Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pacing and Proportions

Okay, this has been bugging me for months, and I'm hoping that someone here will know the answer.

Since late last year, I've been involved in a long ongoing reading project, reading the classic runs on all of the silver age Marvel Comics titles from start to finish. Early this year I finished reading Lee and Kirby's run on Fantastic Four, then moved on to Lee and Ditko's "Doctor Strange" stories and the Lee-Kirby and Steranko "Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD" stories from Strange Tales. Currently I'm approaching the end of the Lee-Kirby run on The Mighty Thor.

Throughout, whenever I'm reading something drawn (or at least laid-out) by Kirby in his silver age Marvel period, I'm perplexed by a strange bit of layout that he continually uses.

Since the earliest days of silver age Marvel, Kirby typically used a three-tier layout for the majority of the pages. In the early days, there would often be three panels per tier (a nine-panel grid), or even more.

Here's an example from Fantastic Four #1.

As the various series progressed, Kirby broke the stories down into fewer and fewer panels, while keeping the three-tier format as the standard page layout. The most panels you'd typically get on the page by that point was six, all of equal size on three tiers. Here's an example from Fantastic Four #61.

But eventually even six-panel-pages became somewhat rare, with the majority of the pages being five-panels, and almost all of the five-panel pages use that same three-tiered layout, with one of the tiers being a page-width panel (so it would be 2-1-1, 1-2-1, or 1-1-2). Here's an example from The Mighty Thor #136.

(Essentially Kirby was working out a visual syntax for his comics, structures that he could use again and again. When he moved over to DC a few years later, he perfected this to an art, with his "syntax" expanding to include the layout of entire issues, nearly always with two-page spreads on pages 2 and 3, four panel grids, etc. But that's a discussion for another time.)

Okay, so what bugs me about this? Well, note that I said "usually" and "typically." When there are three tiers on a page, Kirby virtually always laid them out so that they were all the same height, each taking up one third of the page from top to bottom.

But when he didn't use a three-tier layout, and instead used a two-tier layout? Then the top tier was virtually always bigger than the bottom.

And this wasn't a late development. He did it for years. Here's an example from Fantastic Four #1 again.

And again from Fantastic Four #61

And once more from The Mighty Thor #136.

As I've said, as time went on Kirby tended to break the story into fewer panels, and the nine-panel grids of the early days were rarely seen in later years. And these three examples certainly show that progression, from a six-panel grid, to a four-panel, to a two-panel. (I'm cheating just a little bit, as the Thor example above actually came out a few months before the later Fantastic Four, but that's just because I'm too lazy to keep hunting for other visual examples.) But look at those proportions from top to bottom. They're almost identical, over the course of five years or more.

So my problem is this: Why did Kirby nearly always use unequal tiers when dividing the page into two tiers, when he used equal tiers when dividing it into three? And why was it always the top tier that was the larger?

Somebody help me please, I've got to know!


  1. I'm not a Kirby historian, but I know some of the basics of the history of the design of the comic page. Now anything goes, sideways splash pages, characters break panel borders, etc.

    But back in the day, the guys read comic strips and emulated that by approaching the comic page as essentially three 'comic strips' so a ton of the early Marvel work has that three- tiered look. For more of this see Ditko's Spider-Man.

    Meanwhile on a parallel track Wally Wood's deadline buster and fallback was the six equal, two across and three down design which leached into atmosphere. You have to remember that everybody had the chance to see everybody else's work. From there, the modern five panel approach developed.

    As to the larger panel to start a page, I guess the thinking was that with the page turn, you needed something of a re-establishing shot especially with the choreography that the artist needs to pull off to stage a fight scene.

    Anyway, there's a little history from a non-historian.

  2. I have two non-exclusive guesses.

    To break the 3-tier stream, he probably needed some space to add something revelant: a complex scene, a splash scene, etc. In that case, the top of the page would usually contain this more important scene, and would ask for more space.

    Example 1: in the top tier, there is a lot of action going on. On the botton, only dialogue.

    Example 2: in the top panel, there is a huge scene with lots of characters seen from afar. He even uses a top-down "camera" view. In the bottom panel, the scene is more to-the-ground, and there are fewer elements to arrange.

    I would guess this is "the answer", but let's also remember that, in a page layout, having the larger element on the top feels more stable and balanced, as if the smaller element on the bottow was some kind of platform under the large one. But that's gighly subjective, and I don't think Kirby expected his average reader to worry about something like that.

