Mise-en-scène is a term that is commonly used in cinema and theater, but is also relevant in the world of comics. In his book Film Art: An Introduction, author David Bordwell points out the power of this mysterious word: “Of all film techniques, mise-en-scène is the one that viewers notice most” (p. 112).
Why is this? Translated, this French word literally means “put into the scene.” Mise-en-scène refers to everything that exists within any given frame of a movie, or any given panel of a comic; this can include the lighting, setting, space, costumes, and design of the panel. Anything that is viewable by the reader that contributes to the scene is a part of the mise-en-scène. For this reason, mise-en-scène tends to be what readers or movie viewers remember most about a certain piece.
Take this first example, a panel from the first issue of Planetary. Here, lighting is the crucial element of the mise-en-scène. The snowflake multiverse that takes up the majority of the space also supplies the light for the space, casting long shadows on the ground and making only the silhouette of the figure visible. However, the character’s design is also important to the mise-en-scène, as the reader can see the deadly talons contrasting against the bright light of the background. Because there is so little action taking place in the image, the spacing of the character, the multiverse snowflake, and even the speech bubbles themselves become important. The location of these separate items help accent the deep space portrayed in the panel.
Another example of how different elements combine to form the mise-en-scène of a comic book can be seen in Frank Miller’s Daredevil: The Man Without Fear. In this panel, Daredevil looms front and center, charging the reader. His costume is hugely contributory to the overall impression of the scene, as well as the comic run as a whole. The design for this early costume became so iconic that it was even used in the Netflix TV series Daredevil. Once again, lighting makes a large contribution to the mise-en-scène. To portray the dark, gritty themes of the Daredevil comic, bleak, faint light sources and a dreary color palette is chosen. The setting is also emphasized; the dirty shipyard that Daredevil runs through is littered with trash that drifts in the wind, and the silhouettes of crates and boxes stack and dot the background.
As a final example of mise-en-scène, observe a panel from Saga, illustrated by Fiona Staples. Here, the lighting is stale and clearly artificial. The reader’s eye is instantly drawn to the character on the toilet, and costume and character design become most significant. The unique shape of the character and position of his body in the panel make the mise-en-scène feel alien and almost intrusive.
Hopefully these three examples show how mise-en-scène can be implemented in a variety of ways. To the reader, mise-en-scène is everything that can be noticed; from lighting and character design to space and setting. Mise-en-scène is hugely significant to the overall feel of a comic run and can create lasting effects on both the reader and the comic’s reception.
Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K. (2008). Film art: An introduction (8th ed., p. 112). Boston: McGraw Hill.
Moura, G. (2014, July 1). Elements of Cinema. Retrieved September 30, 2015, from http://www.elementsofcinema.com/directing/mise-en-scene-in-films/
MISE-EN-SCENE. (2010, March 2). Retrieved September 30, 2015, from http://collegefilmandmediastudies.com/mise-en-scene-2/