Strip Panel Naked: Cascading Panels in David Finch’s ‘Batman’
My favourite thing about writing Strip Panel Naked every week is getting the chance to be surprised. A smarter man might have a better plan to tackle this article routinely, but mine is always the same: read comics, be surprised. This week it was the first comic on the pile that caught me off-guard, with Tom King, David Finch, Danny Miki, Jordie Bellaire and John Workman's Batman #17, as part of DC's Rebirth.
There's a technique Finch employs throughout the issue to create a sense that everything is slowly unravelling and falling apart, in that he lets the panels start slipping away on each page. You can see how the pages aren't formulaic in their approach to panel layout; there's not really any grids, and panels are constantly overlapping.
You can see a great example here. We have three panels running along the top, then a main feature panel on the left below, and two panels stacked on the right. In a normal page you can see how this could be a more standard layout, if everything was neater and lined up. Here though, Finch gives the impression he's taken that normal page and just given it a bit of a shove, and everything is starting to knock everything else, like a domino effect.
The top three panels are each lower than the previous one, and each overlaps the one underneath it. Interestingly though, the focal point is still right across the same line through the middle, and the panels shift around that. It does generate that feeling that things are slipping away, the control is being lost, and we're descending down, both down the page and into a bit of madness.
A similar approach is taken with those two other panels on the right side; you can even see the black of the page where the panel should be sitting, but it's moved to overlap the feature panel on the left side.
Again, the focal points of each panel in the eyelines are still very, very simple, but it's the shifting position of the panels alone that create the effect, and that's really important for readability. You can create page layouts that are meant to generate this same response of things not feeling normal, falling away, but you don't want to actually upset an audience's flow through your page, or the story in your book starts to come apart too, as people get frustrated with the way to read your page.
Here Finch keeps it simple, and as we know from previous Strip Panel Naked pieces, I love me some well-executed simplicity.
I wanted to show you an example of the opposite, too, for effect. As we said last week with Death Be Damned, it's good to bring examples of the opposite effect in your book to further highlight moments when things work differently, and Finch and King do it here as well.
Early in the book, Superman and Batman have a conversation about keeping people safe, and it's one of the few examples in this issue of a more "normal" gridded page. Which, thematically, makes a lot of sense, as Batman is entrusting his companions to Superman in his Fortress of Solitude, a place where they'll be kept safe for the remainder of the story arc. It's such a neat little way to show the nature of Batman's world in comparison.
If you've ever picked up a comic before, the pages of Batman #17 will look scattered and unkempt. it's a deliberate approach to show the sliding descent of Batman's situation at the hands of Bane, and it cleverly manages to achieve it's goal. If you've never picked up a comic, maybe you won't notice that effect --- specifically because either way, Finch keeps the eyelines and readability of the whole book simple and legible. On either level, this is a very well-crafted comic book.