How “Watchmen” made me a better page designer

I have always been a comic book geek. From as early as I can remember, I always had a comic book in my hands. I dog-eared collections of Spider-Man, X-Men, and the Fantasic Four as Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby introduced the Marvel universe. I would stay up late, flipping through pages to see if the Fantastic Four could stop Galactus from destroying the world, or if Spider-Man would ever find some semblance of a normal life. Even in the early 1990s, when the comic book boom had people hoarding issues trying to find a collector’s item, I tore into a sealed Mylar bag to find out how Superman died.

Comic books were, and still are, a great escape, but when I was a kid, I always thought of them as flashy, unchallenging entertainment, whose pages were wallpapered with explosions, laser beams and fights.

Then I read Watchmen, and it changed the way I looked at comics, and page design.

Watchmen01.06d_TPBWatchmen, created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in 1986, deconstructed the concept of superheroes, and tried to show what people like that would be like in the real world, with characters that were violent, morally gray, flawed and misguided. Not only did it change the types of stories that were told in comic books, it also changed how the medium of comic books were used to tell stories.

The page wasn’t just a place to squeeze in fight scenes, thought bubbles, and Batman sound effects (Pow! Zap! Bort!) It was a canvas, and every inch was crucial to telling the story.

And believe it or not, reading that book make me a better newspaper page designer.

watchmen-pageMoore and Gibbons used a strict nine-panel structure for most pages. This was done deliberately – because every page had the same number of panels, each one became crucial to telling the story. Take a look at the page to the left, which came early in issue #1. Each panel shares something important about the scene, whether it is to set mood, establish location, or develop the character of Rorschach. None of the panels repeat each other, either; each one shows a different angle, action, or image. Throughout the book, Moore and Gibbons use each panel to illustrate a different point, not just as a backdrop for their dialogue.

There’s no throwaway panel showing the character getting out of the car and arriving on scene. And there are no thought bubbles or boxes explaining what he is thinking. Everything is left to the art contained in those nine panels. The canvas was set, and not a single inch is wasted.

Newspaper designers should take a tip. How often do we see filler on a front page, or wasted space? Oversized photos and headlines simply meant to take up column inches, or repeated information like subpar pull-quotes and redundant subheads … it’s all wasted. Rather than using every inch of the canvas to your advantage and telling a complete story, the page becomes a burden; something to fill up with whatever you can throw at it.

Everything on your page should serve a larger purpose, instead of being wallpaper.

Every inch was important in Watchmen. Moore and Gibbons would often insert clues into the background of panels, or have action take place in the shadows in the foreground. It wasn’t just the obvious, center of the frame “hero shot.” Sometimes the most important information took place off-center. In 2009, Moore said he utilized Gibbons’ eye for detail – “including incredible amounts of detail in every tiny panel, so we could choreograph every little thing.”watchmen-05-04Watchmen also showed me the power of a short, simple title, which I later transferred into my headline writing. A headline like “Fearful Symmetry,” set within white space, and accompanied by a closeup of the ink blot mask, grabs the reader’s attention and makes them go “whoa.”

Even when the title isn’t as obvious, it’s still compelling or mysterious enough to keep someone reading. Take another look back at the page near the top of this post:

“At midnight, all the agents…”

At that point, readers don’t know what the title means in the big picture of the story, but it’s short, it’s unusual, and it will keep someone on the page for long enough to discover later what the title means. It doesn’t say: “Chapter one, Rorcshach is here!” It respects the reader enough to know that they will understand the meaning when they get to it. In contrast, sometimes newspapers are so preoccupied with holding the reader’s hand that the headline basically becomes “Here is a story about that one thing.”

Don’t give away the entire story in the headline. Don’t just say “Obama wins reelection,” or “Patriots win Super Bowl.” Your story already says that, your pictures illustrate it, and your info boxes enhance it. The news story deserves a good title. Readers are smart. Give them credit.

All of the titles in the book show how much you can set the mood with a short headline. “Absent Friends.” “Watchmaker.” “Old Ghosts.” “The Abyss Gazes Also.”  All of these enhance the story that follows them, they don’t tell the entire story. Your titles – your headlines – should work the same way.

Watchmen showed that the pages of a comic book can be a canvas to create a compelling, thorough story. The pages of a newspaper can and should be treated the same way.


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