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B&N Week 108: Borders, Time, and Color

| January 15, 2013


It’s time, it’s time for that Tuesday of mine… Yep! We’re here again! Isn’t it a wonderful thing?

Last time around, I said we’d talk about borders, time, and color. Let’s get into the Bolts & Nuts of that, shall we?

Okay, you can’t talk about borders without talking about time. Or, stated more correctly, you can’t talk about Panel Borders without talking about Time. Notice the difference? Time can be talked about all by its lonesome, but Panel Borders cannot.

We already know the simple reason for this: panel borders encapsulate Time. The larger the panel, the more Time is trapped inside; the smaller the panel, the less Time is held. We know this. It’s nothing new. [And if it is, you’ve not been paying attention.]

Now, there are things that can be said about panel borders. Their size, shape, and thickness can lend all types of depth and meaning to the story being told. Borders are universal, even when they aren’t being used. (Huh?) Ever see a panel that didn’t have a border to it? That’s a panel where a border isn’t being used, but for all intents and purposes, is still there.

The borders contain the action—contain Time—but they are also used to draw the eye along as the story is being told. They can be used to highlight an object or an action, or they can be used as a nice decoration [which also helps to set the tone of the story being told].

As important as panel borders are, what’s even more important is the things happening in-between them, in the gutters. This is can be called Gutter Time, and it is just as important as the time encapsulated by the borders. Sometimes, even moreso.

Remember that each panel is a static image. It’s a frozen piece of Time. In order for the next panel to make sense, not too much time can have passed between one panel in a scene to the next. Think of it in terms of animation: an artist makes “movement” by showing a character performing an action in a stop-motion fashion. It’s a little bit of motion at a time, and when it’s all put together, it’s going to show the character performing the action. Let’s have an example: a stick figure walking across a room. Now, this can be done in one of three ways. The first way, the best way, is smooth. Call it about seventy-five images that need to be drawn in order to show the character moving across the room both effectively and smoothly. Now, the second way is to do it herky-jerky, so that it is not smooth or efficient.  Call it about forty images. The other way is to do it old-school Disny and go for about one hundred to one-twentyfive. That’s super smooth.

Coming back to comics, you don’t want the super-smooth. That takes too many panels worth of Border Time, and doesn’t leave enough Gutter Time. [This can also be called Decompressed Storytelling.] Here’s what’s going to happen if you go the super-smooth route: you’re going to run out of things to say, and you’re going to bore the reader. Not good at all.

In actuality, you don’t want the smooth route, either. That’s still too many panels per page or per scene. Again, you will bore the reader.

What you want is a thought out, controlled, herky-jerky setup. How do you achieve that?

You let the dialogue do the work for you.

Remember, the panel description has to match the last thing said. You can do a herky-jerky setup as long as the dialogue is able to fill the gaps in Time.

Now, you have to be careful with this idea. Most of the time, it doesn’t have to be thought of. Most of the time, we do this on instinct. Most of the time. However, there are some times when we start to stretch the Gutter Time more than we should. That leads to teleportation [things moving suddenly from one place to another without crossing the distance between the two places], or things being magically delicious [characters or objects just suddenly appearing because the writer needed them, because the writer didn’t have the forethought to put the object in as soon as possible]. Neither teleportation nor being magically delicious is a good thing.

This is just a generality. There are times when you’re going to go to something a bit more smooth, because the scene calls for it. I can’t think of wanting to go more herky-jerky, though. That would just confuse the reader, which should never be an option. Misleading the reader for the story is one thing, but confusion should never be.

Color. Color is also important, whether it’s a b/w toned book, a one- or two-color palette, or a full color offering. Color conveys tone, mood, relative time, or objective time.

Tone and mood are easy. The entire book will have a certain consistency to it: are the colors bright or muted? Does this carry through for the entire book? [An effective trick is to have the gutters colored, as well. This can help set the tone, mood, and overall aesthetic of the book, as well.]

(What do you mean by relative and objective time?) Good question! Here’s the mediocre answer: for relative time, I’m talking about time as it stands right now in the story. Whatever the character’s “present” is, that is the time that is relative to them. The color scheme for this time is the “default” for the book. Nothing fancy is going on. The colors are regular.

However, if a character slips into a flashback, this time is objective, standing outside the normal flow. Often, this time is colored differently, highlighting even more that it is taking place outside the normal flow.

You can get clever with the use of color, too. One clever trick is to use it sporadically, or only for certain circumstances. This can heighten the story you want to tell. Try it. See the results you get. [Don’t forget that the story has to be built for it, too. Otherwise, you aren’t using it to its full potential.

And that’s all I have for this week. See you in seven.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at for rate inquiries.

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