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Panel Crazy
By John Byrne


Back in the mid-70s, while he was doing Fantastic Four and other books for Marvel, Jack Kirby began cutting back on the number of panels on a page. From six or even nine he reduced the average to four, and upped considerably the number of full page splashes included in every issue.

At the time, the story was Kirby was doing this because of the way his art was changing, becoming bigger, bolder, more dynamic, and so requiring larger panels. Years later another version would come out: Jack had asked Marvel for a raise. They'd said no, telling him to draw less, thus increasing his page output, instead.

I mention this only because it indicates there are many reasons why an artist might choose to draw the number of panels he does on a page. (In a similar vein, fans were all atwitter when Frank Miller, known for his dense pages on Daredevil, became suddenly very stark and stylized on the Wolverine miniseries he did in the early 80s, large areas of white space appearing around the panels. The talk was all about Frank experimenting with this bold new approach. The truth was much more posaic. That series was the first time Frank worked with Chris Claremont, and seeing how verbose Chris tended to be in X-Men, Frank decided to give him lots of room for copy. Ironically--and, yes, I think that word applies here--Chris had noted how terse Frank was in his writing on DD, and so decided to be terse himself.)

A question, then: how many panels are the "right" number of panels? What's the best way to fill that page, to tell that story? Let's consider this scene:

Working in the BatCave, Batman gets a call from Commisioner Gordon. It seems gangster Hugo "Boss" Greeley has taken over the penthouse floor of the Gotham Hotel, and is there holding a number of hostages. Batman says he'll get right on it, races to the hotel, and climbs in a window, to find that Gordon's report is correct: Greeley and his men have several hostages in the main room of the suite.

How many panels is that?

A lot of artists, especially the ones, like me, who like the draw The Stuff (cars, machines, architecture), might break it down like this:

Panel 1): Establishing shot of the BatCave. Batman is seen working on something at one of the many tables/consoles.
2): Close on the Batphone as it rings.
3): Batman answers.
4): Cut to Gordon, in his office, as hetells Batman about Greeley.
5): Cut back to Batman, as he says "I'll get right on it."
6): He leaps into the BatMobile.
7): Roars off down the tunnel out of the BatCave.
8): Squeals out of the hidden entrance, onto the highway.
9): Zooms toward the Gotham skyline.
10): Careens through traffic.
11): Screeches to a halt outside the Gotham Hotel.
12): Leaps from the BatMobile.
13): Fires a line up the side of the hotel.
14): Climbs the line.
15) Climbs onto the penthouse terrace.
16): Slips across the terrace.
17): Climbs in through the window.
18): Crosses to the door.
19): Opens the door a crack.
20): Reverse angle, opening door in background, Greeley and his gang, with hostages, in foreground.

This is what has come to be called the "cinematic" approach. Basically, that means that, like a strip of movie film, there is as little "elapsed time" between panels as possible. But, that's upwards of 5 or 6 pages, depending on how big some of those panels are. There must be a way to reduce that. There must be fat we can trim.

Well, of course there is. We can start by remembering that a comic book is not a movie, and a page is not a strip of movie film. It's more like a roll of snapshots, and there can be as much or as little time between "frames" as we might deem necessary and (above all) efficient. Let's try the scene again, this time eliminating the stuff that is implicit, such as travel time, or the actual slinging of a Batline up to a penthouse. Stuff we know has happened because we are seeing the subsequent events that could not happen without that stuff.

Panel 1): Batman is already on the phone with Gordon. We "hear", but do not see, Gordon giving Batman the info on Boss Greeley. (What Gordon is saying could even be handled in Batman's response, which could trim wordage. That can be important, too.)
2): The Batmobile zooms out of the Batcave's secret entrance, shot angled so we can see the skyline of Gotham in the background.
3): The Batmobile arrives at the Gotham Hotel, as Batman leaps out.
4): Batman scales the side of the hotel.
5): He climbs in the window. Establishing shot of the room, so that through an open door in the background, we can see Greeley and his gang with the hostages in the next room. (Or: Establishing shot of Greeley and his gang with the hostages. Through an open door in the background, we can see Batman climbing in through a window of the next room.)

Down from 20 to 5. Not bad! That could be as little as a page. Page and a half, tops. But can we trim even more?

You betcha! Screenwriter William Goldman recommends starting scenes as deep into the action as is possible, so let's eliminate all the intermediate, the transitional moments. (This is how those Golden and Silver Age guys were able to tell complete stories in as little as 8 pages. If Superman needed to go to Mars, he'd make the decision in one panel, arrive in the next. Often, in that next panel he'd already be involved in whatever it was he'd gone to Mars to do. Today, we might be inclined to spend a page and a half just getting him there!) Plus, we'll assume for the sake of this discussion that there is nothing special about the exterior of the Gotham Hotel that we need to know about.

Panel 1): Batman on phone with Gordon. Gets info about Greeley and his gang and their shenanigans at the Gotham Hotel.
2): Batman climbs in window of hotel, seeing Greeley and gang in next room with hostages.

Now we're down to half a page. But we can't get any less than that, can we?

Sure we can! Because here, especially, we can take advantage of some of the traditional conventions of comics. Thought balloons, for instance. Captions. And expository dialog that, in the real world might be unbearably clunky, but here might be forgiven as a means to speed the story along.

Panel 1): Batman climbs in a window at the Gotham Hotel. Wide shot, so that through a door in the background we can see Boss Greeley and his gang with some hostages. (Or, again, reverse angle, looking past Greeley and his boys to see, through the open bedroom door, Batman climbing in the window.)
CAPTION: The Gotham Hotel penthouse suite. 9:47pm.
BATMAN (thinks): Gordon's tip was right. Boss Greeley is holding hostages here.

From 20 to 1, and yet all the information conveyed in the longest version is given to the reader in this, the shortest. What might be missing? Well, sure, that drive into Gotham could be used by the writer to have Batman muse about the goings-on in the rest of his life. That climb up the wall could have Batman grumbling about how his shoulder still aches from the knife Greeley shoved into him three weeks ago. Etc, etc. But how much of that is really needed? And how much of it might be dealt with elsewhere, spread over the story--the much shorter, more terse story-- rather than spending pages after page on it?

And, perhaps just as importantly, how much more inclined might a reader be to come back month after month, shelling out his hard earned bucks, if instead of three or four stories a year (per title) he was getting 12?

When I got into the business, circa 1975, Kirby's occasionaly excesses (see above) had gotten a lot of editors asking "Does this really need to be a splash page?" Maybe it's time and past time we started asking "Does this really need to be 3 issues?" Or two? Or anything more than one?

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