Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“22 panels that always work!”

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22 Panels That Always Work!

When he was six, Wally Wood dreamt that he found a pencil that could draw anything, and he spent nearly fifty years proving that any pencil would do the trick—it just had to be held by the right artist. Wood may be the most fascinating comics illustrator I know, a journeyman whose résumé spans a dazzling variety of genres and media: EC Comics titles like Tales From the Crypt, Two-Fisted Tales, and of course Mad; the Mars Attacks set; covers and illustrations for Galaxy Science Fiction; pencils and inks for Daredevil; and any number of comic strips, gag panels, and adult cartoons, including the infamous Disneyland Memorial Orgy for Paul Krassner’s The Realist. He was the ultimate working artist, perennially on deadline and working for minimal pay, and as a result, he was obliged to become a monster of efficiency. Over his desk, he taped the note: “Never draw anything you can copy, never copy anything you can trace, never trace anything you can cut and paste up.” And while in the hands of another illustrator, this approach might have degenerated into lazy hackwork, in Wood’s case, it was simply a strategy of survival for a man who could draw literally anything.

Wood’s most famous legacy to his fellow artists is a page of sketches titled “22 Panels That Always Work,” and I’ve been looking at it with awe and affection for much of the last few days. It’s the most compelling summary of a graphic artist’s bag of tricks I’ve ever seen, and it’s all the more potent because it was designed to be utterly practical: Wood created it as a daily reference tool for himself and his assistants, and every panel crackles with the kind of artistic clarity and pragmatism that can only be achieved under the gun. The pictures themselves look like they were jotted down to capture the lightning essence of an insight or idea, and the advice is pithy and ruthlessly telegraphic: Big Head. Extreme Closeup. Reflection. One Big Object—Handgun, Lamp, Phone. There’s something about working under constant deadline pressure that causes theory and practice to merge into one, and the result ranks, to my eyes, with David Mamet’s On Directing Film and the best work of Jack Woodford as the distilled experience of a lifetime.

Detail from Wally Wood's 22 Panels That Always Work

Looking over the page, a few things stand out at once for the lessons they offer to storytellers of all kinds. One of the panels is simply labeled Contrast, but contrast is a crucial tool throughout: light and dark, large and small, close and far away. Wood has other things to worry about than the verbal content of the scenes themselves, but there’s no question that contrast is central to the way writers plan out and execute readable narratives, even when they’re working with words instead of images. Contrast between characters, contrast between one scene and the next, contrast between the protagonist’s actions as the story unfolds: each component in the story ends up being set against every other, so they all need to stand out in ways defined by their neighbors. One of the most striking aspects of Wood’s advice here is how the entire page, which was pasted up after the fact by one of his former assistants, looks great as a whole, even though none of these panels were originally designed to sit side by side. If you take care of the contrasts within each beat, the larger elements—the page, the chapter, the book—will pop as a whole, but only if you’ve taken pains to make each constituent part work in its own right.

And the really interesting thing about Wood’s panels is the basic artistic problem that they were intended to solve. The header reads: “Some interesting ways to get some variety into those boring panels where some dumb writer has a bunch of lame characters sitting around and talking for page after page!” And with only a few exceptions, these panels are a series of variations on the same scene: two characters talking, usually indoors, without any other action in sight. In short, they’re a means of dealing with what I’ve suggested elsewhere is the central problem of a writer’s life, which is how to gracefully handle exposition. Anyone who becomes a comic book illustrator is probably drawn to the trade by its splashiest elements: the covers, the full-page action scenes, the showpiece moments that allow an artist to demonstrate what he can really do. In practice, though, you soon find that half of your time is spent drawing someone on the phone. And that’s true of most of the other arts as well. As Wood understood, the more productive the life, the longer you’ll toil in the two-fisted trenches of those functional connective panels, so you may as well learn to love it, or at least find enough craft to tolerate it: you’ll be spending a lot of time there.

Note: Panels That Always Work is copyright Wallace Wood Properties LLC. You can order a copy of the official version here.

Written by nevalalee

December 23, 2013 at 8:58 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with ,

2 Responses

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  1. nice!


    December 23, 2013 at 10:19 pm

  2. Thanks—I love this sort of thing, too.


    December 27, 2013 at 9:19 am

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