Part I (of three): Panel Layout

Comics are –  like  literature, and unlike painting  – a multiple instance art form: Your copy of Sensational She-Hulk #1 is a genuine instance of the artwork, as is my copy of the same comic. In philosophical jargon, the two individual issues are distinct instances (or tokens) of the same comic type.

This raises an obvious question: When are two objects instances of the same comic?



What we need are identity conditions for comics. That is, we need criteria for settling questions of the form:

X is the same comic as Y.

A few quick observations:

  1. Two comics need not look exactly the same to be instances of the same comic (e.g. they might be printed in different sizes or types of paper).
  2. Telling the same story is not sufficient for two comics to be instances of the same comic, since the same story can be told more than once. (e.g. Batman’s origin).

In most cases it is easy to determine whether or not two individual issues are instances of the same comic type. There are, however, ‘harder’ cases. And, as is usually the case with these sorts of theoretical issues, we tend to learn much more from the relatively rare hard cases than we do from the wealth of easy cases.

Back in the 1980s Sunday strips were typically produced in a standard 4-across-by-3-down grid. The grid could be modified somewhat, but some rules could not be broken. In particular, if we think of this grid as twelve equal sized ‘units’, then there had to be breaks between the 3rd and 4th unit, between the 6th an 7th unit, and between the 9th and 10th unit. This allowed newspaper editors to rearrange the comic into a 3-across-by-4-down grid if that turned out to be more convenient.

Now, consider the Calvin and Hobbes strip at the top of this post. What I will call the primary layout is on the left. The secondary layout is on the right. The two layouts are different in at least one rather striking way: In the primary layout, the first two panels in the bottom tier depict a single spatially continuous scene. In the secondary layout, this effect is lost on all but those readers well-informed enough with regard to the practicalities of comic strip production to ‘see’ how the two panels are meant to connect.

If the two distinct layouts cause us to experience the story in different ways, does this mean that Watterson actually produced two distinct works of art each Sunday? Put another way: If your local paper printed the strip in the primary layout, and my local paper printed it in the secondary layout, did we experience different works of art when reading these different versions?

The thumbnails provide a second thought-provoking example.


About roytcook

Roy T Cook is CLA Scholar of the College and John M Dolan Professor of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. He works in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of popular art. He is the co-editor of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012, w/ Aaron Meskin), The Routledge Companion to Comics (Routledge 2016, w/ Aaron Meskin & Frank Bramlett), and LEGO and Philosophy: Constructing Reality Brick By Brick (Wiley-Blackwell 2017, w/ Sondra Bacharach).

9 responses »

  1. Steve Nelson says:

    This is interesting–I hadn’t thought about the arrangement of panels being negotiable before. My initial inclination is to think that Watterson must have produced his comic with a certain arrangement, and that arrangement is the ‘canonical’ one. The arranging of panels seems to be part of the production of the artwork, just like, say, the ordering of a triptych would be.

    If someone took Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” (, dismantled it, and re-ordered the pieces of it, what would we say? I think we’d want to say that someone just displayed Bosch’s work in the wrong way. We wouldn’t say that a new painting has been created, or even a new triptych.

    This kind of analysis should work well for at least a large swath of cases like the “Calvin & Hobbes” ones above. Two different possibilities come to mind about how Watterson’s comic likely proceeded:

    1. Watterson submitted the comic with a certain arrangement, and that arrangement was respected unless the formatting didn’t allow it. In these cases, newspaper editors chopped it up to fit, and if it lost some of its effectiveness, so be it.

    2. Watterson himself re-arranged panels and submitted different arrangements for different publications, based on their formatting constraints.

    In case #1, I think we would want to say that there is one comic and that the chopped up version is presenting an impure or inaccurate version of that comic. In case #2, though, I would be tempted to say that Watterson has created multiple versions of the same comic, and we would treat them as variations or remixes. I don’t know if a variation or remix should be considered a separate comic or not, though.

