The Importance of Panels: A Response To McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”

In Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics I found a wonderful perspective on a vital part of comics that digital media has revitalized in some sense, in the exert from his book we discuss the nature of the Panel. If we are too enjoy the artwork of any piece it is as McCloud says, we will most often find what is important within a frame or restricted view and this is done with great intention. I found this text fascinating not just because of its delightful illustrations, being the very thing that it seeks to explain, but rather because the way it reads reminds me of a science textbook but more casual and easier to digest. The portion of this text on panels stands out to me because it covers so much of what digital media is experimenting with right now in the world of comics, how to build worlds and have audience navigate and perceive the action that takes place within them.

McCloud states that “while differences of shape don’t affect the specific ‘meanings’ of those panels vis-à-vis time, they can affect the reading experience.” McCloud certainly hits on many aspects of understanding passage of time or how the physics of a world works within the panels but it is the experience produced by the layout of a page that makes it unique. Series such as DC’s Watchmen are a perfect example of how the arrangement of panels can create moods, deeper meaning in text or character actions and even allow for special moments to stand out and carry greater weight. In the age of pushing boundaries and trying to work both against expectations while looking on what texts have done “right” we see many web comics implementing interactive features or new takes on what it is a panel is supposed to provide the reader.

McCloud approaches the idea of panels creating effects on time but I don’t know if this idea sits well with me. It is true that additional panels and the right imagery can create tension and awkward pauses or perhaps allow for transition and context but artists are doing so much more by incorporating gifs and even video into web comics and interactive pieces. This text speaks of the tools that digital media uses but only its foundation, so much has been built on top since 1994 when this book was published.

I don’t fault him for not knowing what changes were to come but I think if this text were updated to reflect the modern conventions of comic books as well as the ultra-expressive web comics of today there were be more McCloud or others within his field of illustration an authorship could discuss and comment on. This is my only gripe, the conversation one can have with this text must end at the basic principles and then we as readers are left to explore the vast space that is the internet inferring what we can and finding so much content to take in. The power of the panel is incredible, the way in which language is not just words but illustration is a strange concept. What can you say without dialogue, with the space and how you frame it? This is one of the many questions that helps one unlock the potential of panels and that of the medium of comics both print and digital.