Comic Book Pacing

As someone who’s fairly new to writing comics, one of the things I have found most difficult to get right is pacing.  It’s one of the most vital elements of comic book storytelling, but also one of the most inscrutable and elusive.  This week, Steven Forbes posted an excellent Bolts & Nuts column on the subject over on ComixTribe.  Anyone wanting to learn more about pacing, or how to write comics in general, should definitely be checking out Bolts & Nuts if you aren’t already.

I’m not sure I fully agree with everything Steve says there, though. I can see the logic that more panels on a page will slow it down and less on a page will speed it up, and some of the time I think that yes, this is indeed the case. Especially in dialogue-heavy scenes. But I don’t think it appliies all the time, and in many cases – particularly in action scenes – I find the opposite to be true.

For example, let’s imagine a big cimactic fight scene between Chilly Willy and The Golden Hemorrhoid. If I was writing this four page scene, I might start with a 4 panel page, showing both men facing each other down, then reaction shots of each man, before finishing up with them charging towards each other. I’m wanting this to be a slow moment, building up anticipation, and the larger, more detailed images encourage the eye to focus more on them, taking more time to dwell on the moment. I’d also probably make this an odd-numbered page, so the reader would have to turn the page to start reading the fight itself.

With the second page, I’d be tempted to try using 8 or 9 panels. All with shots in quick succession. Panel one could be Willy punching the Hemorrhoid in the face, panel 2 the Hemmorrhoid poking Willy in the eye, panel 3 Willy giving Hemorrhoid a purple nurple, and so on and so forth. Generally, a series of snapshots of quick, blink-and-you’ll-miss them moments. All small panels, crammed together, encourage the eye to race through them. It’s like putting the reader in amidst the quick, frenzied atmosphere of a battle.

By the third page, these two titans have grown exhausted from beating on each other, so the pace of the battle has slowed. Perhaps evil Chilly Willy has gained the advantage over our hero, The Golden Hemorrhoid, and so taunts him while he’s down, giving him a boot in the ribs while boasting about his superiority. But heroic Hemorrhoid is building up his strength, and regains the advantage, lecturing Willy on how evil will never prevail. There is motion here, so I’m not trying to create a sense of stillness like with the first page, but there is also dialogue, so the pace has slowed down a bit, and I want that reflected in the reading experience. So I’d probably use 5 or 6 panels here, with the reader taking a little time on each panel as they read the dialogue, but things are still moving forward. And with how I began the scene, page 3 also falls on an odd-numbered page, allowing for a page turn…

The final page of the fight is a full-page splash, with The Golden Hemorrhoid blasting a massive fireball out of his anus, setting Chilly Willy ablaze and flying screaming into the air like one of Dhalsim’s opponents in a “Street Fighter” game. This is a big moment, where the whole fight is brought to a standstill, and much like the big slow-motion knockout punch in a film, I want the reader to dwell on this climactic moment. A big splash page, lots of detail, encourages the reader’s eye to settle on that moment for a little while, slowing down the scene in their head.

So I think that more panels on a page CAN be said to speed up a scene, while less panels CAN slow it down. Though having said that, I’ve also done things the other way like Steve recommends, using 8 panels in a page to create a sense of slow motion, of a single moment being drawn out. It all depends on context.

I’m also interested in the taboo of the silent opening page. It’s something I’ve never attempted, not feeling competent enough that I could pull it off, but I’m fascinated by the sheer ballsiness of the idea. The name of it escapes me, but I remember encountering one comic where the first FOUR pages are silent, and are taken up by nothing but sunrise in a city, as we see night give way to morning in intimate detail. I’d love the challenge of trying to grab someone’s attention without words.

I’ve long dwelled on the idea of a haunted house comic: speaking of taboos, the idea came to me from Steven Forbes saying that it is impossible to make one scary. I’ve never went ahead with writing it because, as far as I can tell, Steve is right, and I at least can’t find the tools within the comic medium to tell a haunted house story effectively. But I’m going to keep trying to figure it out. The one idea I do have would be to open with several silent pages, filled with establishing shots of the various rooms of the house, culminating in a full-page splash of the exterior establishing shot of the house as a whole. Not something I think I can pull off yet. Hence why I’m sitting on the idea for now.

Okay, so let’s look at how pacing works with the breaking down of scenes in an actual comic. I’ve been talking a lot about Scalped lately, so I’ll use the most recent issue, #46, as my case study. The issue can broken down into 5 scenes over its 20 pages.

The first scene is 4 pages, the first and fourth of which are both splash pages. The setting is a cave, where one character is holding another captive. In the case of the first page, we have a close-up of the character in peril. I imagine this is going to be a recurring trend throughout the current arc (“You Gotta Sin to Get Saved”) as the first part began with a full-page close-up of another character. This is telling us that the issue will be told largely from that character’s perspective, slowing down as we dwell on getting into their mindset. The second page is 6 panels, and the third page is 5, both of which are dialogue based and move by pretty fast. The fourth page is another splash, in this case setting up a dangerous scenario, and drawing our eye across the page to explore said scenario in more detail. Again, slowing down.

The second scene is five pages long, and is a talking heads scene, based around one character visiting another in prison. As opposed to the previous scene, the increased number of panels are used here to slow things down – the panel counts are 7, 6, 6, 7 and 6 respectively. Here, close-ups and silent beats are inserted in to create pregnant pauses between the conversation, slowing the scene down. In the final page, we see the prisoner walking back to his cell. This could have been done in one panel. But by taking four – one of him walking, one with the camera placed behind a cell of prisoners staring at him as he walks, one with a close-up of the prisoner’s eyes looking sideways, and another high-angle shot looking down at him walking, we dwell on the scene, thinking more about the character’s vulnerability.

Now things get complicated, as the next 9 pages are shared by both the third and fourth scene of the comic, which us cutting back and forth between the two locations. Both are action scenes, of a sort. The first scene is of our kidnapped captive trying to escape from the cave, while the other returns to our prisoner, waiting anxiously for an attempted assassination in the showers he fears is coming his way. We’re four pages into scene three before scene four starts encroaching, and with both scenes jostling for space in the same page we get an increased page count, the page gets more crowded, and it feels like the pace is picking up, each scene building to a crescendo. But then scene 4 ends with a 7-panel page of its own and scene 3 ends with a 5-panel page, where the crescendo stops, and each ends surprisingly quietly. In the case of each scene conclusion, the panels on the top half of the page are packed tightly, before opening out into larger panels at the bottom of the page, when things get still. Again, larger panels slowing things down.

The final scene is a 2-panel page, with one character confronting an unknown figure at gunpoint. The first page is 5 panels, and goes by slowly, building tension for the reveal of who the character is. We turn the page, and the last page of the issue is a full-page splash, revealing what character our assailant is talking to. Because it’s the last moment of the issue, we dwell on it.

So I’m afraid I haven’t been very helpful here. Pages with lots of panels can be used to slow things down… or speed them up. With the same writer using it to do two different things within the same comic, no less!

Given there are so many ways to get pacing right, and even more ways to get it wrong, it’s difficult finding a hard-and-fast rule of, “THIS is the best way to pace your comics.”  I think the hardest part about it is that pacing is so subjective.  No matter how many little tricks we might be able to use as creators to guide the eye or encourage the reader to speed up or slow down, ultimately there is no way we can exercise complete control over how fast or slow someone reads a comic.  The pages that I talked about spending some time on, another reader might have skimmed over, and vice versa.  In the end, it’s out of our hands.  Pacing is decided anew by each new reader who picks up your comic book.  The best we can do is offer some subtle encouragement.

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