can be more readily influenced by the other compositional elements.
- High contrast focus - Before instinctively returning to the left side of the page, we’re caught by this high contrast archway. Once our attention is held, the next element takes hold…
- The characters are looking in the direction the artist wants us to look - We will instinctively look where a character’s looking if set up properly.
- The waterfall is flowing in the direction too - Again, this reinforces the new flow.
- The eye is drawn to dialog - These are the only nearby words in the composition, so we naturally look to them.
- An iconic suggestion - Almost subliminal, this looping arrow reinforces the change in direction.
When changing the direction of the comic’s flow, it’s essential to really guide the reader by the hand, otherwise you run the risk of confusing them or losing their attention entirely. I’ll use one of my own (very old) comics as an example of flow-reversing executed poorly:
There’s not enough visual reinforcement of the flow change here. A couple things are done right: Kimiko is facing in the direction I want the reader to now go, but the slight panel overlap isn’t enough to make this clear. Also, something as pivotal as a visual punchline like this is probably best left to a regular panel arrangement.
So there you have it. This is by no means a comprehensive list of advanced layout techniques, just a guide to the beginnings of what’s possible. These techniques open up all sorts of styles and abilities, and greatly expand a cartoonist’s visual vocabulary.
I can’t stress reading A Lesson is Learned enough. Although the comic ended a few years ago, its artist David Hellman has worked on some other projects, like the hit game Braid, and its author Dale Beran has an excellent new comic called The Nerds of Paradise.