Layout Workbook 5

This week we're going to diagram a double page spread. And take another look at the Tintin page from last week.

Take a piece of 8.5 x 11-inch paper (or A4 paper) and fold it in half. Look at the paper horizontally - so that it's like a double page spread. Draw the center vertical line. Now find the squares on each side of the fold - on each page of the spread. Now find the circles within each square. Draw the center horizontal line.

Now with compass point at the center of the paper and radius to the top of the vertical center axis and the edge of the paper - swing an arc and describe the center circle. Now square off the "center square" of the spread. See diagram below. This is "squaring the spread" - and to my my mind it's another important spatial relationship to consider when composing. The two pages are linked by the spine of the book - when the book is open this center point along between the two pages is a focus. The eye senses the radius from the center of the spread and "sees" the center circle and square even if one does not consciously acknowledge the proportions.



So, the squares of each page - and the spread - allow us to see specific harmonic points and how these points relate to each other. The size of the page, spread, and book can change but finding the squares within any given proportion is a way to find any area's harmonic points. Regardless of how mathematically harmonious an area is or is not, the eye sees what is perfect and harmonious within the area. See diagram below - notice how a proportion like 9 x 12-inches is more harmonious than 11 x 17-inches because the squares line up differently.  The circle, triangle, and square are key to understanding these visual progressions. Mapping these progressions is a simple & direct way to find "the time" within an area. Think metronome.


Mapping the center circle and being aware of the linking of the two pages together into a spread is important, I think, because it is about timing. The spread is a full measure. The page is a half measure - bound in time. The two pages bound by a clock - tick tock.

Trying to determine a set and measurable system of time for comics is difficult. Is the panel the unit of measure? - the page? - the spread? What if they change in size? - is a landscape formatted book "slower" than a regular "vertical" comics page? How do you compare different page sizes? What is the universal way in comics to measure time? We all have our own theories - and all the ones I've read seem to work on some level - whether it's the panel, the page, or the spread.

For me, squaring the paper and the spread begins to wrap my head around how the pages and spread can be arranged. I see the unit of time being both the page and the spread together. It's how they unfold "in time" together that really fascinates me. I think comics is a really interesting form specifically because of the way the fractured whole is unified by harmonies within the page architecture. To me, the spread seems to move like a reflection across a jewel - I can see facets and patterns that go on forever.

Mapping the specific nexus points also helps me see how the "thirds" of any proportion relate to each other as well. The "rule of thirds"applies to the traditional 6 x 9-inch comics grid in an interesting way. And it relates directly to the center circle of the double page spread that we just demonstrated. The "rule of thirds" overlaps with the center circle and relates directly to the outside edge of each page. See diagram below (we'll get into how the "rule of thirds" relates to each page's top and bottom square in weeks to come - I go into it a little bit below in this post).

"Rule of Thirds" and the double page spread

I wanted to stay focused on squaring the paper & the spread - and hammer away at the importance (I think) of being able to "work" any proportion, no matter how seemingly random it is, with this method. Comics can flourish in countless formats because the form is so modular, and I think these simple methods are helpful for the maker to get a quick handle on what will "work" on any given page. I've had assignments - paying jobs - that have involved really wonky formats and page sizes that I had no experience working with, and it can be really frustrating. Each format comes with it's own internal timing, and squaring the paper always lets me step back and just see it from a different perspective.

Each panel on the comics page has its own architecture & sight lines just like the whole page and spread. I feel that it is possible to design panels where the sight lines of the panel are in harmony with the architecture of the page and the spread. Think music - how the beat is present whether it is played or not. Think how some instruments in an ensemble are heard louder than others. So when one begins to layer instrumentation over the beat - the beat may become obscured but it is still there. And how the layers fit together is a matter of timing and harmonics. Chord progressions. Song structure.

