What Will Be Comics' Next Big Storytelling Technique?


15 years ago or so, we saw the rise of "decompressed" storytelling. It borrowed a technique from manga, which was quickly rising in popularity at the time. One moment could be stretched out for pages in manga, and everyone loved it. The fact that those things happened in books that ran a couple hundred pages versus a comic that only ran 22 was lost on some people.

Decompression as a novelty has run its course, following the classic pattern of a pendulum swinging too far in one direction. As these things always do, they swing back to a more normal position, though with permanent changes of a smaller scale still in place.

Comics are a breezier read now than they were 20 years ago. Gone are the days of Claremontian captions and Stan Lee exposition. Gone, mostly, are the comics where word balloons dominate every panel and the characters moved glacially forward while explaining everything to the first time reader that editors all assumed were holding the comic.

The average time to read a comic is probably half what it was in 1990, even accounting for the lesser page count. With comics being made in particular for an assumed trade collection, that's more justifiable. A story spreads out over more pages, so important moments can breathe, or more illustrations can be used to tell the same story, giving the artist room to show some acting and directing in new ways. When you read the story in its permanent collected format down the line, it'll all even out.

The manga-led decompressed storytelling was an extreme of this style. It's an outlier that has centered back out. Yet people still refer to some of this as "decompression," which I think is wrong. Bad habits are hard to break.

Modern readers are seeing a new phase of storytelling, I think. As decompression was borne of manga, I think this new phase is borne of television and movies. Those are the media forms that dominate the landscape. Today's creators were raised on a steady diet of motion pictures and serialized entertainment on the small screen. We live today in a much talked about Golden Age of television.

More and more of these productions use storyboard artists to help guide the visual look and storytelling style of the shows. More of those storyboard artists cross over into comics, and more comic artists can crossover into storyboards. We've heard plenty of times from Hollywood executives that the comics they base their movies on are like instant storyboards for the films.

It's not a perfect comparison. There are big differences between the form of storyboards and comics. There are matters of form factor and detail in the art. A storyboard for a movie will generally consist of a series of panels all in the same aspect ratio, as the film will be shot in. The number of pages doesn't correspond to time on the screen, and since it isn't being published, there's no limit to how many images a storyboard artist can draw to tell a part of the story.

However, the big difference between storyboards and comics is the way they tell a story. Comic books are told in panels that capture a moment. Two or more things might happen in a panel, but the artist can only draw one of them. The word balloons or caption boxes will fill in the rest. A conversation can occur in one panel where emotions change, but the artist must pick one to draw. A comic tries to, by its nature, compress the story to keep it moving, limiting the number of panels to a minimum to tell the story on the space allotted.

Storyboards, on the other hand, flow through the story and those moments. They can tell every detail of every moment. They are meant to capture every nuance and motion and change in direction. A single comic book panel might contain enough material for three or more storyboard images. Every beat of the moment will be drawn out. Storyboard artists draw a lot of images.

I think it's bleeding over into comics. I think comic book artists are more and more using the medium to tell a story in smaller chunks. Rather than putting two characters in a panel with plenty of dead space between them to stuff a ton of dialogue into, they're more likely to draw that dialogue back-and-forth in a series of panels that show each action and reaction. Each speaker's turn might get a panel. The conversations spills out over a whole page, as each change in direction or emotion gets a panel.

This isn't decompression. It's not a matter of a single moment being spread out over an extreme number of panels or pages for dramatic effect. It's storyboarding, where the artist can act more strongly as a director and an actor. It's the artist visualizing the comic script as a movie and adding all the cuts (the moments between panel borders) back and forth, pushing the camera through the scene as he or she wishes while animating the characters.

Let me show you a few recent examples of this in action.


Here's a page by Charlie Adlard and Stefano Gaudiano, with gray tones from Cliff Rathburn and letters by Rus Wooton.


Gabriel Hardman is an actual storyboard artist in Hollywood, having worked on films like "Superman Returns" and "Inception." (You read that link I had last week, right?)

Let's look like at a page from something he has drawn, with colors by Jordan Boyd:


I hope these pages give you good examples of what I'm thinking of when I say that a comic book is being storyboarded.

Each panel...

  • ...tells the smallest bit of time possible to match a story beat.
  • ...has a focus that directly matches the dialogue or caption.
  • ...represents a cut in camera.

This storytelling style, much like decompression before it, is not exclusive to any comic book. It can be mixed in with other styles. It is least suited for storytelling styles, though, that play tricks with the comic page. Picture J.H. Williams III's style, for an extreme example. Part of storyboarding is the restraint to maintain a style that's more consistent, and likely falls on a grid, but without having to go so far as to lock things down to one shape.

Storyboarded comics are also likely to be thought of as fast reads, mostly because no single panel gets weighed down with too many actions. Your eye is moving quickly from panel to panel. Even if the panels are small and a lot happens on the page, the reader is likely to describe the experience as "quick" because they've covered so much ground without every getting stuck in a verbose panel.

That's my theory, at least. It's something I'm still working on, but it's a style I tend to like a lot. It maintains the best of cinematic storytelling along with a lot of the strongest suits of comics storytelling.

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