How To Make Comics Stories: Compression and Decompression
Every scene in your story will take up one or more panels. In determining the number of panels you need for each scene, you consider two factors:
1) How much information will this scene give the reader; and
2) How immersed you'd want the reader to be in that scene.
Amount of information: Let's say your scene involves one round of a boxing match--two people in a boxing ring. If you use a lot of panels to depict the round, then your scene is decompressed. If you decide to just use a few panels, that scene is compressed. In the first issue of Civil War (written by Mark Millar), Captain America debates with Commander Maria Hill about hero registration. Hill orders soldiers to tranquilize Cap, and the next six pages shows how Cap escapes. There is no other important information in these six pages, just a virtually wordless depiction of the escape, so we can say that this is a decompressed event. That six pages were used here may just be about upping the cool factor and getting some action in. In my opinion, however, these six pages are important because it's the first time we're seeing a superhero's outright defiance of the will of the government. The fact that it's Captain America gives the event more gravity.
Depth of immersion: How crucial is the event or scene in your whole story compared to other scenes? Answering this question will help you decide whether to treat the scene in a compressed or decompressed manner. In the first pages of Marvel Comics' Ozma of Oz, for example, we are shown how Dorothy starts on a ship with Uncle Henry, gets blown off the ship by a storm, finds a crate, meets a talking chicken, and ends up on a remote island. These are five major events, and it took eleven comics pages--or half a comics issue--to tell them all. When you think about it, these events can be told in maybe four or five pages. You can even summarize these events in less than ten panels. But because this is the beginning of the story, we assume that writer Eric Shanower wanted to effectively bring the reader into the story, immersing them in what would be that start of another one of Dorothy's great adventures. This immersion can be achieved with decompression.
Contrast that with what happens in the second issue, where Dorothy meets the robotic Clockwork Man. Dorothy asks Clockwork Man about his history, and the latter obliges. He talks about being in the service of a ruler of a kingdom who sold his children to the Nome King. Regretting his decision and unable to get his children back, he sealed the Clockwork Man in a mountain chamber, and drowned himself in the sea. Revealed in a series of flashback panels, the Clockwork Man's history took one page and one panel, when it could easily be told in more. But since the history had little bearing on Dorothy's overall adventure, it was told in a compressed manner.
If Ozma of Oz was more about the Clockwork Man and not Dorothy, then the Clockwork Man's history would be more decompressed, while Dorothy's would be more compressed.
So when you look at all the events and scenes that will go into one chapter or issue of your comics story, ask yourself 1) which events carry a lot of information, and 2) which events do you need the reader to be immersed in. As a rough guide:
a) Lots of information, deep immersion - decompressed (about six or more pages)
b) Few information, deep immersion - decompressed (about three to six pages)
c) Lots of information, shallow immersion - compressed (about two to three pages)
d) Few information, shallow immersion: compressed (about a page or less)
Note that "shallow" immersion doesn't mean "unimportant." Every scene and event in your story should be important, i.e. move your story forward. But since you're only working with a limited number of pages, you must exercise your better judgment.
NEXT: In the next blog post, we'll talk about a concept that's related to compression and decompression, but has more to do with the speed at which your reader goes through a story. The topic of pacing, next.