Well, I still seem to be in a comics mood at the moment, so I thought that I’d ramble about panel layouts today.
One of the things that I’ve noticed ever since I got back into making comics occasionally in 2015 is that the panel layouts in my webcomics have been steadily getting more and more boring. Or, more accurately, they’ve become more standardised.
Even with the occasional webcomic series that I’ve been going on about constantly (my rebooted “Damania” webcomic series, which can be read here, here, here and here), I’ve slowly found myself moving more towards a standard four-panel layout for all of the comics in this series. Like this:
Whilst some of the comics in the first two of the new mini series featured five or six panels, almost all of the later comics just feature the same four panel layout.
Likewise, when it comes to the narrative comics I’ve made, if you compare the variety of panel layouts in the comics I made in 2015 to the ones I made in 2016, they’ve gone from comics that look like this:
To comics where literally every page looks like this:
The funny thing was that I didn’t even really notice this until I happened to look at some of the print comics that I’d accumulated during a comics phase a few years ago. Almost every page seemed to have a different, and brilliantly appropriate, panel layout. No two pages looked the same. The panels flowed organically into each other and they often didn’t even really have traditional panel borders either.
Then I remembered that there was a time when I (sort of) did this intuitively, simply from reading lots of comics and learning from them. But, these days, it seems, I’ve slowly gravitated towards the same standard layouts for all of my comics. Naturally, I wondered why this was.
In a way, it’s because of efficiency. As I’ve mentioned before [LINK- attention span], I have a relatively short attention span when it comes to creative projects. I like to make as much as I can as quickly as I can. Even when I slowed down for my latest webcomic mini series, I still made six four-panel comics in three days. This is all part of my own personal working style. I tend to thrive on regularity, quantity and intensity, even if it comes at a cost.
So, in a way, the “standard” panel layouts are probably a byproduct of this. Not having to worry about the panel layout in each comic means that I can devote more time and energy to writing the dialogue and making the art. However, this comes at the cost of making my comics look less spontaneous and less instantly appealing.
Still, there’s something to be said for standard panel layouts, I guess. Although they add convenience to the comic-making process, they also add some interesting limitations too. They make each comic an enjoyable challenge. Why? Because you’ve got to work out how to fit everything into four or six panels.
If you’ve only got a fixed number of panels to work with, then things like pacing, artistic decisions and brevity become a lot more important. In other words, they’re a good way to learn how to do these things fairly well.
I mean, I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve had to digitally edit the dialogue in one of my four-panel comics (after I scanned the original artwork) because the original dialogue either sounded too clunky, too wordy, too confusing and/or too badly-written. If I didn’t limit myself to just four equally-sized panels, then I might have missed or ignored some of these problems.
If you’ve got a limited number of panels, this reminds you that everything in your comic matters. Sticking to a rigid panel layout reminds you that you have to make each panel matter. This is obviously also true with non-standard panel layouts too, but you’ll get a much clearer reminder of it if you use a standard layout.
So, yes, “standard” panel layouts are something of a double-edged sword, I guess. On the one hand, they can drain some of the spontaneity and some of visual appeal from your comic. But, on the other hand, they can help you to be more efficient and they can help you to focus on good dialogue, good art and good pacing.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