Tag: panels

Panel: top and bottom

Rudolf Arnheim states that in an artistic space, “dynamics [vary] with direction” (30). Or to put it another way, location in a comics panel implies meaning. In the Famous Artists Cartoon Course Lesson 11, the instructors point out that the placement of a horizon line in a panel can affect the sense of depth and mood in a scene.

What’s interesting here, is that, for me, in each successive panel the figure seems to get nearer even though he doesn’t change in size. And if you think about it, this makes sense. The lower I am as a viewer, the more I will be near the eye-level of the figure. So the horizon will drop. If I pull away and up from the figure, the horizon line will likewise rise. In other words: close = low horizon, far = high horizon.

But this tends to work more generally. Forms that are lower in a panel appear nearer than those that are higher in a panel.

And again, this happens even if the forms are of the same size.

This also applies to weight. As Arnheim points out, gravity has taught us that objects are pulled downward. Therefor, forms that are higher in a panel will seem lighter. Ones that are lower will seem heavier.

The hot air balloon in the left panel is flying high and free. The one on the right seems to be running out of heat and so descending.

This also applies to potential for movement. Arnheim again is helpful: “the potential energy in a mass high up is greater than that in one low down” (30).

The ball in the left panel seems more precarious. The one on the right seems less likely to move. In both panels, it’s the same ball. The only difference is its placement within the panel.

Okay, to sum up some of the relationships that top and bottom placement in a panel can imply:

  • far – near
  • light – heavy
  • energy – inertia

A related point to all this that Arnheim mentions is the study showing that when most people try to bisect a vertical line they place the midpoint higher than it actually is. Arnheim refers to several art pieces that look balanced but are actually not centered in order to deal with this perceptual issue. I don’t know a direct application for this, except, as Arnheim shows, that if artists want balance in their work, they have to take such visual biases into consideration.

Panel: tangents

As I mentioned, I’ve been looking through the old Famous Artists Cartoon Course. Lesson 11 is all about panels and has a lot of solid advice. One thing that is mentioned in that lesson is what they call “contact points,” but what I’m calling “tangents.”

Basically, since most comics drawing is contour drawing, you need to make sure that your contours are legible. Clarity comes with clearly defined forms. If the lines that define the forms meet tangentially, then things can get confusing. As the FACC mentions above, it can also make the sense of space muddy. This is why it is so important to either separate your forms or overlap them.

I read a similar idea years ago in The Complete Book of Cartooning by John Adkins Richardson (though given the publication dates, Richardson was probably inspired by the FACC, if anything). Richardson, however, expands the terminology and creates three categories: “ambiguous alignments, tenuous contacts, and distracting parallels.”

In comics, since the panel is also a shape, this problem of tangents can apply to the panel border itself. If a form meets tangentially with the panel border, it can feel like it’s stuck there. And, again, it makes the sense of space unclear.

For me, not only is the panel on the right easier to read, it has a greater sense of depth. Unintentional tangents inhibit clarity and flatten space.

Panels: shape, context, and content

Does the shape of a panel carry inherent meaning?

A square panel seems to imply stability. Its four equal sides create a sense equilibrium.

Rectangular panels imply movement, horizontal for wide panels, vertical for tall panels. From fine art we also learn that these shapes can infer content. Wide frames are for landscapes, tall are for portraits.

horizontal panel

vertical panel

Circular panels create a sense of centering, all edges being an equal distance from the middle.

circular panel

Yet while all these meanings are implied, what is in a panel can supersede these connotations.

For instance, in the panel below the squareness doesn’t connote stability, but instead works in contrast with the image to heighten its instability.

unbalanced square panel

Of course, the same image could be placed inside a vertical panel. Now we feel the weight of gravity more. So the shape does have some effect.

unbalanced vertical panel

Still, the implied movement can be nullified by content. While the panel below is wide, the strong focal point of the eye precludes its horizontal movement.

horizontal panel with focal point

A circular panel can lose its centeredness by having an off-centered composition.

off-center circular panel

So the meaning of a panel is not inherent to its shape. Yes, the shape can imply a meaning or accentuate one, but whether or not it carries that meaning depends on other, more powerful, elements. These are the context and the content.

Context refers to what the panel is relation to. Usually a panel sits on a page in relationship with other panels and this relationship creates meaning. For instance, below the third panel seems to drop, since it is longer than the first two panels.

three panels with tall one at end

Yet if we change the context and make all the panels the same height, the meaning disappears. So shape doesn’t make the meaning, the context does.

three vertical panels

But we can reclaim the meaning through content. Here, there is a sense of falling again.

three vertical panels with ball rolling downhill

While the verticality of the panels helps show the height of the fall, the panels could be square and convey the same basic meaning.

three square panels with ball rolling downhill

So the panel shape may accentuate the meaning, but it is not required to do so. So for a comics artist, shape is something to consider, but not something to obsess about. There is no one “right” shape for every given situation. Context and content are of greater importance.


Note: This question of whether or not panel shape has inherent meaning was inspired by Hannah Miodrag’s Comics and Language, especially chapters 7 and 9.

Comics and Language: Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form by Hannah Miodrag

The subtitle of this book is more accurate than it’s main title; Miodrag examines what she sees as common assumptions and mistakes that comics critics make. She points to lack of precision, sloppy reasoning, and confirmation bias. While at times the arguments are a bit belabored and redundant, her book is a needed amendment to the patterns of a lot of critical thought about comics.

