This week we're going to look at how the 6 x 9-inch printed live area situates itself on the North American comic book page and spread. Also, we're going to talk about giving up the center when using certain fixed panel grids.
North American comic books are an interesting size for a couple reasons. First, the standard 6 x 9-inch live area is half a 9 x 12 rectangle or a 3/4 grid. Second, the size of the standard comic book itself — 6.5 x 10.25 — is close in measurement to the Golden Proportion.
So, basically a standard comic book is a pleasing shape that contains both the 6 x 9-inch proportion and the Golden Proportion. The 6 x 9-inch area is an example of static symmetry - while the Golden Proportion represents dynamic symmetry. (Please consult Jay Hambige's remarkable book, The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry for the whole story). What I want to look at is how the static symmetry of the 6 x 9 area relates directly to the forming of margins upon the comic book spread by using dynamic symmetry. There is a tension between the live area and the margins that is worth exploring. Let's go to the videotape!
Below, is a 1968 John Romita Spider-Man comic book spread. This comic book was printed on a large newspaper web press. Just imagine one of those giant presses you would see in old movies — the press took up a whole room the size of a gymnasium! So the cutting and collating of the pages was not an exact science. But look below at how the margins are at the bottom of the spread are created by the 6 x 9 area itself. The arc lines are originating from each page's top live area corners and from the center of each outside live area vertical border. The red arc lines match up very, very close with the center and bottom margins.
See how the red arcs create the space and match up with the space in the center between the two live areas? Also, notice how the arcs create the wider bottom margin. The red arcs are based off of the corners of the squares that comprise the 6 x 9 area. Look above at the right hand side of the spread. An arc from where the live area's top tier meets the middle tier - on the right vertical edge - through the opposing diagonal corner of the square creates the margin measurement at the bottom. This arc is directly related to asymmetrical proportions.
Below, this diagram shows how, the square of 4 transforms itself into the square of 5. The principle of the root 5 rectangle is the foundation of the Golden Proportion. See Robert Lawlor's indispensable book Sacred Geometry (page 72) for an explanation of what it all means. For the time being we're gonna stick with how these symmetrical measurements - dynamic and static - create margins in standard comic books. The red arcs in the diagram below show how the center margins and bottom margins are created. See how the red arcs are going through the nexus points of the squares that comprise the 6-panel grid? See how the 6 panels are really just two squares overlapping each other - in tension with each other? The red arcs describe an area that shows how a static area, the square, is transformed into a dynamic area - the circle. "Squaring the circle" ring a bell? Ever wonder why in museums, some drawings in frames have mats that have a really wide margin at the bottom? Well, this is part of the answer. The arcs are completing what your eyes would do - which is follow the arcs from the corners of the square building blocks and close the circle.
The arcs do not exactly line up with the edge of the paper - but I think this has to do with rounding off of measurements. Working at 11 x 17 with a 10 x 15 live area (proportionate to the printed comic book) the margins on the top and sides are half-inch and over an inch on the bottom. I could adjust the live area ever so slightly - using same proportion - and the arcs then would match up with the bottom edge of the paper - but the measurements would not be exactly 10 x 15. So keep that in mind - and! - remember that the giant newspaper presses that printed the Spidey comic pictured was cutting thousands of pages a second and was not an exact science - but! - I believe that one's vision is forgiving and sort of "sees" the measurements as "correct" even if they are slightly off.
The size of the off white piece of paper in the photo below is equal to the Golden Proportion. The 10 x 15 live area generates a practical 9 7/8ths x 16-inch Golden Proportion. Check out how the "ley lines" of the Golden Proportion fit nicely across the 6 panel per page spread. The lines again do not match up exactly because I am rounding numbers off for the sake of practicality. But you can still see how the "dynamic" harmonic points drawn on the off white paper line up with the static lines of the 10 x 15 area. What this means is that one can find "dynamic" symmetry within "static" symmetry and explore the tension between the two.
Below, a close up view of an 11 x 17-inch paper with a 10 x 15 live area. The pink lines indicate vertical and horizontal points generated through asymmetrical relationships. The dark lines make up the 6-panel grid. One of the ways to explore the tension between static and dynamic symmetry is to find the "irrational" points within a "rational" shape. The 6-panel grid is static - but there are invisible lines within the static shape that can be measured and utilized to move the reader across the page. The static grid lines are "dead" but the lines within the grid are very much alive because the pink lines have the ability to alternate in asymmetrical patterns.
We will be looking more at dynamic and static symmetry in weeks to come. But now we're going to move along and look at how grids often "give up the center" of the comic book page. The above demo was meant to give us an understanding of how the page works with margins - and how the ways of measuring the page helps us learn how to work the center of the page and the spread.
Last year I wrote a few posts related to "giving up the center" when using certain fixed grids - and instead of just reprising them here - why don't you just read them again or refresh yourself with the ideas - and then click on back over here. Cool? Cool.
So, what I find is that when a fixed 6-panel grid is used successively for more than eight pages or so - I feel like the page fractures into two columns in a very pronounced way. I think the fracturing of the two columns happens on the single page but I feel it more when the fixed 6-panel page is maintained for over 3 or 4 spreads. The feel of the grid is often determined, I think, by the pages surrounding it.
I like using the fixed 6- or 8-panel grid for short stories. There's a nice balanced rhythm that doesn't cede importance to any image. There is no center focus. The harmonic points that create the evenly spaced panels can be used to unify an image or fracture it. Evenly. Remember that the fixed 6-panel grid is essentially a shape that contains two squares in perfect static tension with each other. So along the center vertical axis are two points where the page offers prime real estate: the center of each of those two squares in tension and the center of page itself - not the (off)center of each panel.
Think Kirby. Often he will use a fixed three-tiered page and switch it up between fixed 6-panel grids and pages with a wide - double square wide - center panel. This panel offers a center focus to "unify" the two columns and to return the reader's eyes to the center of the page. This wide shot may appear in the top, middle, or bottom tier, of course - and that's what I mean about how the feel of the fixed grid depends on the pages that come before and after. A grid seems to reset the clock when it appears. And a double square wide shot center panel often provides a longer, two-count beat. They both adjust the timing based on the very architecture of the page itself.
More on this topic next week and how margins can determine timing.
In the meantime go buy some graph paper and a compass!