Detective Comics #478 (1978), page 4 panel 3. Drawn and colored by Marshall Rogers, inked by Dick Giordano.
Yep, that's all one panel. A single frame. It's about 2.5"x4" in the issue I scanned it from, and I can't think of a better use of that amount of space I've seen in a comic, ever. Using space well is paramount in comics, especially the serialized superhero-type ones -- after all, nobody's going to give you any extra pages unless the issue number you're drawing happens to end in two zeroes. No less a titan than Bernard Krigstein was driven from the medium because of this: "I was desperate for panels," he once said. As it always has, the format won out, Krigstein's dreams of an illustrated Crime & Punishment or Red Badge of Courage met with blank stares and dismissal. But in the few years he spent refusing to yield to the tyranny of the imposed six-page story, Krigstein created this panel's point of departure: subdivision.
The comics first existed as gag aids, visualizations to move along and occasionally enhance the telling of turn-of-the-century jokes. Time, though inherently subdivided once put into panels, was not much of a consideration. Only when physical action, especially fights, became a main focus of the medium did more than a few artists begin looking at how they could wring the drama, the speed -- the whatever -- from short moments in time. Eisner laid the keystones, but Krigstein did the rest, simply chopping up instants that were scripted as single panels into smaller and smaller frames, so that a husband's body language could parallel his wife's in the next room, or a man could watch a train rush closer and closer to him after falling on the tracks. It's not an easy trick to pull off -- Steranko (and occasionally Kirby) made use of the animation-like cadences of Krigstein's cross-sectioned seconds, but even they shied away from true subdivision of individual panels. It wasn't until Marshall Rogers that anyone else really had the vision to use it as a simple formal device, like crosshatching or full-bleed panel borders, instead of a complicated effect.
But Rogers was no mere Krigstein copyist. Where the originator of the technique had contented himself with drawing vertical lines through his panels, turning one box into two or three, here Rogers draws on his architectural training, as well as a true artist's eye for the dramatic elements of his scene, and makes one brief, tense moment into nine. This could easily be an entire, information-packed page; beautifully composed, drawn without any details sacrificed to small size, it depicts more information than a "whole" panel possibly could. More than that, it's also a pitch-perfect tracking of Batman's segue from murderous rage into resigned contempt. There's the cocked fist, intensified by the blood-red enlargement of the glare (which knits the hapless crook into a tiny panel of his own, bordered by the rippling muscles in Batman's arm) -- the dramatically lit policemen look on, adding to the suspense -- the panel winds in on itself, spiraling tighter and tighter back to the red, the fist, onto the clenched teeth, slitting its gaze once again at the officers, stand-ins for us, the audience -- and only then does the drama lessen first with a cooler, purple, silhouetted moment of decision, and finally, the release of the crook into the law's hands.
Such a work of art simply could not exist in any other art form. Rogers uses his chosen device flawlessly while moving it up to a new level of complexity and finesse. This is nothing less than comics cubism, a consideration of one thing from multiple angles -- but Rogers abstracts the concept even further, eschewing the Picasso/Duchamp method of imposing one camera-angle of a form on top of another. What we have here is more elegant and interesting by far: a cubist portrait of an individual moment, an illustration that uses multiple windows not onto a single object, but into the single stretch of passing time the nine sub-boxes illustrate. It's a gorgeous use of the comics medium (Frank Quitely must have seen this at some point), but equally admirable is Rogers' obvious enamoration with the form, his willingness to investigate its capabilities and take it into unexplored territory -- this is just as much a picture of panels as it is of Batman. Plenty of great comics artists have remarked that they treat the panel as a stage, set and composed for the characters to do their acting on. Here Rogers goes them all one better by treating his panel as a comic, turning the medium inward on itself and creating a completely unique glory.