This is one of comics’ main superpowers. They can do this like no other medium on the planet.
In a movie or a storyboard, you can really only focus on one thing at a time. The camera itself can use the “cut,” and the focal point can even change over time, but good storyboard artists know that having only one focal point—a single “object of interest”—at any given time is important. There’s a whole blog post about it on Temple of the Seven Golden Camels.
Comics aren’t like that.
In fact, in every single panel that contains dialogue, there is already more than one focal point!
What’s more important here? Her expression or the text?
TRICK QUESTION, the answer is NEITHER. A reader may look at one or the other first. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you process both and get the meaning out of it. I have said it before, but the most similar thing I can think of is a diagram: a combination of symbols, words, pictures, etc. that combine to give you a meaning as a whole and convey a lot of information at once.
In fact, according to Wikimedia: "A diagram is a plan, drawing, sketch or outline that shows how something works, or show the relationships or interconnections between the parts of a whole."
As the vast variety of diagrams illustrates, there are many ways to use multiple-focus within the artwork itself, independent of the dialog.
Here’s a good example from Beet: The Vandel Buster.
Just a little background: This is a scene I really enjoyed where the main character (Beet) arrives at the scene of a fight just in time to rescue his love interest from a bunch of tough monsters. Because he’s a dumb-as-bricks shonen hero, he’s actually quite strong, but has only bothered to visit the level-up shop enough to be marked “level 10.” It’s a quite stereotypical scene, with the bad guy having to gasp in shock every time Beet overcomes a challenge, but the little details—such as the Boss Monster’s slightly OCD, stick-to-the-plan personality—really made a difference. Their telling of the scene became extremely effective, in part because they were able to use this idea of multi-focus to convey a lot of information at a time.
See how the artist gave you two entirely separate pieces of information here? One describes this character’s current situation—casual, remembering an event, and even taking the time to button his collar. This is important to the scene because his nonchalant attitude is at complete defiance with the difficult circumstances he is facing. The other piece of the picture actually shows the event he’s describing, adding information and visual interest. It reinforces and in part explains the piece of dialog and helps us understand one more important detail. In this story, the monster-fighters’ ranks are reflected by markings on their chests. Whereas this monster had thought the boy was a level 11 fighter, in reality he is only marked up to 10. One of the markings is a scratch made by another monster. Of course, this makes his situation—having busted into a heavily-guarded fortress—all the more impossible. It’s a detail you don’t need to understand to know what’s going on, but it adds just that much more flair.
This panel is even more jam-packed. We get multiple lines from the Big Bad plus his emotions (and I do love how his speech bubble on the left helps highlight his persnickety nature); the confusion and even fear from his lackeys; and the questioning attitude of Beet in the background.
This is an amazing example using multiple-focus:
IF YOU ONLY LOOK AT ONE IMAGE, MAKE IT THIS ONE!
You get the important information at a glance. He has absolutely demolished all four of the monsters who were restraining his girlfriend, without a second thought. His relationship to her is expressed by their poses. She is off-balance and falling and he is her support, with a wide, stable stance, even while dispatching monsters. The hand he’s put on her shoulder to catch her isn’t possessive, but protective—more the gesture of a friend than a significant other (which leaves them some room to develop romantically). Her face is surprised, but more in awe than in shock. You can even see the difference in their levels, if you look closely—the artist included the markings.
This pose could not be achieved in animation. There is no swing Beet could be making with that spear that would cause that to happen, and certainly no way he could be in that close—her fall is so gentle he must have been standing there right as she lost her balance. If you tried to describe the process of actions that led to this using a storyboard or a continuous set of images, it would be silly. But in a comic, this is the bread and butter. This is an extremely solid panel. It conveys both the raw info—she’s safe now, and Beet has killed the monsters—and the emotional impact. Note the absence of any background image. It’s so you look at the characters’ expressions and at the important parts of the drawing without any distractions.
This panel has justified its existence.
Let’s look at some more.
Example 1: STRONG
This is Batman’s first appearance. He’s just put out the lights and is trying to intimidate the thugs in the room into talking.
This is a good use of a single-focus panel: a high-impact, emotionally charged moment. Right now, he’s the most important guy in the room and all eyes are on him. We don’t need a bunch more information—no huge movements or important plot details are occurring. It’s all theatrics right now, and this is the perfect panel to do that.
Example 2: Strong
Again, these panels are more about the acting and the feelings than the physical details. Having the backgrounds and pictures quiet down lets you read Commissioner Gordon’s line and appreciate the humor in it. Batman’s wordless glance is also…well, hilarious. A solid piece of paneling.
Example 3: Weak
This panel has only one focus: Batman’s landing. The thugs have pulled guns, but they’re still stuck in positions of surprise. The guy who’s saying “There’s four of us! Let’s take him!” would be really effective in conveying more information, but he’s so obscured by the limitations of the panel that you can barely see him, let alone his forward-leaning, aggressive pose. This panel could have expressed much more from the thug side of things by using variations in posing to express different pieces of information. One thug could be scared, one could be in the process of pulling his gun, another could already be charging Batman as he says, “Let’s take him!”
This is the most interesting thug out of the bunch! Why don't we get to see him?
This would pull the action farther ahead and add vigor to the scene. Instead, this panel drags the action toward slow motion. This becomes even more apparent on the next page, where each punch and kick of the fight has its own large, single-focus panel.
Example 4: Weak
The left-hand and right-hand panels are not instant “reads”. The second is fine. HOWEVER, these panels, even if made clearer, aren’t a great choice to portray this fight. The stakes here aren’t emotional. We know that Batman can beat up any number of dime-a-dozen thugs like these before he’s even had morning coffee. However, these three panels are turned all the way up to eleven. It’s easy to imagine the dramatic chipmunk music is playing in every single one of these images. This means we don’t get any dial-back or decrescendo before this moment:
This is a panel that might deserve to be turned all the way up to eleven, especially since this is the thug Batman ends up questioning. However, instead of hitting hard it just feels the same as every other panel so far. (If everything is special, nothing is.) By the way, it just keeps going on at this “volume” for the rest of the comic.
Example 5: The focus is a lie.
Can you find the important item in this scene?
...Did you get it?
That’s the bomb that he’s planting. If you looked, it might have taken you maybe 5 or ten seconds. That’s five or ten seconds too long.
This panel has a focus, it just didn’t use it to help the reader.
Rather than giving you important information, the artist actually misled you, focusing on Scarecrow’s face and the lightning rather than the bomb.
Faulty communication will never attract anyone to comics or keep anyone reading them.
There can be more than one focus or action in a single panel. Use this multiple-focus technique except when there’s a legitimate reason for only one focus.
Good reasons for solo-focus:
- High emotion
- Big impact
Good reasons for multi-focus:
- Staying on “tempo”—not dragging