The Problem with Balance

Cartoonists are always finding ways to balance their pages. We can’t help it. If there’s a close-up in the lower left, we balance it a little on the upper right. If there are a lot of spot blacks on one page, we find more spots on the other. We’re taught that dynamic balance is more interesting than static balance, but the goal of balance itself remains. Balance can lead to harmonious, satisfying compositions, but is that what comics artists really want? A satisfying page is a page you can stay on, linger on, stop on—a page without momentum.

When we walk, all we’re doing is falling. We fall a little, stop ourselves from falling, then fall a little more. Balance keeps us from falling on our faces, but it’s imbalance that gets us where we’re going. 

I wonder: Would it help to forget panel 1 when I draw panel 2, and forget 2 when I draw 3? The result might be an imbalanced mess, but would it also be a more interesting mess? A more surprising, less typical, mess? Would it lead the reader to wonder what the next spread had in store, and feel less confident he/she could predict the shape of each one?

Imbalance already drives stories forward—a character lacks something, the world’s out of joint, trouble’s on the rise—maybe it should also play a more prominent role in storytelling.

Discussion (39)¬

  1. Steve Weiner says:

    That’s a pretty tough one. My experience is that while readers are able to experiment with themes in stories, they like regular patterns in the ways stories are told. If the way the story itself is presented becomes too much of a focus, a lot of readers don’t want to work in that way, they prefer to focus on what is happening in a story. Of course stylistic experiments can work & can change mediums. Few people understood Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, but over time it influenced the way fiction was written. Off the top of my head I can’t think of a comics equivalent.

  2. Isaac says:

    A possible problem with the “forget panel one” approach: the reader isn’t going to forget panel one. You might wind up with imbalance that accidentally pulls against the direction of the story.

    In other words, I think you’re right that a composition out of balance could be used for interesting effects, but I don’t think that a cartoonist could get there by ignoring the “mess” that would result from composing the page with his or her eyes shut.

  3. Heather says:

    This is an interesting concept that doesn’t just affect comics. There is a similar problem both in writing a “words only” story and in doing illustration (my husband works makes comics, I however am an artist and do some children’s illustration which in many ways follow comics in flow.) If you already have an established readership then you would have to be careful how far you took the imbalance –pulling the reader out of the story by being randomly unbalanced would “bother” established readers and might turn new readers away from your comic–especially story focused readers unless you are deliberately able to recreate the flow of the story using the unbalance (I am thinking of Bill Waterson as an example). On the other hand, for people like me, who are artwork focused (I can read total tripe if the artwork is inspiring) then interesting unbalancing would be welcome (in fact too much balance drives me insane). It is also welcome if it furthers the story and draws you in a new direction, which would be a case of deliberate unbalancing–as my metal smithing professor used to say, “I don’t care if you want it to look random,make it DELIBERATE.” So I guess the case would be for not predictable balancing but occasional deliberate unbalancing? Using the unbalancing to make a point, deliberately. And sometimes deliberately being random in order to get yourself out of a rut is also a good thing (at least I find it is for me as a watercolor artist.)

  4. Mike L says:

    You know what, Scott? Though I agree with the folks above, do it. Do a simple comic say just in one day (no, not a whole 24 hour comic, just something small) and illustrate what you’re saying here. What harm is there in trying it? Besides, it might help you get it out of your system if you’re thinking of this approach for the next project or it might be a key that shows you how you want to approach it. Go on! All the cool kids are doing it!

  5. Scott says:

    [Replying to Steve, Isaac, Heather, Mike]

    I want to stress that I’m not interested in introducing imbalance for its own sake. Just the opposite. I’m interested in suspending the technique of compulsively introducing balance into pages in ways unrelated to the natural progression of the story.

    Basically, I’m wondering what would happen if we let the story drop panels and compositions onto the page and then let them stand, rather than fiddle with them after the fact in pursuit of balance that only serves the page, but not the story.

    In nature, we encounter beautiful compositions every day that aren’t concerned with counterbalancing every element.

  6. indigo says:

    Ah, Zen and the art of Page Layout.

  7. Heather says:

    Absolutely. Essentially that is what I meant though obviously I worded it poorly. For instance, I am learning to loosen up on my paintings and stop fiddling with them trying to get them “perfect”–life is NOT perfect and trying to make them look perfect actually detracts instead of adding to an image. I would think that the same would apply in comic progression. By fixing every little detail so it is just so you actually lose more than you gain.

  8. John F. Martin says:

    If you’re talking just within the panels themselves, I believe it would work. The actual layout of the panels would serve to draw it all together, assuming you’re doing something aside from your standard four/six/whatever box panels. And hell, you imbalance a page normally to draw attention to certain things.

