Time is a pretty strange thing to deal with no matter what, but it’s an especially unique challenge when you’re working with comics. The space and the motion between panels, the way images and word balloons flow across the page, they’re all meant to convey the difference between motion and stillness, which in theory, ought to create the illusion of time passing. Most of the time, comics do this so well that we don’t even really think about it as we read. And then there’s Mister Miracle.

That’s right, this month we’re going to dig a little bit deeper into the technical side of things. It’s time to examine the how instead of the what in Scott Free’s complicated, tragic, topsy turvy story.

Let’s talk about MISTER MIRACLE #3, the passage of time, and the cadence of movement.

We’re three issues in, so you’ve probably already realized some things about the way the story is unfolding on a technical level. Writer Tom King has a pretty widely known love of what’s called the “nine-panel grid”—something you can see in his other work like THE OMEGA MEN, or his first collaboration with artist Mitch Gerads in THE SHERIFF OF BABYLON. The grid, as you can probably guess by it’s name is...well, a page populated by nine panels, stacked three by three, all equally spaced and sized. It was a technique that became infamous in comics with WATCHMEN, back in the 1980s.

The thing about the nine-panel grid is that it’s both incredibly rigid and incredibly fluid at the same time. The structure itself is pretty set. The panels don’t move, they don’t change size—but the content of the panels? That’s a totally different story. The way that action can happen across nine-panel grids is almost limitless, and the transition between each panel can be as stretched out or compressed as the creators want. This means the amount of time encapsulated within one nine-panel grid can zoom into a split second, or zoom out to years, decades or even centuries. Each panel can be knit together into a single scene or splashed across nine individual moments; one strictly structured layout, literally endless possibilities.

Take a look at the first two pages of conversation between Scott and Forager in this issue, but pay close attention to the way the action is paced across each panel in the grid. We start with Scott, alone, across four panels that may as well be jump cuts—quick slices of connected movements and gaps in between for us to fill in. It’s a series of close ups. Then, as Scott enters the living room, things slow down. He’s allowed two whole panels just to take a seat, another panel to take a drink. Then, finally, the final two panels in the grid are literally slurred together, rapid fire. We can tell the last two panels are happening at the same time because of the way Forager’s word balloon breaks the gutter—the gap between the panels—and knits them together.

This sets up a cadence for the whole conversation to follow. Even without reading too closely, it’s easy to read things like urgency, resignation and hesitation into each exchange, just by following the rhythm of quick-slow-quick moments—how much time is given to each panel in the grid, how much rest is implied before each moment. The effect here is to make Scott “sound” as tired as he looks, and Forager as desperate as he is. Quick-slow-quick, quick-quick-slow, quick-quick-quick…

But those first few pages only start to scratch the surfaces in Mister Miracle’s use of the grid to create both a beat by which to read and a ticking clock. You can find even more overt examples later on, as Scott’s climbing the scaffolding of the crane preparing for his escape, and then as the box falls. Look closely at them side by side and you’ll notice that as Scott’s climbing, he’s the only thing actually moving on the page—the ladder and the rigging itself is completely static. Then, as the crate falls, it stays in a fixed position in the middle of the panel, the only indication of its motion are the slight changes to the angles and the corners as it topples end-over-end to the ground.

It probably doesn’t seem like an important thing to notice at first. Whole pages with very little dialogue can feel like freebies, especially if you’re trying to read quickly. But, really, moments like this are a critical part of the Mister Miracle playbook—it’s a comic that is, essentially, teaching you how to read it as it goes along. It’s taking a whole moment to show exactly the way it’s counting its steps, taking its own pulse, and sorting through its own language. Here’s how movement works, by way of gravity; here’s how time works. By doing this—by making sure the rules are easy to parse for anyone who might want to parse them—it becomes easier to make the violation of those rules feel even more difficult to stomach.

You’ve probably noticed that every so often, Mister Miracle’s grids get...well, messed up. Whether it’s by literally losing a panel, or by being encroached upon by a weird, static-y interference that spills through the art and smears the gutters with color bars and big “dead pixel” glitches. The reason these are so effective—you know, beyond being impossible to miss and weird looking—is that they’re so overtly and distinctly violating the rules. They’re ruining the grid. They’re making it impossible to tell how much time is passing, how the moments are flowing into one another, how the rhythm of the scene is working.

Comics obviously don’t come with sound, but by making rules and breaking them, Mister Miracle creates the visual equivalent of accidentally flipping a radio from FM to AM, or the sudden interruption of an emergency broadcast system cutting in over a television show.

Scott Free doesn’t know what’s real anymore...and honestly, we probably don’t either.

MISTER MIRACLE #3 by Tom King and Mitch Gerads is now available in print and as a digital download.

Meg Downey writes about Rebirth for DCComics.com and covers DC’s Legends of Tomorrow for the #DCTV Couch Club. Look for her on Twitter at @rustypolished.