Hey friends! Today is a huge day. I'm premiering my latest composition, On Firefly's Wing, tonight at the Student Composers' Concert at the University of Michigan's School of Music, Theatre, & Dance. Due to the preparation required and the fact that I'll be dead-tired after, I'll just leave you with a prepared post from my archive of comic analyses.
Recently, following the suggestion of Matt Fraction (one of my favorite comic authors), I’ve begun reading certain comics at a much deeper level. This is done for two main reasons:
My first subject for dissection was Saga #1 by author Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples, published by Image Comics on March 14th, 2011 and collected in paperback for publication on October 10, 2012. The digital version is currently free on comixology and Image’s website.
**SAGA contains adult themes and may not be appropriate for all audiences.
It’s hard to talk about this jam-packed, double-length issue in a concise way because of how carefully its component pieces are stitched together. In an effort to organize my numerous thoughts about this particular chapter, I’ve broken up my analysis into three primary pieces. Each of these pieces is fairly long, so each gets its own tumblr post. Today I’ll be talking about my general thoughts regarding panel and text distribution. The next two parts of the series will deal with observations related to color palette choices and a scene-by-scene break down.
Saga #1 is 44 pages long (without any ads — thanks, Image!) with 164 panels, and 2698 words in 280 speech bubbles and 31 captions*. Why count the words and speech bubbles? In my initial efforts, I thought it would be beneficial to know an average amount of words per bubble, per panel, and per page. Following all of my counting, I determined this is largely useless. Vaughan uses such diverse sentence structure that an average words-per-bubble doesn’t really tell us much, and in fact this is a sign of good writing. Reading a bunch of sentences 8.68 words long in a row would be exhaustingly boring. For those interested, this 8.68 number is the total average words-per-bubble across the issue, which came up surprisingly frequently as a rough page average. In the end there wasn’t much of importance I learned from word counting, with the notable exception that pages generally had a range of 70-150 words.
*A note about “captions.” Saga does not use non-diegetic captions, a trend more and more common in modern comics. However, the captions are also not just dialogue carried over from the previous scene (the most common use of diegetic captions in modern comics). Instead, the “captions” in Saga are the reflections of the semi-omniscient narrator, Hazel, the child born to main characters at the beginning of the issue. These reflections provide transitions between scenes, serving the function of non-diegetic captions, but adding significantly to the story-telling rather than just specifying locations (which Hazel tends to avoid).
Another lesson I learned in all my counting regards the use of sound effects. Namely, that you won’t find very many in Saga. Different writers and different books require different amounts of sound effects. A Thor book without KRAKA-BOOM every 2 or 3 pages just wouldn’t feel right. But Saga only makes use of sound effects three times across 44 pages, and generally only when the source of the sound is out of frame or if it is unclear that a sound is being made. Vaughan prefers to allow Staples’ art to do the talking.
For learning comic structure, panel counting is far more important than word counting. This is a gray area of control between writers and artists, and thus a key part of the collaboration in story telling. In this first issue, most pages featured 4-5 panels each. Notably, there were only 4 single panel pages and only 1 two-page spread. Two-page spreads are a place for interior artists to really strut their stuff, but they can be very distracting if they’re used too often. The single usage of this panel style comes at a key moment to ensure maximum dramatic effect.
With regard to panels, Staples avoids any kind of grid for panel layout. Grid paneling has fallen out of favor with modern artists. Given the unique narrative of Saga, an old-school grid layout would seem out of place. One of the things a grid provides is a very clear reading order. I think we’ve all read modern comics where we screw up the intended panel order (especially when you have two-page spreads with lots of panels). Staples panel cuts are very easy to follow, and when you look at the thumbnails I suspect you’ll be able to tell the reading order even without any context. That, to me, is the clearest sign of a clean layout.
Staples loves squares and rectangles. Which makes a lot of sense, given the shape of comic books. Other shaped panels or panels with angled cuts are becoming very popular, but these can lead to confusing reading order, and sometimes distract from the art within the panels. Not all of Staples’ panels are 90-degree angle cuts, but she does save angular or rounded panels for dramatic moments. I could say the same about bleeds (when the art runs off the page). There aren’t as many of them as you might be used to if you’re a big Marvel reader, which I think lends a more classic feel, as well as very clean visuals.
While there is great diversity in Staples’ choices, a breakdown of panel distribution doesn’t really show very many particularly odd pages, which I would argue is a good thing. Strange panel layouts would just distract from the captivating beauty and power of Staples’ art. The most notable page in terms of panel layout is 34, where we suddenly find three vertical panels. Because of the dimension of comic pages most of the real-estate is utilized in horizontal cuts, so these vertical panels are especially striking.
I’ve included thumbnails of each of the pages for reference.
This has been a very technical post, and probably only really of use to people interested in writing or drawing comics. The next two should be more interesting to general readers.
For those interested, my pulls on New Comic Book Day were: THE SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL, MARVEL KNIGHTS HULK #4, INHUMANITY #2 (I was a little late to the game on this one), WINTER SOLDIER: THE BITTER MARCH #2, THOR: GOD OF THUNDER #20, THE SUPERIOR FOES OF SPIDER-MAN #10, SEX CRIMINALS #5, NEW AVENGERS #15, MS. MARVEL #2, IRON MAN #23.now, AVENGERS WORLD #4, and ALL NEW INVADERS #3. Check back later this week for my weekly comic review.
E. Ross Ura is a writer, letterer, artist, composer, and blogger active in the Metro Detroit Area.