Organizing Comic Panels

Keep it Simple!

A good comic book is easy to read and understand, at least when it comes to comic book panel arrangement. The narrative itself can be complex and full of subtleties that aren't completely understood on a first reading, but if your comic book panels get too complex in their arrangement, that's just bad story-telling. Too many panels on a page, abstract and confusing comic book panels, or a haphazard sense of where to place the panels are all things that can distract from the comic story, so aspiring comic book artists should keep good comic book panel arrangement in mind when designing the layout of a page.

Organizing comic panels and creating innovative comic book panel arrangements is much easier today than ever before. Good, simple layouts of comic book panels can be achieved quickly and effectively with smart comic book panel arrangements, especially if you are a digital artist. This is thanks to advances in technology that let you quickly lay out a grid of comic book panels on your computer screen with programs like Manga Studio.

Keeping all that in mind, let's look at some tips for organizing comic panels and how to best arrange comic book panels on a page, starting with...

Using a Grid

Making Conscious Decisions About Layout

As an artist, your arrangement of comic book panels should never be random or arbitrary. You've got to ask yourself, what's the reasoning behind this particular layout choice? And, more importantly, will the audience be able to understand the panel order on this page? One of the best ways to organize comic book panels so that the audience can understand them is by designing pages on a grid, following a simple left-to-right and top-to-bottom flow. This way, the audience can easily follow the action. The story should dictate what actions get the most space or the largest panels, but all of the panels should be organized in a clear way.

But there's only so many actions that can fit comfortably on one page! Many artists forget this, which leads to our next tip...

Counting the Panels

Using the Right Number of Panels on a Page

Some comic book stories have so much going on that there is a temptation for the artist to overload the page with information and events. This leads to a common mistake of having too many comic book panels on a single page. This creates an unfortunate visual clutter with too many actions competing simultaneously for the viewer's attention. To avoid this, it's best to keep the panel count below 7, preferably 4 or 5 panels per page. If there are too many more comic book panels, it will be that much harder to communicate the information on the page effectively. 

And now that we know about using a grid and counting the panels, we can start playing in the gutters, by which we mean...

Sizing Up Each Action

Moving the Panel Gutters Around

The gutters on a page are the spaces between the comic book panels, and by moving these spaces, we decide which panels are bigger and which are smaller. Of course, the most important actions should get the biggest panels, with more quiet or introspective moments calling for relatively smaller panels. Talking head? Small Panel. Dramatic car chase? Probably want a larger panel. Again, let the demands of the story dictate how you size up each panel.

Of course, all these rules were meant to occasionally be broken, as long as you know what you're doing. But it's best to start with a grid format for your comic book panels that will give you a structure to improve as an artist before you decide to go completely avant-garde with your layouts. And above all else, make sure that what you are trying to communicate on the page is the same as what your audience interprets. Good luck!