Details vs. Flow In Manga Panels

Edited by The Davoo

Text version:

A lot of manga is rightfully celebrated for featuring highly detailed, illustrative artwork, which shows off incredible technical ability, while potentially bringing the world of the story to life and making it feel more fleshed-out and realistic. However, I think it’s taken for granted by a lot of readers that more-detailed illustrations are automatically better, when this isn’t necessarily always the case. A perfect example of where I think a manga was negatively impacted by the beauty of its own art, was the little-known five-volume series, Stray Little Devil.

Without a doubt, every panel of this manga is impressive to look at. The characters are adorable, and their world is one of epic fantasy, with no shortage of sweeping, memorable vistas and huge, action-heavy art showcases. The only problem here is that for the most part, Stray Little Devil is a quick and breezy cute girls comedy series.

If you’ve heard anything about the craft of humor, then you’ve probably heard that it’s all about timing; and when it comes to manga humor this couldn’t possibly be more true. In fact, the entire genre of 4-panel gag comics is pretty much built around structuring how the punchlines fall in with the four-panel format. Figuring out the speed and rhythm of how the reader is going to look at each image is integral to selling the punchline.

It makes sense for comedic manga to be relatively sparse on detail, because the technique is about controlling the pace of the reader’s eyeballs. Each image has to be tightly constructed around delivering just the right amount of information so that the joke will make sense at the end.

A massively detailed image is much harder to control, because it is most likely going to give the reader pause to take everything in. When a hyper-detailed illustration appears in an action or adventure series, it’s usually meant for the reader to linger there for a while, and as such is usually meant to instill some kind of complex or grandiose emotion in the reader.

Stray Little Devil packs so much detail into every little panel that it ends up grinding to a halt much of the time, and the cadence of the humor completely falls apart. It can be difficult to tell what a scene is trying to focus on because there’s so much happening visually; and as a result, while the setting feels incredibly rich and alive, the story, characters and humor end up falling sort of flat in comparison.

None of this is helped by the publication of the series into weirdly small graphic novels which squish all of that detail into an even more constrained space. I don’t know if this was only done to the North-American publications, but all the scans which I’ve found online seem to come from that publication, so if there’s a bigger version then I haven’t seen it.

All of this is a shame because the artwork really is gorgeous on an illustrative level; and it’s easy to see the appeal of the story, which is almost squandered by the difficulty of reading it. I feel as though this series would’ve worked much better in animation, wherein every panel would really have the space to breathe, and the timing would be managed by how long each image was on-screen rather that by how fast the reader makes it through each page. For this reason, I find it kind of hilarious that the same artist was later given the manga adaptation of Gurren Lagann, which was a series with phenomenal visual flow that didn’t really translate well to manga form.

King of Bandits Jing is another series which had confusingly detailed panels in its original manga artwork, and many critics praised the anime adaptation specifically for being able to bring the world to life in a more coherent and approachable way. It would be difficult for me to say whether I personally liked the manga or the anime more, since a lot of the manga’s best parts weren’t covered in the adaptation and the production values were less than amazing overall, but it does make me think that I would kill to see Stray Little Devil brought to animation with such a vibrant color pallette. The closest thing I can think of to having exactly the look that I’d want the series to have is Astarotte’s Toy, though that series didn’t have the same problem with its source material.

I’m very curious as to whether anyone else has had this problem with a manga, wherein the images were so detailed or complicated that it ruined the flow of the panels or ended up being kind of incomprehensible. If you’ve seen anything like that, then tell me about it in the comments below, and if there’s any topics in the vein of panelling and structure in manga which you’d like to hear me talk about, or any series which you find interesting for how they succeeded or failed in terms of overall design, feel free to suggest them. Check out all the stuff on screen for more of me, and as always, thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!

5 thoughts on “Details vs. Flow In Manga Panels

  1. have you seen dance in the vampire bund? It’s beautifully drawn but hard to read but shaft did an awesome job at adapting it;D and this is coming from someone who isn’t fond of vampires

  2. you need to go to your local bookstore/barnes and noble, stray to the graphic novel section, and find a book with the title “Asterios Polyp”

      • David Mazzucchelli in general is pretty much the sort of artist that prefers using a seemingly simple, “smooth” style over too much detail and realism. He also did the classic Daredevil story “Born Again” and Batman: Year One, both with Frank Miller, back in the eighties.

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