Comics Vocabulary: Multi-Panel Pan Sequence


Three-panel pan sequence from Alan Moore's '1963' comic book Mystery Incorporated, published in 1993, art by Rick Veitch and Dave Gibbons

The “1963” image above got me thinking about multi-panel pan sequences in comic books and comic strips.

I bought Alan Moore’s “1963” Mystery Incorporated comic book in 1993, and enjoyed it without noticing the above panel. 1963 is Moore’s homage to (and parody of) the early 1960s Marvel Comics created mostly by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. These comics included the beginnings of various costumed heroes that are now all over, including on movie screens. The big early 60s Marvel debuts include Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Iron Man, X-men and many others. 

I started reading comics in the early 1970s. I got hooked and started collecting these 1960s editions – sometimes originals, sometimes reprints. The 1960s comics were fun, and certainly imprinted themselves on my mind. Re-reading them today… eh… some are ok – especially Jack Kirby’s visuals, but mostly they now seem pretty juvenile. A lot hinges on pretty flimsy plotting, characters aren’t particularly nuanced (especially bad: females and villains.) The comics seem like the results of monthly deadline pressures that result in more-or-less rehashing the rock-em-sock-em battles that sold well the month before.

Much later, in the mid-1980s, Alan Moore shows up and re-invents the comic book. Moore is a comics genius, whom I’ve written about elsewhere (start here and here.) His 1963 books are both a parody of and a celebration of early 1960s Marvel Comics. He later similarly plays with early DC comics in his Supreme comics.

The above panel came to my attention when I was cruising some Alan Moore annotations on-line. Early 1960s Marvel Comics didn’t really utilize what I am now calling the “multi-panel pan sequence” where a given scene (generally a background) spills across multiple panels.

Alan Moore is using this technique very deliberately (hmmm… for folks in the know, that sentence is about as necessary as a Stan Lee “MEANWHILE” caption.) The multi-panel sequence is out of place in a 1963 comic… and that’s because the masked character (sorry, kind of a tiny spoiler) turns out to a 1990s comic character who is time-traveling back to the 1960s. Yeah, that’s not deep, probably more silly than deep, but it got me thinking about how comics visual vocabulary is changing over time.

The multi-panel pan sequence is a visual story-telling trick that’s unique to comics. Only in comics are there sequential panels, borders, and gutters (the white space between), so there’s no, say, cinematic or musical equivalent.

Around 1974, when I first started reading and collecting comics, these multi-panel pans were uncommon. By around 1990, when I mostly transitioned from mostly super-hero comics to mostly adult-alternative comics, these sorts of multi-panel pans were not quite everywhere, but much more common, pretty much to the point of being over-used gratuitously, in my opinion. Some excellent comic artists don’t use them at all; these include, to my knowledge, Jack Kirby and Gil Kane. Some very inventive comic artists don’t use them all;  these include Howard Chaykin and Bill Sienkiewicz. Some of my favorite 60s/70s comic artists use them really well; these include Paul Gulacy, Neal Adams, and Jim Steranko. Some of my favorite contemporary comic creators use them incredibly well; I am thinking of Craig Thompson, Darwyn Cooke, and Alan Moore.

This got me thinking: where did these start? How did they catch on? Who influenced whom? Were there conditions that fostered this – such as unique artist-writer collaborations?

So… I started to spot these sequences and collect them. It’s a work in progress, not encyclopedic, and not intended to be ultra-comprehensive – I have created a web page that indexes them and shows examples in date order. So far the earliest is from 1906… and they’re continuing to pour out. I will continue to keep an eye out for these and post examples that I think are instructive. I’ve already got a backlog of examples awaiting my scanning and posting… and I will try to post some ideas on how these emerged and changed over time.

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