Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Mr Miracle: The discipline and the claustrophobia

Many, many modern comic books utilize the classic nine-panel panel grid, and some of them use it to startling effect, but few of them show the hardcore discipline of Tom King and Mitch Gerads' Mr Miracle comic. 

The 12-issue series has a lot going for it - it's bleakly funny (and just plain bleak), and has things to say about godhood and modern life and parenting and existential despair and all that jazz. And it has a genuinely claustrophobic atmosphere, as Scott Free and family escape the life trap that is squashing them down into the griminess of reality.

The nine-panel grid helps enormously here, with the uniformity of the panel size hemming in the characters on every page. Sometimes it's used to comedic effect - the beat of a joke almost always lands better when it gets its own little panel - but mainly it's there to give these epic battles for godhood an air of disturbing banality, and to keep everything shut down, and boxed in.

And the discipline of the creators helps. One of the great effects of adapting a strict nine-panel structure is that when you break it, it has some real power and narrative weight to it. To go from nine- panels to a full or half-page can have a big impact on the reader, and is used to the point of irritating familiarity. Even Watchmen - which famously told most of its story in this format and is the undisputed main influence on creators who use it today - was always breaking those nine panels up, or merging them together, to ramp up the action, or show off how tall Dr Manhattan and his giant glowing penis really were.

And Mr Miracle doesn't do this at all. For almost the entire story, the grid is absolute, and doesn't break, even when gods are being bludgeoned to death. When a picture is spread across several panels, there is always the white void of the panel break lurking. There is no dramatic relief or freedom, it stays tight until towards the end, when it does finally break, and it feels bright and open and free.

That's the kind of discipline Granny likes.

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