Best Practices for Comic Panel Layout
Whether you’re drawing a comic book or a comic strip, there are a few guidelines to follow to give your readers the best experience. You may not even notice some of these things when you read your favorite comic strips or books, but you do notice when panels are layed out wrong. Usually, you can tell because something just feels "off." Below is a list and some examples of layout practices to consider.
Framing a comic scene:
When you are laying out an individual comic panel, you can pretend that you are a filmmaker looking through a camera at a scene. Composition is very important since comics are a visual media. Each panel is a view captured by the camera. The only difference is that with a camera, you don’t worry about the location of text balloons, but we’ll cover that in the next section.
This scene focuses on the characters, however, what is happening in the background is significant for the sequence of panels.
When you are framing a scene, you need to consider what is happening. Consider that you may have some sort of action taking place. On the other hand, you may have a character just standing there and talking. Either way, your goal is to compose the panel to focus on the most important aspect. It’s at this point that you consider what else is part of the scene as well.
If you are focusing on a character, are you zoomed in for a close up? Is your main character engaging someone or something in the scene? Is anything happening in the background? These are questions you should ask yourself when composing each panel. The purpose is to tell your reader, visually, what is important, and what they need to focus on. Scenes can be simple by just showing the character, or we can be pulled back and showing more. Think of the scene as layers of activity. The more that is going on, the more layers you are creating.
Where you put your word balloons is very important to the layout of the comic panel. There are a few things that you should keep in mind when laying text out in a panel. First and foremost, make sure the text balloons within the panel can be read left to right, top to bottom. That is how people read, and you want to make sure they read the right words in the right sequence. Don’t confuse the reader and make them guess which balloon to read first.
There are so many errors in the above sequence, I don’t even know where to begin….
The comic panels above have many errors. In the first top, left panel, the text balloons cover a lot of the characters. It’s like the panel was designed to hold the text, and the characters were stuck in there to fill in the white space. Don’t do this. The panel just below it has a wall of text that divides the characters. Don’t do this either. And lastly, the final panel it is hard to tell which word balloon to read first. This whole sequence of panels is a disaster, and all I have to say in my defense is, " I was young and didn’t know what the **bleep** I was doing.
Aside from all the word balloon errors, the panel layout is a disaster. I don’t know what I was thinking. Well, actually, I think I was trying to be creative with a non-traditional page layout and it just ends up being a mess. Don’t do this!
Locating a character:
If you have a panel that features an individual character, place them in the scene where they look like they are featured. Also be careful not to sever the top of the head, or the feet. Either cut at the waist, or put the whole body there. It’s disconcerting to see a small body part like a foot missing.
This character is placed in an uncomfortable location within the panel. Centered
would feel a little better. Notice the foot is cut off, this is also disconcerting. Put
the whole body in or cut up a little higher, near the waist..
When you think about the flow of a scene from panel to panel. You can vary your "camera shot" to set the scene and then focus on the character speaking. In the following example, Spark is trapped in a cell. The camera is pulled back so that we can see that he’s trapped. Then we pull in to focus on him speaking and discovery of a possible escape route.
Set the scene from a distance, then pull in to focus on the character.
This method is most effective when starting a new scene and can let the reader know you have left the last scene. If you were to start a new scene focused on the character in a close up shot, the reader may not know that you’ve moved them to a new place. Always establish the new scene.
There is much more…
These are just some things that come to mind when you compose a comic panel layout. There is a lot more, but this should give you a baseline of information to start laying out panels. These rules of thumb apply to equally to comic books and comic strips.
To take the composition of comic book panels to the next level, check out my article on Comic Book Page Layout
If you have a question about this post, leave a comment below…