Panel flow is the manner in which an artist places panels on a page encouraging a reader to follow in a certain direction. An artist places visual queues, like a guiding map, so a reader’s eyes will follow the page until completion. This is the fourth and final part of the Panel Layout series.
I am writing from a Western comic perspective, where comics are read starting from the top left and ending in the bottom right of a page, working in a “Z” pattern (Asian comics, the direction is reversed, from top right to bottom left).
If a comic has consistent rectangular shape panels and rows throughout the story, it is fairly straight-forward the order of panels. If an artist uses a variety of shaped panel sizes, shapes and places them in various places on the pages, the flow will be more complicated. Why not just play it safe, and stick with regimented rows? A variety of panel shapes and sizes can change the pace and place emphasis on action and/or details.
Techniques to assist panel flow are: placement of panels, placement of speech balloons, and direction a character(s) are facing or pointing an object toward.
The placement of panels must be easy for a reader to understand the chronological order they should be read. They need to be placed in a way that leads the reader’s eyes forward across a page. Spacing can be used to manage pacing. The more panels on a page takes more time for a reader to process, which slows time. The fewer the panels on a page takes less time for a reader to process, which speeds up time
The same can be said about speech balloons. The first piece of dialogue must be placed highest and furthest left on the page, and the following should continue toward the last piece of dialogue must be the lowest text on the right of the page. (I wrote extensively about speech balloon in another series http://jphistudio.com/talking-about-speech-balloons/ )
Also, you can place visual queues to have readers know directions they should be reading a page, this can include directions a character is facing or the direction the character is pointing an object toward, like a finger or a weapon.
Below is an example of effective panel flow from my webcomic Phantoms’ Trail. The soldier is facing right, waving his hand toward the right and the speech bubble is leading the reader to the right. Then the character is moving to the left. The last speech bubble is on the left and the character is on the right to move the reader through to the bottom right of the page. There is not a lot of dialogue, so the action is fast.
Below is an example of poor panel flow. It is unclear which order the panels should be read. If you confuse a reader it will bring them out of the story. One of the most important things is to have a reader immersed in a story, don’t do something which causes a reader to be frustrated and break their involvement due to poor execution.
Overall, panel flow must look clear to the reader to process the page and appear aesthetically pleasing.
This concludes the discussion on panel flow and the Panel Layout series. I hope that it brought to mind how different approaches in panel layout can be used to convey a story.