Your very first panel is insanely important, it’s pivotal, it’s you at your date’s door, flowers in hand, hoping to make a good impression. Or maybe an update on that is it’s your Tinder pic and you want every reader in all of comics to swipe right [is it right that you swipe that’s good? Dear lords, am I glad my dating epoch swerved before this techno intrusion occurred!]. The first panel is a huge part of this and that’s sometimes easy to forget.
We all know your first issue in its entirety is important, and your cover will do some heavy lifting, and the opening sequence has to hook. You also know you certainly don’t want a boring first page but for my money I love a good first panel done right.
For me, the first panel is the absolute scene setter. It’s the entree to the book, a definer of whether your book is about place or person, style or tone, words or images. You are laying bare what the creative team is as a Voltron-storyteller-machine, and what you will employ for this particular story, because you’ll mix it up and be different for every gig so it’s best to state your presence right away each time.
And all that sounds insanely weighty and important and I’ll admit this column title has never been more applicable than right now, but I always feel whenever that first panel isn’t a bioluminescent depth charge sent into the abyss then a great opportunity is lost. And when you are starting out you only get maybe a few issues, or it’s a one-shot, or even a short. You get only so many panels to imprint on the reader and only one of them comes first so you might as well at least attempt to shoot the moon.
In my writing, I’ve more and more come to analyse the first panel and first page combo as the ‘opening contract’ you establish with the reader. This is a phrase I believe was introduced to me by Matt Fraction but I’ll be damned if I can find it anywhere on the tubes now. I do know, however, and can link to, the fact I came up with a column titled “Opening Contract,” which was to be the dissection of the first panels of comics, and I handed it across to a man smarter than me and better equipped to write about such malarkey with erudition, Dan Hill. You can trawl through the posts here or you can buy all the posts in this eBook which then features additional content of some of the creators discussing that same panel/page with Dan, which is insanely awesome and you need to add this book into you Process Curriculum, stat. It’s a pay what you want book, but maybe pay what it’s worth, too :]
I’ve been working on a few scripts lately and have been wrestling with opening panels. I’m trying to get them to establish the exactly perfect contract I want to have with the world – because of course such a level is attainable, right? When this happens, I do two things. I go back through my own old work, and I start flipping through the stuff I love. It’s a process of inception through immersion. And in going through my old stuff, I found some patterns and things that might help clarify how I craft opening panels, and hopefully aid someone else out there in slinging the exact right hook out there into the ether.
So, in chronological order just to see if I’ve improved, here are some opening panels and what I was trying to do with them.
From Fatherhood, art by Daniel Schneider, colours by Paulina Ganucheau, letters by Brandon DeStefano:
This is a non-diagetic splash page completely devoted to character. It also gets to drop some background knowledge for the story, but mostly this is about introducing a man. Because here the man IS the story, his internal workings are what the whole thing hinge on; without investment in him, the story falls flatter than rice paper. So I wanted you to open the book and come face to face with what makes him tick. This is what’s important, this cannot be skipped, and it hopefully slows the reader down and gets them chewing this guy over from the first moment.
For clarity, the script looked like this:
Whereas in “The Many Harold of Space and Time” – a short I did with Louie Joyce on art and Nic J Shaw on letters- we went for something very different.
This has way less words than Fatherhood. It couldn’t be structurally more different. It’s not about absorbing the man– though he is present and important– because this isn’t a character study. Far from it, it’s a historical sci-fi. So I want to start with the historical facts, I want the audience to know I’m building from this known base, and then I’m going to warp it as the tale progresses.
This opening panel is also all about tone. The waters of Cheviot Beach– where Holt drowned IRL– are the real locale and my future locale. I want you to take this salty lash in the face because we’ll be investing time here. Also, when you work with Louie Joyce, you wanna let his art breathe. The man is a genius.
From here, let’s jump to Headspace, where I try a little something else, and where I feel like I’m actually starting to control the panel with greater density. Because Fatherhood is this character wall, and “Holt” is this tonal silence before I rush the stage with alternate realities, and Headspace, well, it’s this:
This is me actively trying to do something different. And I never knew if it was successful because it’s subtle. But this panel is a mission statement for the book and the locale – which is Carpenter Cove, a small town inside the mind of a killer. And before this is revealed, before the characters even know where they are, they know this on a weird subharmonic level, and you get told this.
Until the end of the book, to the very last panel/moment, I wanted these words etched into the keystone of the doorway through which you peeped it all. I wanted everyone to be uneasy throughout the whole tale and I felt mostly successful in this.
This also means I obscured the character and location in this shot, because neither are important straight up. The words matter, but so does the idea of being handcuffed, being restrained, being withheld. This is how I wanted the audience to feel for the entirety of the narrative.
Now, an opening panel like this is great as I explain it post-game but at the time it’s hard to clarify if it’s working. It’s not going to jump out. By the end of the first issue most readers seemed so jumbled that they mostly looked forward, hoping for and postulating answers. And I’m not going to jump up and down screaming about this little thing I’m doing, so I didn’t stress. If it’s done right it should be subconscious anyway.
Whereas with Deer Editor #1 I jumped back to something not really subconscious at all, but it is a shift on some of these previous options. Y’see:
This opening panel of gorgeous inks from Sami Kivela and Nic J Shaw letters is a location splash that spells out character. Looking at Bucky’s desk, we are immersed in what he does– newspaper editor/journalist– and if it’s presented first then it must be important. That’s kind of the golden rule, whatever comes first is there for a reason. You have to be pushing an agenda of narrative or tone or something.
