I wrote earlier about comic books’ mutli-panel pan sequences, which can also interchangeably be called super panels, polyptychs, multi-pans. I’ve been compiling this still-very-very-incomplete chronological index of super panels. For a really broad-brush review: These multi-pans arise early in comics history, are expored sporadically by some early comics masters, largely fall out of favor from the 1950s–1960s, then re-emerge with greater frequency in the late 1970s–1980s.
For this post, I want to explore some questionable multi-pans. These aren’t necessarily 100% wrong. Some of these are the work of masters, others are from comic artists whom I have less respect for. Right now I’m an artist who barely dabbles in comics, so I may not be all that qualified to critique these… but I’ll put my opinion out there nonetheless. Ultimately the decision on how to portray something in images and words is an artistic decision… it’s up to the creator… not the critic.
I am planning to do a series of three post explaining three different types of questionable multi-pans: (I’ll go in retroactively and update these with links.)
- gratuitous multi-pans
- motion-logic inconsistent multi-pans
In super-hero comics in the 1980s–1990s, multi-pans became fairly common. It wasn’t as if they were in every page… but lots of artists used them… often… whether they actually made sense or not. The multi-pans that I call gratuitous are ones where the gutters (white space between panels) could be removed and the panel would work just fine.
Generally I am guessing that these gratuitous gutters are added just because they look cool. See below, because sometimes they do look really, in the hands of master, including Frank Miller. Generally, though, I think that a super panel should (per Michel Fiffe’s description) “to delay time, build tension, or reveal story details.”
Here’s an example of what I think is a pretty-much entirely gratuitous multi-pan. It’s from X-Men No. 212, published by Marvel Comics in December 1986:
My main test for gratuitous multi-pans is that I can just look at the overall panel, and, in my head, subtracting out the gutters. Basically the test here would be: Is there some, generally time or space (temporal or spacial) difference and/or movement between the panels? For this one, my answer is no. Maybe that energy swirl thingie is moving from head to toe of the prone figure (Colossus)… but not really because the energy swirl thingie goes across each of the gutters. Reading the narration box, it seems like it takes a while to ” realign the bionic matrices” but, at least in my opinion, the overall image doesn’t seem to indicate that panel four takes place at a significantly different time as panel one or any others… but, hey, “How long this takes, he does not know.”
The above X-Men super panel has two additional tip-offs that sometimes indicate to me either gratuitous or sloppy work:
- Dialogue flows backwards: Comics (ones in English) read left to right. The character in panel 2 states “Can you help?” and this answered by the character in panel 1 “Perhaps.” So… the panels create a confusion in visual flow. Is the reader supposed to read panel 2 first? This confusion would be somewhat alleviated to just have one panel, so we can see who’s saying what without going back and forth. (Note that some comic artists, including Art Spiegelman, sometimes deliberately create confusion of flow to express chaos or disorientation. I don’t think that’s the case here.)
- Caption boxes ignores panel divisions: I tend to think that a great polyptych will be sequential; each panel will indicate a distinct/discrete moment in time (or a relatively brief range of time.) If this is the case, then captions generally won’t overlap multiple panels. These four panels have six caption boxes. The second, fifth and sixth boxes overlap multiple panels… so it seems like there’s not a distinct moment that they’re describing… it all kinda runs together.
At this point I am over-thinking this panel… but one possible explanation would be that the extra gutters represent a fracturing of the image analogous to the described “disruption” at the molecular level. Not that I think was conveyed here consciously or effectively or well. My opinion is that it would work better as a single panel.
So, especially in the 1980s, there are lots and lots and lots of multi-pans that I find gratuitous… so many I stopped scanning them. I’ve included another at the top of the post, and below are a few more:
I find it a bit comical that the villain (“Deathgrip”) is split between these panels… almost as if he’s ducking over from one window to another to stick his head in. Better as a single panel, in my opinion.
Though these super panels proliferated in the late 70s and 80s, here’s an example from the 1960s, when these were uncommon:
This one is curious. Daredevil’s second and third word balloons form one sentence flowing from from the top of panel 2 to the top of panel 3. The Owl’s response, near the bottom of panel 2, probably follows Daredevil’s statement in panel 3? The huge screw-bolt-machine-thing in the foreground looks like it was drawn by someone who didn’t draw the other machines. The hexagonal-shape bolt in panel 1 more or less fits the screw. In panel 2, the second bolt is, let’s say, anatomically incorrect. Not pictured, but the apparatus looks different than the same screw-apparatus the page before. The issue credits list three inkers: “Fearless Frank [Giacoia], Darlin’ Dick [Ayers], Wild Bill [Everett]” … and the way I’ve read that a lot of Stan Lee writing worked was that other folks drew stuff and he came in later and added the words and captions… so I somehow think that this one was hastily assembled, and perhaps Gene Colan drew a single panel and somewhere along the way, someone split it into three… unnecessarily.
The next one I think is gratuitous… but perhaps a tiny bit worthwhile stylistically:
The larger panel already a multi-exposure panel; the small red airplane is drawn 6 or 7 times as it lands on the big gray air ship. The caption pertains to the entire scene. Does that first red airplane really need a separately boxed panel? Would it work better as just a single large panel? I think so… but it kinda looks cool… but it kinda says “hey, don’t forget you’re reading a comic book!” What do you think? Gratuitous or worthwhile?
I will close with one’s that’s kinda gratuitous, but it actually works in the overall context. Here’s a panel from the first page of Ronin, No. 3, written and drawn by Frank Miller, published by DC Comics in 1984:
These gutters are gratuitous. This could work fine a single panel. There’s no real difference in time or space between panel 1 and panel 4… but I think it works. Mostly because throughout Ronin, Frank Miller establishes a pattern of breaking many many pages into variations on three-four rows and four columns. Sometimes it’s gratuitous; sometimes it breaks up sequentially. Overall it works very well.
For example, see the page to the right. It’s, arguably two or three rows of four gratuitous multi-pans. (The third row isn’t so gratuitous – the blood gets thicker from left to right, so it’s a change over time.) But I think it looks good. It creates an overall stylized page aesthetic that works. It’s maybe cinematic – almost like a strobe or a sequence of jumpy cuts.
One more thing about the “CASEY…” super panel above: with the exception of the first page of the first issue (which takes place in ancient times), the first page of every issue features a second row broken into four panels. So doing a multi-panel, even gratuitous, in issue four makes sense, because it’s consistent with the layout from prior issues.
So… like a lot of rule-breaking in art contexts… deliberately breaking rules can work well. Where a consistent visual style and/or pace has been established (or is being established) then sometimes a gratuitous multi-pan is somewhat worthwhile.
All that to say that there’s not a clear line between stylistically-justified and gratuitous… so, I guess I know the gratuitous ones when I see them! And I will try to respect some folks will have a different opinion than I do on which of these are worthwhile, and which aren’t.