Thinking in nine panels

There were a lot of things I wanted to drivel on about this week, but they have all been driven out of my head by graphic novels. Not only have I been reading them, I’ve been thinking about writing them – which is no simple thing, but a compelling idea to somebody who started reading Marvel when she was nine and has, since then, read everything she can get her hands on.

I’ve got to be honest though – until very recently the art wasn’t a key concern of mine. I had favourite artists and ones I didn’t like, but I chose my comics on the writer’s name, not the artist’s and as for the letterer and the colourist, I never gave them a thought.

Now that I’m trying to work out how to fit my own prose into a graphic novel, all those intersecting abilities have a completely different meaning for me. I look at a comic and see where they work together seamlessly and where they seem to jar against each other. I compare the smooth writing of Warren Ellis with the jagged work of his illustrator John Higgins on Constantine and the more edgy work of Alan Moore on Swamp Thing set against the smooth styling of Stephen Bissette’s art. It’s utterly fascinating.

Thinking in nine panels (or less) requires you to jettison all your tricks and tropes. The story has to be pared to the bone and characters have to reveal themselves as much through their expressions and actions as through their words or thoughts. And whatever instructions you give to the artist, their interpretation will overlay (or underpin) yours and create a hybrid, or maybe a monster, which is perhaps why comics are the natural preserve of the spooky and mysterious. I really hope to get to try out this kind of collaboration for myself but until then I am thinking in nine panels and discovering that I’m enjoying it a lot.


  1. Jim Murdoch
    25th September 2009

    No, it was always about the art for me. Much as I love the words – have you ever seen Gaimen’s outlines? they’re so detailed – I have always regarded comics as affordable art. I still own a box full of comics and there are some I have never read, I’ve just drooled over the covers (which is why I keep them in plastic bags to protect them from drool). My favourite artist is Bill Sienkiewicz.

    His artwork to Stray Toasters is incredible.

    And it stopped being 9 panels a long time ago. I had an issue of Thor once where the entire comic was one panel a page.

  2. Lauraajk
    26th September 2009

    Like you, Kay, graphic novels are about the writer for me – Neil Gaiman, Mike Carey, Warren Ellis, Brain K Vaughan, and yet it is interesting when you start thinking about the art as well. I always feel that Gaiman’s work is very different in it’s presentation and atmosphere when someone who isn’t Dave McKean has illustrated it.

    Saying that, I would be keen to read any graphic novel by you, whatever the final form or artistic style.


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