It’s a pretty safe bet that when people read the comics section of the newspaper, they aren’t thinking about the theory behind the art form. They’re looking to see what whacky shenanigans Snoopy and the gang are getting into, and whether Garfield got his lasagna. But using those colorful boxes, artists can manipulate time and space on the page.
Comics — also referred to as “sequential art” — are defined by Scott McCloud in his book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (McCloud 9). It all comes down to sequencing with comics, and the tools of the trade include panels and gutters.
Panels are the boxes containing the images of the comic. They hold the world of the narrative within its boundaries, encapsulating the characters, setting, and dialogue. Speech bubbles serve as mini panels, holding the words and thoughts of the characters and indicating who says what with little tails. These serve as the basic building blocks of the story.
More important, however, is the empty space between the panels known as the “gutter space” or “gutter”. The gutters make the magic happen using something McCloud calls “closure”. In comic terms, closure is the way the mind draws conclusions to form a complete picture. For example, when looking at a panel focused on the upper half of a character’s body, you assume the character’s legs still exist out of the frame despite being unable to see them.
The gutters rely on closure to help complete the action of the narrative. When a character bends down in one panel to grab an object and in the next panel is seen holding that object, you fill in the blanks and complete the action with your mind. The creator could show you every split second of the character stooping down, wrapping their fingers around the object, and standing back up, but thanks to the gutter space, the reader fills in the time between the panels and draws the necessary conclusion to complete the action.
Closure can create even more complex actions than just picking up an object or walking. McCloud demonstrates this with two panels: the first one shows a man charging another man while brandishing an axe and shouting “Now you DIE!!!”, and the second one shows a cityscape at night with a pained scream hovering the buildings. What do you think happens in this scenario?
The man with the axe probably killed the other man, but McCloud doesn’t actually show that happening. In fact, he only laid the breadcrumbs for this action, while the reader is the one who envisions the murder. McCloud writes, “I may have drawn an axe being raised in this example, but I”m not the one who let it drop or decided how hard the blow, or who screamed, or why” (68). In this manner, comics allow for the reader’s imagination to help tell the story while still conforming to the artist’s illustrations.
The panels work with the gutter to tell a fragmented story in completion. Each gutter space represents a passage of time where the reader fills in the blank with the appropriate action. Once you understand the basic panel-and-gutter storytelling format in comics, you can start experimenting with different ways to present them.
For example, while the gutter space represents a change in time, there’s no rule for the allotted length of time or the direction in time. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons features entire chapters that bounce back and forth through time and space, with each panel showing moments from a character’s life in a non-chronological order. Using the gutter space, the creators portray a sense of timelessness that forces the reader’s participation in the narrative.
A common trick that Japanese manga artists use involves drawing a character that crosses the panel’s borders, breaking into other panels and the gutter space. In mangas like My Hero Academia and The Promised Neverland, sometimes a character will be drawn like this during a conversation and occupy multiple panels at once. This shows the character’s presence throughout the entirety of the conversation while illustrating the passage of time.
Another common practice in manga features a character bound within the borders of a panel except for their hand, which reaches across into the neighboring panel. Oftentimes, the neighboring panel will be a flashback. This shows how the character exists in both the present moment and the past of their memories.
Admittedly, it’s tricky to discuss such a visual art form using only words. I encourage you to find a comic series or graphic novel you like, and reread it while paying close attention to the panels and their sequencing. When does the author encourage you to fill in the blanks? What are they showing, and what are they not showing?
Comics are ever evolving, changing the way they portray and manipulate time and space. McCloud writes, “our attempts to define comics are an on-going process which won’t end anytime soon” (23). As we reinvent and resequence panels and frames, we push the boundaries of literature and our imaginations.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.