Feb 18, 2019

Techniques and Tricks: Depicting Time with R. Crumb and Ramon Perez

In a static medium, one of the challenges is depicting the passage of time. A part of this is because unless you're a manga and you're setting up an establishing scene (which is bits and pieces that would make up a whole establishing shot), each panel is a movement in time. But how much time? There's as much space between any hypothetical two panels as any other hypothetical two panels. A tried and true method of depicting how much time has passed is to have captions that say things like "Later!" or "Meanwhile!", but that can be seen as clumsy or cliche.

Let's look at two alternatives from one silent and one mostly silent comic.

Depicting Time, with Robert Crumb and Ramon Perez
by Duy

Legendary underground cartoonist Robert Crumb has a minicomic called A Short History of America, and it's literally just this:

Simple enough, right? Each panel shows years, decades passing, but it doesn't need to tell us that time has passed. We see it for ourselves because we aren't changing locations. The key here is repeating visual cues. In panels 1 to 7, such a cue is the tree. It doesn't matter that the tree had changed, just that there were trees there. That's then replaced by the electrical post. By the time we get to the second-to-last panel, when virtually none of the previous visual clues have disappeared, we already very much know that this is the same spot we've seen all throughout, just through sheer repetition.

So that's one way. Just stick to a specific location, via a specific angle, and change most of it if you want, but just have a visual signifier to clue readers into the sameness of location.

Now let's look at Tale of Sand, a surrealist comic drawn by Ramon Perez off of an unmade Jim Henson screenplay. Let's look at this two-page sequence:

There's a lot here we can actually talk about, but let's just focus on the turtle. We know that Mac is trying to hitch a ride. How long has Mac been waiting to get a ride before he decides to walk? Well, we know that right before he crossed the street, he passed a turtle.

And when he decided to walk, the turtle had just crossed the street.

So he waited as long as it would take a turtle to cross a busy street.

So that's another way. Plant a small detail in your panels depicting time, and then just draw the readers' attention to it.

Feb 13, 2019

Spider-Rama: Amazing Spider-Man #6

Welcome to Spider-Rama! Each Wednesday, Ben and Duy will look at a Spider-Man issue from the very beginning, in chronological order, and answer questions for various categories, inspired in large part by one of our favorite podcasts, The Rewatchables by The Ringer. Our goal is to make it to Amazing Spider-Man #200. Will we make it? Grab your Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus or crank up your tablet to Marvel Unlimited, and then tune in every Wednesday to find out!


Spider-Man feels the bite of the Lizard!


BEN: The first "take a paper by web, leave a coin by web" bit.

DUY: First Curt Connors, Martha Connors, Billy Connors, and Lizard.

BEN: Pretty sure this is the first “my spider sense is tingling.” There had been variations of it before now, but this is the classic line.

BEN: And the first funny quip.


DUY: Treating the black/blue part of his costume as black and blending it with the background has always worked for me.

BEN: Even a Lizard can cry.


BEN: Lots of sarcasm from Peter in this, and some quips as Spider-Man. He actually seems like he’s starting to enjoy his new life a little. It’s a step toward Spider-Man being funny, instead of sad, angry, and poor all the time.

DUY: The quipping, definitely. He's finally getting his stride.

BEN: Also, an army of super-lizards is awesome no matter what year it is.


DUY:  I don't know how 1960s school systems worked, but can you really have a major in high school?

BEN: In comics “science” means you can do anything. Electronics, engineering, biochemistry.


BEN: Curt Connors gave his wife a signed photo of himself?

DUY: You have to establish they're married, and you have to establish tht's him in the picture, and okay fine, it's lame.


BEN: Realistically we could say Peter Parker/Spider-Man in every single issue, but this is the first time his whimsical side started to take shape, so I’m giving it to him this time.

DUY: Peter also starts to be more confident as himself, so yeah, Peter.


DUY: We can draw parallels between the Lizard and the Hulk — both are brilliant scientists trying to do good who get turned into a monster. But once again Spider-Man fights a scientist.

DUY: This is also the first time that Spider-Man fights someone with a personal connection to him, although that personal connection is only established after he meets him, so it's kind of a precursor to the Green Goblin. Spider-Man also once again uses his scientific knowledge to beat an opponent. This is like an integral part of his character at this point.

BEN: It is pretty interesting that they moved away from that aspect of him for so long.  It’s really prevalent in these early comics.

DUY: We're going to have to keep track of when it stops.

BEN: That's it for Spider-Rama this week.

DUY: Thank you, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko—

BEN: —for telling us we aren't the only ones.

Leave us a comment below or on our Facebook page. See you next week!

Feb 11, 2019

Comic Book References in Old Movies

In the beforetimes, when superhero movies were not an annual occurrence, a comic book reference in a movie or TV show added an extra element of excitement and enjoyment for a young fan like myself. Sure, we had the occasional Superman or Batman movie, or terrible made-for-TV Marvel movies, and of course the cartoons, but the rest of the pop culture landscape was a barren wasteland, where comic book fans had to search far and wide for the sustenance that was any acknowledgement of their hobby.

