The panel, along with the gutter
, is the most basic element of a comic
. You’re probably most familiar with the simple rectangular panels found in the daily comic strips, or maybe even the single, circular panel of the wretched The Family Circus*
. But a panel cannot be strictly defined as a rectangle
that contains a picture. Scott McCloud
, in Understanding Comics
, defines a panel as, “a general indicator that time
is being divided.” Sounds kind of heady
for comics, right? But really, it’s the simplest definition that adequately describes what a panel does.
You see, back when comic books entered the American cultural landscape, they were seen as either children’s fare or trashy pulp fiction. Comics were simple, and their artists and writers only thought about panels as frames for the action. Enter Will Eisner, who revolutionized comics’ storytelling techniques with his comic The Spirit in the 1940’s. He also wrote the first thorough examination of the comics medium, Comics and Sequential Art. In it, he detailed how the panel could be used to regulate the flow of time in comics.
"Albert Einstein in his Special Theory (Relativity) states that time is not absolute but relative to the position of the observer. In essence the panel (or box) makes that postulate a reality for the comic book reader."
Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art
Obviously, controlling the reader’s sense of time is important for any storytelling medium, but it quickly gets complicated in comics. The problem is that although the artist can only show one instant in time with his or her pictures, the action depicted in the panel takes place over a period of time. If it didn’t, then people wouldn’t be able to talk in comics. It takes time to utter a sentence.
So how do comics creators deal with this? There are several ways. The first I have already mentioned. When sound is in a panel, it automatically gives the reader an idea of the amount of time passing. Motion lines and related techniques for depicting motion also help. An artist can even do things with the white space between panels (the aforementioned gutter) to manipulate the flow of time. But Eisner pointed out that the size of panels can determine their duration. A longer panel seems to contain more time than a shorter one. After all, long and short can refer not only to the length of a line, but also to the length of a passage of time. Eisner would put several very short panels next to each other to give the reader the sense that the events in those panels were happening in rapid succession, and use long panels to slow things down. However, Eisner was before his time, and few people paid attention to a man who treated the funnies like they were art.
There are other tricks artists can do with their panels to mess with time. It seems that with each line that an artist removes from the border of a panel, the amount of time expands, as though it were seeping out of its confines. A panel with a picture that goes all the way to the edge of the page is called a bleed.
But back to the history lesson. Comics weathered some tough times in the 1950’s, thanks in no small part to Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent. But the 60’s saw a resurgence in comics’ popularity. Marvel Comics hit huge, with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby revitalizing the superhero genre. Soon, new creators were flocking to Marvel, and they certainly took comics seriously. Jim Steranko emerged in the late 60’s as an innovative new artist. He employed many of the techniques that Eisner wrote about in his use of panels, and was a master at controlling the reader’s sense of time as they read his stories. He had some fun with his panels, too. For Strange Tales #167, he drew a four-page spread, explaining that the reader would have to buy two copies of the book and place them side by side to get the whole effect. Other artists contributed their own innovations. Neal Adams destroyed traditional comic book layouts with his work on X-Men in the late 60’s. It was no longer unusual to see a panel stretch diagonally across a page, not just framing the action, but also complementing it. The 70’s were an especially rich time for experimentation, and more artists than you can shake a stick at attempted to do something different. In the present day, you would be hard-pressed to find any sort of conventions regarding the use of panels. Not that irregular panel use is necessary: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons used a simple 3x3 panel layout throughout their classic Watchmen. Oftentimes multiple panels were combined, or occasionally a panel was subdivided, but only three pages break from that basic grid.
The shape of a panel also affects the way a reader thinks about the action. There is no set visual "vocabulary" for what shape of panel conveys what meaning, so I'll just provide an example. In Fantastic Four #259, The Thing is knocked through a grocery store. The panel for this is shaped like the word WHAM, giving the reader the impression that it was a truly gigantic crash. It's more impressive than seeing the same thing in a plain, rectangular panel with WHAM in little block letters next to the point of impact.
Hopefully, you now understand why a panel is not simply defined as a rectangle with a picture within. Now, when you read comics, marvel (or maybe blanch) at the artist’s use of panels, and let them pull you into the story at exactly the pace that they want you to.
*Strictly speaking, The Family Circus is not a comic, because it only has one panel. A comic has to have at least two, because the gutter (or some indicator of sequence) must also be present. This bit of pedantry brought to you by Understanding Comics and Pseudo_Intellectual.