Composition 101 – Laying out your Comic Page

Layouts with proper composition will capture your reader’s attention and keep them focused on your comic. If this is done poorly, chances are, you’ve given them the opportunity to exit your page instead of leading them through it. Today, I’m going to show you how to improve the composition of your page layout. This should help keep your readers interested by keeping their eyes on your work and the placement of your dialogue.

Grid Format

During the Silver/Golden Age of comics, you’d see pages set up in a grid format. White gutters (borders) defined each panel and the grid followed the Western method of reading – left to right. Note this example from Jack Kirby, where you see Captain America in a battle over a 9 panel grid. I added the red arrows to illustrate the reader’s eye movement.

Throughout the years, artists and writers were compelled to push the boundaries of their work, and influences from comics in Europe and Japan began to introduce layouts that did not conform to a traditional grid format. Although they were visually stunning, these pages could end up being an illogical disaster if planned improperly. To keep things basic and structured in order to retain the the flow of your story, there are a number of grids that can be used to moderate pace, and allow for eye-catching imagery.

The typical grids you’ll see in comics are 6 and 9 panel grids. In a standard issue, the 9 panel grid becomes most useful when your story has a lot of information that needs to be relayed to the reader. For example, The Watchmen series used the 9 panel format to deliver the content. In the sample below, you’ll see a 9 panel layout with two scenes going on at the same time, to create an interesting visual effect.

Now, here’s an example of a standard 6 panel grid from an old newsprint/pulp style comic from the Silver Age. This grid layout allows enough room for dialogue and action. The 6 panel page is the traditional layout for North American comics, and is still the the most widely used to this day.

As a contrast to the traditional left-right storytelling method, look at this sample of a manga influenced comic book page layout. Note the skewed grid creates dynamic motion and the reader’s eye is forced to move with the action at a high rate of speed.

A different style of layout utilizes a long panel, similar to a widescreen view. These panels create more of a cinematic feel to the comic. The length also creates the illusion of extended time.

Now, we examine the traditional ‘strip’ layout – 3 panels. These are most common in newspaper/online serials which use a wider format. There are variations on the strip which use 4 or even 5 panels in a wide but short layout.

Once you’ve established a grid for your page layout, you can make your artwork conform to the standard and guide the reader along using the position/movement of your characters, backgrounds, and speech bubbles.

The Focal Point

Now that you’ve established your grid, it is time to determine where your focal point for each panel will be. Generally, you will want to place the focal point in an area that will avoid visual confusion from one panel to the next. For example – a horizontal panel should have its focus in one of three locations – in the center of the panel, to the left of center or to the right of center.

In a vertical panel, the focal point should be in the center, slightly above center or slightly below center. The hardest panel to set up a focal point is usually the square. Now, you have the option of placing the focal point above, below, left and right of the center of the panel, AND you can even put the focal point in the center itself. Choose wisely! If you’re placing a focal point in a square panel, plan accordingly – make sure it leads the eye to the next panel.

Here’s example from Super Monkey, illustrating the placement of a focal point in each panel.

Even a silly comic can make use of an effective focal point. This method moves the reader’s eye from left to right, and maintains a flow through the page layout.

Make sure you avoid doing THIS:

Do NOT have competing focal points in adjacent panels (creates a converging effect where your stuck to the center of the page).

Do not lead your reader’s focus out of the page bounds, or into a panel that does not follow the sequence of the story. Make your artwork force the viewer towards the next panel – don’t assume the reader will make the conclusion to the next frame. Poorly leading panels can cause big problems.

As an artist, poor composition within panels will disrupt a person’s natural reading flow and create confusion.  Once you’ve disrupt the reader’s concentration, they end up losing their immersion in your story, no matter how good it may be. This poor structuring will also negate all the hard work that is put into a script and storyline. If you don’t want your writer to strangle you, pay close attention to how you set up each individual panel, and how those panels interact with one another to create a page.

LOS – Line of Sight for Backgrounds and Characters

The last thing I want to show you is something called line of sight. This is a simple method also used to force your reader to follow a direction using a subconscious prod. Here’s a sample:

Now look at where the implied lines are, which use the character’s line of sight, the character’s positions and movements, visual cues in the background, and the placement of dialogue bubbles.

Your eye moved all over the place, but it was contained within the panels of the page. The widescreen grid automatically forced you to move from left to right along the horizontal axis, and the rest of the drawn elements kept you moving around and never leading you out of the page until the final frame, where Batman is glaring over his shoulder – right at you (or more like, THROUGH you).

This was all done with lines of sight, background cues, a widescreen grid layout, dialogue bubble placement and focal points. If you keep to this method of creating comic layouts, and make sure your compositions within each individual panel lead into the next, you will have no problem maintaining a reader’s active interest in your story. Now go forth with these tips and practice your page composition!

 

Andrés ‘ Drezz ‘ Rodriguez is the author of the ultra-violent modern noir Online Graphic Novel El Cuervo. He provides WA readers with periodic articles (like this one!) to help improve their comic skillz so they can pay their bills. Feel free to connect with him on Google+ or you can follow him on Twitter at @DrezzRodriguez

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5 Comments

  1. Hey Drezz… great article! I think a cool little addition might be to also include mention of Wally Woods’ 22 Panels that Always Work. Anyone can easily find a link to those panels by using the all powerful Google.

    I also know a great many artists who have those panels on their bulletin board next to their drawing table. Me? I keep forgetting to do that. 🙂

  2. Excellent article Drezz. No doubt new comics page design is visually more interesting than the old comic books I used to read in my childhood.

    Unless it is a comic that I really love, I found old comics hard to read because of their rigid design.

    • idrawdigital.com is MY site. I used to run it before I started contributing for WA. Since I don’t post new articles to that site, sometimes I’ll repurpose ones I’ve written so people can benefit from them, as my old site is dormant. 🙂

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