In the above Image, Spidey is alive in panel 2, and dead in panel 3. So where did he die? In that slim little white strip, known as the gutter. Dying in the gutter – get it?
Before the 80s, everyone used gutters to delineate panels. Traditionally, the gutter was where all the action happened – it was in that white strip where your brain could dial in and fill in the connection between two images.
As artists got more creative with layouts, gutters stopped being a hard-and-fast rule. Often, thin black lines supplanted the thick white gutters of the past. Characters broke across gutters, spilling from one moment into the next. Panels started stacking, with subsequent panels sitting on the ones before and vice versa.
So what was the benefit of all of this? Freedom. Creativity is about choice, and these innovative artists developed an entirely new technique for storytellers to use.
There’s a lot to say on this topic, but I figured the best way to illustrate some of the techniques is to see them used in practice:
The above image is from Mark Sable and Paul Azaceta’s book Graveyard of Empires. Mark and Paul do a ton of interesting and subtle storytelling throughout the book, but I picked this page because it’s a great synthesis of a few different techniques combined to tell a compelling story.
From top to bottom:
Outer Gutters: Before we even look at gutters as transition, look at the gutters surrounding this panel – they don’t exist. The panel runs right to the edges of the page (it’s even more impressive in the book itself). This implies an action bigger than the panel, which is perfect for the bomb exploding, as if it’s so big it cannot be contained by the page. It suggests uncontained chaos.
Overlapping Panels: The transition from panel 1 to 2 is also particular: panel 2 obscures the bottom of panel one. As we see the soldiers take control after the explosion, they superimpose their will on the chaotic situation. Notice that this panel does NOT go to the edges of the page – it’s nice and contained, just like its action.
Standard Gutters: Transitions from Panels 2 to 3 and 3 to 4 are done with traditional panel borders. These borders contrast nicely with the less common borders on the rest of the page, while illustrating a somewhat “normal” time passage between each panel.
Thin Gutters: Between Panel 4 and the next series of panels is a half-size traditional gutter. This is speeding up the momentum of the page, establishing the momentum and the fast motion of the following panels.
No Gutter: The last 3 panels on this page really seal the deal for me – instead of traditional guters, they are divided only by a thin black line. It’s an awesome way to show the quick actions that transpire between each panel. Again, it contrasts really nicely with the panels before it, and continues the increase in momentum from the thinner panels.
Each method of dividing panels comes with a lot of implications, but I picked this page because it shows a great synthesis of a number of different techniques to create a well-paced scene. Gutters are one of those things that affect us subconsciously, but can make or break a page without us even noticing it. So next time you pick up your favorite book, take a minute to observe how the creators have used the gutters to further their story.