3. Comic Structure

According to Will Eisner, timing is an essential structural element to comics, the measurement of which has an enormous psychological impact (1), enabling us to recognise and be empathetic to the whole range of human experience and emotion (2). Daniel Raeburn surmises that time and space in comics is basically the same thing (3), as time is displayed visually within the medium. Henry John Pratt elaborates this point further stating that due to the static nature of comics, a reader can determine the length of time they wish to take in order to process a narrative. This allows them the opportunity to dwell on meaning and imagery in a manner not possible in a medium such as film that forces a speed of perception (4). Schneider notes that the subjective elasticity of time in comics mirrors the ‘complex dynamic of repetition that orchestrates the everyday’ (5). Ultimately, as the structure of time in comics is tied to the layout. The manner in which moments are encapsulated within a page will determine the perception of time and the speed at which it is read.

Eisner describes comic layouts being constructed through two distinct framing devices; ‘the total page, on which there are any number of panels and the panel itself’ (6). These devices work together in encouraging how a comic is read; the panels on a page, which need not include borders (7), contain the narrative and action, communicating the content of a story, while the overall page forms the space between panels – what is commonly referred to as ‘the gutter’. McCloud describes how the gutter forces human imagination to take two separate images, which are placed in a ‘staccato rhythm of unconnected moments’, and transform them into a single idea (8). In order to do this, we must practice what McCloud refers to as ‘closure’; the meanings that are made in the process of transitioning your gaze from one frame to the next – observing the parts but perceiving the whole (9). Essentially, the larger the change in a frame, the more closure is required to make sense of what is happening. In instances of slow scenes where changes from one frame to the next are minute –such as those describing ennui – we require little closure, while dramatic jumps describing large sweeping actions or changes in scenery require more closure in order to figure out what has happened between these frames.

Figure 1
Through a deconstruction of three twenty page excerpts from It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and Ghost World, we can visualise the approaches each respective artist has taken in the construction of pacing in their work. McCloud establishes that length is an important factor in a comic’s ability to handle depth, and the manner in which narrative unfolds in these three comics is evidence of this statement. Through the excerpts, we can determine, subjectively, that the number of frames per page varies, with Jimmy Corrigan having an average of 14.7 panels per page, while It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken and Ghost World came to an average of 7.1 and 7.7 panels respectively (See Figure 1). Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith suggest that “the choice of which and how many moments to encapsulate on a particular page determines, to a great extent, how successfully a page operates as a unit”(10). As shown in Figure 2, Ware presents us with roughly twice the amount moments in which we must use closure to understand what is occurring. Ware’s work is based on the metaphorical smallness of his character, and, as each of these books is of similar dimensions, the panels that Ware has drawn are considerably smaller than that of Seth and Clowes in order to fit them in the available space. Duncan & Smith state that ‘the size of a panel can affect the emphasis given to the moment within that panel, in comparison to moments in those surrounding it’ (11). Small panels may depict small moments in time, and continual use of repetitive panels within a single scene may emphasise the ‘tedious uneventfulness’ of a character’s life (12). In contrast, as is the case with Ghost World which has a continual structure of comparatively larger panels, the length of time for the reader to spend on a single frame may be longer due to their size, especially considering scene lengths are dramatically shorter than those in Jimmy Corrigan, placing larger emphasis on each frame within that scene to communicate key narrative points.

Figure 2

In Understanding Comics, McCloud has formulated a system in which to chart transitions. He proposed that visual narrative development can be charted into six panel-to-panel categories (Figure 2). Upon applying McCloud’s transition scale to the works of Ware, Seth and Clowes, it quickly became apparent that the complexity of longer works could not be confined to these six categories – more instances than not, we would be transitioning from Moment-to-Action-to-Moment, for example. McCloud’s categories are not specific enough to chart complete works, having been designed to chart direct sequences of events as tool to only conceptually understand the manner in which closure works. In adapting McCloud’s design, it would perhaps make further sense to withdraw the originating frame from the scale, charting instead the transition from closure to the subsequent frame; we can then establish what each individual frame is charted by for its content alone. In analysing the frequency of a particular category, we can roughly establish the pace of the comic and what emotive effect these transitions contribute. The adapted categories by which to read Figure 1 are as follows:

  • A Moment Transition requires little closure (14), encompassing momentary changes within a single scene or conversation prior to a new narrative element being introduced.
  • An Action Transition progresses a scene with distinct movements or events by a single subject.
  • A Subject Transition is when the narrative stays within the same scene, yet gives insight to a flashback, memory, thought, or alternate location; providing a supporting perspective. The Subject Transition introduces the perspective, but will not be applicable to subsequent frames in the tangent timeline.
  • A Scene Transition changes from one point in time and space to another.
  • An Aspect Transition provides an alternate perspective (Which McCloud describes as a ‘wandering eye’) (15) within a scene or location, often used as an elapse or extension of time.
  • A Non-Sequitur Transition is an abstract frame removed from the continuity or
    subject matter of the comic (16).

