There is an important question writers must ask themselves. Possibly THE most important question a writer can ask herself: What can I get away with? That’s really what it comes down to, isn’t it? How far is the audience willing to stretch their suspension of disbelief? And if I need to push beyond that limit, what building blocks do I need to lay into my story to get my audience to go there with me?
But then writing for comics I find a whole new reason to ask myself “What can I get away with?”
I tend to want to cram as many words into a panel and as many panels on a page as humanly possible. (Think I was influenced by Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, maybe?) I’ve read from various sources that comics creators should stick to no more than five or six panels per page. When it comes to speech bubbles, I’ve read Mark Waid say 20 words is the max, and I believe I’ve read that figure as 30 or 35 elsewhere (Don’t ask me where because I don’t remember...so you also don’t have to take my word for it). Usually, I keep those guidelines in mind and mange to restrain myself...
But there are exceptions to every rule.
For that reason, I am constantly running to my bookshelf and flipping open my graphic novels to count the number of words in especially wordy balloons or find examples of more than six panels on a page, trying to figure out what I can get away with. I find the above rules being broken all the time, but then I have to ask myself why did this writer or artist choose to break the rules here, and more importantly, do I have a good reason to do so?
I like to think I do, at least when it comes to putting so many panels on a page. It’s the grid, man. It’s all about THE GRID.
The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller is the graphic novel that got me all hot and bothered for comics. When I first started reading it, I found it confusing and chaotic, but I soon fell into the rhythm and beats of the story created by utilizing a 16-panel grid and it wasn’t just the story of The Dark Knight Returns that opened up to me, but the idea of comics as a unique and dynamic form of storytelling.
In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, a 9-panel grid is used. What amazes me about this is that they really put so much in each panel. It’s not just closes up or silhouettes or a fractions of larger images (as is so skillfully done in the 16-panel grid for Dark Knight.) Though they’re small, Gibbon fits full-on action sequences into those panels, and/or a lot of talking.
With the grid comes the ability to exaggerate time, play with repetition and beats, to set images in juxtaposition to each other in columns and tiers and diagonally across the page; and when you break form – putting one big panel in the place of two or three or covering the whole page – there is no mistaking that there’s something significant about that panel. It’s not that you can’t do that with less panels on a page or going at it free-form, but for me, the grid pulls it together in a very immediate way even if I only use it for a few pages out of an entire story.
I know that as a newbie it’s dangerous to look at seasoned professionals breaking the rules and think that makes it alright to go wild and crazy, but I promise that’s not my intention. I just want to do what’s best for my story.
And sometimes that even means only putting 5-panels on a page.