The first two pages of “Wanted Lucky Luke” provide a number of lessons in comic book storytelling, some of which are borrowed from the film world. Since Matthieu Bonhomme was so kind as to provide us with the raw material, it would be a shame not to use it.
(If you want a full review of “Wanted Lucky Luke”, I’ve already written that, too.)
How to Compose a Panel, Example One
This is how the book opens. This is Page 1, Panel 1. It takes up half of the first page, and it’s worth every precious inch. Let’s look at everything it does right:
Foreground, Middleground, Background
Check out that tall rock formation way off to the left side. It’s such a simple thing, but it extends the depth of the image. It pushes something right up against the front edge of the panel. If this panel represents you, the reader, looking through the window, you now have something right up against the glass.
Without it and the rocks along the bottom of the page, the scene doesn’t begin until about a third of the way into the panel. That’s a huge change in the look and feel of the panel. Without it, the panel would feel largely empty and items in the middleground and background wouldn’t feel as pushed back as they are.
Adding foreground adds dimension to a panel, and it’s the first trick that I think too many comics artists miss.
It’s also serves as Bonhomme’s version of an inverse Proscenium Arch, like you’d see in theater. It doesn’t wrap across the top and back down the other side, but along with those rocks at the bottom, it does very similar work in setting the stage for the rest of the panel.
You can see it in the darker blue shaded parts in this image:
Sticking with how the rock formations set off the different distances, look at the tall spires of stone off to the right. I colored them in with a lighter blue tone. They’re much shorter, which makes sense since they’re further away. They’re set in the middleground, about a third of the way into the panel. Not only does it establish that depth, but it works extremely well with the foreground element to box in the spot where Lucky Luke is riding into the scene.
Leading Rock Lines
This one is perhaps a bit more subtle, but it’s still there. I think the blue highlights you see above help to show it off even better.
There’s a base of rocks across the bottom of the panel, but then another line of rocks extends across the stream to the other tall rock formation. They start as a wide group and narrow down as they lead your eye across the body of water and to those spires. It’s almost a triangular shape pointing the way.
And then — stick with me for one more here — the little details on that hill lead your eye diagonally towards the upper left corner. They don’t take you all the way there. They don’t need to. That yellow dust cloud will stop your eye once you get there.
It’s every trick in the book being used for the same thing — to bring your eye to the minuscule figure of Lucky Luke coming over that ridge, starting wide and up front and narrowing as your eye is dragged deeper into the panel.
Small Character, Big Impact
Lucky Luke is the focus here of a panel that’s bigger than half the page — yet, look how small is he is. He’s a silhouette that’s smaller than an ink smudge. How does Bonhomme bring you to him?
First, you have the word balloon. That’s the first thing your eye probably landed on when you turned to this page. It’s a big bright white circle in the middle of a panel that’s filled with oranges and yellows and reds. (The eye is always drawn to the area of greatest contrast, after all.).
The tail of the word balloon points directly at Lucky, which, yeah, helps in a very non-subtle way.
Perhaps most interesting, though, is the cloud of smoke that Jolly Jumper is kicking up as they ride in. That puffy yellow billowing cloud sticks out on the page, too, second only to the word balloon. It’s putting a gigantic circle around Lucky Luke. Your eye can’t help but look there.
Yet, there’s still more at work:
Look closely at the page and you’ll see lots of details drawn in for the rocks in the foreground and those in the stream. The rock formation on the right has some texture and strong shadows. The left and right side of the hill in the background have some extra lines for texture and formation.
But the middle of the panel, apart from that word balloon, is very plain. It’s wide open and empty. The colors are flatter. There’s no extra detail. There’s detail all around Lucky Luke, but not directly around him. The entire front of the hill behind him is blank.
That’s Bonhomme leaving room for your eye to rest, and by contrasting that to all the detail, it pushes your eye right where he wants it.
One of the qualities of art and nature, as a whole, is repetition. Let’s look at the horizontal lines in this image. There’s two major ones (the top two) that run loosely in parallel to one another. There’s one that marks the hill that Lucky Luke is coming over. There’s another just above that where the hill crests before the final ascent up the mountain in the background. And there’s the line that the edge of the water makes to create a group of three.
