Although some of this is probably fairly obvious, I thought I’d write an article about the advantages and disadvantages of using the three main types of panel layouts which are used in webcomics. To use an American phrase, this is pretty “101-level” stuff, but it could be useful if you’re just getting into webcomics and are making your first one.
These three types of panel layout are: single panel comics, comics with a fixed panel layout and comics with a variable panel layout.
1) Single Panel Comics: As the name suggests, these are comics/cartoons which only consist of a single panel. They tend to be fairly common in newspapers (most editorial cartoons usually fit into this category, so do Gary Larsen’s “Far Side” comics) and they’re generally best suited for comedic and satirical comics.
One advantage of using this layout is that it’s a lot quicker to draw a single image than to draw three or four of them, so it can be useful for busy webcomic creators. Another useful thing about this layout is that it places more emphasis on the art, since there’s only one drawing for the reader to look at (in fact the traditional single panel comic is just a drawing with a caption [usually a line of dialogue] below it). Songle panel comics can also be read at a glance too, so they are more suitable for readers who may also be busy.
However, the disadvantages of using this layout are that you have a lot less space to tell a story and your dialogue has to be fairly concise too. Likewise, if you’re writing a comedy comic, then your jokes usually have to be less complicated than they could be in a multi-panel comic (unless your panels are very large). Plus, if your art and/or writing in a single panel comic isn’t that good then it’s a lot more obvious than bad writing/artwork in a single panel of a multi-panel comic.
2) Fixed Panel Layout Comics: These are comics where the panel layout stays the same every day and/or in each induvidual comic. A classic example are the 3-4 panel syndicated comic strips (eg: “Garfield”, “Dilbert” etc…) which appear in most newspapers. Quite a few webcomics tend to use this format too and it generally tends to be reasonably common in comics which have a few main characters, but no real continuous story between comics.
For example, soon after I started drawing “Yametry Run” back in 2010, I drew two “blank” three-panel comics (or one six-panel comic) on a sheet of paper and then photocopied it numerous times, so that all the panels would be about the same size throughout the comic. I’ll include a cropped, cleaned-up and copyright-free copy of it in this article if you want to download it to use in your own comics.
An advantage of using this layout is that you don’t have to worry about coming up with a new panel layout every time that you make a comic. Likewise, for comics which end with a punchline – it can make structuring them a lot easier too. Fixed panel layouts provide a sense of regularity and familiarity for your readers (since they’re similar to newspaper comics), not to mention that they usually aren’t particularly confusing either (eg: it’s pretty obvious which order the panels should be read in).
One disadvantage of using this layout is that, well, all of your comics have to be the same length – so, if you have a comic idea which is too long, then you either have to spread it over two comics or cut it down quite severely. Another disadvantage is that you have to plan your comics a lot more carefully too – this probably isn’t an issue if you do a lot of planning anyway, but if (like me) you tend to be a bit more spontaneous with your comic writing – then this can occasionally cause problems.
3) Variable Panel Layout Comics: As the name suggests, this is a comic where the panels can be different sizes and there can be a different number of panels on each page. This type of layout is used in some webcomics and it’s quite commonly used in graphic novels too.
The advantages of this layout is that it allows you to be more expressive in lots of different ways (eg: you can use a larger panel to emphasise things or to show a landscape etc… the only limits are your imagination) and it also allows you to vary the amount of things which happen on each page more easily too. Not to mention that you can have the occasional single-panel page too.
The diasadvantages of using this layout are that you have to think a lot more about the panel layout every time that you write/draw a new comic, which can slow down the creative process slightly. Although coming up with a panel layout is something which can be done spontaneously without too much planning, it runs the risk of being confusing for your readers if it’s not immediately clear which order the panels are supposed to be read in.
Which layout is best for your webcomic probably depends mostly on your comic itself and what feels best when writing and drawing it. For example, as I mentioned earlier, single-panel comics and fixed panel layout comics tend to work best in webcomics which are similar in style to newspaper comics. But variable panel layouts are a lot more expressive and more suited to storytelling in some ways.
There are no absolute rules here, just go for what works – if you want to use a fixed panel layout most of the time and use a different layout on one or two pages (when it looks more dramatic or whatever), then go for it.
Anyway, I hope that this has been useful.