    • roytcook says:

      From what I have read (mostly Watterson’s comments on this issue and Charles Schulz’) the artists definitely intended the ‘primary’ arrangement to be the intended one, but they also created the comics with a full awareness of the various ways they might be rearranged. In addition to the two arrangements given above, sometimes the entire top tier was just deleted, for example. As a result, the artist had to do a panel on the top right that was (1) eliminable but (2) not redundant in any obvious, annoying way. Reading Sunday pages with this in mind really adds some complexity to the experience, since this ‘throw-away’ panel plays a pretty strange role.

      One trap we don’t want to fall into (I think) is any view that gives the newspaper editor credit as an ‘author’ of the comic in the case where it is rearranged.


  2. Happy New Year, Roy! I apologize for not leaving this comment sooner. But having read this post two weeks ago and again today, I’m more convinced than ever that the layouts constitute two different comics. While you’ve framed this difference in terms of the reader’s experience, I would also note that small but crucial distinctions in the pacing of the story. The juxtaposition of the two versions demonstrates that line breaks, like page breaks and panel shapes, can have a significant impact on the rhythm of the comic sequence, something that is particularly important for strips that end with a punch line.

    In the case of the comic strip where Calvin dissolves into water, the line break in the secondary 3 by 4 grid provides a time-delayed beat before his opening revelation, then again before the start of his watery transformation, and then finally before the climatic shift back to reality. In the primary layout, the story shifts through these stages more quickly and reflects a hastier encounter. The borderless panel in the middle is more pronounced and, as you point out, this layout takes advantage of two spatially continuous panels to give the impression of Calvin dripping out of his clothes downhill. The adjustments are subtle but notable enough for me to want to regard them as two different works.

    Your question also makes me wonder how Watchmen reads on something like a Kindle that only allows you to see one page at a time. How can you effectively “read” Chp 6 where the panels mirror one another and culminate in the two opposing center pages? Another case where the reading device exercises a form of editorial control, maybe?

    • roytcook says:


      First off, I very much agree with you about them being distinct comics. But I didn’t want to pre-judge that in the initial post!

      I also agree with you about the importance of layout to pacing, content, etc. One thing that I think remains horribly understudied in Western comics studies is the role of layout (panel arrangement, page shape/ size/ arrangement, etc., etc…) Groensteen – the exception – addresses this quite a bit, but the semiotic framework within which his work is carried out makes it hard (for me) to incorporate into my own ways of thinking about these things.

      This general issue was one of the things I had in mind when writing this post. We too often adopt some loose version of the McCloudian conception of a comic as merely a sequence of pictures of some sort (where sequence is understood linearly) and forget that the interrelations between panels are typically much more complex than this!

      Watchmen is a perfect example of this general phenomenon. If one only considers Chapter V (not VI, Roy pedantically points out) as a linearly ordered, one-directional sequence of panels then much of the content is lost.

      • LOL, is it Chapter V? I stand corrected!

        I feel like Charles Hatfield’s discussion of the relationship between single vs. serial images and sequence vs. surface helps to get at the value of the layout as well.

  3. Hi, Roy.

    I’m sorry I’m coming late to this discussion. Just yesterday in my “Language and Comics” class, my students and I were exploring panel transitions as explained in McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Although I think McCloud makes some good points, I wonder what your take on this is.

    Does the sequence of the panels, whether in the primary layout or the secondary layout, in part depend on the type of transition that the artist uses?

    • roytcook says:

      Hmm… Good question about how this connects to the McCloudian taxonomy of types of transitions. I think I would put the point as a sort of converse to what you suggest. Rather, in the example above with the melting Calvin, it is the layout that determines the type of transition. In the original layout, the transition is of the sort McCloud calls a polyptych (UC Chapter 4, p. 115) where two or more panels jointly compose a continuous scene. When they are spatially separated in the rearrangement, most readers will fail to notice the spatial continuity of the scenes depicted in the panels, and read it as a more traditional moment-to-moment (or perhaps action-to-action – I’m not sure how to count slow melting vis-a-vis the moment-versus-action thing here) transition.

  4. […] has touched on the question of immersive reading, while Roy offers a different kind of rereading of a Calvin and Hobbes strip. I wonder what we might make of their queries if we also think of comics as the kind of text that […]

  5. Very helpful advice within this post!

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