Pacing in Comics by Mike Baron

PACING IN COMICS

Many modern comics consist of single images occupying the entire page, or two or three panels switching from one flabbergasted expression to the next, with accompanying internal dialogue or explanations. Jim Shooter recently decried the decompression of the modern comic, by which he meant taking twenty-five pages of story and stretching it out over five issues. I concur with Big Jim. You can tell a lot of story on a page, if there is a lot of story to tell.

If you look at sixties Marvel comics, you will often find six or eight panel pages that advance the story. It’s not all Shakespeare, but there’s an effort to make the story fit the medium. Of course comics are a visual medium, which means they have to serve up exciting art. And who doesn’t love a full-page reveal of something shocking? But too often, that full page image is squandered on a talking head. Unless the talking head is spouting prose akin to Dostoevsky or Mark Twain, it is most often a waste of space. You advance the story in a series of panels that impart the illusion of motion.

This is particularly important in fight scenes, where the reader wants to see the action unfold in a clear and dynamic manner from panel to panel. I’ve enclosed a Steranko Nick Fury page that shows the action unfolding. The page is dynamic. It’s not static. When you come to a full page devoted to Hulk swinging his fist in an arc, with eight sets of feet flying off panel, you have come to a dead end. The page is infinitely malleable. You can offer a single panel, or you can offer a dozen.

Tastes have changed and today’s comic readers have been trained to accept less story in the sake of glorious art. If that’s what you want, God bless! But for anyone familiar with underground comics, and the work of R. Crumb or Gilbert Shelton, you know that you can tell a lot of story on a page. A comic story has a pulse and a beat like a good pop song. Sometimes you have to go for those big images, but if the whole comic consists of nothing but big images, you’re doing something wrong. By pulse and flow, I mean the story should speed up for the big images, but slow down for more intimate scenes that call for dialogue. It should contain a mix of multi-panel pages and few panel pages. The full page image is justified when you first glimpse a world of wonder, or you finally reveal the werewolf. But the rest of the time, you must engage the reader and trick him, her, or it into spending more time on each page. That calls for interesting captions or dialogue which advance the story or reveal character.

You know what I mean.

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