  3. I think about this stuff all the time. If you're going to have two panels on a page, making them the same size looks weirdly sterile, or even-handed: perhaps they're a view of one place, then another of equal importance (back in the day when we broke scene in the middle of pages). If the bottom one is bigger than the top, then the top one must be a mere prelude, our heroes riding to the big castle below. You'd better not try to put anything meaningful into the top bit. But if the top panel is bigger than the bottom, then you've hit your audience with the important stuff, and then the second panel can be... anything at all, really, including the little let's go on cues which get them to turn the page. Kirby is all pow pow pow, so it wouldn't often occur to him to do the prelude and delay panel, so sheer instinctual grammar leads him (and really only him) to often go big, small.

  4. Good thoughts all around, though I suspect that Daniel may be closest to the mark. I've noticed that sometimes on the three-tier pages the top tier is *slightly* taller than the bottom two (especially if the top tier is caption heavy), and it may be that a similar philosophy on Kirby's part was at work there, as well.

  5. (Hit "Post" too quickly. Here's the rest of that thought.)

    blah blah blah a similar philosophy at work there, as well. But the degree of difference isn't as noticeable with three tiers than with two? Or he exaggerated the difference with two tiers for effect? I still think that the majority of the three-tier layouts are three equal tiers, but I've found enough exceptions to suggest there might have been something else going on there, as well, occasionally.

  6. You're asking authors but not artists...you should hit up Bucky or Craig Hamilton or Tony Akins or....

  7. I talked with Bucky a bit about my obsession with Kirby's panel "syntax" in San Diego, but didn't get a chance to get his thoughts about the weird tier proportions.

    But Willingham has worn both hats. What do you say, Bill, any theories?

  8. There is a possible answer lurking in your "found enough exceptions" comment. Remember the speed at which Kirby was working. It's possible, just possible, that those 'exceptions' are simple haste (I'm speaking of the three tier layouts).

    The other instances, particular the two panel instances, to me, are always bigger because he's introducing action. It's a mini-splash page. You want to plot some calculus, go see how much rising physical action takes place on the topmost tier versus some details, dialogue, or plot advancement on the bottom tier.

    The third answer, being neither one nor two: Kirby maybe did it like that once and just liked it. So he did it again. He was working for himself by then, and if he liked something, he'd do it again. And who would tell him no?

  9. رش المبيدات من اهم الاشياء التى تساعد القضاء على الحشرات على الفور فاذا كنت تعانى من اعمال المكافحة التقليدية وتعانى من الوصول الى افضل الخدمات المميزة فى القضاء على الحشرات فعليك ان تعلم ان شركة رش مبيدات بالرياض هى افضل الشركات التى تساعد فى القضاء على اى نوع من انواع الحشرات الزاحفة والحشرات الطائرة فاذا كنت فى اى مكان فى الرياض او المملكة العربيه السعودية وتعانى من وجود الكثير من الاسباب التى تؤدى الى اعمال المكافحة وسرعان ما يتم عودتها مره اخرى فعليك ان تتصل وتتعاون معنا على الفور فالشركة تعتمد على عدد من الخدمات المميزة فى اعمال الرش من اهم ما تقوم بيه شركة رش مبيدات
    - الاهتمام بالتعرف على اجود انواع المبيدات المميزة المتعارف عليها ذات جوده عالمية وتم اختيارها عن تجارب سابقه والتاكد من فاعليتها فى القضاء على الحشرات الزاحفة والطائرة
    - الاعتماد على اقوى الاجهزة والالات المميزة فى اعمال الرش والقضاء على الحشرات فى اقل وقت ممكن دون ان يتم انتشار السموم فى المكان المتواجدين بيه والسعى فى القضاء دون ان يتم البحث عن اماكن تواجد الحشرات
    - العماله المميزة لديها الخبرة والوعى الكافى فى القضاء على الحشرات الزاحفة والطائرة واصعب انواع الحشرات المتواجده فى المكان والتى يستصعب القيام باعمال المكافحة التقليدية
    عزيزى العميل اذا كنت فى اى مكان فى المملكه العربيه السعودية وتبحث عن افضل الخدمات المميزة فعليك ان تتصل وتتواصل بينا على الفور فى القيام باعمال المكافحة والقضاء على الحشرات فاستعن بينا على الفور فى القيام بكل ذلك شركة رش مبيدات بالخرج .