One trend she sees is how often writers seem obsessed with claiming that elements in a specific comic are universal. As if how the relationships in that comic work, between word and image say, are endemic to the medium itself. I once got on David Carrier’s case for just this issue (Miodrag points out a different one on page 89). In his book The Aesthetics of Comics, he claims that what defines comics are word balloons. Yet if the small selection of comics you read and write about have word balloons that doesn’t mean that it is the defining characteristic of the medium. What about Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660? Or Edward Gorey’s work? Or much of Eleanor Davis’s Why Art? Not to mention the thousands of completely wordless comics out there. The issue is that so many critics are desperate to claim legitimacy for comics that they leap to hasty generalizations. A group of comics may all exhibit the same quality, but that doesn’t mean that all comics have this quality, or must have it to be considered comics. It’s a reductionist view that does nothing to help the medium.

Miodrag also places nice attention to pacing. This is a subject that has been habitually overlooked. Groensteen addresses it and Tom Hart is teaching about it, but these are exceptions. Even books that tell you they will teach you how to create comics often overlook pacing entirely. Miodrag’s analysis of how Posy Simmonds paces Gemma Bovary, for example, is enlightening. Miodrag is a careful close reader and her analysis is one of the strengths of the book.

She also contributes to the argument that comics have more in common with graphic design than any other medium. But actually, that’s more my own hobby horse than Miodrag’s. So I guess you’re just getting a sample of how I may quote from her book later.

While there are all sorts of little things I could quibble with in Comics and Language, my main objection to the book is how sometimes she goes to an odd extreme to make her points, sometimes setting up a straw critic to take down. For instance, in the first chapter she claims that critics don’t analyze Herriman’s Krazy Kat for its literary qualities. Her goal is to point out that in comics criticism, critics confuse imagination and plot for literariness. In other words, they don’t evaluate the use of language. This is a good point but I don’t think it really applies to Krazy Kat. It goes against my personal experience, for one. And there are several public examples. E.E. Cummings wrote an analysis of the characters in the strip and Umberto Eco wrote of the its poetic qualities.

Still, her main point that comics criticism is often very limited in what it means when it uses the term “literary” is an important one. The emphasis tends to be on creativity and storytelling, not on depth of character, complexity of theme, and use of language. With these standards, Michael Moorcock would be a better writer than Gabriel García Márquez. This is why, as she points out, that writers such as Will Eisner and Alan Moore (61) get touted as exemplars. This is something I had always felt but had never articulated, much less as carefully as Miodrag does. I had always been annoyed that certain graphic novels were held up as standards of the medium when they seemed so mediocre, or merely good. Part of the issue, according to Miodrag, is that critics’ notions of what actually make a comic “literary” are very simplistic. In the end, I think this undercuts the very thing that critics are trying to do. They are trying to show that the medium has great works. But by holding up painfully adequate books they are just showing that comics are indeed incapable of being taken seriously. Is Watchmen genuinely as profound as The Sound and The Fury?

The real reason I’m writing all this, besides trying to digest my own thoughts and recommend the book itself, is to take on one argument I have with Miodrag. Again, it’s another example of her saying something a bit extreme to make her point, but in this case it is just wrong. On page 100, Miodrag takes issue with the idea that outside captions always operate differently than in-panel text boxes and word balloons. What I think she’s trying to get at is that the role words are put to in a given comic is more important than any “rule” about how captions or word balloons always operate. But the argument is a bit messy. And on page 101 she states this: “The role words play is not determined by their position.” Okay, I agree that a comic creates its own logic and that this tendency of critics to want to establish absolute rules can actually hinder their analysis, but this is wrong. In comics, position is meaning. It is not absolute- the meaning is always dependent on context- but how the artist choses to place the elements in the comic is one of the ways they create meaning.

We all know that position is meaning when it comes to prose. “Grandma, let’s eat!” has a different meaning than “Let’s eat Grandma!” Same words, but position makes one an invitation and the other cannibalism.

How about this:

mistah dobalina panels

The first panel shows question and response. The second conveys a lack of recognition. Again, same words, different placement, different meaning. The roles are dictated by their positions.

But this quotation I’m digging into comes within the context of captions and if placement within the panel always works better. So let’s look at an example like that:

i am here panels

In the first, the caption sits outside the panel. Here the words seem to be about the scene as a whole. We are invited to see this landscape as where the narrator is. In the next two panels, the caption is placed within the panel. This invites us to read the words in the context of the image plane and so new meanings emerge. In the second panel, the caption is in a text box located over the tree. This implies that the narrator is hiding in the tree. Lastly, placing the narration over the ground makes it seem as if the narrator is dead and buried. Same words. Different placements. Differing meanings.

Just to clarify, I’m not arguing that any one approach is superior or that the relationships above will always exist in every comic. I’m just saying that the position of words affects their role. And I take Miodrag’s point that many critics, such as R.C. Harvey, assume that words within the panel inherently work better. Yet to argue against this I feel she briefly overlooks how the comics medium works. She says that it’s wrong “to confuse position with function”  when it comes to words, that instead it is a “question of [their] role” (101). Yet their placement is their role. Again, that role depends on context, but placement is meaning. To deny that is to deny one of the ways comics functions.

You can read a more chapter by chapter review of Comics and Language here: