The Science of Composition.

General compositional rules are not to break the 180* rule. It creates confusion in the “scene” and becomes a storytelling clusterfuck. Sometimes, though, it’s required in order to express emotions SUCH as confusion, and struggle, like in this amazingly well don page by Carl Barks, from WALT DISNEY’S DONALD DUCK LOST IN THE ANDES.

When you use composition correctly within the context of the story, breaking certain rules works, and is a better way to express not only what the characters feel, but what you want the reader to feel.

See how panel one has everyone travelling to the upper right of the panel? It goes against the natural flow of the eye, and breaks general storytelling rules of direction. When you take away the caption and speech bubbles. In this case, the caption and speech bubble create flow to help guide your eye to panel two, breaking the 180* rule again, which coincides with the momentum of the story, and brings you to panel 4, and so on and so forth. The 180* rule is constantly broken on this page not only to direct your eye, but to give your brain a subconscious sense of confusion and effort. The characters are struggling with their journey, so the rule is broken to help create that effect in your mind. The same with drawing the characters going against flow.

Any normal, just starting out artist, would have tried to maintain a constant left-right flow, having the characters always traveling in the same direction (left to right) on the page. But, that would cause the reader to move through the scene too fast, creating a sense of shorter time lapse.

Another brilliant aspect to the composition is panels 2 and 3. Panels 1 and 4 have Donald looking/walking to the right of the page, while panel three has him walking left, but looking right. He’s looking behind himself to talk to his nephews. Now, if you consider the fact that he’s in the lead, and they just came over a hill, when he looks back, his position within the story is directly related to panel two, and is in perspective. He’s in front of the nephews, on a lower part of the hill. Another rule that’s broken really well is the borderless panel. Looking at previous pages from this book there aren’t any (that I recall) borderless panels. Having a borderless panel creates an open air and more closely reflects how the eye sees the world, with the background fading away in your peripheral vision.

The second aspect to that, is that since his face is controlling your direction, the borderless panel becomes an extension of panel two because the open top to panel 3 washes your vision into the background of the page, behind the panelling, adding to the plane of existence being created between panels 2 and 3.

They become directly related to each other while being on opposite sides of the page.

The last two panels are great because as the group emerges over the hill, Donald’s face leads us to the cabin in the last panel. It creates a timed sense of surprise in the discovery.

One example of why Carl Barks is so revered in the cartooning community as a premier storyteller and artist by anyone interested in their craft.


About donaldelay

Small press cartoonist. CNA. College Student. Curmudgeon.
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One Response to The Science of Composition.

  1. Ben Towle says:

    Both the 180° rule and the left-to-right rule drive me up the wall. Generally, the only RULE you need to worry about is CLARITY; everything else is subordinate to that. Specifically though, the 180° rule is one of those things that’s gained traction because people erroneously conflate film and comics. It’s really applicable only to the former. The left-to-right thing is based on the faulty premise that panel shape and/or visual composition are what guides the reader’s eye, when in fact what guides the eye are words/word balloons. As Eddie Campbell puts it, “CAMPBELL’S RULE #3: In spite of what you may read, comics are not a nested system; a reader will read a balloon and then read the next nearest balloon even if they haven’t already read all the ones in the current panel.”

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