Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The four-panel rule

with 4 comments

Good writing is hard work, part 2

Recently, I’ve taken to reading the comics page of the Chicago Tribune with my daughter, who likes to look at the pictures while the paper is spread across our living room floor. It’s the first time I’ve taken a serious look at daily comic strips in about a decade, and I’ve come to an unfortunate conclusion: comics these days are pretty bad. It’s possible, of course, that I’ve simply aged out of the medium, or that comic strips are best appreciated when consumed in big anthologies—as I first encountered everything from Peanuts to The Far Side to Bloom County—than when experienced one day at a time. Yet I don’t think it’s irrelevant that it’s been years since a newspaper comic strip entered the wider cultural consciousness. You could say that the comics are tethered to the dying industry of print journalism, and are doomed to go down with the rest of the ship; or that it’s hard for younger cartoonists to break into syndication, which is dominated by aging warhorses like Hagar the Horrible; or that most of the real talent has migrated online, where a strip like xkcd can pursue its obsessions into odd corners without worrying about editorial interference.

All of these factors no doubt play a role, but I suspect that there’s also a subtler process at work. When I glance over the comics page today, the handful of strips that still hold up, from Dustin to Sherman’s Lagoon to For Better or For Worse, have one thing in common: they all operate within a grid of four fixed panels. Most of the others, by contrast, freely change format within the strip’s skinny rectangle of real estate, going from four panels to three or even one as the gag requires. And while there are exceptions to the rule—Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts remains consistently superb while rearranging its layout as it sees fit—I can’t help but think that the discipline that four panels impose can have a positive impact on a strip’s quality. In the old days, the four-panel format was mandated by editorial standards; now it appears to be purely voluntary. Cartoonists have more freedom now than ever before, but the outcome, to put it mildly, hasn’t been an explosion of creativity. And while it might seem silly to lavish so much attention on the aesthetics of the comics page, there’s a real lesson to be learned here about the importance of constraints and the loss that occurs when they’re taken away.

Good writing is hard work, part 3

There have always been good reasons for newspapers to prefer four panels, as well as what might seem like superficially justifiable reasons for cartoonists to fight back. Four panels allow a strip to be easily rearranged into a square grid, rather than a long rectangle, which gives editors more flexibility in laying out the page. (For much the same reason, most Sunday strips are adhere to a strict layout, with throwaway panels at the top and panel breaks occurring at strategic points that allow the strip to fill half, a third, or a quarter of a page, depending on the arrangement.) Cartoonists, of course, resist such restrictions, which theoretically limit the kinds of stories and gags they can do. In practice, you’ll often see lazier strips stretching what should have been a single-panel joke over four panels or more in order to accommodate the layout. But for a serious cartoonist, being compelled to work within a standard format has the opposite effect: it forces you to think a little more about the gag you’re writing, rejecting the obvious approach in favor of one that gets the same point across in a slightly different way. You can’t go with your first idea; you need to look for a second. And that extra level of work and reflection often shows.

A quick look at the history of some of our greatest strips seems to bear this out. Charles Schulz’s Peanuts remains the medium’s crowning achievement, but there’s no question that it suffered a dip in quality in its later years—a decline that coincides almost exactly with its shift, in February 1988, from four panels to three. (Later, Schulz routinely indulged in gag strips that used only one panel, leading to some of the strip’s weakest moments.) Bill Watterson waged a brave fight to free Calvin and Hobbes from the rigidity of the Sunday comics format, but when you compare the later spreads, in which Watterson was free to fill half a page however he liked, to the more constrained earlier installments, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the writing suffered a bit even as the artwork became increasingly spectacular. Something similar occurred when Berkeley Breathed moved from Bloom County to Outland and Opus, which never quite recaptured the original strip’s urgency. Which isn’t to say that the majority of comic strips of the past, whatever their era or format, weren’t bland and predictable. But if modern comics have settled into a kind of sloppy mediocrity, it may only be because the old constraints, even as they enforced a formula, pushed the very best artists into something more.

Written by nevalalee

October 8, 2014 at 9:27 am

4 Responses

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  1. The author’s remarks in the Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book are an interesting counterpoint to yours. Watterson rather feels that strips are dull to look at now _because_ of too many constraints. Panels so small there’s only room for dialogue, for example, prevent the artist from being artistic. He is rather scathing of many attitudes in the industry. Perhaps some comic strips are about the words and work around visual limitations more easily, whereas the ones that try to really do something with the artwork suffer more.

    Newspaper comics inhabit a strange middle ground between art, commodity, work for hire and even editorial. Watterson notes that to even get syndicated he had to sign away many, many rights — the syndicate could even fire him from his own strip and hire other writers and artists!

    I think the bigger issue is just the decline of the newspaper industry. Papers can’t carry any space that does not earn, and this pushes them into choosing ‘safe’ options, which can easily become boring options — like sticking with familiar names.

    And yes, I think any strip no longer being drawn by its creator(s) needs to go (so do many that are).

    I would argue Peanuts was weak long before 1988. But that is a purely subjective view and comes partly from a comparison of _any_ work with those first five or so incredible years of Peanuts — it may well have dipped in 1988, but was already often little more than a series of glyphs (Snoopy on doghouse, Peppermint Patty at her desk, Lucy at the booth… he could have had a bunch of stamps cut). The opening years of Peanuts are amazing — few artists had so far to fall, so perhaps I am being unfair.

    My own two favourites are Calvin and Hobbes and Footrot Flats; the latter hardly known outside Australia and New Zealand. It evoked a whole landscape and lifestyle, and in many ways the result was more like a novel or series of short stories. I suggest a google search, perhaps a visit to http://tearoomofdespair.blogspot.com.au/2012/12/footrot-flats-down-on-farm-for-christmas.html

    Both C&H and FF were brought to a close by idiosyncratic creators who were devoted to their craft and knew when to stop.

    Darren

    October 9, 2014 at 9:38 pm

  2. nice. wanted to reblog, but couldn’t find the button.

    yetanotherutopian

    October 11, 2014 at 8:41 am

  3. @Darren: I think Bill Watterson—whom I otherwise love—and I will have to agree to disagree on this point. And we’re in agreement on Peanuts, although I’d change “first five or so incredible years” to “twenty-five.”

    Thanks for the tip about Footrot Flats—I’m absolutely going to check it out.

    nevalalee

    October 12, 2014 at 10:02 pm

  4. > Thanks for the tip about Footrot Flats—I’m absolutely going to check it out.

    Email me an address and I’ll post you one. darreng@australia.edu

    Darren

    October 17, 2014 at 4:37 pm


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