An interesting use of panel composition in Doctor Strange #11
If you’re like me, you’re a regular buyer of Marvel comics, so you must have recently gotten the free copy of Doctor Strange #11 they gave out a week or so ago. When I was going through the issue, which incidentally was drawn and coloured by Leonardo Romero and Jordie Bellaire with lettering by VC’s Cory Petit, there was an effective use of panel composition on page 7 that told a joke you could only tell in comics.
However, we have to understand how jokes work first. A joke functions by leading the audience to expect one thing, then by breaking their expectation by leading them somewhere else. Setup, then punchline. “Two fish are swimming in a tank when one turns to the other and asks: “Do you know how to drive this?”’. The setup is the concept of the two fist in tank and punchline is the reveal that the fish aren’t in a fish tank, but a military tank.
Back to Doctor Strange.
It looks simple enough – setup: Doctor Strange tries to walk through a wall, punchline: he bangs his head. You could pull that off in film and tv, right?
Look at the way the panels are constructed. Panels three and four are lower than panels one and two. They don’t quite line up.
Now, because we expect Strange to walk through the wall like a sorcerer who hasn’t spent the last ten issues fighting to save all of magic, we expect him to walk through the wall no problem, like so.
However, our expectation is broken with the appearance of panel two which is dedicated entirely to a sound from a yet unknown source.
Our eyes are drawn to this panel first because our writing system has taught our eyes to go left to right, up to down. So, we scan our eyes across the panel then go down to the bottom, then back up to the top right edge to see what’s next. And what’s next is a “BONK”.
This panel breaks our expectation of a smooth wall entrance. We learn in panel three that the “BONK” was Stephen’s head bouncing off the bricks.
From then he goes on walking through the wall.
The joke comes not only from the slapstick element of Stephen hitting his head but from also the misalignment of the panels. It breaks our expectation of an even, horizontal, three panel joke.
Let’s examine what it would look like if the panels were aligned.
You’ll see it’s not quite as funny, even without my slap-dash attempt at lettering. The off-kilter layout is just inherently funnier. This sort of effect just isn’t possible in any other medium, at it’s a testament to the talents of Romero, Bellaire, and Petit.