Mind in the gutter

Comics for the Curious 3.pagesSorry, not a smut post this time. I’m gearing up for imminent release of my Xaos Comics titles. Obviously these posts on the topic are promotional, and they’re also cynically tied into more detailed accounts available only to patrons. Big green link to the immediate right. Umm, pretty please.

Each title has its own default or foundation panel design for its pages … and I guess should acknowledge, why not say, “screw the standard page” from the start. Tapastic, for instance, recommends that people design specifically for iPhone-style viewing. Some people using that system say “nope, pages it used to be, so pages it is” like I, Necromancer and Brujagh; some go for compatibility between the two contexts, like Heroes for Ghosts; and some embrace the new-style entirely, like Supermassive Black Hole A*, Miss Abbott and the doctor, and Switch. I’m going with pages because I’m all traditional and hidebound, the more so because I want to scale back on the glam-O design and focus as strongly on image-based storytelling as a newspaper strip cartoonist does.

For One Plus One, I went with the six-panel vertical, as shown above. Why? You can find a more complete discussion via the Patreon, but for now, check out these pages. Look at the distance traversed by the mobile character, the shifts in POV in distance and angle (including easily dismissing the 180 rule), and a hundred other reasons why cinematography can’t do this. Why do I mention that? Because the six-panel squarish design, which is more-or-less the default grid, looks too much like TV screens and artists tend to use them as storyboards rather than the primary medium. Besides, I had thought that the vertical version mainly with Miller’s Daredevil and was surprised to find, once I started looking, how common it was among older artists. It offers remarkable freedom for content – I think anyway – due to the long, long transitional edges, which are completely unambiguous about where to look next.


Steve Ditko


Sal Buscema

I’m certain that Manuela Soriani and Mattia Bulgarelli, the One Plus One art team, have been calling me names for specifying this ever since they received the scripts. With any luck I change it up enough by combining panels and shifting to long-horizontal to keep them from seeing the grid in their sleep, and besides, I invite all the artists to mess with my panel layouts at will anyway.

Let’s look at that panel-to-panel transition some more. What’s to know, right? Scott McCloud spoke the mighty word gutter in Understanding Comics, and assigned the term closure for what readers did with it, and if the more recent “how to” texts are any indication, settled the matter for good.

Only … McCloud did the right thing by framing (heh) his whole discussion, even the whole book, as strictly heuristic, not a fixed text to which one simply subscribes. Unfortunately a number of current texts seem to forget this, and worse, a bit of a static-filled telephone game has begun.

For example, saying that the gutter plays the role of time in reading comics, meaning that each panel is a freeze-frame and their ordering “animates” them. Although I grudgingly admit that this can be the case, I submit that it’s patently neither complete nor the core concept for arriving at completion. For one thing, panel juxtaposition is easily and often used to depict simultaneity. For another, and more subtly, time within a panel is one of comics’ most important and least-discussed features. To his credit, McCloud never made that over-simplistic claim, and his text spends some time considering between/within panel time, as with this:

To read this at all, one has to assign a ton of motion to the figures, acknowledging for instance that by the time we’re at the end, the flash is long over, Uncle Henry is no longer holding the same pose, or that the seated woman in the center gestures well after the left-edge moment and finishes it well before the right-edge one. Or that the kid stays in the same position for a considerable length of time, in contrast to the young father at the other end of the couch who is obviously caught in the middle of a bunch of motions we don’t see. You don’t need gutters to make these assignments. Clearly the image in a panel cannot be defined as a frozen microsecond chosen from a series, with the gutter being the only way to shift to whichever subsequent microsecond is chosen to be next.

McCloud does go so far to say, conclusively, “comics are closure!” and although that’s incurred the wrath of, for example, Eddie Campbell (who knows a thing or two about page composition), it’s also been picked up as truth, probably more widely than not. I try to keep a cool head about it and point to how much Understanding Comics struggles explaining word balloons, ultimately reaching no really useful point.

