1980s Multi-Panel Pans
Listed in publication date order.
January 1980 – from Marvel Comics’ Iron Man, No. 130 – written by David Micheline, drawn by Bob Layton.
Around ’79-’80 these multi-panel sequences become somewhat common. They’re certainly not on every page, but it seems like most artists have become hip to them, and are working them in, whether they really work or not… which is to say that I start to see what I deem gratuitous multi-panel pans.
For example, the panels to the left here. Iron Man is battling a big computer-virus Chinese dragon… it’s got its tail wrapped around “shellhead” and breathing fire on him… and the fire has to go behind a panel gutter… I am not sure why. Did the editor say something about the size of the dragon? Did it get thrown in just because it could look cool? I dunno.
I know that Bob Layton is capable of using the device well, because, in the same issue, this wholly appropriate and somewhat artful multi-panel pan appears. It’s used to move characters through a landscape – perhaps the most common, earliest and most useful action for multi-panels to illustrate. (Note that this whole issue is mired in portrayals of Chinese stereotypes that are attempting to be wise and perhaps multi-cultural… but today they come off as borderline orientalism, fetishistic, perhaps racist.)
September 1980 – From Marvel Comics’ Daredevil, No. 166 – art by Frank Miller, writing by Roger McKenzie. Relatively early work (and a cliche sequence of the live human hiding among the rogues gallery statues) by Frank Miller, who will go on to a lot of very innovative visuals (including Ronin stuff below.)
October 1981 – from Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange, No. 49, written by Roger Stern, art by Marshall Rogers.
I thought that this was a fairly successful, playful and innovative use of panel geometry… as can be done in the mystical realms that Dr. Strange spends time in… which lend themselves to novel and surreal treatments.
It’s also somewhat interesting as the shared background is between panels one and four of a sequence… which is fairly unusual. Usually the pan sequence is, well, sequential. In this case, the action circles back around to that initial panel… where Strange now has to tell Mordo to “turn and face me!”
April 1982 – From Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange, No. 52, writing by Roger Stern, art by Marshall Rogers. What would comic artists do without stairs that descend from upper right to lower left? Though I like Rogers’ artwork, I don’t think that this sequence works all that well. Because the pan skips (it’s in panels 2-4-5 above, skipping panel 3), it doesn’t flow all that well… it looks like maybe Strange is jumping into panel six?
December 1982 – From DC’s Camelot 3000, No. 1 – art by Brian Bolland, writing by Mike W. Barr. Brian Bolland is an incredibly precise, clear comic artist who I was and am still a fan of. His strength is more the precision of his line, as opposed to inventiveness. He does use multi-panel pans, but sparingly. I could only find two in the the Camelot 3000 12-chapter trade-paperback. It’s interesting to me that some of the best comic book artists (Bolland, Jack Kirby, Gil Kane) actually employ a somewhat conventional panel vocabulary – maybe they don’t need tricks, they’re so good otherwise.
September 1983 – From DC’s Ronin, No. 2 – written and drawn by Frank Miller. I confess that I didn’t collect lots of the Frank Miller work. Ronin is his sci-fi epic highly influenced by Japanese Manga, especially Lone Wolf and Cub. Ronin is a visually lush, impressive epic work… with plenty of multi-panel pan sequences. I am not going to show lots and lots of them. In some ways the shapes of these panels have a Japanese feel. They’re mostly a horizontal series of regular tallish panels, so they seem to hang a bit like a series of fabric flaps that one might pass through to enter a room.
A lot of them are wordless – like this fight scene page. In some ways, the vertical gutters on this page are gratuitous; the page could work with just three horizontal panels… but they lend a cool pace and structure and look to what’s basically a fight scene. The black fists in panels five through eight are especially impressive. The hatching gives them a great deal of motion. The perspective is from below, so these are blows raining down on the protagonist… things becoming a blur before they go black. (More Ronin below.)
November 1983 – from Marvel Comics’ Iron Man, No. 176, written by Denny O’Neil, art by Luke McDonnell. I thought that this one was a bit interesting because it interacts with the setting: the horizontal gutter is a stand-in for a holographic floor.
January 1984 – From DC’s Ronin, No. 4 – written and drawn by Frank Miller. This use of gutters/panels for this image would be gratuitous (more on that below – see 1986 example) but Miller has opened chapters two through four with a six-panel page including an upper and lower horizontal panel and a horizontal series of four tallish panels in the middle. So, this four-panel sequence is sort of reiterating a format-theme. In this case, too, Ronin has been killed (in ancient times), reincarnated (in dystopic future times), then beaten up (see above), and pretty much gone missing for an issue. So here, he’s reappeared and come into his own bad-ass samurai self. So I think that these three gutters sort of symbolize a coming together to a state of completion. (One random note: the first gutter, between panels one and two, is tilted a little… I think, composition-wise, it hit the nose badly, so Miller moved it over just a bit.)
May 1984 – From DC’s Ronin, No. 5 – written and drawn by Frank Miller. I show this great 2-page layout (one of my favorites in the entire 6-part Ronin series) just to demonstrate how a mutli-pan can be fairly subdued. There are two short pan sequences here (panels 4 and 5, and 6 and 7) and I think they’re great, but not flashy – a bit minor in the service of an overall visual narrative. The pan sequences do allude to a passage of time, and a building of tension, in the encounter between Ronin and his adversaries. They’re perhaps analogous to a soundtrack helping to accentuate emotions in a film scene.
