Whenever I read comics, I always pay attention, of course, to the juxtaposition between the text and images and the ways that they work in tandem to convey meaning. I pay attention to the gutters and the spaces that my mind fills in, either spatially or temporally. Each of these aspects is important, but for me, lately, paying attention to the page layout is equally important, and today I want to look at the importance of page layouts when reading comics by examining three examples from Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s Southern Bastards series.
In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud doesn’t look at page layouts, but in Reinventing Comics, he has a discussion, and McCloud’s comments are a good of place as any to begin. McCloud notes that each page typically starts with an “establishing shot” that places the reader within a specific space and sets up the rest of the page. As well, each page concludes with “a tease” at the bottom right hand side of the page that impels the reader to turn the page and continue with the narrative.
In issue 4 of Southern Bastards, Lauter has a two page spread twenty four identically sized panels with no text. I’ve written about this type of layout before when looking at pages in Bitch Planet and Farmhand. The first panel, at the top left of the first page, is a continuation from the previous page where Esaw punches Earl Tubb. We see Esaw’s fist hitting Tubb square in the face. Over the course of the twenty four panels, we move back and forth in time, reliving various scenes that we have learned about in previous issues such as Earl chopping down the tree, Earl on the football field, Earl in Vietnam, Earl’s father, and more. The panels set in the past have a red tint to them, indicating they occur out of the current moment, and every even-numbered panel takes place in the past. All of the panels in the present, except for two, have a tan background. In this manner, the reader knows what panels take place in the current moment and which occur in the past.
The use of this movement from present to past to present to past, again and again, plays into the chaotic nature of the scene and its brutality. This is the culmination of the first few issues of the series, the culmination of Earl Tubb’s return home and his fight against Euless Boss. It brings together threads of the series from Earl’s father, the former sheriff of Craw County, to the county’s religious fervor over high school football to the phone calls that Earl has tried to make to his daughter. The latter of these appears in a panel that merely shows a cellphone screen with a low battery. Another panel provides more information about Earl’s daughter. We see a panel showing Earl having sex with a Black woman in the past. We do not know, until we see Berta at the end of issue 4, that her mother was Black. This is the first indication. The page ends with a panel showing Earl’s father in the past, holding the stick against his attackers. This image teases the next page where we see the dog attacking Esaw in the present and Esaw protecting himself with a bat.
The next page I want to look at is in issue 10. It contains seven panels, all in the present. Five of the panels create a single image, and two show close ups. The page depicts Esaw knocking Donny Ray to the ground then standing over him with a gun. Again, the first panel on the page sets the stage. Here, the butt of Esaw’s gun hits Donny Ray in the jaw. We only see Donny Ray’s head falling backwards as the butt impacts it. A red tint encompasses the panel; here, the red indicates violence, not a temporal shift in narrative. Following this panel, we move to right where we see a panel with Esaw’s arm holding the gun and the top of Donny Ray’s head. Moving to the right edge, a smaller panel follows the gun up, and the top right panel shows the barrel. Immediately below this panel, another red tinged panel shows Esaw punching Donny Ray. The bottom right panel shows Donny Ray’s hand with his Bible in the foreground, and our eyes move back towards the left where two panels finish out the image, showing Donny Ray’s face and body and Esaw’s legs respectively.
This layout creates a full image while also zeroing in on specific actions. We begin by seeing a closeup that carries over from the last page, and we get another closeup on the right side. However, the other panels join together to create a unified image. This image, though, becomes separated by gutters that separate each panel. In this manner, we focus on each image a little more, taking in every aspect. This becomes key when we move from the top middle panel to the bottom right. In the former panel, Esaw asks Donny Ray, “I bet you wanna pick that shit up now, don’t ya?” Emanating from the top of Donny Ray’s head, he replies, “No. Please, I . . . I.” The bottom right panel focuses on Donny Ray’s hand, flat on the ground, with his Bible and a gun in front of him. The next page follows this movement. Esaw thinks that Donny Ray wants to reach for the gun, but the third panel on the next page zooms in on Donny Ray’s hand as he grabs a hold of his Bible, reciting Psalm 23.
The final layout I want to lookout occurs in issue 14 and contains six panels. Berta is at Earl’s house, cleaning out his things. The narrative voice on this page comes from voice messages that Berta’s mother has left for her. It begins with a panel that recalls the cellphone panel on the first pages I discussed in this post. We see the cellphone and Earl’s messages to Berta, and at the top, we see the current message, from North Carolina, playing. As Berta rummages through the cabinets, her mother’s voice implores her to leave the house. Two panels on the bottom left show Berta finding what she has been searching for, a container of Hot Shit Cayenne Pepper. In the first panel, she grabs the pepper from a cabinet filled with spices, and the next panel, which is borderless, shows Berta’s hand holding the Hot Shit bottle. The final panel shows Berta, with an angry look on her face, walking away from the kitchen. Here, we see the use of gutters and the “missing” pieces that we need to fill as readers.
The final panel before this page shows Berta stepping in a pile of dog crap in here yard. The neighbor’s dog has defecated all over Earl’s porch and yard, and she gets the pepper to teach the dog a lesson. We must fill in these gaps because we do not get a textual indication for this until the second panel following the page I discuss. There, we see the neighbor running out of his yard as Berta hoses down the porch. He asks, “What the hell’d you do to my dog?” Here, we get the textual aspect of Berta’s actions. In this page, we see the ways that the layout, gutters, and the juxtaposition of text and image work together to narrate the story.
There is definitely more I could look at, even with these three pages. Maybe I’ll look at some more layouts in the future. If I do, what layouts would you like to see? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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