Pipeline: What Will Be Comics' Next Big Storytelling Technique?

Tue, January 26th, 2016 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist


15 years ago or so, we saw the rise of "decompressed" storytelling. It borrowed a technique from manga, which was quickly rising in popularity at the time. One moment could be stretched out for pages in manga, and everyone loved it. The fact that those things happened in books that ran a couple hundred pages versus a comic that only ran 22 was lost on some people.

Decompression as a novelty has run its course, following the classic pattern of a pendulum swinging too far in one direction. As these things always do, they swing back to a more normal position, though with permanent changes of a smaller scale still in place.

Comics are a breezier read now than they were 20 years ago. Gone are the days of Claremontian captions and Stan Lee exposition. Gone, mostly, are the comics where word balloons dominate every panel and the characters moved glacially forward while explaining everything to the first time reader that editors all assumed were holding the comic.

The average time to read a comic is probably half what it was in 1990, even accounting for the lesser page count. With comics being made in particular for an assumed trade collection, that's more justifiable. A story spreads out over more pages, so important moments can breathe, or more illustrations can be used to tell the same story, giving the artist room to show some acting and directing in new ways. When you read the story in its permanent collected format down the line, it'll all even out.

The manga-led decompressed storytelling was an extreme of this style. It's an outlier that has centered back out. Yet people still refer to some of this as "decompression," which I think is wrong. Bad habits are hard to break.

Modern readers are seeing a new phase of storytelling, I think. As decompression was borne of manga, I think this new phase is borne of television and movies. Those are the media forms that dominate the landscape. Today's creators were raised on a steady diet of motion pictures and serialized entertainment on the small screen. We live today in a much talked about Golden Age of television.

More and more of these productions use storyboard artists to help guide the visual look and storytelling style of the shows. More of those storyboard artists cross over into comics, and more comic artists can crossover into storyboards. We've heard plenty of times from Hollywood executives that the comics they base their movies on are like instant storyboards for the films.

It's not a perfect comparison. There are big differences between the form of storyboards and comics. There are matters of form factor and detail in the art. A storyboard for a movie will generally consist of a series of panels all in the same aspect ratio, as the film will be shot in. The number of pages doesn't correspond to time on the screen, and since it isn't being published, there's no limit to how many images a storyboard artist can draw to tell a part of the story.

However, the big difference between storyboards and comics is the way they tell a story. Comic books are told in panels that capture a moment. Two or more things might happen in a panel, but the artist can only draw one of them. The word balloons or caption boxes will fill in the rest. A conversation can occur in one panel where emotions change, but the artist must pick one to draw. A comic tries to, by its nature, compress the story to keep it moving, limiting the number of panels to a minimum to tell the story on the space allotted.

Storyboards, on the other hand, flow through the story and those moments. They can tell every detail of every moment. They are meant to capture every nuance and motion and change in direction. A single comic book panel might contain enough material for three or more storyboard images. Every beat of the moment will be drawn out. Storyboard artists draw a lot of images.

I think it's bleeding over into comics. I think comic book artists are more and more using the medium to tell a story in smaller chunks. Rather than putting two characters in a panel with plenty of dead space between them to stuff a ton of dialogue into, they're more likely to draw that dialogue back-and-forth in a series of panels that show each action and reaction. Each speaker's turn might get a panel. The conversations spills out over a whole page, as each change in direction or emotion gets a panel.

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This isn't decompression. It's not a matter of a single moment being spread out over an extreme number of panels or pages for dramatic effect. It's storyboarding, where the artist can act more strongly as a director and an actor. It's the artist visualizing the comic script as a movie and adding all the cuts (the moments between panel borders) back and forth, pushing the camera through the scene as he or she wishes while animating the characters.

Let me show you a few recent examples of this in action.


Here's a page by Charlie Adlard and Stefano Gaudiano, with gray tones from Cliff Rathburn and letters by Rus Wooton.

walking dead leaving

Dwight is leaving the Sanctuary. Laura catches up to him and joins him. Together, they ride off.

In old school comics storytelling, that's three panels, at best. You can easily combine the first two and second two sets of panels. You can picture a two shot (two characters in the panel together) to start with the first four word balloons, and then another two shot for the next two. That last shot of the two riding off into the sunset (almost literally) stays. It looks cool and it shows the movement away from the Sanctuary that you need.

So, why use five panels instead of three? The simple answer is: pacing. This is a moment that feels important for these two characters, so you want to give it space to breathe. You want to get close up on the characters. And, of course, it's the storytelling style the entire series uses. To suddenly compress events like that would be jarring. Plus, it would mean a scene transition mid-page, which is never a good option in modern comics.

But let's look at how those five panels break down and see what Adlard is doing. The previous page was a splash of Dwight riding off on his horse.

The first panel is a sudden pull back on the action. Dwight is looking over his shoulder when his name is called. That makes sense. The visual matches the word balloon. It also works that we see he's looking behind him, so we know it's someone chasing after him from the town he just left. It's one beat in the scene, and it's one panel.

The second panel reverses that angle and introduces us, by name, to the character. It's Laura. She's on the left side of the panel from Dwight, which makes sense since we saw Dwight looking back and to our left in the previous panel to look at her. For the next two panels, also, Laura is on the left while Dwight is on the right. Welcome to the 180 degree rule.

This is the beat in the scene where Dwight explains himself to Laura, who we're seeing for the first time. Adlard's art focuses on just those two things.

In the third panel, it's just Laura talking. Dwight's finished his turn, and now it's a new beat. There's no back and forth. Laura says two sentences, and Adlard punctuates what she's saying with her facial expression. It's a half-smile that sells the line to Dwight. With that line of dialogue, in particular, her facial expression is important. Adlard focuses on that.