Taken all together, it creates two hills and then the mountain behind Lucky Luke that add up to a repeated feature that grows as the scene pushes back. It also helps frame the cowboy once again.
If Bonhomme had added another line on top of these three to indicate another hill, it would have been too much. He stopped at an appropriate time.
The only way more than three would have worked is if he had been angling the hills and trying to indicate a twisty-turny path that Luke had taken to get where he is now, and perhaps to even lay out the path in front of him. (Bonhomme pulls off tricks like that later in the book.)
This, though, is more a classical image of a cowboy entering the scene by coming up and over the hill. Bonhomme composes the overall layout as being a straight-on view of Lucky Luke arriving, but still manages to add all these little tricks to draw the eye to where he wants it, even with the occasional curved path.
Who doesn’t love a good triangle in their composition? Fran Frazetta loved them to pieces. Think to the first Star Wars movie poster (pick any of them in that article), which no doubt was inspired in part by Frazetta’s work.
Look at the broad strokes of this panel. Block out the different areas. You’ll see a triangle receding into the distance, with the rock features on top of the mountain in the far back acting as the point of the triangle, and the rocks at the bottom behind the base.
It’s dark around the edges and bright in the middle where Lucky Luke is. It’s not quite a vignette effect, but it might as well be with that darker blue sky and the darker orange rock formation on the left and across the bottom. The middleground rock formations are colored a little more darkly (more saturated, really), but also have the largest solid black areas on the page, off to the sides.
It all helps to box in the panel naturally to push your eye in toward the middle.
Likewise, that yellow plume of smoke/dust sticks out in the middle of the page not just for its lack of detail, but also for how flat and bright the coloring is. There’s a nice gradient going up the mountain behind that, but the land on the rest of the page is different shades of a very saturated red/orange. That plume of dust that Jolly is kicking up is a flat, bright yellow. It pops instantly.
Let’s look down at the bottom of the page now to see how the point of view can be so important:
Point of View
In these three panels, the virtual camera is above Lucky Luke and off to the right. It might not quite be a full Bird’s Eye View, but it is higher than a cowboy sitting on a horse.
In a smooth camera move that reminds me of a dolly shot, Bonhomme comes closer and closer to his subject, carefully staying to his right.
In the third panel, which is also the final panel of the page, we get the big surprise that will drive you to turn the page immediately to see what’s happening.
Someone is shooting at our hero and his horse!
That third panel emphasizes the sudden surprise of the shot in numerous ways:
- The colors get darker.
- The camera is below their eye level for the first time.
- The large sound effect and Lucky Luke’s surprised word balloon.
The angle from which the bullet is fired is also important, especially for how the next page begins.
It almost feels like you’re in the point of view of the shooter. You’re not — you can see the trajectory of the bullet coming from off camera to the left, but that general feeling is still there. Bonhomme didn’t draw from above just for the heck of it. As he does it, he’s also setting up the angle from the shooter’s relative point of view. His camera swoops down from the right, and the sudden gunshot comes in from above and to the left.
It feels like this sequence of panels started now from the height of the shooter’s point of view
Keep this in mind as we move to the next page: the shot was fired from the left, with Lucky Luke and Jolly Jumper on the right. First, a quick definition of terms:
“The 180 Degree Rule”
A lot has been written about this rule. Google it and you’ll find a thousand explanations, a million videos, and probably a few dozen Tik Toks.
I can sum it up this way: When you have two people in the shot, always position the camera such that one person is picked to always be to the left of the other person on screen or on panel.
Here, I drew up a quick diagram:
For the most simple example: If you have a shot with two characters sitting across the table from one another, no matter whose shoulder you’re shooting over, the same person will be on the left side. When the camera flips around and shoots over the other person’s shoulder, the same person will still be on the left, although you’ll be looking at the other side of them.
Draw a straight, 180 degree line (the dashed line in the diagram above) between those two people and always keep your camera on one side of that line. The second it crosses that line, it’ll be a harsh jumpy cut that will cause momentary confusion in the viewer’s eye.
