Friday, April 16, 2010

Panel Density & Pacing in Invincible Iron Man

I recently did an analysis of Matt Fraction's "panel density" and pacing in Invincible Iron Man as part of the April Comics Experience Book Club. We were studying the first seven issues of the series, and the question I volunteered to discuss involved Fraction's reputation for favoring 8-panel pages and how the density affected the reading experience. (Click images below for a larger view.)

[As a side note, I realize that comics are a collaborative medium, and depending on the style of the collaboration, the panel density could have been determined as much by the artist as the writer. But I'm looking it at solely (and perhaps unfairly) from a writer's perspective for purposes of this discussion.]

First things first, in the initial seven issues of Invincible Iron Man, Fraction only used an 8-panel page twice. This surprised some of us in the class; it felt denser than it actually was for two reasons:

(1) although only two pages technically used eight panels, other pages were laid out on what was essentially an 8- or 9-panel grid, but with a couple panels combined, making it feel like more panels than were actually there; and

(2) although he rarely used eight panels, he did use a lot of 6- and 7-panel pages.

The gap between my impression and reality wasn't obvious until I did some spreadsheet work so that I could visually see the panel density across individual issues and the whole story arc.

Specifically, I measured panel density by looking at the number of pages that had six or more panels, and then assigned a percentage to the issue based on the number of overall pages in the book. As it turned out, this seemed to be a better measure of panel density than just average panels per page in an issue.

For example, while issue #2 had a seemingly standard "average panels per page" of 5.3, the issue contained a "panel density" of 41% (with 9 of the 22 pages containing six or more panels). Similarly, in issue #4, a set-up issue with no action at all, the density is 40%, with 10 of the 25 pages having six or more panels. This is part of what makes the storytelling sometimes feel dense.
As a point of comparison, Iron Man Legacy #1 by Fred Van Lente -- telling a somewhat similar story about terrorists using Stark armor technology -- had a panel density of 23%, with only five pages having six or more panels. (Of course, he did manage to sneak a 9-panel page in there, one-upping Fraction -- ha). To use a more extreme comparison, Ultimates #1 by Mark Millar had a panel density of only 15%, although even the "widescreen" classic had one 8-panel page.

Having said all that, Fraction is a master of the craft, and he really opens up the pages when the story dictates it. For example, in issue #1, after seven pages in a row of five or more panels (pages 5-11), he backs down to three panels per page for the action on pages 12-14. This is why Fraction often has an average number of panels per page per issue, even though some individual pages are very dense in panels.

We see this variation at the level of the overall 7-issue story arc as well. While issue #4 (the "no action" issue) has a panel density of 40%, the following two action issues (5 and 6) have, respectively, panel density of only 9% and 14%; lower even than Millar's Ultimates #1! In issue #5, only two pages have six panels; every other page has less. Salvador Larroca must have loved drawing that one!

The difference across issues made me feel like the best way to experience the story arc might have been in trade paperback form. While the pacing served the storytelling, reading the book with a month break between each issue might have felt uneven, with some issues going slow and taking a while to read, and others taking only minutes.

Of course, panel density alone is not a good measure of true story density. Consider that Nick Spencer's Existence 2.0, issue #1 has a panel density every bit as high as Fraction's denser Iron Man stories -- 40%, with 9 of the 22 pages having six or more panels, and a high panels per page average of 5.9 -- but it's a relatively fast read with just an average amount of words.

So, comparatively speaking, it seems to be Fraction's words, rather than the 8-panel page, that determine how dense the reading experience feels at times. What I noticed most was his tendency to both show *and* tell. Take the sequence shown here, from page 5 of issue #1 as an example. We're being "shown" that Tony is a playboy by the presence of the Contessa, and the dialogue is indirectly showing that he's an alcoholic, as he declines her offer of a drink verbally.

At the same time, he's directly telling us he's an alcoholic and a playboy in his first person narrative captions about his "first nightmare"; not just that he'll have a drink, but that he'll have it by pouring it down the Contessa's back. That's a lot of showing *and* telling going on -- and it's a heck of a lot more skillful than a clichéd first person caption that read something like: "I'm Tony Stark, and I'm a playboy and an alcoholic." (ha) Fraction takes the same approach on the Tony and Pepper page shown earlier, where Fraction's telling us (through Tony's first person caption) that Tony trusts Pepper with his company at the same time he's showing us that through their interactions via the dialogue.

To be fair, though, Fraction also knows how to use few words with a high panel count to control the pacing. As an example, check out issue #4, page 19, where Fraction uses six panels, with only a single caption containing one word, to heighten the drama as the illicit Stark technology falls into the wrong hands -- just as Tony planned.

So, what was the bottom line of all this? To me, it shows that Fraction is very consciously controlling the panel density, word count, and pacing, both within individual issues and across the whole story arc. He leaves more space and uses less words for action or for turning points, and increases the overall density when he needs to do (skillful) info-dumps or talking heads. When you step back from it, it all seems very knowing and well-planned.

My rather silly number game did give me a sense of how much thought should go into the panel density of my own stories because of the effect it has on the reading experience. If you're not thinking this through as you write, you probably have room for improvement in your own pacing. (I know I do!)

If you're interested in information on joining Andy Schmidt's Comics Experience Book Club -- where the discussion doesn't usually involve so many numbers, I promise! -- you can visit the website here, or you can read a review of the last class over on Joe Sergi's Cup of Geek.


Amber Love said...

Oh, Rob, bless yer heart for having the patience to use math to analyze a script. I could never do that!

RobAnderson said...

ha! Yeah, and I don't even LIKE math...but it did help me figure out a couple things in this case.