Restrictions And Revolution: ‘Omega Men’ And The Nine-Panel Grid
Ever since it debuted a few months ago, Tom King and Barnaby Bagenda's Omega Men has been one of the most engaging comics on the stands, and not just because of the story of the title characters and the intergalactic insurgency that has seen them manipulate the power structures of an entire planet and fake the death of Kyle Rayner before the series even started. Don't get me wrong --- all that stuff is interesting, and it makes for a fantastic read, but what really sets Omega Men apart is the visual style that its creators have adopted to tell their story.
Or, more accurately, about one very specific and very well-implemented element of the book's visual style: The Nine-Panel Grid.
The odds are pretty good that you're most familiar with the Nine-Panel Grid from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, where it was a signature element of the story and allowed for things like the symmetrical layout in #5, the issue about Rorschach. While that might be the Grid's most notable appearance, it's certainly not the only one. In fact, if I had to guess, I'd say that its use there was probably directly influenced by the fact that Steve Ditko, who created the character Rorschach was based on, favored the Grid in pretty much everything he did, from Amazing Spider-Man to The Question.
It's a page layout that makes a statement right from the first page in a way that's hard to miss. It's a layout that organizes things into a rigid system of columns and tiers that still allows for a surprisingly adaptive arrangement, and it's one that Omega Men uses to full effect.
The first and most obvious thing about the Grid is that it allows you to put a lot of information into a single issue, and it's no coincidence that Omega Men is a book that can get a whole lot done in 20 pages. It's a dense story, full of world building that has managed to introduce an entirely new alien society and the two competing religions that drive it, and still have room for big action sequences where outer-space tiger men tear people limb from limb. It's a lot to get through, and the grid is one of the things that makes that possible.
Nine panels are, after all, a whole lot, and while the trade-off to having so many is that you lose the ability to put a whole lot of detail and background information, it allows for a huge number of distinct moments on every page.
Because that, after all, is what panels are. They're moments, distinct actions, individual units of storytelling that make up the larger story. But they're not the only units of storytelling that you get, either. Unless you're reading on a phone or using Comixology's Guided View (which the Nine-Panel Grid actually lends itself to very well, since it's essentially nine panels exactly the size and shape of a phone screen), the page itself is also a distinct unit. Dividing it up lets you extend and manipulate that moment in different ways, and that's what Omega Men has been doing better than just about anything else.
Just look at this moment from the end of Omega Men #2:
The scene of Kyle Rayner modifying the Omega on his uniform into a Green Lantern symbol with his own blood --- something that's actually a lot less grotesque than it sounds --- is one that could've been done a whole lot of different ways, and changing the layout would've changed the tone of the scene immeasurably. But here? The Grid makes it work.
It's not just that it lends itself to the rhythm of the familiar Green Lantern Oath, but that it underlines how deliberate this is. Every piece of the larger action --- exposing the wound, dipping his fingers into the blood, drawing each line individually --- is given its own moment. Each small piece of this statement is given weight, and it makes the whole stronger.
The book doesn't just rely on the full grid, though. The real magic of the grid isn't just that it's nine panels, but that those panels come from an arrangement of tiers and columns, something that makes it a surprisingly adaptable layout. You can see it in a book like Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith's Fell, another one that was built around that same grid, and how certain moments would be expanded to provide a natural break between segments of a single page, or highlight a certain moment.
And you can see it in Omega Men, too:
This page combines those two ideas. The top tier focuses on the same shot, breaking it into another set of those brutal, bloody moments, but when the story requires a bigger, more dramatic reveal, it breaks out into larger moments.
That's when you can start to see how adaptable the grid is when it's being used by creators like King and Bagenda. You get to see new arrangements of panels and how they're arranged, playing with the ideas that you can get from those sets of columns, tiers and distinct moments, like the way the focus on this page shifts from Talim to Princess Kalista, with the shot of the bowl where she's washing the blood off her hands --- lots of blood in these layouts, now that I'm really looking at them --- cutting the page in half.
That kind of layout is what makes Omega Men so visually interesting, and interesting in a way that supports the story on almost every level. You can look at that grid as a set of prison bars that are keeping Kyle Rayner cooped up on the Omega Men's ship, and you can see how it compliments the idea of the rigidly ordered society that produced Princess Kalista to begin with --- and you can see every time that the Omega Men themselves manage to break out of the grid and turn three panels into one that exists behind those bars, that they're the ones that are going to bring that grid down.
It all works beautifully, and it's the kind of comic that makes you sit up and take note of what's really going on in both the presentation and the story --- and that kind of comic is a rare and wonderful thing.
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