Strip Panel Naked: Center Focus In ‘Lake of Fire’
I love Lake of Fire, by Matt Smith and Nathan Fairbairn. I mean, I really love it. It's an incredibly well told story from a formal point of view, and both Smith and Fairbairn bring a lot to that book. It wrapped up this past week, which means it's as good a time as any to take a look at one element it repeatedly uses throughout its final issue.
It's actually something you see a lot in certain types of cinema, particularly action films. When you're being presented with a film with a lot of fast cuts, or high-speed action, what you'll find is that a lot of the shots will have a similar point of focus placed within the frame, because it limits the amount of movement your eye needs to make, therefore meaning you can absorb more information quicker.
So Fairbairn and Smith bring this out in almost every panel of issue #5 of Lake of Fire --- you can flick through the issue and trace it out with an example on at least every page. It seems, with this being a particularly action-heavy issue, that they want to keep the pace flowing quite quickly, but equally there is a fairly high density to the pages put together here. A large proportion of the pages have at least six panels on them, so then you've got to find a way to balance out that density with a faster-flowing pace.
By utilizing the center-focus technique, it means you learn pretty quick what you need to look at, and equally it gives Smith something to work for in terms of figuring out where to place the important moments of action in each of his panels. It limits his composition options, sure, but it also acts as a nice guidance. For us readers, it means everything works in straight lines, either vertical or horizontal. I'll go through a few pages to help further explain how this works and what it means.
Here's a page a little later in the issue, which as mentioned above, has a panel count of six. There's basically no dialogue, just action --- this man fighting these weird alieny-things. You can see a clear example in the top panel, how the bodies of the other creatures almost create a circle around the main figure, and that repeats in the bottom panel where they sandwich him. In the middle row of three panels, Smith uses those background lines to pull into the centre of the frame, again emphasising that's where the action is.
For us, as readers, it just means we coast through this page. There's no trickery in hidden detail we need to find in the panels or anything like that, it's just straight storytelling. Look here, then here, then here. Get in and get out. It's beautiful work.
On an earlier page we have this example, too. Across both of these pages you can see the limited background rendering Smith adds in, and that's a fairly consistent detail throughout the issue, too. Again, this is all just ways of limiting the visual information required in each panel, and distilling it down to it's basics.
The above page is a beautiful example because even though on the face of it it appears quite busy with eight panels of varying sizes, and each one switches up the camera angle, and feels like it's "moving" quite a lot, you can still very easily pair down each of those panels to a basic summation. Looking at each in detail, there's nothing more than a single, very obvious action taking place. It happens with the other page, too. Each visual you're presented with says one specific thing.
Along with the lack of background detail, and the central framing, this specific focus brings together those other elements to create pages that are so perfectly formulated as to be near flawless in the way the information is presented. It's designed from the ground up to work in this efficient, streamlined way --- which the heavy story and dialogue can belie.
There's a reason I've been pushing Lake of Fire onto as many people as possible --- the book is expertly crafted by two people who just get the comic format. It's a joy to behold.
In Strip Panel Naked, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou looks at elements of the art of visual storytelling on the comics page.