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Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work!!

I recently acquired Kitchen Sink’s The Outer Space Spirit collection, two months’ worth of Spirit comic strips from 1952, written by Jules Feiffer (yes) and drawn by Wally Wood. They are truly something—and I’ll write more about them soon, soon.

The Outer Space Spirit, page 26 (detail).

In the meantime, I wanted to call some attention to “Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work!!”, a well-known crib sheet that Wood drew, demonstrating different basic panel layout options. (See below for the image—but be warned, there’s some not-safe-for-work content down there, as well).

Now that I’ve got your attention…

Wood was an amazingly talented artist, one of the truly great comics illustrators. He started working professionally as a teenager in the late 1940s, drawing for EC Comics, where he did many issues of Weird Science and Weird Fantasy. (Those two titles were later combined—and you must admit this is brilliant—as Weird Science-Fantasy). Wood also worked on Galaxy Science Fiction and MAD Magazine, as well as many, many, many, many other books (including the classic Daredevil #7, which introduced Daredevil’s red costume).

April 1964.

Wood produced a ton of work, a small amount of which is online. Click here for three complete stories by Wood: pieces from Captain Science #1 (Nov. 1951), Strange Worlds #4 (Sept. 1951), and Journey into Mystery #39 (Oct. 1956). And click here for a story from Amazing Adventures #1 (1950).

Wood specialized in drawing complicated but never confusing landscapes packed with rocket ships, spacemen, monsters, and beautiful women…

…although he was also famous for his ability to imitate anyone else’s style. (He was a popular ghost artist.) This skill eventually made him fairly notorious, for his heavily-bootlegged “Disneyland Memorial Orgy,” a poster that appeared in issue 74 of The Realist (May 1967):

By all accounts, it was a huge hit at Disney.

A meticulous and innovative draughtsman (who often ran behind schedule), Wood sketched out three pages of twenty-two basic panel layouts, cheat-sheets he could refer to when deadlines were pressing, and he was still busy cramming details into the corners (as he was wont to do). As his one-time assistant Larry Hama wrote:

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 labor 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.’

Hama (later the auteur behind Marvel’s beautifully subversive G.I. Joe comic), assembled these panels on a single sheet of Bristol board and gave it a title, then went on to distribute photocopies to fellow artists:

This is a cleaned-up scan by Joel Johnson. (Click for a much higher resolution version.)

You can read more about this collage at Joel Johnson’s blog. Johnson bought the original drawing and did some great detective work, tracking down the story behind it (this post is indebted to his research). His site offers the above image plus other scans; he generously encourages people to disseminate the drawing freely.

So. In order to add a little literary value to this post: Let’s try assembling our own list of 22. What are 22 basic fiction/poetry ideas that can be reached for in a pinch?

To clarify: I’m looking less for rules of thumb like “show, don’t tell,” and more for “compositional” or structural concepts in the spirit of Wood’s drawing. For example, here’s something I learned from The Crying of Lot 49; I tend to call it “the mini-scene”:

“Why would he do a thing like that,” Roseman puzzled, after reading the letter.

“You mean die?”

“No,” said Roseman, “name you to help execute it.”

“He was unpredictable.” They went to lunch. Roseman tried to play footsie with her under the table. She was wearing boots, and couldn’t feel much of anything. So, insulated, she decided not to make a fuss.

“Run away with me,” said Roseman when the coffee came.

“Where?” she asked. That shut him up.

Back at the office, he outlined what she was in for: learn intimately the books and the business, go through probate, collect all debts, inventory the assets, get an appraisal of the estate, decide what to liquidate and what to hold on to, pay off claims, square away taxes, distribute legacies . . . (10)

Lunch takes all of six sentences, serving mostly to get Oedipa Maas and Roseman out of the office so they can immediately return to it, providing a break (and character details) before Roseman delivers his lawyerly exposition. (Many writers write predominantly in scene, switching occasionally to summary, but Pynchon tends to write predominantly in summary, dropping occasionally into brief scenes.)

So there’s one. …Any others?

Or, if you prefer, we can make notes toward a literary version of the Disneyland drawing…

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

8 thoughts on “Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work!!

  1. I’ve loved Wood since reading his ‘Superduperman’ spoof in Mad as a kid.

    Disney porn suggestion: “Man has entered Bambi!”

    I’m sure you already know about Harlan Ellison’s extemporized Disney porn that aborted his career at Disney:


    22 Literary Panels… not sure it’s the sort of thing you had in mind, but I suggest The Innocuous Distraction: something that’s going on that’s at odds with the main action or purpose of the scene, not so much for counterpoint as for bathos or to suggest a lifelike chaos. E.g. at the end of an early Deighton book they confront the villain and he’s cooking and carries on with it (a scene they also did in the first series of ‘Heroes’). Or a hero and heroine are trying to decide whether to have their grandmother put to sleep and the housekeeper comes in and makes a scene about the butler stealing her roller-skates. That kind of thing.

    1. Mr. M. Kelly—I didn’t know about that Harlan Ellison piece! And I don’t know how I ever missed it—many thanks!

      “The Innocuous Distraction” is precisely the kind of thing I have in mind. I call this “giving the characters some business,” which is I think the acting term for it. I think I first realized how useful it was while watching some film in which two characters were shooting pool while dialoguing.

      So that’s 2 down, 20 to go. Can’t we think of others? We must not let Wally Wood down!!!

      1. Um. The scene where almost everything that’s going on, surroundings and action, is only described (or hinted at) via dialogue.

        ‘Whatever is Tarquin doing with that elephant? I don’t think it likes it.’

        Waugh and Firbank do it a lot.

  2. I enjoyed the article about Wally Wood, who is one of my favourites but I had never seen the Disney poster!?
    I think that you have made a mistake in your saying that Wally started his career as a teenager in the late 1940,s – this is no doubt when his career started but I am certain that he was a WW II veteran who studied art on the GI bill and was older than the other students like Al Williamson.

    1. You’re absolutely right about the age thing; my mistake. Looks like he was 21 or so when he landed his first job. (Born 1927, ghosting on The Spirit as a background artist by late 1948.)

      That Disney poster’s the stuff, eh?

      Al Williamson! I loved his Empire Strikes Back adaptation when I was a wee one… Those SVA guys could really draw!

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