A Structured Mess

There’s something about a well laid-out page in a comic book that gives me a slight nerdgasm. It’s not a specific thing, mind you. After reading comics for over a decade, simple pretty pictures or a good story don’t always do it for me; but if you add a beautiful design to bring them together, you’ve got magic on the page. Personally, my favorite layouts are complex layouts. I get easily bored by regular old squares on the page, and it can make the action feel clunky and poorly plotted. Give me a good copy of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, or Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III’s trippy magical masterpiece Promethea and I’ll be happier than the Joker with some gunpowder.

Prometha Issue 15, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by JH Williams III
publisher: America's Best Comics
Image courtesy of: http://www.howtolovecomics.com/2015/07/20/artist-week-13-j-h-williams-iii/

And yet, my whole world-view on layouts was recently upended. On a loose recommendation, I picked up a copy of Tom King and Barnaby Bagenda’s The Omega Men, and for the next 40 minutes proceeded to have my mind blown. Why? Outside of the wonderfully complex and layered story and the beautifully rendered illustrations, The Omega Men is one of the single greatest examples of how much a creative team can achieve with the nine panel grid – the simplest of layouts.

See, comics are only as strong as the sum of their parts. Layouts on the page have evolved from their squared origins of no-relation to the story to integral parts of the story telling itself. The foundation of the medium—how the story is given motion on the page—is THE LAYOUT.

Given how complex comic book layouts seem to universally now be, it’s easy to forget not only how simple they once were but how effective the simplicity was, too. Take the three-block layout, like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts or Bill Watterson’s seminal Calvin and Hobbes. The three blocks were perfect for a quick setup and a good punchline. Even Herge’s Tintin uses a variation of the simple nine-block layout.

But, as writers began to make stranger and more complex tales and heroes, illustrators started to manipulate the panes and, since then, the actual layout itself is as integral to the story as the actual action shots which occur within them. Comics like Grant Morrison’s Flex Mentallo and Matt Kindt’s epic thriller Mind MGMT quite arguably wouldn’t be as good if they were done in a simple layout form. More complex layouts generally allow for more complex stories.

For me, this brilliant use of a page’s space and a layout’s flexible lines is one of the best things about comic books. When they’re done right, layouts can radically change narratives, and can give an extra dimension to the story telling. Even better, there’s no shortage today of amazing layouts and paneling in the medium.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t always this way. I have a lot of trouble reading comic books from before the late ‘90s because, in all honesty, some of the art and layouts are just SO BAD. As with any other young medium, comics went through decades of growing pains that at best produced some classic works, but at worst produced some of the most… well, painful comics I’ve ever read. If you’re looking for super-heroes with massive guns and muscles coming out of their muscles, the "Exxtreme '90s" are for you. Between the old classics and the new standards, there were a whole lot of really boring stories that kept to old conventions and stale storytelling. And personally, I’ll take a creative failure than a boring story any day.

The Omega Man Issue 3, written by Tom King and illustrated by Barnaby Bagenda (Artist)
Publisher: DC Comics
Image courtesy of:
http://comicsalliance.com/omega-men-nine-panel-grid/

While I love crazy layouts and inventive page designs, too many times I feel like throwing a book against a wall because it’s too complicated to be effective. And yet, here was me making fun of squares on pages. Outside of Watchmen—a comic considered to be the apex of the genre—standard pages didn’t really float my literary boat.

That said, I picked up The Omega Men’s first issue fully expecting to hate it for its rigid layouts and clunky looking action. And then I read it. And then my mind was fully blown.

The thing about The Omega Men is that even when it sticks to one of the most basic layout designs possible, it does it so well that you forget you’re reading a comic book. When I started reading, I was awed by how the simple paneling framed the story more like moving pictures and less like a page in a book.

What really struck me was how flexible layouts can be. While Bagenda (the artist)’s work is limited to rectangular panels, he mixes and matches them to create different flows. Some pages will feature only six panels, with one taking up the space of two or three, while others will break the page down into smaller segments of a single panel. In doing so, Bagenda and King can speed up or slow down the action depending on the story’s needs. They can also convey an incredible amount of detail, both textual and visual, because of the panel’s relatively large size.

In my mind, the most important effects of a good layout is how it makes the reader FEEL. It sounds strange, but when you look at a page before you start focusing intensely, the layout can tell you a lot about the story. In Bagenda and King’s political thriller slash space opera, the simple and sometimes rigid panels help elevate the feeling of suspense. By forcing you to focus on small details, the creators manage to control the flow of the story, giving you as much or as little information as you need to understand the story.

But what Bagenda and King managed to do then, floored me. They took a style that has been considered basic for a long time and made it work terrifically well. The art fits perfectly to the suspenseful and action-packed scripts, and the narrative flow feels more like a movie than a book. By breaking down the page so simply, they can force your eye on specific details, directing your attention like magicians.

For someone who’s been writing comics as long as I have, I actually have to admit that this is the first time I’ve seen such a simple comic layout has blown me away. After being an acolyte of the complex, I’m now inspired to try out the “plain.” It’s nice to know that even in this era of flash and glamour, the simple things can still be the best. 

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