Or stretching panels out for vertical effect in Ms. Marvel #6
by G. Willow Wilson, Jacob Wyatt, Ian Herring, and Joe Caramanga; Marvel Comics
One of the most fundamental components of sequential art is layout: the way panels are arranged to convey story elements in the correct order. If you're reading this, this idea is probably pretty familiar. The thing is, I am still pretty interested in layout and how comic structure affects storytelling because layout choices just have a gigantic effect on how we experience comics. From the speed we read a page, to feelings of space or claustrophobia, to the relative importance of an event, simple choices about panel number, size, or shape can radically change a comic. And being able to recognize these kinds of choices and layout effects, I've found, can be really cool.
Ms. Marvel #6 has some relatively simple, but really effective examples of using panel size and shape to convey narrative information.
(I've been dying to write something about Ms. Marvel because I'm really enjoying this series. I find regular artist Adrian Alpona's art, while amazing, ethereal and hard to explore outside of I like it and it's great which is the main reason it's taken until now. This comic is just super charming and worth checking out. Ms. Marvel is also a comic that is destroying its mandate of being accessible: I've been lending it to a casually-reading-comics friend and she's really into it. Part of it is that it she's finding it really relatable; the comic "gets" her. Her parent's are devout catholic immigrants from India and she's a first generation Canadian who grew up in an urban satellite of Toronto. The details might be different, but in a field of comics about white dudes, Ms. Marvel is the comic closest to her experience and, as a result, is the book she asks about the most. Well, it and Hawkeye.)
(Also, my friend thinks the letter from Sana Amanat's mom in the letters section of the first issue is super cute.)
Anyway, this post is going to have mild *SPOILERS* for the Ms. Marvel #6. So maybe don't read it until after you've given the comic a chance.
Ms. Marvel is mostly done in clean, balanced layouts that clearly convey the story in a quietly effective way. This sequence with Kamala at the mosque receiving guidance from a spiritual leader (a consequence of her breaking curfew to superhero) is a pretty great example of the default approach to layout in the comic. The sequence clearly establishes setting in the first panel and then moves through the dialogue in a kinetic and interesting way that is still really clear. A great component of it is that Kamala is always on the left of the conversation, despite the various perspectives used to provide visual interest. It's an invisible choice that makes a huge difference in clarity. Sometimes the best storytelling is just keeping it simple and not getting in the way of the story.
The layout trick in Ms. Marvel #6 that I think is a great, simple example of how layout can be used to enhance storytelling is the use of thin, vertical panels. In the above sequence the top left panel with the manhole entrance, with its odd upward perspective, does a great job of setting up the idea of vertical directionality. (It also, with its small tight shape, delivers the claustrophobia of slipping through a manhole). This transitions right into an extra tall, skinny panel that beautifully captures the emotion and motion of dropping a considerable distance. The combination of panels (top and bottom left) also manages to capture the motion of the sequence as the perspective, dialogue, and long scarf-cape provide eye guides that make the reader actually trace the path of the fall. When contrasted with the more horizontally oriented panels on the right side of the page, these vertical panels feel special and add an extra level of meaning and drama to the page.
This page here is another great example of using long, vertical panels in a really great layout. The first panel in this playout is extra-large and provides key setting information. This panel manages to feel expansive, providing horizontal and, critically, vertical scope to the situation. This panel alone tells you where the characters are, and the crumby situation they are in. The next panel shows the characters, but also sets up the following panels structurally by bringing the focus back to the horizontal. We then move to the right side of the page with the narrow vertical panels. In the top right we see, focused in, on the key moment of the sequence where Kamala loses her grip on Wolverine. It's a great snapshot placed perfectly to provide an emotional sense of the moment, setting location, and set up the following panel. The next panel is another gorgeous tall, vertical panel that captures both the feeling and motion (through eye guiding) of the motion of the fall. This panel is doubley remarkable since its actually a composite of four panels depicting portions of an action. By combining these panels into this vertical panel the reader gets not just a sense of the overall motion (long fall) but also the speed of the drop (the action happens so quickly it could only be captures in a single panel). It's more smart, great comics.
Ms. Marvel is really another one of those immanently enjoyable, steadily well crafted comics. I'm really enjoying it.