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Hamlet and the Modern Comic Strip

Why do comic strips have four panels? When Charles Schulz began Peanuts, it was four panels. This made it easier to stack on the page. You could have four panels across or stack two by two. Or you could stack one by two by one. Or three by one. Like building blocks! What could be more fun than reading building blocks? Nothing.

The strange thing about four panels is, it goes against much of what modern storytelling teaches us. Most movies and TV shows are all about the three act structure. See how easily it works out: beginning, middle, end. You can tell a story in three anythings. Panels, rutabagas, sausages, onions. Three of anything makes a story. Or so they say.

Don’t be fooled into believing the three act structure evolved from plays. Many plays had four or even five acts. It’s true. Hamlet, a little-known play by Shakespeare, has five acts. For Better or For Worse, a comic strip by Lynn Johnston, has five panels. Therefore, For Better or For Worse uses the same structure as Hamlet. Really it isn’t the only thing Johnston stole from Shakespeare. The elevated dialogue, the death of all the main characters in the final panel: these elements come directly from the Bard. I’m surprised Kenneth Branagh has not adapted For Better or For Worse for the screen yet. (He’ll get there right after he does Two Gentlemen of Verona.)

To be fair, the first panel in a four panel comic is often a summary or a scene-setter. Are your characters in an old abandoned warehouse filled with toxic fumes? You need that first panel to show this. Then your characters say something witty about their dire circumstances before they perish. Are you continuing a story from the previous day? The first panel is a good way to remind readers what happened yesterday before you plunge them into today’s adventure.

Shakespeare might have been a competent cartoonist had he not slummed it with the actors. He certainly had the knack for creating new characters. Tom Batuik (Funky) proved you can kill off your character in the funny pages, so Shakespeare’s tragedies would fit right in as well. In closing, I hope to continue the grand tradition of the four act play in pictorial form with Falling Rock. Think of this: the Cliff’s Notes for a comic strip would only be a single sentence.

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