    I dunno though. I write, not draw, so I don’t see things the way an artist does. But I’m of the camp where each page should tell a story. What you suggest is each panel tell one, or half of one, to make the reader stumble to the next to see where you’re going.

  9. Kenn McDonald says:

    Here’s a thought. Would content affect how much visual imbalance a story could support? A simple, very clear story might allow for more experimentation with visual imbalance. The simplicity of the story might help ground the reader somewhat to give the artist more room to maneuver. A complex story might benefit from more clearly defined visual story telling. An obvious example of this would be Watchmen. The rigid 9 panel grid dressed the story in a very traditional visual style while the content ranged far outside the norm for that time. I like the idea of visual imbalance driving the story forward, but how much can a story sustain before it tips over?

    • Scott says:

      Funny you should mention Watchmen. Gibbons actually composed many of his panels using the rule of thirds, a deliberate form of calculated imbalance. Not as radical as what I was mulling over, but still…

      • Kenn McDonald says:

        So you get imbalance within a superficially rigid structure. Very sneaky. I need to go back and look at those pages again.

        • Student says:

          I’m currently writing a third-year english essay on Spiegelman’s Maus, and this discussion has added another point to my essay.

          Examples of “deliberate unbalance” can be found throughout this novel, and simply flipping through it is obvious that black-white balance is there — almost unconsciously — throughout the text. Looking closer at the unbalanced pages, I can see that a lack of balance is almost always used to create an effect; to draw attention to specific parts of the two pages that are opened together.

          The example I am using is found on Pg 104/105 of Maus II, going from lightly colored frames in the top right, to the remaining dark three quadrants of the combined two pages. On the right page (105), however, there is an obvious white gap between three dark frames, aprox. in the middle of the page, where it is written (In relatively large bubble letters) “THE WAR IS OVER”.
          I won’t go further into my arguments behind this, but if you look for yourself (especially if you are a native English left-right, top-bottom reader), you will find yourself subconsciously unable to stop yourself from skipping ahead from the first panel on 104 to reading this.

          i am looking forward to the thoughts of anyone who actually reads at this, and possibly even takes a look at it. Even if just for this message board.

      • Mike L says:

        Well, ok. I can sort of see what you mean, though more the intent than the practice. Where do you stop ‘fiddling’ with composition? At the thumbnail process? IS there a thumbnail process? Are the panels themselves composed within themselves but not in relation to each other? Is the size and shape of panel meant to be dictated by whim and not with some overall sense of page layout or even shape? It almost sounds like what you’re suggesting is that you draw a story the way it’s told, the way you think about it and to hell with panels, gutters and the like. Stream of consciousness comics or some such which would fit great with your infinite canvas idea. Get more specific for me, please. I’m interested and the dare still stands. :”D

        -mike, formerly yadda yadda

        • Robert Wood says:

          Something someone pointed out to me was the “Fearful Symmetry” issue of the Watchmen: where the entire issue is balanced and complementary, symmetrical, around the middle two pages. The layout isn’t just within the pages, but across the whole comic.

  10. Scott says:

    “Are the panels themselves composed within themselves but not in relation to each other?”

    Maybe as a starting point.

    This is actually related to my earlier post, Comics as CSS? which describes one process that could potentially lead to the kinds of organic, unforced compositions I’m considering.

    By the way, everybody: Don’t panic. I’m not going to start drawing with my feet or anything! ^__^ Just looking for a different angle on compositions that could contribute a bit more momentum and interest to the proceedings. I’m unlikely to do anything extreme on the graphic novel, for example.

    • Mike L says:

      Something that might help in shaking you out of the usual Western concepts of composition (if you even WANT that) is a really keen book called, “30,000 Years of Art.” It’s a monster but showcases art throughout the ages and as such, shows some examples of composition from other times and parts of the world. The Chinese, especially in their larger scrolls have a very different aesthetic sense in composition than we do. Hockney wrote a lot about this in “Hockney on Art,” another really good book. In general, I think humans are beings that look for order. We’re instinctively drawn to it, or we make it out of chaos. Indeed, nature is not ordered or composed, but when we look at it, we edit out the parts that make it most chaotic. The same is true in storytelling, filmmaking and comics. Still, I’d be interested to see if what you’re suggesting would allow the story to be felt with the same impact or if people would mentally struggle with the composition so much that they couldn’t enjoy what they were seeing.

    • Simon Fraser says:

      The question of balance in a page comes from a basic need for harmony in composition, even if that harmony isn’t necessarily relevant or useful. Artists can’t help it.
      The Page is an artifact of the printed comic, so the panel-by-panel webcomic needs have no such harmony imposed upon it. It’s a stream of panels in which the only relationships are between one panel and the next. Does a whole-page composition influence the story? Or is is just a graphical amusement?

