Between the Sheets – Joe Sacco’s word placement

14 Feb
by L. Nichols

Back in college, I took a class on comics with the Comparative Media Studies department. This was the first time I really read comics and the first time I fell in love with them. It was also the time when I started drawing comics of my own. Many of our assignments for that class involved page/panel analysis, and I really loved doing this for my own sake. I wanted to figure out tricks. I wanted to know the nuts and bolts. I wanted to understand comics. Now that I have decided be more serious about writing with Comix Cube, I thought I should go back to this practice. Here is the first of many Between the Sheets.


Joe Sacco & his word placement

One thing that always stands out to me in Joe Sacco’s work is his use of word placement to influence page flow/page reading. I have selected two pages each from Palestine and The Fixer (the two books of his that I actually own and have readily at hand) to talk about. I’m not talking about the stories that these pages are taken from, but rather the actual design of the page and how the layout affects the reading of the page.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when thinking about western people reading/looking at pages. First thing is the method of reading. We read from left to right, top to bottom. Assuming you were taught as a kid, this habit has been with you for most of your life and as such is well engrained as habit. This makes the top left of any page, especially one involving words, particularly important. It is a starting point. It is frequently the first place the eye will go (unless the eye is directed to go elsewhere). On this page, Sacco makes use of that fact by placing the first word bubble in that spot. With this choice, he establishes some control over your reading of the page.

The second thing to keep in mind is that people are attracted to faces, particularly eyes. Humans are social beings. Our brains are wired to find, recognize, and read faces (unless you have prosopagnosia). Sacco uses this to help direct the eye where to go when bridging the gap between word bubbles.

A final thing to keep in mind is that you can use contrasting areas, areas of light or dark, to draw the eye there. By choosing to make the foreground faces in white, they stand out from the background faces. Sacco uses this to further direct where it is important for your eye to go.

One of my favorite parts of this page is how the last panel shows two different word bubbles, one in front of each man. This not only influences the way you see each man while he is being talked about (literally, seeing each man out of your peripheral vision), but also adds a sense of the guy talking and gesturing to each man. When reading this, I can totally imagine this man talking, looking from one man to the other. Even though Sacco didn’t explicitly show this motion in the image, the word placement combined with the speaker looking to the right implies the resolved motion.

On this page, Sacco again utilizes the top left corner to establish a flow for reading. From there, the placement of word bubbles/boxes draws the eye down and through the page, ending at the bottom right. You experience the pictures along with the words in a way that feels very natural to me. The way he chooses the images further influences the reading of the page. The explosion draws you to it, but pushes you back towards the words. His angry face might draw you to it, but the face (and drool) subtly directs you to the last text box.

This page is from The Fixer and utilizes a more grid-based layout than the pages from Palestine. Like the previous pages, this one begins its word placement in the upper left. One difference is that the words are also competing with a rather imposing (both in composition and content/expression) face. To me, reading the words and moving down the page feels like an escape and relief from this intense stare.

In the second panel, you read down the left and are invited to examine this character by the word box in the middle of the page. The placement of the boxes forces you to spend more time with the character, seeing him peripherally while reading. You see him face first, then body, then setting. The word placement helps to navigate this introduction.

In the fourth panel, the words overlap the close-up of him taking a drag of his cigarette. Again, you see this peripherally as you read. The placement and direction of the fingers in this panel help guide you to the next word box. Again, the placement of the hands helps guide the eye for reading and the juxtaposition of the two word boxes in the final panel instruct your eye to read across the image, taking it in.

Even when there are no panels at all, Sacco’s choice of where to put the words in relation to the figures informs your reading of the page. You start at the top right and you are drawn down and through the image. The man on the left’s stare pushes your own eyes to the right and down. The large field of white that makes up the pool table further helps to pull your eye down the page. The pool cue points towards the last two word bubbles. The darker field on the white pool table give your eye somewhere to go for relief from the white. It’s a perfect place for the last word bubbles on this page.

Practically every page layout in both of these books shows the same sort of consideration for flow, for composition. The same with every other Sacco book I have read. Since I am not in his head while he is creating these, I can’t tell you how conscious these layout decisions are. But, honestly, that doesn’t matter because it works. And you can understand how this works. If you are a creator, then maybe you can think more consciously about this in your work (either while you’re working or in analyzing work you’ve already done). Or if you are a critic, you can think about these things when trying to figure out if/why something does/doesn’t work.

Comics are a wonderful mix of words and pictures. Sometimes you need to think about words AS pictures, words as visual cues/directions. And you could do far worse than starting with Joe Sacco to think about these things.

4 Responses to “Between the Sheets – Joe Sacco’s word placement”

  1. Reverend '76 February 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

    So, so solid, L.!

    Looking forward to more.

  2. Margo Dabaie February 19, 2011 at 9:04 pm #

    L, nice one! Sacco’s choice of word-placement is something I always noticed but never thought of studying.


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    […] The cartoonist L. Nichols writes on Joe Sacco’s word balloon and caption box placement, with copious marked-up examples. I’ve talked about all the heavy lifting they do, too. Very […]

  2. Between the Sheets – Time manipulation and Sacco « - February 28, 2011

    […] various ways and with various examples, but for the time being I thought I would continue from the Sacco + words discussion and start by analyzing a passage from Joe Sacco’s Palestine. (Just as a warning, this is […]

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