January 1984 – from DC’s New Talent Showcase, No. 1 – Sky Dogs Away story, written by L.B. Kellog, art by Tom Mandrake. Pretty-much-gratuitous extra gutters proved irresistible for the “new talent.” Beta atha DROCH!
October 1984 – from Marvel Comics’ Epic Comics imprint’s Crash Ryan, No.1 – written and drawn by Ron Harris. Two examples:
This first one (above) I like, and think of as a sort of classic multi-pan. Crash Ryan is moving through different rooms of a building – from far to near. Each conversation is distinct – across the bar, heading away from the bar, unwelcome encounter at the top of the stairs. Ryan’s arc through the scene is very legible. I like Estella’s wavy, off-panel hollering “CRASH!” My nitpicks would be that isometric perspective is a bit flatter than actual perspective… so, combined with figures that are a touch stiff (Crash’s shoulders are, let’s say, mannequin-like) it comes off overall a bit more like a diagram than like life.
This one I think is kind of unneeded. Visually it looks kinda cool going across the central fold (so I should probably just enjoy instead of critiquing), but I think it would work just fine without that extra box at the beginning… and I guess what most bugs me is that, I think, the caption would probably best apply to the overall scene, not the isolated panel it’s in.
December 1985 – from First Comics American Flagg No. 27, art by Don Lomax, writing by Alan Moore. I wasn’t going to post too many of Alan Moore’s multi-panel pan sequences… but they’re great… so I’ve included Promethea, Watchmen, 1963, and these obscurities from Moore’s brief run on American Flagg. One observation here, when a writer like Alan Moore (are there any writers like Alan Moore?) uses multi-panel pans, they’re spread out through the issue. When an artist, such as Paul Gulacy or Neal Adams, uses them, they tend to be more common in the beginning of the issue, before the deadline pressure trumps experimentation and creativity. Moore’s brief run in Flagg is mostly as a back-up feature, then bursts into the front of the comic for its full-length conclusion in issue 27. It’s a story that plays up the sexual themes that Howard Chaykin built into Flagg, and turns Kansas into Loveland – an out-of-control sex-frenzied mess. I find the art unremarkable (pallid in comparison to Howard Chaykin’s Flagg), but the story is full of Alan-Moore-clever. There are plenty of multi-panel sequences throughout the issue, but one clever trick is to use the initial full-two-page-spread and the last full-two-page-spread as a sort of symmetrical intro and outro.
1986 – From Upshot Graphic’s Flesh and Bones, No. 4, Dalgoda story (untitled) art by Dennis Fujitake, written by Jan Strnad. Fujitake is an artist whom I liked a lot… precise black line (somewhat European – a la Moebius or Herge) with fairly lush color. A random observation on this sequence is that generally Fujitake uses black gutters (not uncommon, used by Mignola, Craig Thompson, and many others) but for the pan sequence uses white gutters…
December 1986 – From Marvel Comics The Uncanny X-men No. 212 – art by Rick Leonardi, writing by Chris Claremont. This is an example of a, in my opinion, pretty much entirely gratuitous multi-panel pan sequence… which start popping up all over in super-hero comics around early- to mid-1980s. What is the difference in time between the four panels? How long this sequence takes, he does not know. Did the pent-up energy move down the body, through them bionic matrices, head to toe? or did it happen all at once? I dunno. One thing that’s telling is that word boxes don’t even respect the four-panel break down… the words treat this like one big panel. If we took away the three gutters it would work just as well, I think. I don’t want to be too harsh. Maybe these white lines are there to make it look cool… and looking cool is part of telling a story. Overall, though here’s the scenario I read in this: maybe the writer had something in mind, and the artist didn’t quite do it, and when it came to placing the lettering, someone threw up their hands and “f*ck it, let’s just drop this narration in here, I got a deadline to meet.” More assembly line than craft… but this book probably sold multiple orders of magnitude more than the indies I like, so they’re doing something right.
April 1987 – from DC’s Watchmen, No. 8 – Art by Dave Gibbons, writing by Alan Moore. There are more multi-panel pans in Watchmen then I have time to write about. If you like comics, and you haven’t read Watchmen, then do.
(1988 none posted yet)
1989 – from Penguin’s Raw, Vol. 2, No. 1, Maus chapter ‘Time Flies’ writing and art by Art Spiegelman.
Spiegelman is an acknowledged comics master, who employs lots of very self-conscious comic book vocabulary, very intelligently. His published work has included polyptichs since the mid-1960s. His multi-pans are very self-conscious, sometimes fractured – to express a sort of imperfect continuity across panels.
I confess that the first few times I read the first page of Maus’ Time Flies chapter, I didn’t notice the swastika that weaves its way through the background of all five panels. It wasn’t until I read something from Art Spiegelman where he described this. I don’t remember the original source where I saw this, but here is Spiegelman’s description from the 2011 book MetaMaus (p. 165) “Mostly I kept my structural interests sublimated and below most readers’ consciousness, like the hidden swastika on the first “Time Flies” page. It’s difficult to see, but it’s there: made out of the angled black shadows that define the spotlight on the drawing table. The blacks travel through the page and make a broken swastika that holds the page together on top of the pyramid of bodies.”
I recently counted about a half-dozen polyptichs in MAUS overall. They’re there, but not overused. Here’s a somewhat more conventional one, from the same Time Flies chapter:
Spiegelman also describes this sequence in MetaMaus (p. 211), including how the line of prisoners brings the readers eye diagonally down from the first row of panels into the second row.