Panels: shape, context, and content

Does the shape of a panel carry inherent meaning?

A square panel seems to imply stability. Its four equal sides create a sense of equilibrium.

Rectangular panels imply movement, horizontal for wide panels, vertical for tall panels. From fine art we also learn that these shapes can infer content. Wide frames are for landscapes, tall are for portraits.

horizontal panel

vertical panel

Circular panels create a sense of centering, all edges being an equal distance from the middle.

circular panel

Yet while all these meanings are implied, what is in a panel can supersede these connotations.

For instance, in the panel below the squareness doesn’t connote stability, but instead works in contrast with the image to heighten its instability.

unbalanced square panel

Of course, the same image could be placed inside a vertical panel. Now we feel the weight of gravity more. So the shape does have some effect.

unbalanced vertical panel

Still, the implied movement can be nullified by content. While the panel below is wide, the strong focal point of the eye precludes its horizontal movement.

horizontal panel with focal point

A circular panel can lose its centeredness by having an off-centered composition.

off-center circular panel

So the meaning of a panel is not inherent to its shape. Yes, the shape can imply a meaning or accentuate one, but whether or not it carries that meaning depends on other, more powerful, elements. These are the context and the content.

Context refers to what the panel is relation to. Usually a panel sits on a page in relationship with other panels and this relationship creates meaning. For instance, below the third panel seems to drop, since it is longer than the first two panels.

three panels with tall one at end

Yet if we change the context and make all the panels the same height, the meaning disappears. So shape doesn’t make the meaning, the context does.

three vertical panels

But we can reclaim the meaning through content. Here, there is a sense of falling again.

three vertical panels with ball rolling downhill

While the verticality of the panels helps show the height of the fall, the panels could be square and convey the same basic meaning.

three square panels with ball rolling downhill

So the panel shape may accentuate the meaning, but it is not required to do so. So for a comics artist, shape is something to consider, but not something to obsess about. There is no one “right” shape for every given situation. Context and content are of greater importance.

Note: This question of whether or not panel shape has inherent meaning was inspired by Hannah Miodrag’s Comics and Language, especially chapters 7 and 9.

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