Typically, reading comics is a breeze. Most people can pick up a book and dive right in. Sure, they might get bogged down in six decades or so of continuity or lose a touch of their sanity trying to understand some extremely complex plots, but the form, the style, and path of action, those should be clear as day. The reader should know what’s going on, even if they don’t understand why.
The call for clarity is nearly always answered by the writer and the artist. In all my years of reading comics there are but a few that I can honestly say I had trouble reading. That’s a testament to the skill of modern comic creators, but also to the editors who review, revise, and finally approve a finished comic.
Recently I’ve noticed one page layout being used more and more often in books. Now this may be due to the fact that I’ve actively been looking for it, but regardless, unless it’s used correctly it can become a mire of confusion and frustration. I don’t have a good term for it yet, I’ve heard someone in the industry call it a “Bendis Page” and I suppose that makes sense since two examples I’m going to be using are from his books. It looks a little like this –
Instead of calling it a “Bendis Page” I’ve dubbed it a Top Spread Establishing Layout. As you can see in this example it’s a two page spread in which the first panel controls the majority of the viewing space and is followed by three minor panels that run left to right along the bottom of the page. The green arrow is just to show you how you read it.
It’s obvious right? John Romita Jr. did a good job of making this layout clear, but then again, there’s not much to it. So far this is really the only case in which I would find this type of page acceptable. There is absolutely no question about how to read the page. It’s when you start adding more rows beneath the spread establishing shot that the confusion sets in. Here’s an example –
Ok, so for me, this page was confusing. My uncertainty began at the “Today” panel. It became a question of “Do I read down as though it’s become a single page?” or “Do I read across as if it’s a 2 page spread?” Initially I had read it down, which, if you made the same mistake you learned that is the incorrect way to read it.
However, even then there isn’t much to tip you off. Most of the dialogue could flow from one panel to the other in any order and the only visual clue that Sandoval gives you that the panels are read across is each shot zooms in a tiny bit with each subsequent panel.
If I were editing this comic and both the writer and artist felt that this layout was the ONLY way to go I would have asked Mr. Sandoval to make one quick fix: move the “Today” panel across the page border. If he would have done that you would have known it wasn’t supposed to be read down as though it were a single page because it wouldn’t have been on just one page. Your eye would have naturally flowed to the panel on the right. Ok, if you had trouble with this page you’re going to love the next one –
Now I just want to say that Guy Davis and Matt Wagner are absolute masters of their craft. The Marquis and Grendel are some of the most awesome comics that I’ve read, bar none, but not even they can make this page layout work. It’s just so uselessly cluttered and unclear and what’s worse? Each and every single issue of Sandman Mystery Theatre has one of these page layouts. Yes, some are more clear than others but by gosh…
Where do you go on the second row of panels? Do you keep reading across like in the above Bendis example? Do you confine yourself to a page and read down? Here are the different ways I thought of that a reader, if he or she was confused, might try to read the page –
So many arrows and I didn’t even include arrows for when your eye would travel up! Even someone well versed in the ways of the funny books might get lost in that page. You actually read the page down, as though it’s 2 pages disregarding the top panel. As an editor I would have scrapped the tradition for doing this layout entirely. However, due to the confusion of the scene in general, the Sandman escaping Dian Belmont, everything is a mess.
In comics clarity is king. If it doesn’t serve the story then it doesn’t belong. This layout, oftentimes, is just too confusing. However, this is just my editorial two cents. Feel free to agree or disagree or just comment period because I’m passionate about these little quirks and discussing comics theory… well that’s what I’m here to do!
There you go, my first Editorial Edits,