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The Wednesday Waffle - Issue Eighteen: Getting technical

I don't claim to be an expert on the theory of comics - and I'm certinaly not an artist. But I'm a geek and I find this stuff fascinationg - and you can't hang around comics for as many years as I have without picking a few things up, and since we're making a big push to introduce comics to new readers (and want to encourage people to make thier own), I figured now might be a good time to look at some techniques.

That's right. More than anything we want to get you started making your own comics, but we understand that this can be a daunting prospect. So. We figure we should show you some of the basic tools that will help you get your ideas out of your head and on to paper. Let's start with something basic - the classic nine panel grid.

Perhaps most famously used by Dave Gibbons in Watchmen, the nine panel grid does exactly what the name suggests - it divides the comic page into a three panel by three panel grid, as seen above. That doesn't mean that every page will have nine panels, as panels can be stretched over two or more spaces on the grid, as seen here:

This is an extremely formal way of structuring a page, but it has a number of advantages - and it's one of the things that makes Watchmen a good book to put into the hands of adults who have never read a comic before - it makes the narrative line easy to follow.

This is something that people who have always read comics often miss. We're well versed in the business of reading pictures as well as words and so we do it instinctively. People who are new to the medium often don't, and so a page like this:

by Rob Liefeld, for all it's action, energy and dynamism seems like an incomprehensible jumble to them. Where do you look first? What comes before what?

If you're reading this, then I'm guessing you have no problem reading Liefeld's double page spread - it's actually a great double page spread. Speaking personally I'm not the biggest fan of Liefeld's art - I was a McFarlane fan back in the day - but there's no denying that this is a great piece of comic art. But if you're reading this blog, then you already know comics.

People who don't read comics find this sort of thing madenning, because the reading track isn't clear, and as a result they don't see a narrative, they see a mess. And that puts them off comics as a medium. A nine panel grid overcomes this barrier, because the reading track is clear and obvious.


What's a "reading track"?

Well, it's exactly what it sounds like. It's the track your eyes take across a page as you read it. Everything you read has one, and the one you're most familiar with is the one you follow when you read prose - in written languages that read from left to right, such as English, a prose reading track looks like this:

I regret I can't credit the creator of this image because I found it online and it was uncredited. But it's a great illustration of the track your eyes take across a nine panel grid. It's exactly the same as the track your eyes take across a page of prose, which makes it incredibly easy for a newcomer to comics to follow, unlike the track across Leifeld's page, which is significantly more complex.

The choice to stick to the nine panel format does have some significant drawbacks however. For a start, it can make the layout of your page boring. Easy to follow, sure, but the same grid for page after page gets pretty samey, pretty fast. It also restricts the artist's creative flair. Say what you like about Liefeld's art, it looks like he was having the time of his life when he drew it. So why would an artist choose to restrain themselves in such a way?

When asked on twitter, Dave "Watchmen" Gibbons commented "I chose the nine panel grid and sold it to Alan. Gave him great control & its restriction challenged me to compose more creatively". In other words, sometimes having to curb your enthusiasm a little bit and work within a disciplined structure prevents you from just doing the first fun thing that comes into your head and forces you to think carefully about what you're doing.

I'm not saying that such an approach always leads to better comics, but it certainly leads to different comics, and sometimes that's important. Essentially, the nine panel grid serves two purposes. It provides the reader with a clear structure to follow, making the narrative easier to understand, and it forces both the writer and the artist to maintain a clear, disciplined approach to their storytelling.

In the end, it's like any other tool in a creative's toolbox. Use it well, and for all it's regimented visual repetetiveness it allows the reader to engage with the story free from any kind of confusion caused by not understanding what comes next. Use it badly and it's duller than a rainy Wednesday afternoon in a Bridlington B&B that scored less than three stars on Trip Advisor.

The trick, clearly, is to be a creative genius on the level of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

The problem is that honestly? You're probably not.

But - and again, this is important - that doesn't matter. There are lots of people who wouldn't claim to operate in the rarified air breathed by the likes of giants such as Moore and Gibbons. We can't all be Stan Lee, Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby either. You can still make comics that are worth reading - lots of people do. All you need is some idea about how to go about it, an idea, and the determination to see it through.

Well. Now you know about the nine panel grid. If you're a newbie to creating comics I'm going to commend it to you as a brilliant foundation on which to build your story.

Of course, you do still need a story, and well get to that in due course.

Next week I want to get technical about time - and about those gaps between the panels. What's going on there?

Turns out, a lot more than you'd think.

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