Heroes Never Rust #57 by Sean Ironman
Ten years ago, I took a Digital Rhetorics course in college. The professor made it a comics class. We spent the semester studying and making comics. When it came to creating our own comics, we were told to draw a grid of panels on a page and fill them. That’s a fine exercise for people new to comics (especially for people taking a writing class and don’t have much talent with a pencil). But, panels aren’t necessary in comics, and, at times, removing panels and having the characters exist without being boxed in, can strengthen pacing and highlight an important incident.
In The Boys #5, Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson remove the panel confinements throughout different scenes. The comic opens with a short scene between Hughie and Annie. They happen to run into each other in the park and share a bench. After a few lines of Hughie being Scottish, Annie asks if he’s on vacation and he says he came to America for a job, she asks, “Not your kind of thing?” The park scene up until this point is constricted to panels, mostly close-ups of one or both characters. Then, for Hughie’s answer, the panel disappears. So does the background. Readers see a close-up of Hughie squinting with a white background. He says, “Uh, no, actually, I think I might enjoy it quite a lot. It’s just…some of the people…” By having Hughie exist basically in the gutter with no background, it’s as if everything went quiet and readers are placed closer to the character. The focus of the page turns to Hughie finally admitting his thoughts about joining the boys, which Butcher has spent four issues now trying to get him to do.
This type of break is used again and again throughout the issue. It happens at the end of Hughie and Annie’s scene as Hughie walks away smiling and Annie takes off into the air, out of sight from Hughie. It happens when Hughie joins the Boys, and Butcher, Mother’s Milk, the Frenchman, and The Female look up from what they’re doing to see Hughie in the doorway. It happens when Butcher and Hughie walk away and Mother’s Milk watches them. These breakaways act as a kind of punctuation on the scene. But, the breakaways can have a different mood depending on what’s happening in the scene. The panel breakaway that occurs at the end of the Hughie/Annie scene is sweet and happy. There’s not much happiness to be found in The Boys, so it’s nice to see a moment like this get highlighted. But the panel breakaway for Mother’s Milk watching Butcher and Hughie leave is more unsettling, mysterious. Something’s going on with Mother’s Milk and Butcher. Readers don’t know yet, but Mother’s Milk is thinking about something there. I don’t think he trusts Butcher as much as he pretends.
The panel breakaways really help strengthen pacing. Butcher and Hughie go get a burger and have a friendly conversation. It could be kind of boring, but the backgrounds disappear and the characters are highlighted three times in two pages. It changes up the layout to speed and slow sections of the scene. For example, Hughie asks Butcher if he likes it in America, and then Butcher’s head is drawn outside of a panel, and his head even overlaps the edges of the other panels. He’s brought closer to the reader than the rest of the page. It’s like Ennis and Robertson are telling readers to pay attention. Butcher says, “I love this country. You can get a hundred different sorts of donuts or any other old bullocks you don’t need, twenty-four hours a day. An’ they’re all so fuckin’ stupid, Hughie. They’re all so scared of losin’ whatever little fortune is they think they’ve got, they never dream of havin’ a look over their shoulders. You’re careful about it, you can get away with practically anything.” It’s an insight into Butcher’s character away from the business side of things. It has nothing to do with superheroes or his work in the CIA. That’s Butcher, a real glimpse into the character. And because he exists outside the panel, the moment is made more important.
Annie also gets a moment later in the issue during a meeting with the Seven. Homelander and A-Train get into a conversation about Mallory, an old colleague of Butcher’s. But Annie, being the new member of the team, has no idea what the two are talking about. She says, “Excuse me…?” in one panel, but they seem to ignore her. She repeats her line at the bottom of the page, outside of a panel and with no background. Her stopping the conversation has, in a way, stopped the comic. It’s this moment of hold on and a pause in the conversation. Unfortunately for her, Homelander doesn’t explain what he was talking about. Instead, he takes the moment to tell Annie that she needs to redesign her costume to show off her breasts.
While drawing a bunch of boxes on a page could be a good start for those new to the medium, using panels to strengthen pacing and characterization help make good comics great. Comic creators can do anything they want on the page; they shouldn’t let a few boxes control their story. Changing up the size, angle, and stacking order of panels can go a long way to make a comic stand out.
Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read inThe Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.