04 December 2011

Panel One in Nightwings Seven

Above is another example of a single comics panel showing Nightwing in several poses, instants apart. It appears in Nightwing: Freefall. And I don’t think this one works. I remember having to pause to figure out what was going on—precisely the wrong effect for a panel intended to convey swift, fluid action.

We’re supposed to read the lower panel as showing Nightwing swinging himself over the front of his glider and into the air, somersaulting, to land on a winged pursuer. Not only is that physically implausible, but the art requires reading this Grayson as flying to the left and into the background. Most examples of this comics technique show the multiplied figure moving to the right foreground, the direction we westerners read.

Sometimes coloring can make a single figure in such a panel stand out helpfully as the most recent. But a small, distant figure doesn’t become more prominent than the large, nearby figure simply by being bluer.

At Comics Without Frontiers, Miguel Rosa continues to explore this technique by featuring giant panels from Gianni de Luca’s Italian adaptations of William Shakespeare. De Luca’s scripts were originally created for the stage rather than the page, of course, giving him a lot of words to fit in.

As Rosa shows, De Luca created several full-page or full-spread panels showing the same two characters several times as they move through a scene, conversing. It’s striking how almost all the movement in these examples flows from right to left, and usually background to foreground.
One of the few exceptions to that pattern appears in this two-page panel from De Luca’s Romeo and Giulietta. Yet it’s notable how in the portion of the duel that moves toward the background the word balloons thin out, with only one character speaking. That lowers the possibility of us becoming confused about what to read next.

So do possibilities like these negate Devin Grayson’s advice to novice comics scripters to “Avoid multiple actions in one panel”? I still don’t think so. Because it’s one thing for practiced comics writer-illustrators like De Luca and Frank Miller (Rosa’s initial example) to use the multiple-figure technique. It’s another for a novice scripter to unwittingly stumble into it, as Grayson warned against.

A good analogy might be the “rule” not to stack panels on the left because we readers will have trouble deciding how to move from the upper left panel: to the right or down? Many guides for beginning comics writers include that prohibition.

Yet it’s not that hard to find comics artists stacking panels on the left, with composition and balloons leading the eye down and then to the next column. I’ve noted a successful example as well as an unsuccessful one in a successful comic. Today’s Cul de Sac by Richard Thompson breaks the “rule” delightfully, word balloons guiding our eyes.

But just because practiced comics creators know how to make something difficult work doesn’t mean that new creators shouldn’t be warned against trying it until they’ve learned more.

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