On Manga Page Layouts

Updated: 4 days ago

In 2018, I made a thread on the evil birdsite about page layouts in Japanese comics. It got a lot of retweets and reactions, but since I deleted my account, the thread of course disappeared. I occasionally get questions about it, so I present it here in it's entirety, with some added information at the end.

When you think of manga page layouts, you may think “dynamic.” Pages tend to pop more than in other comics. It may look like anything goes, but they are able to do that because there are strict traffic rules.

Until the late 60s/early 70s, the rules for panel layouts in manga were vague, as they are in Western comics, but with the added complication of vertical typesetting, which implied at least the possibility of panels being arranged vertically, rather than strictly horizontally.

That is to say, whereas the rule of thumb in Western comics is “move to the right till you get to the end of the page, and then move all the way back to the left and down,” in manga there are cases when you move down rather than horizontally. (Did that make sense?)

Back in the 40s and 50s, if there were more than 3 panels on a page, panels would be numbered so that readers knew which panel to look at next. (Winsor McCay numbered the panels of Little Nemo 100+ years ago, because he did really wild things with page layouts.)

A 1905 episode of Winsor McCay's "Little Nemo in Slumberland, composed of 15 panels. The vertical height of panels 6 to 15 are staggered so as to create a sort of staircase. As the panel height increases, the peril of Little Nemo increases, creating a sense of pending disaster. Then, from panel 11 to 15, the height of the panels decreases, show Little Nemo falling from a high perch. The final, small, square panel shows that Nemo had been asleep and had simply fallen from his bed. The order of the panels is made clear with numbers.

The innovation that allowed Japanese artists to establish “traffic rules” and eliminate the need for numbering was the banning of the “+” layout, wherein 4 panels create a “crossroads.” The “+” had been standard in sequential art for 100s of years, but in Japan it was a problem.

Here’s a 2-page spread from TEZUKA Osamu’s “Jungle Emperor” circa early 50s, and another from TAKAHASHI Macoto’s “Beyond the Storm” from 1958. Note that both have a “+”. The latter even uses arrows to send the reader left, then right again. (Red +s added for emphasis.)

Two pages from Osamu Tezuka's "Jungle Emperor." The panels are generally staggered in a way to make their order clear, but there is one intersection of four panels that is not staggered, so that a modern reader might be genuinely confused as to which is the third panel on the page. It could be either the panel below panel , on the right side of the page, or the panel in the top left corner of the page. Reading both panels, it is clear from the content that the latter is actually the third.

Two pages from Macoto Takahashi's "Beyond the Storm." As in the previous image, most panels are staggered so as to make their order clear, but there is, again, an unstaggered intersection of four panels that would stump a modern reader.

That was standard at the time, and the fallback rule then was the American one: When in doubt, move horizontally. Now, here are a couple of spreads from about 10 years later, from CHIBA Tetsuya’s “Tomorrow’s Joe” and TAKEMIYA Keiko’s “In the Sunroom.” No more “+s”. All that’s left are “Ts”, and those Ts do a lot of work. They are the traffic signals. When I’ve tried to explain what I call the “T Rule” in words, it’s gotten really complicated really quickly. Think of it as code using a series of IF THEN statements.

Two pages from Tetsuya Chiba's "Tomorrow's Joe." Here, every panel is staggered, making the reading order unambiguous.

Two pages from Keiko Takemiya's "In the Sunroom." As with the Chiba example, every panel is staggered, and the order is clear.

In a nutshell, the rule is “Cross the stem of the T before you cross an arm (except when you shouldn’t).” Though hard to explain, almost every Japanese below the age of 60 knows this rule and processes it INSTANTANEOUSLY, yet THEY ARE UTTERLY UNAWARE THAT THEY KNOW SUCH A RULE.

I used my son (now 25) as a guinea pig to see when Japanese learn the T Rule. At 6 and 7, he still got panel order wrong, but by the time he was 8, he had mastered the rule and never got panel order wrong. (Thank you for your cooperation, son.)

The T Rule has major implications. The average Japanese can read a 200-page manga paperback in about 20 minutes. Can you read 200 pages of English-language comics in 20 minutes? I can’t. The manga reader ALWAYS know where to look next, because the traffic signals are clear. ZOOM!

I would argue that the development of the T Rule helped fuel the manga boom of the 70s and 80s by helping artists pump out pages more quickly and by helping readers read more quickly. (Japanese above the age of 60 can’t read manga this quickly, b/c they never learned the T Rule.)

But the T Rule creates an impediment to non-Japanese comics in Japan. Japanese readers quickly become tired and irritated by Western comics, because those comics don’t follow Japanese traffic rules. Japanese readers would be genuinely confused by this page from The Mighty Thor.

Two pages from a recent issue of Mighty Thor. The panels on the left page are arranged to form the Greek symbol for "woman," which is a circle on top of a cross. The intersection of the four panels that make the cross could confuse a Japanese reader, but an Anglophone reader knows the default order is left to right, then top to bottom, and would not be confused.

Of course, when you make rigid rules, you gain efficiency, but you lose flexibility. There are legitimate artistic reasons to want to use a “+” layout, but that choice is pretty much closed off to Japanese artists. An artist who wants to use it will have to fight their editor.

So tell me. Are you ever confused by the layouts in Western comics (or manga, for that matter)? Would Western comics benefit from rigid traffic rules, or are the current vague rules of thumb adequate? TBH, I am in awe of the T Rule, but also feel it may be too restrictive.

BTW, although this rule has been in place for 50 years, to the best of my knowledge, I’m the first person to give it a name and try to articulate precisely what it does. If an artist breaks it, the editor just says, “This is confusing. You should bump this over/down.”

People talking about the history of manga just say, “They made layout rules around this time so they wouldn’t need panel numbers anymore.” You would think someone like NATSUME Fusanosuke would have noticed & talked it in his work on manga, but nope.

Another BTW, these are the examples I draw on the whiteboard to explain the T Rule to my students. I draw both and ask students to tell me the order of the panels. Once in a while a student overthinks it and gets it wrong, but almost all of them get it right.

If Golden Age Jack Kirby drew the above pages, the panel order would be the same for both. "Across, then down" was his cardinal rule, and he didn't care about the orientation of his Ts.

A page from an old Jack Kirby romance comic, in which there are panels staggered in a such a way that a Japanese reader would make an incorrect assumption about the order of the panels.

And that's where my 2018 thread ended. I think I first wrote about the T-rule around 2000, and I have regularly described it in my classes at Kyoto Seika University and elsewhere ever since. But I had never published anything about it before this 2018 thread. Then I learned that cognitive scientist and comics theorist Neil Cohn had written about this same phenomenon in his 2014 book, The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images. Neil calls it "blocking," and frankly his formulation is easier to understand than my "T rule." How I failed to notice all those years that my "T"s were always at the center of a block, I cannot explain.

I guess I was just so focused on the corners that I couldn't see the forest for the Ts.