So Bucky’s desk shows us his mess, and the song tells us the time of year– I wanted this to have snow more or less because I think Bucky as a Shane Black character is fantastic– and the caption is meant to leave you hanging to a degree, and it also– if you pay attention– ties into the final panel as well in a way.
Also, I pronounce it ‘ex-mas’ hence the ‘an’ article before it. I don’t know if others do that but I write for me, dammit.
Also also, I wanted to use lyrics from “Silver Belles” because it’s the greatest Xmas tune of them all but realised I couldn’t so instead changed these up and became way more happy with them, and still got to use the phone ringing SFX as part of the ditty. Because comics are ace that way :]
I think these four examples are a decent start at how to kick off your comics. The first panel as character slab, establishing shot of place and tone, obtuse wannabe arthouse foreboding, and establishing shot of place as character.
With those in mind, it’s interesting to watch me use:
The splash of a man to set him and his emotional wreckage up straight away- as shown in “Gloves,” a short in the Vertigo CMYK Magenta issue insanely brought to life by Tommy Lee Edwards with John Workman letters.
Or another location as tone setter when Tony Fleecs brought to life my take at My Little Pony with Neil Uyetake letters:
I did the opening lines as a thematic summary of a tale in my short of the Oxymoron hardcover collection illustrated by Daniel J Logan, coloured by Miguel Marques, and lettered by Tyler James:
Or why not take in another historical scene setter where I want you to feel at home in reality before I subvert it within a few pages in “The Secret History of Paul Keating and His Mole Men,” as illustrated by Matt Lesniewski, coloured by Eagle Gosselin, and lettered by Nic J Shaw:
And just quietly, how good are Nic’s captions there, especially the date one? Just scene stealing stuff.
But to sum up my history of opening panels, we can look at my most recent stuff in Negative Space at Dark Horse with Owen Gieni’s sublime art and letters from Ryan Ferrier.
I start the whole thing off with one of those cropped close ups and a few words I want to echo:
And we aren’t done with this book, there are still two issues to go, but I want you to consider these captions as your keystone, okay? Consider what’s he’s doing, what he’s saying, because I’m going to trample all over this fertile ground until some new hybrid beast grows.
It’s fascinating because this page was initially scripted as a splash of a man delivered unto our peepers, but our editor Daniel Chabon convinced me to go with this panel first and then drop the splash as the second panel, and he’s very right, the balance is great and the page delivers twice:
Look at Guy Harris, steeping in his filth, and tell me you don’t know him instantly. But then the more you look, the more you discover. Owen is an art monster and this is exactly how he chooses to introduce himself to the world through this collaboration.
Whereas in issue #2 we jump straight into a history lesson of the Evorah – this underwater emotion sucking society of bastard creatures – and in issue #1 you barely know anything about them so for the follow up we dive right into them, and I didn’t even realise I was doing it but I’ve opened with a realistic historical splash which we can blast apart by the bottom of the page:
It would appear that even subconsciously I only have four moves. Maybe that’s actually a bit sad, I don’t know.
Okay, I went digging, and I found myself a fifth and it’s a thing I love so I’m surprised I haven’t done it yet here in more work; I mean I’m legitimately shocked enough to drop a monocle, but here we have a fifth arrow in the quiver, the in media res action moment:
This piece of sci fi insanity is drawn by Sami Kivela, coloured by Marissa Louise, and lettered by Nic J Shaw. The book is yet to be announced or published, but stay tuned.
Here I obviously want your attention quickly, I want you to know how crazy we plan on getting. I want a visual keystone for it all and Sami delivers wild visuals with clarity in spades. And yet, with this hidden fellow facing down imminent death, I also try to provide context for the character in the short captions.
Whenever I can hit you twice, I will aim for that double tap. Lords knows if I’m successful– no doubt more often than not I fail wildly– but it’s something to at least consider.
So, as I said at the start, I’ve been writing some stuff lately and hoping this retrospective would aid me in what I want/need to do for this particular project. And this has been helpful, because I can see I’ve been choosing between two things:
- the character laid out in a splash
- a smaller moment I want to resonate as the keystone – though this one is silent so it will be verrrrry subtle.
I still don’t know which one I’ll take, but at least now I can identify what my scripting lizard brain has been feebly attempting. I’m probably leaning towards the small moment because I think the silence is a bold thing to tie back into at the end, because it’ll all hinge on facial gestures, but I think it’ll be fun. And it’ll be something new for me.
Plus another one-shot I just wrote recently opens on a big splash– outer space– and it isn’t quite that big character debrief, it’s more in media res, or post media res [is that right? someone ask Siri] and I don’t want to be the guy doing the same trick over and over until he’s worn it down to a nub. But really, you could open every damn issue for the rest of your life in the same way and it won’t matter if it’s done bloody well. Hell, look at BKV and his opening splash pages.
I figure you can do whatever you want, so long as you know you are doing it, and why, and then you do it damn well.
And I believe you rarely do things damn well on the first time and without some sort of a plan so here I am and here we are and where will we go next?
Your challenge is: look through your past work, catalogue your opening panels, and analyse what you did and what you were trying to do. Did it have any achievement in these areas? Report back to Twitter at large, or just hit me up @ryanklindsay :]
Ryan K. Lindsay is a comics writer who has logged time at Dark Horse, Monkeybrain, Vertigo and other esteemed publishers. He currently writes Negative Space, a comic we here at Loser City love quite a bit. You can (and should) pick Negative Space up from your local comic shop ordirectly through Dark Horse.