Watchmen, the 1986 comic written by Alan Moore and drawn/lettered by Dave Gibbons, is recogniseable (among other features) for the schematic of its comic pages - they all use the 9-panel grid:

Image source

Sometimes the pages don't have exactly 9 panels, but the geometry remains the same:

Watchmen #1, pages 12 and 24.

I haven't seen this layout anywhere in the comics I read; neither was it present in Moore's other works, e.g. V for Vendetta, drawn by David Lloyd:

V for Vendetta #1, pages 6 and 12.

All this raises two questions:

  1. Whose idea was it to use the 9-panel grid?

    It's most likely to be the artist, but Alan Moore is known for his excesisvely detailed comic scripts, and he's usually involved with the artistic process as well.

  2. What was the reason for it?

    E.g. in V for Vendetta David Lloyd, the artist, decided not to have thought baloons or sounds. Just because. Alan Moore had to adapt to that. What is the story behind the 9-panel grid in Watchmen? What purpose does it story, from the point of the story, and the picture?

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    I remember being told that the entire graphic novel of Watchmen is laid out so that the panels are mirrored — whatever pattern was used going from the front to the middle is the reverse going from the middle to the end — but I don't have my copy to check that. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum May 19 '17 at 9:36
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    It's recognizable, all right. Just yesterday, I caught a glance of the comic that my friend was reading over his shoulder, and correctly deduced that he was reading Watchmen just from the size and shape of the panels and the general coloring. – Shokhet May 19 '17 at 15:09
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    Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns uses a similarly strict panel layout throughout (4x4 instead of 3x3). – Kyle Strand May 19 '17 at 16:45
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    Try looking up the reason why Moore titles a chapter "Fearful Symmetry." It might help. There's a purposiveness in Watchmen in terms of genre, and it is similar to or commensurate with Ozymandias's purposiveness within the story itself. – HyperionKid Sep 13 '17 at 17:17

It was a decision by the artist, Dave Gibbons.

He has said so in his Twitter, in response to a thread discussing the origin of the 9-panel grid:

Actually, I chose the nine panel grid and sold it to Alan. Gave him great control & its restriction challenged me to compose more creatively
Dave Gibbons on Twitter

In Watching the Watchmen, Gibbons mentions the 9-panel grid again, and notes that it was influenced by Steve Ditko, the comic artist who created the character Rorschach was based on, as Comicsalliance reports. Dave Gibbons also mentions Ditko in another tweet from the above thread.

The control part is understandable - 9 panels means a lot of scenes one can be fit on just one page. It makes the progression of the plot easy, by describing more than one action without the need for the reader to flip the page (or use two pages - see below).

It also makes following the plot easier - one simply has to read from left to right, top to bottom. Some even suggest that a grid is similar to the poetic meter. This is sometimes overlooked in modern comics, where panels overlap and details stick out:

Death Vigil, volume I, chapter (issue) 1, page 28.

Am I supposed to be reading from left to right first, or top to bottom? Such layouts as this may be confusing for readers like me, who cannot be sure which way the page is supposed to be read, so they read it the wrong way, and sometimes get spoilers. With a strict grid, on the other hand, it's impossible to follow a reading order other than the one intended by the creators.

This grid is great from the artistic perspective on multiple levels. For instance, there are a lot (and I mean a lot) of ways of using a 9-panel grid:

Image courtesy of Tom Carpenter

I asked a question on Mathematics Stack Exchange: In how many different ways can a 9-panel comic grid be used? Turns out 9 panels allow for 322 variations, which is more that a 6-panel grid and a 4-panel grid allow - 32, and 8 variations, respectively (for comparison, 6-by-3 grid, i.e. 2 pages, allows 314662 variations, while 16-panel grid allows 70878). This gives the writer and the artist sufficiently many ways to divide the page in any shape that is most suitable for the story:

Watchmen #4 and #7; here and afterwards, click on the image for full resolution.

As this website points out, this grid has the benefit of a central panel - one that could be the focus of the page, and that would be the summary or the main idea of the whole page.

On the other hand, 9 panels could also be divided in the following way:

Watchmen #5

Notice that the colours of the panels alternate:

Or in case of the second page, it's the colour purple and the triangle symbol that form the pattern. I found this contrast an interesting detail and similar to techniques in films and books, i.e. when the camera shoots alternate between a close-up of the actor, and wide shots of the scenery, or when a chapter told from a character's perspective, and then from narrator's or other characters (e.g. The Martian and The Witcher).

Finally, the 9-panel grid allowed the creators to explore the potential of 2-page "splash" scenes, such as this one:

Appendix 1:

I don't know how much exactly the 9-panel grid influenced Alan Moore's script, but there's a panel with With Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, moderated by none other than the ubiquitous Neil Gaiman, which offers at least some information on their creative process.

Appendix 2:

It looks like the latest crossover between the mainstream DC Rebirth universe and Watchmen also used a 9-panel grid, to indicate the connection between the two comics:

Image source, click to enlarge

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    The 81 variations on the 9 panel grid in that diagram don't exhaust the possibilities -- there are certainly many others. For example, this one is one of the many that aren't shown there. – Glen_b May 19 '17 at 0:10
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    The are 12 interior borders, each of which can be included or excluded in a particular layout. That's 2^12 = 4096 possibilities. – chepner May 19 '17 at 12:58
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    A two-page spread treats two 3x3 grids as a single 6x3 grid with 21 internal borders, for 2,097,152 possibilities. – chepner May 19 '17 at 13:01
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    @chepner I asked on Math.SE. Post your answer ;) – Gallifreyan May 19 '17 at 13:39
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    @MichaelEdenfield if you allow for that you get a 6x3 panel (rather than 3x3), which gives 314662 possible grids. I'm endeavouring to make an image of all 314662 possible combinations, it's just taking a while - photoshop has been at it non-stop for the last day and a half ;) – Tom Carpenter May 21 '17 at 21:00

I thought (in 1987) that the reason behind the choice of the nine panel grid was that each panel reflects the size of the page. Meaning if you draw a diagonal line from the upper left corner to the bottom right corner of the first panel, and you extend this line, you will eventually cross the mid and last panel on the page in the same way.
At least for me this gave meaning as I found the storytelling to be very self-aware of the comic book format.

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    This does make sense, but wouldn't it be the same with any x-by-x grid? – Gallifreyan Jun 26 '17 at 16:58

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