Knowing all that, watch what Bonhomme does at the top of the second page:
Remember the gun shot coming from the left and Lucky Luke being on the right? In the first panel, Bonhomme puts the camera on the gunman’s point of view. The visible part of the gunman — the hand on the gun — is on the left side of the panel, with Luke off to the right. (That gun is also a perfect leading line, pointing the reader to Lucky Luke, small in the panel once more.)
Then, Bonhomme flips around and shows the scene from the opposite direction, behind Lucky Luke. Yes, Luke is perfectly centered in this panel, but he’s to the right of the gunman, who is again on Luke’s left.
The 180 degree rule is maintained.
Lucky Luke’s Big Moment
The next tier of panels begins what is probably the most bad-ass moment of the book for Lucky Luke. He’s the fastest shot in the west, sure, but his hands are up and his opponent already has his gun raised and pointed right at him. That’s an unfair advantage right there.
Bonhomme swings back around to an angle closer to the shooter’s point of view. You don’t see the shooter, but the word balloons are coming in from the left side of the panel. Again, Bonhomme maintains his 180 degree line, and the lettering helps directly in the storytelling. These panels would feel different if the balloons had no tail, for example.
At the same time, Bonhomme is keeping his camera moving again as he spends these three panels getting closer to Lucky Luke, moving from a wide shot to a medium shot to a close up on his hand.
I love that last panel. It’s a small, yet perfect panel to tell this moment of the story. It’s so simple. It’s just the gun hanging in the air after being dropped. Even the background is blank, just a solid color. The bare essentials.
Everything feels still. If there was background music to this comic, this is where it stops for a moment as Lucky Luke begins his plan’s execution.
But then things immediately speed up to a ridiculous degree.
In the next tier, Lucky Luke drops the hand that just dropped the gun fast enough to basically defy gravity, grab his gun against and make his best shot. You can see the speed lines of his arm coming around to fire the shot in both panels. His arm comes down to grab the gun back and swooped around to take his shot.
The body language on Lucky Luke in that first panel is great. He’s slightly off-balance on top of his horse as he pulls this trick off. His weight has shifted completely onto his right side. That carries through to the next panel, making the shot all that much more impressive. It also prevent a boring looking panel of a well-balanced character
Bonhomme cheats a little bit here.
The camera is at eye level and Lucky Luke is firing straight ahead into it. But the guy he’s shooting at is way up higher.
It doesn’t matter. You probably didn’t even notice it the first time you read it. It’s a great moment that Bonhomme sells by just being damned cool. Firing the shot straight at the reader works. The singular “BANG” sound effect emphasizes his precise control. Lucky Luke doesn’t need more than that.
Also, the “BANG” is the first sound in three panels in this sequence. There’s no “whoosh” sound of his arm moving around or “drop” sound when he lets go of the gun. That moment moves so fast that the images couldn’t keep up with the audio. That “BANG” echoes in your head all that much louder.
And, as I mentioned in my review of the book, this is another last panel on a page that gets the reader to turn the page as fast as possible. Bonhomme propels the reader through the sequence and through the story, as a whole. You can’t not turn the page after seeing that final panel.
I just love this panel. It might be the prettiest panel in the book. But think about everything I wrote about the first page above and see how much of it applies here. I love the way Bonhomme creates a negative space around Lucky Luke to draw your eye towards him. Luke fits perfectly between those two formations with all the contrast of the backlighting causing the shadowed Luke’s back in the middle of the brightest bit of sunlight.
Then, you can appreciate Bonhomme’s skills with an ink brush with all the work he does feathering the line for those shadows on the rocks in the foreground. As a bonus, the lines on the middle rock also point right towards Lucky Luke. They almost converge on him, as a matter of fact.
OK, I’ll stop now.
Wait, let me formally conclude this thing:
The art of telling a story in sequential narrative form is a lot more complicated than it looks at first. The more you study it, the more you realize is happening on a typical page. When someone like Matthieu Bonhomme comes along and pulls out all the stops and uses all the tricks, it jumps out at me and I have to share. I hope you’ve learned a little bit from this today.
If you want to see more analysis of comics storytelling, check out the Hyperanalysis category on this site. I also can’t recommend two YouTube channels highly enough: Strip Panel Naked and Elsa Charretier.