Saturday, October 23, 2010
IF 6 WAS 9Let’s look at 9-panel grids in North American comics. When I think of the 9-panel grid I invariably see Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man page layouts in my mind. Then I see Watchmen. Both stuck to 9-panel grids for the most part. And I think the center panel – the panel that doesn’t exist in a 6-panel grid – is where some of the power comes from in these works.
If I flip randomly to a page of Watchmen and let my eyes scan the page, usually I look straight at the center – and often that center panel is representative of the whole page. It’s like an anchor. Also, the artist (Dave Gibbons) never gives up the center of the page when he uses a different layout. Never! He never has a center tier that has a vertical gutter in the direct center of the page. I really think this is part of Watchmen‘s visual power. When I flip through the book, my eyes just go from center of page to center of page and I feel more enveloped by the story and by the world created.
I feel less connected to the story when Ditko switches his layouts up in Spider-Man. But I feel very connected to the flow of the action and my reading adapts to the changing layouts. Nine-panel gridded pages are often crowded so it’s pleasant when the space opens up in wider, bigger panels during action scenes. The same thing happens in Watchmen, but since the center is never given up, my eye doesn’t fracture and split my focus; I’m not looking on both sides of the center vertical gutter line – a line that may go through two tiers which further accentuates the split down the middle of those two tiers. When the center vertical gutter is used in the top tier and it leads to a center panel it works better for me than when the middle tier has a center vertical gutter and either the top or bottom tier does also (see diagram below).
Adapting to changing layouts can be as tiresome as a fixed grid that goes on for pages and pages. A 6-panel grid that is “fixed” for the entirety of the story may be boring but it has the natural rhythm of two squares in tension (see this post for “two squares in tension” riff) . The nine-panel grid’s checkerboard look can be suffocating because it allows for more text and details. There are more panels but also the panels are tall – which accommodate word balloons at the top very well (see Ditko scans below). Yet in Watchmen, Gibbons does a great job of keeping it interesting. He balances the details with wider views but always manages to stay “on the grid”. There are lots of double page spreads with 9 panel grids on each side – but there are also lots of spreads with pages that have wide full tier cinemascope panels. But it’s all still “on the grid” of nine panels (three tiers always except for full page splashes). There’s a natural rhythm to his pages because he holds the center at all costs. There is not a single page in all twelve issues of this comic book where Gibbons allows the center of the page to be a matrix of gutter lines. There is a center image focus on every page. (Ok, there is one spread in issue 7 where he breaks down page into an 18-panel grid and that gives up the center.)
The 9-panel grid also seems to be well suited for “talking at the reader” stories. Chester Brown’s “My Mom was a Schizophrenic” is a good example. There’s a lot of text and talking heads and 9 tall thin panels per page really lets the author pack in the dialogue. And it doesn’t look too crowded. If it was a 6-panel grid, I think the balloons would be too big because of the wider square panels and it would feel like a chore to read. Here the faster “beat” of the 9-panel grid works well.
Another 9-panel grid comic that I came across while gathering material for this post is David Mazzucchelli’s Batman Year One collection Afterword(s) story. It’s a four-page “What Batman means to me” story essentially that is Mazzucchelli’s riff on the making of Year One. Anyways, it’s another sort of “talking to the reader” story that has a lot of info to divulge. There’s a really pleasant rhythm to these packed pages. To me, there is a center panel in each page that sort of focuses the eye. Still, it feels more like reading prose not just because it takes longer to read these pages but also because the drawings are reduced to symbols. The text is the “focus” really. The images are not sequential but more like lecture slides.
NEXT WEEK: Can people who don’t read comic books make sense of changing, organic layouts? Or do they statistically prefer fixed grids that read more like comic strips? Did David Mazzucchelli organize Asterios Polyp so that there is a rarely a long passage that reads strictly as “comics?” The way the chapters never begin with any sort of comics grid but always with an open page that smoothly transitions into “comics” and then back out again at end of each chapter could been seen as a device that keeps non-comics readers interested in reading a long form graphic novel.
(Also, notice how all the pages in the gallery below have a center focus.)
FYI: In the next couple weeks I will explain how the center of a page can have gutter lines as a focus – how the center can be a matrix of lines and still “work” – a center image focus helps I think but the fracture lines can build solid balanced pages. Until then I suggest to anyone interested in this stuff to just start messing around with page layouts on their own. Go buy a compass and a 3,4,5 triangle. Get the book “Sacred Geometry” by Robert Lawlor and do the workbook exercises inside.