A Brief Look at Panel Layout and Storytelling

Panel layout, when done well, is something that tends to go unnoticed by comic readers. Competent layouts guide the reader’s eyes from panel to panel with no confusion of which panel is meant to be read next. Bad layouts stick out and break the reader’s immersion since they have to take a moment to figure out which panel to read next. However, layouts do more than just lead (or fail to lead) the reader from panel to panel; they also play a crucial role in storytelling.


The panels’ shape and size may be altered to fit whatever action is going on. For instance, as Jason Nemeth pointed out, pages in Watchmen will break the standard nine-panels-per-page format to add emphasis on particular panels. A single panel may thus take up the space of two or three regular panels to give a sense of distance, scale, time, or to add drama to a close-up shot. This panel variance is crucial to set the tone of each scene, and in Watchmen it works especially well because most other panels are the exact same size and shape. When the layout changes, the reader immediately notices, and thus the artist is able to highlight which moments are the most important.


One of the most striking moments in the entire novel is with a layout that happens exactly once: Veidt attacking his would-be-assassin across the page gutter.

Watchmen_Fearful_SymmetryThis is the only instance in Watchmen in which a panel stretches over page boundaries. It takes up the space of six ordinary panels, three on each page. All of the other panels on these pages occupy two normal panels’ worth of space, emphasizing every single thing that happens in this spread. Compared to other pages, this is a layout that screams for attention, and it sticks out in the reader’s mind.


The unusual layout hits home the theme of this chapter, symmetry, but the scene it shows is also crucial to the overarching plot. This is the first time we see Veidt doing anything violent. Since that’s unusual compared to what we’ve seen from him up to this point, it’s an important piece of foreshadowing to his true nature. Without hesitation, he brutally subdues his assailant, showing us the level of violence he is capable of as well as his cold, calculating side. The layout of this page underscores the importance of this scene, making sure that the reader cannot possibly forget it.


However, aside from this, the only way Watchmen’s panels vary is by size. Every panel is rectangular, has clean borders, and does not bleed out into page margins. Changes in shape and borders can also contribute to storytelling, as the stories in A Contract With God show. There are some rectangular panels, but often there are “panels” that have no borders at all, simply existing in the white space of the page.


In the titular story, which makes most frequent use of borderless panels, the expanse of white space surrounding Hersh creates a sense of distance and lack of structure. It feels like we are watching him from far away, as if through the eyes of the God he is so angry with.

Seeing Frimme Hersh through the eyes of God.
Seeing Frimme Hersh through the eyes of God.

It also shows Hersh’s loss after his daughter’s death, since we are seeing him as distant and alone. The lack of borders, which can represent structure, show us that Hersh is now lost in life. He has lost his purpose and will to obey what he thinks are God’s wishes. Once he throws his contract out the window, he becomes morally lost, becoming a corrupt businessman who gets his start by using his church’s money.


What panel borders are present in Eisner’s work are free-handed, giving them a sketchy, uneven appearance. While borders themselves suggest structure, the way the ones in A Contract With God are drawn instead bring to mind the characters’ shaky morals and mental states. The lack of a consistent layout allows Eisner more flexibility and the ability to play with borders like this, but makes it more difficult to call attention to any particular panel.


Watchmen and A Contract With God use their page layouts in vastly different ways, but each approach contributes to its story. Readers may not consciously be aware of how panel layouts emphasize certain moments or set a particular mood, but it definitely affects their reading and enjoyment of the story.