      If we writer-artist types subconsciously ( or consciously ) form our stories into these page stanzas, does the pages balance imply a story structure? Or does it only go as deep as the immediate graphic?

      The idea of dischord or disharmony in music is pretty well established, so I’d imagine that the same could be applied to panel/page composition to the same effect….upsetting the audience.
      We all have to decide how useful that is to our own particular stories.

  11. jltopkis says:

    I’ve been learning (in film school) that each shot (read panel) has three distinct values. The shot that came before it, the current shot, and the shot after it. Seems balanced. This discussion reminded me of an editing technique called the Kuleshov Effect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuleshov_Experiment), an editing technique that is all about how shots fit next to each other instead of standing on their own.
    This is just what we get in film school though, Scott’s idea is pretty compelling…

  12. Ken W says:

    Panels in “exquisite corpse” or “jam” comics are often drawn without memory or even knowledge of the preceeding panel. But those comics tend to be more about novelty and the collaborative process rather than great storytelling.

    • Scott says:

      Also with lots of people waking up from dreams and the world exploding. 😉

      • Isaac says:

        Some time I really ought to send you some proper jam comics. (Actually, these use one of your ideas—”quanto comics”—over and over again. The idea was to give each strip a title, in advance, so they wouldn’t disintegrate before the end of the page.)

  13. A lot of comics where the panels don’t seem to care about each other: are done by people with backgrounds in illustration and animation. Or who are Francophone.

    My pet peeve is when individual panels are such obsessively rendered beauteous individual images that the story no longer flows, except by dint of all the panels being collated together.

    It’s like walking through a gallery show; half the time I end up skipping the back room so I can skip straight to the table of cheese cubes.

    As long as you keep giving readers a reason not to just stop at Panel 1 but keep reading the story as a whole, I think it’s fine to stop thinking about each visual-narrative space (be it page or webpage or whatever) as needing to be a perfectly balanced tea tray.

    Deferring to visual arts’ rules of composition in comics is like worrying about your toe-shoes at a breakdancing competition.

  14. Scott says:

    “Deferring to visual arts’ rules of composition in comics is like worrying about your toe-shoes at a breakdancing competition.”

    Pull Quote!

    • Heather says:

      That is true yet–a ballet dancer who takes on break dancing is going to bring to it the training as a ballet dancer–which IS going to affect the style of break dancing performed. Even as an artist who also does sequential illustration what I learn in one affects how I work in the other. And “Understanding Comics” made a huge impact on my work as an artist and understanding my place an artist (and accepting the fact that I enjoy the “lesser” art form of children’s book illustration–which in the art world is only considered a step above comics, if that–and below if you do trade books.)

      Some of the best and most interesting to watch movies work because the director has deliberately taken the rule of thirds and applied it to film or has deliberately broken the rules–of course that is ALSO where some for the worst come from. The same goes for any medium–you deliberately try it, see if it works, and if it does awesome–if it doesn’t you toss it.

  15. Neil says:

    Interesting post Scott. I think that this may be reflective of two competing ideas about the basis for representation in comics…

    One approach would be perceiving the page as primary — the page as a “canvas.” The other would be treating the page as secondary to the sequence of images, which just happen to fall into a page. This seems to be your position.

    These approaches would certainly motivate different methods to creation, since different things are the focus.

  16. Steve Weiner says:

    I think playing with form in comics has particular risks, because the visual factors are so strong, readers often react at a pre-intellectual level. That means that if the form itself is jarring, its kind of a double kick–the experiment might well negatively affect the response to the story content. That being said, I’m sure it can be done effectively, I can’t really think of any examples in comics, though.

    • Scott says:

      But, in a way, I think I’m actually suggesting a way to play less with the form.

      • Steve Weiner says:

        Scott, I see that is in a way what you’re suggesting. My guess is that some of the undergrounds played with form in this way. The problem is that we’ve organized traditional storytelling in a prescribed way for a long time and think in these patterns. I mean in nature things exist without design beautifully, but these things aren’t telling a coherent story in the same way that BONE is. I know in the 50s the Black Mountain school of poets tried this kind of thing with poetry. less of a form. Some think it worked.

      • Isaac says:

        It sounds like you’re trying to pretend that the page isn’t a form.

        No matter how you slice it, comics come in a form. The page composition can be balanced, or not balanced, but it can’t ignore the fact that the reader will see the rest of the page. You keep talking about page composition as if it’s something that gets added at the last minute, like sour cream on a bowl of black beans. But it’s really the beans themselves. Or the bowl? What am I doing with this metaphor?

