A good comic book layout can capture a reader’s attention and keep them focused on your content. If your composition is poor and allows the viewer to exit your page, you haven’t mastered the art of leading people on through your layout. Here’s a few ways to improve your composition and page layout, and keep your readers interested by maintaining their eye on your work and dialogue.
The earliest comics were always set up in a grid format, contained within white gutters (borders) and followed the logical Western method of reading – across from left to right + down to the next level & repeat. In this example from Jack Kirby, you see Captain America and Batroc the Leaper battling it out over a 9 square grid page layout, which reads very easily. The red arrows were added to illustrate the reader movement.
As comics grew in popularity and the talent level increased, artists injected their creative influences and began to produce layouts that did not necessarily conform to a grid format. While absolutely stunning to look at, these pages were a logical disaster if they weren’t planned properly. In order to keep the flow of the story intact, there are a number of grids that can be used throughout your comic to moderate pace, as well as allowing for eye-catching imagery.
The most common grids are the 9 and 6 panel grids. In a 20-24 page issue, the 9 panel grid is most useful when the story contains a lot of information that needs to be conveyed. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did this effectively in The Watchmen series. The sample below is another 9 panel layout that splits two scenes going on at the exact same time, and creates an interesting visual effect.
Here is a standard 6 panel grid from the old newsprint/pulp style comics of the 60s-70s. The grid offers enough room for dialogue, action and visuals. This is a traditional layout for comics, and the most commonly used – even to this day.
In sharp contrast to the traditional linear aligned storytelling method, here is a sample of a manga influenced comic book page layout. Note, the grid is skewed to create a feeling of motion and adds a sense of dynamic action – the reader’s eye is forced about from one end to the other at a high rate of speed.
Yet another grid format which is gaining popularity is the widescreen panel. This type of panel layout is used to create a cinematic feel. These longer panels also create the illusion of extended time.
Finally, a traditional ‘strip’ styled layout – 3 panels. This is most common for newspaper/online serials which use a wider format.
By establishing a grid for your page layouts, you can conform your artwork and continue to guide the reader along with the position/movement of your characters and backgrounds, as well as logical placement of speech bubbles.
Create a Point of Focus
Once you have established your grid, it is now time to determine where your main focal point for each panel will be. The standard in comics/webcomics is to place the focal point in certain areas to avoid visual confusion from one panel to the next. For example – a panel which is predominantly horizontal should have its focus in one of three locations – the center of the panel, left of center or right of center. For a vertical panel, the focal points should be center, slightly above center or slightly below center. The trickiest panel to set up a focal point is the square. You have the option of above, below, left and right of center, and the center itself. When placing a focal point in a square panel, plan accordingly – make sure it will lead your reader towards the next panel.
Here is an example (using Super Monkey no less!) of the placement of the focal point in each panel.
See how a silly and simple comic makes use of effective focal point location? This method draws the reader’s eye from left to right, and keeps the flow of the story going within the page layout.
Avoid at all costs: Do not have competing focal points in adjacent panels (creating a converging effect when viewed – drawn to the center of the page). Another pitfall in focal points – do not lead your reader’s focus out of the page bounds, or into a panel that does not follow the logical sequence of the story. Always have your artwork force the viewer towards the next panel (either subconsciously or blatantly) – do not rely on the reader to make a logical conclusion to go from one frame to the next. A poorly led panel causes bigger problems than you may think.
Poor composition within panels often disrupt a person’s natural reading flow and cause confusion. The minute you disrupt the reader’s concentration and focus, you lose the element of immersion in the story, no matter how good that story is. Poor planning and vision of your visuals will negate all the hard work that is put into a script and storyline. You don’t want your writer to strangle you, now do you?
Lines of Sight – Backgrounds and Characters
The final tip I will elaborate on in comic page layout and composition are lines of sight. This is another simple method of forcing your reader to follow a direction using a subtle, subconscious prod. Here is a sample – read this page:
Now follow along with these subtly implied lines, using the character’s lines of sight, the guidance of character’s positions and movements, as well as visual cues from the background and the placement of speech bubbles.
Your eye was moving all over the place, yet it was contained within the page. This widescreen grid automatically forced you to move along the horizontal axis from left to right, and all the additional drawn elements moved you around dynamically, never leading you out of the page until the final frame, when Batman glares menacingly over his shoulder – directly at you (or in this case, THROUGH you).
This was all achieved using lines of sight, background cues, grid layout, speech bubble placement and focal points. If you keep to this strict method of creating comic panel layouts, and ensure your compositions within each individual panel lead into the next, you will have no problem maintaining a reader’s active interest in your story. Just make sure that the story is well written! For some tips on that, read my blog post on writing.
Try these helpful hints on your next project, and you will be well on your way to becoming a master visual storyteller.