I raise that topic because it helps with the time/gutter issue, as I see it anyway, and as I go my own way from the text in question. If you consider word balloons to be panels, therefore they create a gutter-sequence that has its own time-stamp (perhaps more so than ordinary panels), and when considered across the full page, intersecting with the “bigger” indicators of fictional time. Even better, this idea solves some of the trouble or ambiguities about panel composition and sequence alone – the word-filled units operate as a chronological glue with their own pacing, and embedded into the visuals as they usually are, i.e., perfectly understandable as inset panels.

An inset panel used for action (the grab)

Three inset panels for speech – which is, after all, an action too

With any luck to clarify my point, I stress that the dialogue panel does not use the same visual internal techniques as McCloud’s family gathering up above. Three very different points in the conversation are established by the balloons alone, which correspond just fine to Eisner’s “juxtaposed images” within the panel as a whole, and these points’ visual reference as insets seem to me to be very similar to the “when this happens” content of the grab panel in the other example.

To riff a little further on that, one might examine when panels have no borders and when spoken dialogue has no borders – those are pretty similar, I think, and neither really violates the basic principle of what panels do – it’s a design aesthetic rather than a design function.

Speaking only for myself as a reader, I feel a distinct difference when reading traditional prose set next to, for instance, a half-page illustration in a comic, especially when such pages arrive after a more familiar comics-style panel-based, word-balloon filled page. That can be a productive difference – Dave Sim, Drew Hayes, and Mark Oakley are just the first few names that come to mind; this was a big thing in the 1990s for some reason – but I think it is a difference, the shift of a toggle rather than spinning a dial. I think it’s because the glue I’m talking about has been removed.

What I just said two paragraphs up about borders matters too. You can have panels with no borders, and no one seems to mind or lose track in simply reading the page. or “empty pages” with the panels floating or even falling about. Or, reversing it, you can have panels with borders but flush against one another, hence no literal visual gutter, and that doesn’t mess anyone up either. I grant that all of these techniques have effects, i.e., they’re not nothing, but not that they threaten the basic act of following the fictional events. The whole gutter concept is easy to take too literally, resulting in “rules” and “concepts” which are over-simplistic, wrong, or both.

The panel separation, or somewhat more fundamental point that two panels show different things (or even the same ones across multiple panels, another common 1990s technique), “works” insofar as both what’s depicted and how they’re separated matter, including when they’re not. This may seem trivially true, but I’m actually being quite the heretic in saying, contra McCloud, that no, comics are not reducible to closure. Not unless you expand the latter term to so many things that it’s no longer telling us much. I read his books seriously, but again, and I think in accord with his stated position, as some questions to generate understanding, not as its foundation.

Links: Comic Book Paper, Chimera Obscura, Eddie Campbell (blog; I invite you to peruse it for his interesting mentions of McCloud)

Next: Criminals, powers optional


About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on May 22, 2016, in Storytalk, Xaos Comics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. epweissengruber

    There might be an Edward Tufte angle to this: that grid matrix allows readers to hold the individual panels all together at the same time and register the distinctions between each panel as well as registering any patterned changes over the sequence. The Ditko panel has a variety of PoVs and orientations of the character. I get to register all the variations of that character and in the course of registering all those variations I build up an understanding of that body an a variety of its capabilities.


  2. I agree. Seeing the whole page at once, yet segmented, is apparently more forceful with this panel scheme than with other designs. I didn’t mention it much in this post but switching to full-horizontal panels does the same thing – perhaps even faster as there’s no right-to-left reboot in the middle. And mixing up vertical/horizontal, big/small panels in this scheme is easy and fun.

    Miller’s fight scenes in Daredevil were justly famous because he placed anatomical and body positioning techniques inspired by Gil Kane in this whole-page, freewheeling camera design scheme. Sienkiewicz’s Moon Knight was practically an intensive lab for rearranging vertical/horizontal in it during the same time, and so was George Perez’s New Teen Titans also at the same time.

    Again, though, I was surprised to find how “classic” and “traditional” it is, when I’d wrongly associated it with the above three titles and that one time period.


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