        What I mean is: the visual aspect of the page isn’t going away just because you might choose not to pay attention to it when you’re drawing.

        • Scott says:

          No argument that the page is a constant (at least in printed comics) but chance can be the source of as many interesting compositions as premeditated design.

          I wouldn’t suggest anyone abandon their sense of good design and I wouldn’t use this strategy without the option of making some corrections after the fact. But I disagree with the notion that the page is raison d’etre of comics as some suggest (and I think you might be hinting at) or that it should always be our starting point.

          Story is the starting point. Visual sequence is the engine. The page is the road.

          Or something…

          • Isaac says:

            But where does the sour cream and taco sauce fit in?

            Actually, I think you’re right—that a lot of interesting compositions can arise if you don’t come to the page with a set of preconceived notions about how the composition should look.

            But just as free verse is a decision (and, really, a set of decisions), an “unbalanced” comics page is also a decision. I see a lot of undergraduates who think that writing free verse means that they have no responsibility to think about form; I’d argue that in a way the “freedom” of an unconstrained page (or poem) means that you have to think more about the form you’re creating.

            What’s easier, a comic in pages with a four-panel grid, or a comic where you get to settle on your own layout for every page? Depends on your concept of “easy,” right?

  17. Douglas Wolk says:

    An easier possibility: draw each panel without looking at any previous panel.

  18. “And they lived happily ever after.”

    As in, all is well. As in, all is balanced. As in, there isn’t a story worth telling anymore.

    You’re right, imbalance is interesting. Just ask my doctor. 😉

    If I recall correctly (I really wasn’t around back then) the Doors were remarkable because they obscured the meaning of their work intentionally (or perhaps it was some other imbalance at work, hard to tell) to let a person come to their own conclusion about the songs and their meanings.

    In that sense, I think a certain level of ambiguity is important to a good story, it allows you to put your own impressions upon it, and make your own memories, and experience the story in your own way.

    One of the best lines I’ve read in a novel was the best because it plainly stated a fact and let me feel however I felt about it, rather than impose the characters’ response upon me.

    Therefore I think that an appropriate level of chaos, in the classical Greek sense of formlessness, would be totally worth having. Cut and dry is, well, cut and dry.

  19. When I’m reading a page of comics, although I start with the first panel, I can’t help but see the other panels a little bit. That’s where I think the walking analogy, uh, falls down (…*rimshot*) a little bit. When I’m walking, I can’t possibly know what’s going to happen three steps from now, but when I’m reading comics, I can at least have an idea. The only way to make me really not know what’ll happen next is to make me have to turn a page to see it. That’s why page breaks are so important.

    This is actually true for prose, too, especially for people who speed-read. I’m not one of them, but my understanding is that people who use the diagonal speed-reading technique can inhale a whole paragraph, or even a whole page, almost simultaneously. Some authors care about this enough to typeset their own books and make sure the page and paragraph breaks happen in places they feel are appropriate to the text.

    Interesting question, Scott!

  20. Scot Hanson says:

    This question spotlights what the parallels are between sequential image art and sequential word art. For print comics, it seems like the page may be less the “stanza” and more the measured “line”—-the pentameter of the sonnet or terza rima. So the panel would be the poetic foot? And the sculpted imbalances/harmonies would be like assonance, slant rhyme, or sprung rhythm?

    That view seems to fit with how swiftly a reader can follow the storytelling elements of a comic, but miss the larger import that visual layout can add. The form still has a reputation in some places, I think, because it is so “easy” to read.

    I’m not sure what this parallel would imply for comics rhythms, but maybe online comics is a form waiting for free verse…?

  21. James Peach says:

    I would think that our inability to appreciate imbalance in our daily lives would bleed into comics, also.

  22. Scott, if I’m reading you right… I seem to recall that there were a number of panels like this in the original Elektra: Assassin miniseries back in the 80s.

    Then again, that is a memory from close to 25 years ago, so memory might be faulty.

  23. darrylayo says:

    I like the idea of using graphic imbalance to reflect thematic or emotional imbalance, but the problem for me would be the level of visceral discomfort that many readers feel toward images that are very compositionally “off.”

    Some reader discomfort is good, even desirable–it’s what compels the reader to want to find out more, to “get to the bottom” of the problems that the storyteller has suggested. The problem is that too much discomfort, especially on a formalistic level, runs the risk of turning a reader off before s/he is even compelled by the dramatic tension of the story.

    So even in this, there exists a balance which must be achieved.

    On the other hand, there are plenty of uncomfortable looking works of art within comics and without that have found their audiences. Arguably, most of the most well-liked visual artists of the last century have presented works which are highly slanted in some way (figuratively or literally).