Fear in Comics: Gaming the Format

Content warnings: violence, blood, gore.

Fear in Comics: Gaming the Format

Ever searched for a recipe online only to be led to a website where the author goes on and on about their family, job, and dog? Like… your girlfriend is an hour away and you just want to know the ingredients to get at the store – not the cut of meat Bingo (I know right. Lazy dog name) prefers when he is sad. So, trying to avoid that pitfall, let’s get right to the gist of gaming the sequential art format to create tension and horror. Welcome to Fear in Comics Part 2: Gaming the Format

(Spoiler Alert for a bunch of comics and webtoons. Gore Alert. The comic samples used in this article are for academic purposes only. The author isn’t glorifying the acts carried out in the stories.)

Panel and Framing

The Super Long Panel/Margin

(Killing Stalking by Koogi)

Like we discussed in our previous article (Fear in Comics: An Introduction), when it comes to fear, our goal is to play with the audience’s expectations in horrific ways. We build them up, then we linger before we meet or subvert those very expectations we’ve worked so hard to create. It’s a pretty psychopathic process if you ask me, but it works. 

In the vertical scroll comic format, usually just called “webtoons” or “webcomics”, we’ve seen creators use extremely long panels to do just that – creating panels where each scroll gives us new information whilst creating new questions in our minds. As the audience, we dread the very journey to the end of the panel where we know some uncanny reveal awaits us. 

A simpler way of creating that feeling is to have your regular sized panels, but the margin between them becomes the tease (or torture). In Killing Stalking, our protagonist (if we can call him that) has just discovered his crush has a helpless girl gagged and tied up in his basement. Still in shock, we scroll through a very long black margin wondering what our protagonist would do, only for it to be revealed his psychotic crush was standing behind him with a baseball bat in hand. This gorgeous technique, though simple in the grand scheme of things, is very difficult (if possible) to pull off in prose, the classic comic book format, or in a movie. This was birthed by creators who have decided to game the sequential art format to create something truly gripping.


The Tight Panel

If you’ve watched the movie, Ex Machina (2014), you would notice how a simple narrative can become so thrilling when the storyteller has mastered the art of the control of information. Giving the audience just enough information to keep them wanting more or putting them in a state of unease can be a very powerful tool in creating tension. And in the visual department, the tight panels, are your best friends. 

(Silver Coin by Michael Walsh)

Usually, in comic books, to help your audience have a sense of space (and location) and so the art can shine in its storytelling, you give the art some room to breathe.

(Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples)

But when it’s time to scare your audience, you can take that privilege away from them. You can tighten the panels so, the audience loses the sense of space, direction, and location. They will also lose a sense of where other characters (or monsters) are or what they’re up to. Limit the amount of information they can get from a panel, and watch the unease and claustrophobia slip in. 

(Babyteeth by Donny Cates and Garry Brown)

Storytelling with Panel Layout

I love simple panel layouts. I find that following a story is usually easier with them, and arguably the most critically acclaimed comic book (Watchmen) has very simple panel layouts. 

(Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett)

But many find them boring and uninspired. They want stories with panels bleeding into each other without demarcations or creatively shaped and placed panels. Lately, I’ve discovered a lot of comic books do both – keeping simple layouts for mundane scenes and going crazy for the dramatic scenes. Why not play around with this expectation?

(Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett)

If you have established in your story that the panel layout stops being a grid every time the monster attacks, so why not retain a grid layout the next time your monster attacks so the audience doesn’t see it coming. You could also go the reverse route by using wild panel layouts to get the audience pumped full of adrenalin for an attack that’ll never happen… yet. 😊 

Don’t just think of panel layouts as tools to tell your story. They can be a part of your story.

The Page Turn

(Locke and Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez)

The First Left Panel 

In our previous article (Fear in Comics: An Introduction), we’ve discussed how it can be difficult to shock (or surprise) your audience in comic books because, at the turn of a page, two pages worth of panels are available to you at a mere glance – story spoilers begging you to stare at them. Well, except for the first panel of the left page. That panel is always new (at the turn of the page) – making them perfect for revealing new and shocking information to the audience.

The Last Right Panel

With that logic, you would think the last panel of the right page got the short end of the stick. By the time the reader gets to it, it probably has little to hide. Well, not really. It’s hiding the next set of panels, which is usually another two pages worth of panels. For this reason, creators usually make them cliffhangers. Consider the above image. Two armed men show up at the door. We see they’ve killed two people. We are left to wonder what will happen to the lady who has opened the door for these dangerous men – a cliffhanger. We are forced to turn the page.

In the above image, the last panel to our right also works as our “bomb under the table”. It’s a ghastly image that warns us of the future. The fact that our eyes keep going to that panel, gives a different context to everything we read in the panels that come before it. Tension is immediately created. This tension is only created because we can see both the present and future at a glance in comics. What many see as a flaw becomes a strength in the hands of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez.

Get Creative

(My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris)

In conclusion, stay curious and keep experimenting. My Favorite Thing is Monsters was illustrated with ballpoint pens in a notebook. Maybe your comic could be illustrated on those classic journalist jotters where you can only view a page at a time. You could go the digital route where whenever something scary is about to happen in your story, the computer takes control of the scroll feature. 

Just have fun. Make mistakes. Learn. The format isn’t a prison. It’s just a torture toolkit, and your audience is the willing victim. 

Comic Recommendation: 

The Magazine: http://skelehime.com/the-magazine.html

Next Episode: 

Fear in Comics: Make Us Care About Your Characters 


Murewa Ayodele

Murewa Ayodele is a Nigerian comic book enthusiast and NOMMO-nominated comic book writer. His recent works include the sci-fi thriller, NEW MEN, and the action adventure series, My Grandfather Was A God.