Figure 3
In looking at Figure 3 we can see the two most used transitions in all works to be Moment Transitions and Action Transitions. These are followed by Aspect Transitions. This provides us with an insight to the construction of the works, and the emotional effects that they convey. The large use of Moment Transitions in Jimmy Corrigan is capable due to the increased number of panels per page. The use of this moment by moment portrayal enables Ware to display the emotional subtleties of his characters, providing the reader an elongated view into the nuances of their private lives –focusing on the moments between events, rather than the actual event. Raeburn explains how Ware set out to construct the comic ‘symphonically’, creating an almost musical rhythm in the comic’s structure and how it is read (17). Schneider likens this form of structure as representational of ennui, stating that ‘provided that rhythm is set through a dynamic of repetition and differentiation, the effect of angst and monotony can be stressed if the content inside the panels is repeated’(18). Essentially, through continual use of moment transitions, the emotive intensity continues to build up, externalising the emotive experiences of characters and projecting them onto the viewer.

In comparison, Seth uses this moment-by-moment approach to pace the story so that it is suited to his character’s inner monologue and philosophical ideologies; conveying much of this pacing through his contemplation and commentary on the world around him. As we follow the pacing established, we are encouraged to follow the character’s perspective. The relationship between the act of contemplation, Schneider concludes, and that of looking, observing and dedicating attention to something is explored by manipulating the direction of the gaze(19). The difference between the ennui evident in Jimmy Corrigan and the contemplation that guides It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken is that instead of focusing on ‘monotonous sadness’, the use of moment transitions coupled with aspect transitions – such as a leaf falling from a tree – place attention on ‘small and telling differences’ (20).

Ghost World, a substantially shorter text, relies on Action Transitions, as the number of pages prohibits Clowes from utilising drawn out moments, needing to be more succinct in his portrayal of events in order to drive the narrative forward. As such, key events are outlined, and Scene Transitions occur more frequently. Conceptually, this faster pace reflects the coming of age nature of the comic. The scenes are selective in what they reveal for much of the narrative, tying up loose ends late in the book; mirroring the denial and ultimate acceptance of the protagonist Enid as she realises that she and her friend Rebecca are destined for separate lives.

In approaching comic structure in Autumn, Grey, the focus was placed on monotony and repetition to create pacing. Based on the manipulation of a 3×3 grid – appropriated from both It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken and Ghost World – the comic has an average of 7.08 panels per page, forming a continuous visual pattern that assists in the communication of ennui in Drew’s life. I have further attempted to manipulate the way in which closure operates within the work, placing emphasis on the structure of moment transitions and how to manipulate these to evoke a heightened emotive response (Figure 4).

Figure 4


  1. Eisner, W, Comics & Sequential Art, 18th edn, Poorhouse Press, Tamarac, 1999 p. 25
  2. Eisner, p. 26
  3. D Raeburn, Chris Ware, Laurence King Publishing, London, 2004, p. 73
  4. Pratt, H J,‘ Narrative in Comics’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol.67,
    No.1, 2009 p. 115
  5. Schneider, G, ‘Comics and Everyday Life: From Ennui to Contemplation’, European Comic
    Art, Vol 3, No. 1, 2010 p. 53
  6. Eisner, p.41
  7. R Duncan & M J Smith, The Power of Comics: History, Form & Culture, Continuum International, New York, 2009, p. 10
  8. McCloud,S, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, HarperPerennial, New York, 1994, pg. 66
  9. McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 63
  10. Duncan R & Smith, M J, The Power of Comics: History, Form & Culture, Continuum
    International, New York, 2009, p. 10
  11. Duncan & Smith, p. 10
  12. M Saraceni, The Language of Comics, Routledge, London, 2003, p.55
  13. McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 74
  14. McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 70
  15. McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 72
  16. McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 72
  17. Raeburn, p. 79
  18. Schneider, p. 43
  19. Schneider, p. 59
  20. Schneider, p. 59

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