Here’s a book that got everything so right in the four page preview I saw of it that I’m willing to use two of those to teach from here. I cannot fathom that the rest of Street Angel is not equally brilliant, but, sadly, I haven’t read it yet. Just look at Jim Rugg’s beautiful line work and brilliant storytelling here:
art: Jim Rugg book: Street Angel publisher: Slave Labor Graphics © Jim Rugg & Brian Maruca
There’s so much intelligence in this stupidity, I feel like I’m listening to the Stooges! I could devote an entire love letter to just the line here — how it amazingly mashes up Mike Allred, Kevin Nowlan, Jeff Smith, Farel Dalrymple, Dan Clowes!, Minetaro Mochizuki, the Hanuka brothers — there’s a list I thought I’d only see on my own bookshelf! There’s sideways dialog here! That first panel may have been slid on a photocopier, or may have just been painstakingly drawn to look as such!
In the interest of space, I’ll keep the discussion focused on just the myriad smart decisions Rugg made in creating action (our theme for the week) on these mere two pages. Now, the main character’s falling, so our first three panels are as well. How does Rugg make this feel like a fall rather than a stack? By breaking a rule! Dun DUN DUN!
There are really only very few rules of panel placement, but here’s our first: TALL PANELS THAT BREAK THROUGH TWO OR MORE HORIZONTAL TIERS MUST BE PLACED ALL THE WAY TO THE LEFT. The other way of looking at this is that stacked panels should never be placed to the left of tall panels. Have a look at the sample layouts below. The lines indicate the path the eye follows. The numbers show the order of the panels’ read.
Artists in the Seventies broke this rule constantly, which led to the appearance of those distracting little yellow arrows that pointed in the intended direction of the next panel. If you follow the rule, those arrows become superfluous. The necessity for the rule is perhaps more subtle than inherent. We “read” panels as text. What I mean by that is that the viewer is applying reading rules to the scanning of images: 1. Start at the upper left 2. Move from left to right 3. When a horizontal row is completed, move down one row and start at the left again. Notice that in this formula the horizontals rule the day. Vertical columns are a coincidence to be ignored. Font sizes generally do not vary wildly across a horizontal line of text, so the issue of breaking rows never really comes up. Images, of course, do not have to fit into strictly horizontal rows. Vertical columns are a great way to break up a page and give it energy. However, the comic artist does well to remember that those reading rules are key: our direction of eye motion will automatically push us through horizontal rows from left to right. If we can’t find a horizontal easily, we’ll make one. This is why you will often see me refer to the arrangement of panels as tiers. In all of the above examples, tier one is of uniform size. No confusion of panel order could possibly arise. However, tier two and three are broken in all cases by a vertical panel that spans the height of both combined. Our eye inherently knows what to do when we get to those rows: left to right for each; top first, then bottom. The breaking panel’s order is easily discerned when it is placed BEFORE those rows: we see it like the large first letter in old illuminated manuscripts. Clearly, one views it first, then begins following the familiar rows rules. A giant mind-screw occurs when we place the taller panel AFTER stacked horizontals, though. Wanting to complete the trajectory of the horizontal tier the smaller panel began, our eye instinctively heads right into the large panel. It then sweeps down throughout it, notices there was a further box to the left below the other, examines it (probably out of order), then redundantly returns to the large right panel, realizes it has looked at it twice now, and heads back to the first small panel again to try to suss out where it all went wrong. Don’t put your reader through this! I honestly find that much of the hostility non-comic readers have to tackling a graphic novel has almost nothing to do with the supposed inanity of the stories, genres, nor medium, and a great deal to do with feeling disoriented and uncomfortable about how to read these darn things. “Wait, which way do I go next? Down there? Really?!? How was I supposed to know that? What do you mean I read that lower bubble next? What’s called a balloon? Forget this stuff!” Now I am all for experimentation and graphic design elements creeping into the page (Mignola always finds verticals that have nothing to do with the direction of the read), but the touchstone here should always be textual reading rules. Once learned in childhood, they become innate. There is no reason to try to rewire that. Chris Ware finds ways around this and is constantly teaching his reader how to read his books, (this mostly involves chunking his pages into blocks) and once you ascertain his rules, the read becomes natural and the tricks he can pull off within its framework — so worth it. But CHRIS WARE IS A COMIC BOOK GOD. None of us can do what he can. None of us. None of us. Leave it alone, rookie. Stick to the rules.
That said, relative rookie Jim Rugg breaks those rules too. And darned if it doesn’t work. But as I began before this highly necessary sidetrack, Rugg has a great reason to do it. Rugg is showing us a character falling. He does not want his read to be the typical horizontal. A fall is a vertical act. Thus, he shifts the large vertical panel to the side of the page it should not be on, and we feel the stacked panels at left not as a series of short rows, but as a downward drop. The issue of panel order is irrelevant in the case of the tier-breaking panel: it is merely an old Baxter Building-style schematic, and as such can be read in any order. I think Rugg is actually smart enough to know his readers’ eyes will be bouncing back and forth between it and the action, but the action is brilliantly corresponding to the horizontal tiers location on the map at each given row. In a stroke of genius, we have an juxtaposed and simulated movement through imaginary space on the left column, and a physical movement through actual space in the right column. Any way you slice it, this all leads to the ultimate panel of the protagonist preparing for the page turn, swords at ready, only to find her POP! spit out of the vent and her own panel border on the explosive horizontal first panel of the next page! Breaking the panel border is another pitfall to avoid unless it serves a great purpose, but here it completely propels the chaotic action. Notice how even the sound effects have become in-panel objects so they can be jostled by the expulsion from the vent as well.
The page ends with one large beautiful panel employing one of my favorite tricks: constant background, repeated figure. This has been done, as Scott McCloud adroitly pointed out, since the Egyptians at least. It is a brilliant way to get time to pass within a single image without having to break up the graphic beauty with gutters. Looking only at the top of the panel, you can see that we have three distinct actions from our protagonist. However, the bottom of the panel reveals a consistent space and characters reacting to her a split second later. Again, Rugg knows his readers moves so well he can count on us “reading” the top of the image first and seeing our hero throw something and collide with a death ray machine (?). He knows only after that will our eye pan down to the next imagined horizontal and see the results of those throws. We see the swords now planted in heads, and then retrace their perfect vectors back to her hands in a motion we’ve already seen her complete. The image is a gorgeous dance that our eyes tango about, at least five different moments in time are captured in a single drawing, and by framing them all together, the whole thing seems to be happening at once to reinforce the chaos of the action in a way he never could have achieved through traditional multiple panel action. Bravo, sir! Bravo! I am ordering your book as we speak.