This week we're going to look at how margins can determine timing and sequencing in North American comic books. I also thought I'd try and write something more personal about how I like to use margins or not use margins when composing.
Last year I wrote and drew a Silver Surfer story for Marvel's Strange Tales anthology. I chose to use a fixed 4-tier arrangement that would give me the option of going double wide or double tall. I was given only four pages and so choosing the 4-tier arrangement was mainly about squeezing in as many panels as possible & still having a balanced feel. I also prefer the shorter and wider panels that are created with a 4-tier, 8-panel grid. The 3-tier, 6-panel grid generates squares and they can be trickier to compose with than wider landscape panels. (6-panel grids, I think, are good for dialogue heavy sequences. The top part of each square panel can be where the balloons or narration boxes are - and then what's left under the text is more of landscape proportion.)
I decided that if I was going to use a 4-tiered gridded spread for the Surfer story - that I wanted to make the fixed panel size as big as possible. That meant getting rid of the margins surrounding the 6 x 9-inch live area on each page. But what happens when you lose the center margin that separates two fixed grids of the same size? Well, what happens is that the reader's eye goes across the top tier & reads the spread like a Sunday page comic strip - like stacked 4-panel strips that read across.
I thought it would be an interesting experiment if I could compose a spread that could be read both ways. Like, could I take away the center margin and compose a sequence that would still make sense if it was read "incorrectly" by going across the tiers on the spread - and still make sense if it was read one page at a time?
Fortunately, I was trying to draw outer space, so it felt like this was an advantage - no real specific landmarks to arrange - just stars and space. I also thought about trying to jump scale and show the contrast between the human-sized Silver Surfer & the vastness of space. The sequencing could be an attempt to capture that contrast and the disorienting nature of it all.
So, I played around with the sequencing, the narration, and also got rid of the margins surrounding the live area of each page. The top, bottom, middle, and sides all go full bleed. I read it correctly - one page at a time - and "incorrectly" across the spread, and well, I dunno, I think it works (reads) both ways. I'd make the below image bigger - but I don't wanna get in trouble with Marvel.
The tall panel on the right hand side of the spread also provided the opportunity to work with that pesky arrangement when a tall panel seems to mess up the sequencing. Do you read the tall panel as panel 4 on the right hand page, or is the close-up with the Surfer on the third tier on the right hand page actually panel 4 and the tall panel is panel 5?
The double-tall panel on the right-hand side of the spread sets up another interesting problem. If the spread is read across the top tier first and then across the second tier, would the tall panel disrupt the "across the spread" reading? I think it reads across the spread like a Sunday comic strip and I also think that the reader's eye could follow the double tall panel down the right edge of the right page and down to the third tier. Then the reader's eye swings back to the center and to the left side of the spread. My eyes essentially go backwards (think Chippendale's "read like a snake" sequencing for the transition from the second to third to fourth tier) and read the third tier backwards. And then I read the fourth or bottom tier left to right - and that's the end of the spread.
So that's 4 different possible paths for the reader's eye to follow - and I think they all "work" visually and narratively - on some level anyways - because I composed the text to be sort of like sound bytes that could be read in any order and still convey the melodramatic feeling I was after. So then, that's 5 different ways of reading the spread cuz I think it can be read in random order too.
I was also trying - purposely trying - to pull the reader's eye across the spread on the top tier. I scaled the two Surfers about the same & I connected the background elements in order to make it look like two different frames from the same panning shot as the camera follows the Surfer and his arc. Meaning, I think it creates a sort of landscape wide "single shot" panning motion that maps the character movement through space.
So when I proudly showed this comic to my Dad — a non-comics reader if there ever was one but someone who loves Calvin & Hobbes — he asked, "Should I read it across or one page at a time?" I said, "Well, try both." I watched him read it across like a Sunday strip and then a second time by reading the whole left side first and then the right side. Well? "Yeah," he said. "I see what you mean. It's like in a movie where they show a bunch of scenes with a voice-over." Parents can make good focus groups I've found. Corny as it sounds.