Dwight answers in the fourth panel, a half smile showing up on his face, too. It's a simple "okay," but his facial expression shows us that he's saying it with confidence and humor, not sarcastically or caustically. The scene is four panels, with each character speaking twice. With each change in the character speaking, we change to a new panel. Every little moment is accounted for. The camera jumps around between each panel, moving slowly around in a circle until the final panel reverses its position completely.

If a director wanted to shoot an episode of the television series from this story, that person could use this page as the storyboard and know which four shots are needed, and how the camera will be moving between them.

This isn't decompression. That would be if the same wide panel was repeated five times in a row to show Laura's horse getting progressively closer, until she was finally within earshot of Dwight and calls out his name. This is storyboarding the scene, showing each beat of the scene explicitly.

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Gabriel Hardman is an actual storyboard artist in Hollywood, having worked on films like "Superman Returns" and "Inception." (You read that link I had last week, right?)

Let's look like at a page from something he has drawn, with colors by Jordan Boyd:

inv republic 6 hardman

Again, it's a page of simple dialogue, and with but one exception, the panel changes every time a new person starts to speak. The virtual camera cuts between panels to the next one. The angles and compositions are deliberately chosen to match the content of the dialogue, which is something storyboarders do so well.

In the first panel, the "we" in the word balloon is shown clearly: it's the two people that are visible in the panel, itself. If Hardman had chosen a wider angle and we had seen the driver and passenger in the front seat, the "we" would be unclear. The artist here is focusing your view on the people specific to the dialogue. By showing just the shoulders of the front seats, Hardman is also cementing that the two are in the back seat and adding some depth to the panel for interest. It's good to have a foreground.

In the second panel, Hardman changes angles. It's a good time for that. It adds diversity to the page, but ensures that the person speaking first is left-most on the panel. Again, the "we" referred to in the word balloons refers to the only two people visible in the panel.

The third panel keeps the speaker off-panel, but that's ok. The reaction to what's being said is more interesting. That open-mouthed look of "Whoops, you're right" adds more to the storytelling than the perhaps quizzical look on the face of the speaker.

In the fourth panel, we reverse directions and Hardman hits the perfect angle. We now see the people in the front seat of the vehicle, revealing who the character is -- the 60-plus year old lady -- and where she's sitting in relation to them. Because you see the two in the back seat over their shoulders, you're not thrown out of the story. The physical relationship between the two pairs of characters is spelled out nicely for you.

Finally, the fifth panel zooms way out to a well-constructed wide angle shot. "We're almost home" is said at the same time the "home" is first shown. That's the purpose of this panel: to show the home and they're relation to it. They're almost there. An exterior wider shot is the perfect choice. It's not the only one -- I suppose you could be looking at the home from inside the car through the windshield, for example -- but it's very effective.

The storytelling is sound, and the composition of this panel is awesome, with the billowing clouds filling up the left half in a triangular shape, pointing to the vehicle speeding along the ground, before your eye is drawn up to the home on the hill. The vehicle has white speedlines behind it to show what angle it's travelling from, as well as negative space in front of it to give it room to breathe in the panel and show you where it's heading.

That's the first "rule" of showing motion in a panel: Give the mover room to move. If they're moving from left to right, don't push them up against the right edge of the panel border because it gives them no place to go. Don't push them against the left because you can't tell that they're moving when there's no space behind them.

In pure storyboarding, there'd probably be an arrow drawn out to indicate the direction of the vehicle, and perhaps even the camera if this was meant to be a tracking shot. In comics, we get speedlines. Fair trade.

Could this page be more succinct? I suppose. You could stuff all those word balloons into one larger panel on the first half of the page, but it would be visually less interesting and more tedious to read. The eye likes to move across comic pages. It's as much a trick of storytelling these days as any other. Keep the reader moving physically through the comic.

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And, also, the visuals would be background noise to the dialogue, instead of complements and enhancers. The visual storytelling part of comics involves a lot of emphasis of the script. The artist has to guide the reader to the points they think are interesting. Just throwing a static image up while the story is told in dialogue is a lot like the complaints of stiff television animation -- it's "illustrated radio," where the visual part is done on the quick and the cheap.

As with the "Walking Dead" page, you can see this page as a storyboard, too. Each panel is a cut in the scene to the next angle, flipping from one camera to the next between lines of dialogue, each of which gets a panel, also.


I hope these pages give you good examples of what I'm thinking of when I say that a comic book is being storyboarded.

Each panel...

  • ...tells the smallest bit of time possible to match a story beat.

  • ...has a focus that directly matches the dialogue or caption.

  • ...represents a cut in camera.

This storytelling style, much like decompression before it, is not exclusive to any comic book. It can be mixed in with other styles. It is least suited for storytelling styles, though, that play tricks with the comic page. Picture J.H. Williams III's style, for an extreme example. Part of storyboarding is the restraint to maintain a style that's more consistent, and likely falls on a grid, but without having to go so far as to lock things down to one shape.

Storyboarded comics are also likely to be thought of as fast reads, mostly because no single panel gets weighed down with too many actions. Your eye is moving quickly from panel to panel. Even if the panels are small and a lot happens on the page, the reader is likely to describe the experience as "quick" because they've covered so much ground without every getting stuck in a verbose panel.

That's my theory, at least. It's something I'm still working on, but it's a style I tend to like a lot. It maintains the best of cinematic storytelling along with a lot of the strongest suits of comics storytelling.

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