Writer. Creator. Large mammal.

Storytelling Lecture, Artwork Part 5

Storytelling Lecture Series, Part 11 (Edited from the transcript of a 1994 seminar)

Now, I’m going to tell you a whole bunch of other stuff that may not mean anything much to you yet, but then I’m going to walk you through a particular comic book and I’m going to show you examples. These are little miscellaneous tidbits of info that I’ve had beaten into my head by various Learned Masters over the years. Simple little concepts and observations that are useful for artists. As always, writers should understand these things, too. They’ll help you be a better visual thinker. 

As you walk around the world you see things at eye level. Am I right? You don’t usually walk around standing on your head, or with your head tilted.  You see things like you’re seeing me now, from your eye level, looking directly at the subject. That is the most common point of view, obviously. That is the easiest one for people to grasp instantly.  Show something, anything, in the way people would ordinarily see it and they have the best chance of understanding instantly what you’re showing them.  So, if I have one shot to let somebody know we’re in a theater, this kind of shot, eye level, is most likely to be clear at a glance.  It’s what you’d see if you were there.  A natural point of view. 

Here’s another thing to think about regarding natural point of view—let’s say you want to show that a scene is taking place in a restaurant. When you walk into an actual restaurant, what do you see? You see the ceiling, the floor, the walls, a big part of the entire room.  Just looking straight ahead, think about all you can see, all the information you take in. Almost any room you walk into, from your natural, usual, eye-level point of view, you see the ceiling, the floor, the walls, without ever moving your eyes, just looking straight ahead.    


That’s an eye level perspective. You’ll see tables.You’ll see people sitting at the tables.You see waiters. Here’s another table. Notice that you’re seeing all these people full figure—that is, head to foot, except, of course when they’re behind something.


Here’s the maitre d’, he’s real close to us. We can see him from the waist up because he’s very close to us. He’s happy to see us. He’s got a bow tie. That’s what you see if you walk into a restaurant. So if you have one shot to tell people that they are now entering a restaurant, that’s probably a good one to remember.  You COULD do a worm’s eye view, but I’ve never walked into a restaurant on my belly. I’ve come out of a few that way. [laughter]  Shots like that are harder to understand at a glance because it’s not what we’re used to seeing.

Now, once you’ve done this shot, once you’ve made the location unmistakeably clear, then you can do the dramatic Jerry Robinson “through the wine glass’ shot,” or other angles. Hold that thought, I’m going to show you examples in a while.

But back to our maitre d’ for a moment. Do you realize how close you have to be to someone NOT to see them full figure, head to toe? Try it.  Get someone to stand there for you and, looking straight ahead, move closer to them until you can’t see their feet. You’ll be surprised.
I hear a lot of talk about panel shapes. My reputation is that I want everybody to draw what they call windowpane grid. Nah. Beginners, I ask to start that way. That did fine for Jack Kirby for his whole career, so I figure for a beginner it’s okay to make him do that till he learns the craft.

But, let me explain to you the theory of panel shape. You didn’t know there was one, did you? When comics books were first created they were a little wider than they are now. Remember? Comic book panels were shaped like that.


Why were they shaped like that? Have you ever noticed how a movie screen is shaped? Why is a movie screen shaped that way? It’s because human beings have two eyes side by side, and your viewing area is roughly oblong. If you could mark the edges of your vision, that’s the shape you get, well sort of rounded at the edges, but basically like a movie screen, or comics panels originally. Comic book panels weren’t quite movie screen shaped, but, aha! They had balloons at the top so the viewing area was basically a movie screen. 

Then when paper shortages arrived during World War II, they made comic books smaller, narrower. Comic book panels, therefore, became more square.  Since then, though they have balloons at the top, they’re not quite movie screens—but still close. That’s a good thing to remember, that the oblong shape is close to your natural viewing area. It’s a very comfortable view.  It’s what you would see if you were there. That’s why THIS type of panel in comics…


…the third of a page shot, is so good for showing people that a scene is in a restaurant or whatever.

Does that mean you can’t use any other shape? Of course not, but when you do it remember what you’re trying to do.


You give them this (the flapjack) you’re making the readers feel like they’re looking through a mail slot, this, (the tall skinny panel) you’ve got blinders on, or you’re looking through a keyhole. That’s what you’re telling them. Can you not do that? Of course you can do it. Just understand what you’re doing, and do it for a reason. Understand the logic behind these things and use them to serve your purpose. 
Now, about action. Any action you can imagine has a direction, a direction of movement, or else it isn’t an action. It has a direction, a vector. The clearest way to show anything is perpendicular to the vector of the action.


Here’s Fred hitting George.  Draw a line between them, which of course, is the vector of the action, the punch, in this case. The clearest way to show this action is 90 degrees away from that line or vector.  That’s why this particular angle is called a “diagrammatic shot.”  It’s as clear as a diagram. So if Fred is hitting George, and we’re seeing it from that angle, that’s the clearest way. It may be the most boring way too in some situations, but if you’re ever stuck for how to show something, start with a diagram! Imagine the diagrammatic shot first. Put your mental camera at 90 degrees, eye level. Then, kind of mentally move your camera around—a little higher maybe? A little lower? One figure closer than the other? Do this until you find the best shot that is still clear. Gil Kane often used to do shots like this from a 70 degree angle. That way one figure gets a little larger than the other, the design is better, you get that great foreshortening going on, it’s cool.That what he did. It’s not the only way.  Keep that little thought in mind. I’m going to show you examples of all of this. 



Storytelling Lecture, Artwork – The Power and Perils of Reference


Storytelling Lecture, Suggested Reading


  1. These series of posts are amazing! I grew up on your Valiant era comics, they were some of the best stories in my collection. Thanks for taking the time with explaining the craft.

  2. This is a fascinating topic. I'd love to see some examples of what you are talking about in the column and see more information on this subject.
    Thanks Jim!
    I think early Kirby was fascinating in it's strange panel shapes. He also happened to have some of the fight scenes in the history of comics! I love those Captain America action sequences! Kane is another one who happens to also do both use odd shaped panels AND have amazing action sequences.
    Now Adams has used some of the most interesting camera angles of any artist.
    I'd just love to see more info on this subject!
    Thanks Jim!

  3. Dear Jim,

    As a linguist, I feel as if you're teaching us the grammar of comics. The *why* behind points of view and panel shapes. Stuff I took for granted is clear now. For decades I've been winging it, but now I'm taking my first steps toward a conscious understanding of visual storytelling. Thank you.

    If a windowpane grid was good enough for WATCHMEN, it's good enough for a beginner. I still feel like one after thirty years of drawing comics!

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