Decades ago, when comics were printed on letterpress, no pages except the covers bled images off all four sides; each page had a nice white margin around it, except for the rare double-page spread that was still a bit of a nightmare to get lined up on press. Pages were drawn 10” x 15” on 11” x 17” art board, and that meant a clean 6 x 9” image area on a comic page. It also meant a page, or a spread of two pages, was pretty easy to follow. Like this —
Over the past few decades, comics shifted to offset printing which meant better paper and FULL BLEEDS were possible, with images going to and past the trim area. That’s when the problems started. Some artists decided, because bleeds were possible, they were necessary. That was fine on occasional pages, but suddenly EVERY page was a full bleed, and that became confusing to comics readers, particularly to new ones.
Reading a comics page already involves a set of learned skills. We discover that oval balloons signify spoken word balloons; bubbly balloons and tails are thought balloons; jagged balloons are yells or screams, unless the tails are also jagged, in which case they are electronic, such as from a radio or TV or bullhorn; broken balloons are whispers; wavy balloons indicate wooziness; double-thick or dripping balloons indicate evil or eerieness; rectangular boxes are captions; double-bordered captions are usually voiceovers. Words or letters outside any balloons or caption boxes are sound effects. Wide panels stretch time; narrow panels are smaller slivers of time. And on and on.
Children are also taught from an early age to read from left to right. So if two comics pages full bleed and butt side-by-side, the tendency is to want to read them all the way across, just like a Sunday newspaper strip. That results in a visual MESS, such as this —
Further complicating things is the realization that, sometimes, a spread is MEANT to be read across as a spread, rather than as individual pages. A good artist, of course, makes it clear —
Too many artists don’t bother thinking out what the pages will look like when printed. So you get confusing pages across many, many of today’s comic books looking like this —
I was horrified to pick up the DC’s BATMAN ODYSSEY hardcover and see the legendary Neal Adams fall into this trap — as with this set of two single pages where even the panel borders on both sides practically line up, forcing you to read the pages across — incorrectly. Knowing that these comics bleed pages will end up collected in a book, where the binding swallows up another 1/4” off each side, makes it read even worse —
Today’s artists who actually pay attention usually do it right — such as this set of pages by Mike Deodato, Jr. He has the first page full bleed, but the second page has plenty of white gutter space, making a clear visual distinction between the two pages. There’s no question how to read these —
In this one below, Mike Deodato makes intelligent, judicious use of bleeds and of white space.
On the left-hand page: Shang-Chi’s foot and hair bleed off the edges, emphasizing his kick is too powerful for panel borders to hold. The villain in the bottom two panels bleeds out of those panels, stressing his larger-than-life evil.
On the right-hand page: Deodato takes a boring “conversation” page and gives a 3-D quality with the female figure in the bottom right panel. It makes sense that a figure with such foreshortening of her right hand would bleed off the bottom and right edges of the page to further emphasize dimensionality, all without needing to add superfluous background detail. His use of white space on both these pages gives the images “room to breathe” so they read better, and have far better effect, than sets of pages with too much jumble.
So best advice: No two consecutive side-by-side pages that full bleed. If pages or panels DO bleed, make sure you’ve a good STORY reason to do so, so they don’t lose their impact.