Comic Book Panel Transition: An Introduction

August 28, 2009

When I introduce people to the idea of actually sitting down and making comics, one of the first things we focus on is Panel Transition. This is how the creator takes the reader through a series of static images and through them and the transitions between them tells a story. The key to understanding a comic is to understand the transition an author is using. Good transitions seamlessly convey what’s important to a story, while bad transitions can derail a story entirely, destroying whatever effect the author hoped to convey to the reader.

I’ll get to Panel Transitions in more detail momentarily, but first, let’s answer a few questions about comics.

Question #1: What is comics?

Answer? Well, let’s prevaricate here. Comics is such a newborn phenomenon that the language to discuss it is only just beginning to form. Generally speaking, comics uses a series of static images sequentially composed and combine these with text to tell a story. That’s the sort of panel-to-panel comic that we’re fairly used to seeing. But comics don’t necessarily have text. I read a G.I. Joe story (“Silent Interlude”) back in the mid-’80s that had no words and told its story simply through pictures. We also have single panel stories like Dennis the Menace or The Far Side. Nothing sequential about those.

So yeah, our understanding of just what is comics needs a little work still. One thing is for sure though: comics is a medium.

Question #2: What is a medium?

A medium is simply one thing that stands between two other things and acts as a vessel of transmission between the two (sometimes in one direction and sometimes in two). In the Old Testament warnings against consulting mediums, the reference is to those who act as an intermediary between the living and the dead. Comics then is a medium—and, specifically, a medium of communication. Like literature, film, music, painting, oratory, and possibly even videogames, comics seeks to take the communication of its author and transmit that communication as accurately as possible to its reader.

Question #3: What is of primary concern for the communicator?

Clarity. Without clarity, the communication is obscured and its meaning lost. Depending on how much clarity an author imparts to his work, that is how close a reader can get to the author’s intended message.

Now Scott McCloud, one of comics foremost theorists, divides the goal of clarity into five coherent sections for the would-be comics crafter to attend. We’ll breifly focused on just the first division: the author’s Choice of Moment. This concerns which static scenes from the story’s events an author will choose to relay. There’s really a lot to this and a story can take a different shape depending on what is shown and what is concealed. But here we’re focusing more on the transitions between those static images (for it’s often between panels that the interpretive work of comics occurs) than the images themselves.

Scott McCloud labels six types of transitions when he speaks of Choice of Moment. Below are descriptions and examples of these transition types.


1) Moment-to-Moment

Moment-to-moment transitions forces a deliberate pace, encouraging the reader to take special note of the passage of time. By extending a single scene or action over more panels than strictly necessary to convey the action, an author can ratchet up tension in time-sensitive situations (let’s say a grenade has been tossed and we’re seeing a man jump in slow motion to cover it with his body) or make a scene between to people seem extra awkward by presenting several times in a row the same panel of them sitting in silence (with perhaps minor changes to illustrate broken attempts at conversation) or give us a sense at how dreadfully long something is taking. Here’s an example exerpted from Derek Kirk Kim’s short story, Same Difference.

[[ alternate example 1 ]][[ alternate example 2 ]]


2) Action-to-Action

These transitions are perhaps the most common type of transition in American superhero comics. These panels follow a single event or single series of events through the actions that make up the event(s). The following example, from Jeff Smith’s Bone illustrates the action of Running for One’s Life from Rat Creatures.

[[ alternate example 1 ]]


3) Subject-to-Subject

Reminiscent of film editing, the subject-to-subject transition follows the directors camera around a scene, shooting everything and editing in only the important parts. An author can use this kind of transition to highlight particular versions of events, giving the reader an otherwise impossible series of vantage points. This example is from Kaoru Mori’s Emma and has been adjusted for left-to-right reading for those unfamiliar with reading Japanese graphic texts.

[[ alternate example 1 ]]


4) Scene-to-Scene

These transition occur frequently across pages, when the action in one scene ends on one page and the action of another scene begins on the following page. Sometimes though and author will break scene one or more times on a page for the sake of his point. Christopher Hick’s wonderful adventure, Mister Blank, begins with a montage of its protagonist Sam Smith’s work day. Each panel cuts to a different scene: Sam in traffic; Sam being yelled at while clocking in; Sam at his desk; Sam on the coffee break; etc. Hicks captures entirely Sam Smith’s work experience in a page of panels. Our example below is from Joe Sacco’s non-fiction comic, Palestine, in which he interviews Palestinians and Israelis in regard to Palestinian/Israeli relations.

[[ alternate example 1 ]]


5) Aspect-to-Aspect

These transitions are diversions from the body narrative and are generally used to give a sense of place or atmosphere. See how Jason Lutes uses this technique to round out this scene from Berlin.

[[ alternate example 1 ]][[ alternate example 2 ]]


6) Non Sequitur

These are panels that, of course, come out of sequence. If they relate at all to the preceeding panels on the page, there relation is only abstract. It’s not a commonly used device as it can be confusing and hinder clarity, but Chris Ware uses the transition to good effect on this page from Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth.

And that’s it for the six types of panel transition. Hopefully you can see how the various use of these can help spur along a story and give insight into the development of character, plot, mood, and scope.

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