When I started drawing the early issues of Cold Heat, I used margins on each page all around the live area so that the left hand page was always separated from the right by a center margin. So no matter what the timing of the sequence was within each page's live area, the center margin would always provide an evenly spaced progression.
But then by the fourth issue I got to thinking that I was composing comics for the learned comics reader - that I didn't need to use margins because most comics readers were smart enough to read each page at a time and not read across the spread accidentally. I felt like I wanted to use all of the page and let all the colors press up against the edges - I didn't want a white border all around each page's live area.
But like I said, when you take out the center margin you change the timing. But! that's what I wanted to do with the first spread in Cold Heat where I used a double fixed grid with no margins. See below. I wanted to disorient the reader by changing the timing. No margin on a double fixed grid means what again? It means that it's going to be read across like a Sunday strip.
So even though the dialogue in the spread above is supposed to progress in the standard way - one page at a time - the visuals draw one's eye purposely across the spread. I was trying to disorient the reader and reflect the main character's predicament of being abducted by aliens. And if you read the across the top tier it still sorta makes sense - the dialogue cuts to the heart of the conversation. Then you can go back and read it "correctly" and fill in the info gaps. I just sort of assume people read it "all at once" and sort of prepare for that inevitability.
When I went full bleed in Cold Heat #4 - I noticed that I used less symmetrical spread arrangements. I used the above double grid and then I mostly made distinct left/right page layouts until this spread pictured below. I think the below spread can be read in the standard left/right fashion and across the whole top tier first like a Sunday strip.
By the 5th and 6th issue of Cold Heat I was thinking more & more about how the double-page spread - no matter margins - is always taken in at once. Some people like to call this "simultaneity." I think it's an appropriate term. For myself, I know that when I read, say, a Calvin & Hobbes Sunday strip, I often have to cover up the bottom right hand corner of the strip. My tendency is to take it all in at once - scan the whole strip - and I usually spoil the punchline. So I cover the last panel and then start at the top left corner & read it in order. Then I uncover the last panel to read the punch line.
Obviously, comic strips read differently than comic books. In comic books you can reveal visual gags, punchlines, and certain plot points with page turns. The comic strip is one grouping of panels - there are no "reveals" possible. But I think the rules that apply to strips still apply to the comic-book spread. It's a timing thing. How do you play around with the timing on the page, spread, and the book itself? I think margins have a lot more to do with it then we usually think about, because one can use the timing of the single-image splash-type double-page spread, the "across the spread" Sunday strip reading, and the standard left/right, one-page-at-a-time reading.
Anyways. Next week we will look at how to generate simple, balanced layouts when one is assigned an unfamiliar page size.
Wow, I don't know that I even considered reading this story more than one way. But it works every way for me. Poetry.
I’m really enjoying this series of articles. I’m fascinated by the concepts of dynamic/static symmetry you discussed in your first two posts, but I’m working with International paper sizes, and I’m not sure how to map your principles of the live area/page size onto A4 proportions. Any chance you could give some tips for international paper users?
I was wondering if your Surfer story was supposed to be that way….
This is awesome! I love the vibe that comes across in the Surfer story when read in third mode.
Haha yes! I loved that Silver Surfer story in Strange Tales for exactly this reason.
If I were reading that Silver Surfer spread across the two pages, I'd read it in a fifth way:
Go across the top tier.
Then then the three panels of tier two.
The three panels of tier three.
Then the tall panel.
Then tier four.
I tend to read those tall panels as a kind of cap at the end of the sequence of panels to its left.
I had never thought much about the issue of the "tall panel" until I started reading Roy Crane's Captain Easy. Unlike most (or all?) contemporary comics artists, Crane intends tall panels to be read following the upper-left adjacent panel, rather than the lower-left one. He makes this explicit occasionally by using little arrows to guide the reader, but it's also clear just by reading and following the sequence of events.