Let's look at closer again at that Tintin page from last week. Look how Hergé breaks down each square within the "top square" into a smaller square. The placement of the figures are in harmony with the overall structure of the page - brick by brick.

squares within the top square


upper left square of top square


upper left square within top square


"Rule of Thirds" applied to group of figures



Showing how the 6 x 9-inch North American live area and the European 9 x 12-inch proportionate live area generate particular grids - and how those grids are harmonious in proportion - helps explain, I think, how and why these proportions became more or less standard in comics. The proportions just "worked" and the artists who mastered these grids - in their own way - standardized these specific formats. I think artists like Carl Barks,  Jack Kirby, Hergé, John Stanley, and Alex Toth all have a very particular flow to their page layouts. They were all coming out of the heyday of newspaper strips and figuring out how to compose comic books not comic strips (The newspaper syndicate's insistence that daily strips be formatted so that they could be run 4 panels in a row or 2 tiers stacked on top of each other defines timing just like the spine of the comic book does). They all, for the most part, stuck to set grids or set tiers in their comics. I think many of their comics read effortlessly because they were very aware of the spatial relationships on the page and how their figures would move through that architecture. They all "worked the grid" very well - and, to my mind, allowed panel borders to fall away. Meaning, I often feel unaware that I am reading a comic when I read, say, a Carl Barks* story -  there is none of that confusion of trying to decipher a spread's design after every page turn. I'm in the narrative differently - there is a consistent rhythm that is sustained which fuels my reading. There's a flow and particular patterns are formed that relate to each other harmoniously - like the solid foundation of a house or a song. So, for me, studying the very structure of the page and spread helps me appreciate artists like the ones mentioned above - and helps me (I hope) learn how to mimic the same clarity of design in my own work.

This page below is not by Carl Barks - I just randomly opened a page in an issue of Uncle Scrooge - "The Great Mythic Mystery" Gold Key reprint issue. The art is by Kay Wright. I'm using it as an example of mapping. I'll diagram a Barks page in the future.

Uncle Scrooge

*Barks used a four-tier grid - but usually made panels wider on the tier and would retain the center of certain tiers. I think it's interesting that the artists I listed above did not simply stick to fixed grids that gave up the center on every page - but would mix and match within the tier structure. The tier structure for both 6 x 9 and 9 x 12 live areas which is, of course, generated from the "squares" of each page.



The comic book's narrative and the demands which the story place upon the mechanics of the page and spread is a different discussion than what I'm trying to have here. The reader's eye may be drawn first to words, colors and shapes within the panels because of reading habits - but that is something other than the geometry of the panels and the page - although they are related. I'm trying to lead the maker to a better understanding of how harmonies are formed within page proportions and how to measure the harmonies when the page proportion changes - and how spatial relations can define the images (like the placement of figures on the page). The demands of the story on the page architecture is further down the line in this Layout Workbook series. Please be patient. It's difficult to try and write this stuff out to a broad audience. Thanks.

But in the meantime - check out this awesome article by Matt Seneca on color harmony. It goes into how narrative framing and sequencing can be in tune with each other.



6 comments on “Layout Workbook 5

  1. Andrew_White on

    Another good one, Frank. Curious, though, if you think the mechanics of a spread work the same way, or at all, for an especially long graphic novel. Comics like, say, Jimmy Corrigan, or Blankets, or the big Bone collection, are just so physically large and thick that you sometimes can't open them fully because of the way they are bound. At least for me, that makes it more difficult to perceive the spread as a whole as I might with a Tintin album.

  2. rodrigobaeza on

    I have to admit I'm still slowly grasping these articles. (The Tintin example last week was very illuminating, it helped make a lot of Frank's points clearer.)

    Last page in this post is not by Barks though, it's somebody else's work. (Jack Manning maybe?)

  3. stevelec on

    "They all “worked the grid” very well – and, to my mind, allowed panel borders to fall away." Yeah, that's something I've always appreciated about more formal artists like Herge, Barks and Uderzo. Their disciplined layouts let the form melt away so you can be absorbed in the storytelling. Gimmicky layouts (that proliferated in 90s comics for instance) I find distracting and throw me out of the story.

    On a slightly different topic, there's something interesting about book reprints of newspaper strips like Thimble Theatre or Mickey Mouse in that the the setup-gag-setup-gag rhythm, combined with a disciplined grid creates a unique flow which I find immersive in a way other forms of media are not. It's difficult to explain exactly, but your music analogy seems to apply to it.

  4. tylerstafford on

    I think most comics artists just do what they think looks right. Whether or not that artist really has an eye for what 'right' is…

    also, what about Japanese comics?

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