Creating Comics: Wally Wood’s “Panels That Always Work”

Wally Wood's "22 Panels That Always Work", compiled by Larry Hama

Wally Wood’s “22 Panels That Always Work”, compiled by Larry Hama

Comics writer Alex de Campi (Blade Runner, Bad Girls) regularly posts tips on creating comics to her Twitter account and filed a posting of the late Wally Wood‘s “22 Panels That Always Work” under “While on the subject of comics scripting: RT to save a baby artist“.

While often ascribed to Wood, artist Rufus Dayglo noted the much-circulated graphic was actually the work of the brilliant Larry Hama, while editing at Marvel (perhaps best known for his work on titles like G.I. Joe there), who complied his mentor Wally Wood’s advice as reference to other artists.

Comic creator Mark Evanier noted in the past that “Panels that Work” originally sprang from created a series of layout techniques sketched on pieces of paper which Wood taped up near his drawing table to help speed up his drawing process. Collected on three pages, these visual notes reminded Wood of various layouts and compositional techniques to keep his pages dynamic and interesting. He would share these with select assistants, including Larry Hama.

Wally Wood SketchbookWood’s original, three-page, 24 panel (not 22) version of “Panels” was published with the proper copyright notice in The Wally Wood Sketchbook in 1980. Around 1981, Wood’s ex-assistant Larry Hama, by then an editor at Marvel Comics, pasted up photocopies of Wood’s copyrighted drawings on a single page, which Hama titled “Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work!!”

“I worked for Wally Wood as his assistant in the early ’70s, mostly on the Sally Forth and Cannon strips he did for the Overseas Weekly,” Hama told Joel Johnson, who owns Larry Hama’s original version of “22 Panels”. “I lettered the strips, ruled borders, swipe-o-graphed reference, penciled backgrounds…

“…The ’22 Panels’ never existed as a collected single piece during Woody’s lifetime. Another ex-Wood assistant, Paul Kirchner had saved three Xeroxed sheets of the panels that would comprise the compilation. I don’t believe that Woody put the examples together as a teaching aid for his assistants, but rather as a reminder to himself. He was always trying to kick himself to put less labour into the work! He had a framed motto on the wall, ‘Never draw anything you can copy, never copy anything you can trace, never trace anything you can cut out and paste up.’ He hung the sheets with the panels on the wall of his studio to constantly remind himself to stop what he called ‘noodling.’

“When I was starting out as an editor at Marvel, I found myself in the position of having to coach fledgling artists on the basics of visual storytelling, and it occurred to me that the reminder sheets would help in that regard, but three eight-by-ten pieces of paper were a bit unwieldy, so I had Robby Carosella, the Marvel photostat guy at the time, make me re-sized copies of all the panels so I could fit them all on one sheet. I over-compensated for the half-inch on the height (letter paper is actually 8 1/2 by 11) so the main body of images once pasted up came a little short. I compensated for that by hand lettering the title.”

Johnson notes Hama left out two of the original 24 panels, as his photocopies were too faint to make out some of the lightest sketches. he then distributed  this “elegantly simple primer to basic storytelling” to artists in the Marvel bullpen, who in turn passed them on to their friends and associates… and the rest is both real world and internet viral history (tag #CreatingComics).

Alex’s thread includes Rafael Kaynanan’s version assembled from actual published Wally Wood panels, not just illustrative thumbnails.

Rafael Kaynanan’s version assembled from actual published Wally Wood panels, not just illustrative thumbnails.

This reminded me that the Wallace Wood Estate had previously offered this nifty guidance to great comic storytelling, ideal for the wall of any comic creators’s studio, as a poster. They still do…

Wally Wood: "Panels That Always Work" - Poster

© Wallace Wood Properties, LLC

To find out how to get one of these posters, measuring 11″ x 17″, private message them via their Facebook page. (They are more active there than on Twitter). The posters cost $20, including postage within the US. They can discount for quantity/educator orders.

This poster is great as a present for any and every storyteller.

“I reference this all the time,” commented artist Becky Cloonan, while artist Christine Larsen tweeted “I hand this out to my students at the beginning of each semester”.

You should definitely consider following Alex on Twitter, not only for news of her many projects, but many Creating Comics tips, both her own observations and advice, such as this recent thread on conservation of camera angles citing Steve Dillon, and retweets, too, such as this thread on the use of photo reference from the @ArtofCoop. Invaluable!

Earlier this year, she also took part in this thought-provoking 2000AD Thrillcast with 2000AD editor Matt Smith, discussing ways to reach younger comic readers. Well worth a listen, in my view.

Find the Wallace Wood Estate on Facebook

(Please be advised, if visiting, of some ‘adult’ content examples by Wood)

Follow Alex de Campi on Twitter @alexdecampi

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Wood’s “Panels That Always Work” is copyright Wallace Wood Properties, LLC as listed by the United States Copyright Office which assigned the work Registration Number VA0001814764

The founder of downthetubes, which he established in 1998. John works as a comics and magazine editor, writer, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing since the 1980s, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Explorer (previously known as Star Trek Magazine) and more. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of "Pilgrim: Secrets and Lies" for B7 Comics; “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood.

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3 replies

  1. A good reminder for anyone involved in any form of art work. I had a similar aide memoire when taking photographs for stock photo libraries; there it was important to leave blank areas for text. What does “BEN DAY” – in more than one panel – mean?

    • Named after illustrator and printer Benjamin Henry Day, Jr., (son of 19th Century publisher Benjamin Henry Day), the Ben-Day dots printing process, was used to colour comics for many years in the US. It’s a technique dating from 1879 and US pulp comic books of the 1950s and 1960s used Ben-Day dots in the four process colours (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) to inexpensively create shading and secondary colours such as green, purple, orange and flesh tones. There are links to a terrific series of articles here on an old post

  2. Thanks John, for pointing me in the direction of the Ben Day dots articles. I am reading them with interest. They remind me of when I removed or replaced backgrounds in 10″ x 12″ black and white prints before rephotographing them.

    I imagine Day was well known in America at the time Warhol was famous there and in the UK. It seems his style just did not cross the Atlantic.

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