The Best Comic Book References Before the Superhero Boom
Ben Smith

A few movies and cartoons may seem like it should have been enough, but remember the internet didn’t exist then either, so the cartoons only counted if you could find a VHS copy at your local video rental store. (That entire paragraph comes to you courtesy of a time capsule from 1988.)

Using Blade as the starting point for today’s superhero movie revolution, here are the best comic book references in pop culture before 1998.

SEINFELD “The Bizarro Jerry”

Jerry Seinfeld was a self-professed big Superman fan and his titular sitcom was full of references to the character. None were more prevalent or integral to the plot than The Bizarro Jerry, where Elaine befriends a group of 3 guys that are similar in appearance to Jerry, George, and Kramer, but behaved as exact opposites, like Superman and Bizarro. Another personal favorite of mine is The Race, where Jerry dates a woman named Lois who works for an old high school rival. Hilarity ensues.

THE SIMPSONS “Radioactive Man”

Comic Book Guy may not be the most flattering portrayal of comic book fandom, but his comic shop provided plenty of fodder for comic book references and plot lines. An early episode had Bart, Milhouse, and Nelson splitting the cost of Radioactive Man #1, which ended predictably badly. My personal favorite reference is a Q&A sequence from the Poochie episode, and is the first thing I think of whenever fandom begins to act annoying and entitled in real life. But the most blatant superhero-centric episode is when the Radioactive Man movie decides to film in Springfield, casting Milhouse as sidekick Fall Out Boy.


Two sailors fist fight over an argument about the better Silver Surfer artist, Moebius or Jack Kirby, until Denzel Washington settles the argument with the memorable line, “Everybody that reads comic books knows that Kirby’s Silver Surfer is the only true Silver Surfer.”


There were a few subtle references to Cuba Gooding Jr’s character being a comic book reader. It was a nice nod to Hip Hop’s relationship with comic books, which shares a history of codenames and bombastic alter egos. Many classic rap songs have references to superheroes in their lyrics.


The original sparkly vampires meet the Corey’s, directed by the guy that would go on to direct Batman and Robin. Corey Haim meets his vampire-hunting compatriots in a comic shop, complete with references to Lori Lemaris and red kryptonite, before they give him a horror comic (that looks like Tomb of Dracula) as a “survival guide.” The movie gets extra points for the store having basically the same shelf layout as my childhood shop.


Ryan was the bad boy criminal from the wrong side of town. Seth was the rich kid with no friends that filled the void with comic books and video games. The show overflows with comic book references to Brian Michael Bendis, an upside down Spider-Man kiss, the Watchmen, and most notably, Summer dressing up as Wonder Woman to impress Seth. Later seasons also had Seth creating a comic series for Wildstorm. Allan Heinberg was a writer for the show and eventually transitioned to writing comic books, co-creating the Young Avengers.


Not only is this a classic ‘80s comedy, it has one of the best superhero references on this entire list. Sara is the young girl that needs a babysitter, and is also a huge Thor fan. She wears a replica of his winged helmet, and has a huge mural of the character painted on her bedroom wall. The climatic scene involves a very Thor-like auto-mechanic (played by a young and buff Vincent D’Onofrio) channeling his inner hero to help the kids out of a jam. (Fortunately the internet didn’t exist yet, so annoying fanboys couldn’t complain about “fake geek girl” Sara saying that Thor got his powers from his magic helmet.) (Editor's note: MAGIC HELMEEEEET!)

THE VIEWASKEW UNIVERSE (or The ViewAskewniverse)

Kevin Smith grew up as a comic book fan, even selling his collection to help fund his self-financed film debut, Clerks. As such, every film he made in his loosely connected View Askew universe features tons of superhero references. Mallrats had a scene parodying a famous sequence from Burton’s Batman, and an appearance from Stan Lee himself. Chasing Amy’s main characters, as played by Ben Affleck and Jason Lee, were comic book artists, and the movie opens at a comic book convention. The fake comic book characters in the movie, Bluntman and Chronic, became an actual comic book published by Oni Press. Kevin Smith eventually wrote comics for Marvel and DC, and was at one time considered the most popular writer in the industry. Kevin Smith has carried the flag for comic book fans since the beginning, and continues to do so to this very day. He was ahead of the curve, in that sense.


Clarence works in a comic book store, and his romanticized retelling of a Nick Fury story contributes to Alabama falling in love with him during their first night together.  Even though Tarantino fully admits writing Alabama as his idealized fantasy girlfriend, I think most of us older fans could relate to a girl overlooking the surface-level silliness of superhero comics and seeing the emotion and depth that could exist beneath.

Feb 6, 2019

Spider-Rama: Amazing Spider-Man #5

Welcome to Spider-Rama! Each Wednesday, Ben and Duy will look at a Spider-Man issue from the very beginning, in chronological order, and answer questions for various categories, inspired in large part by one of our favorite podcasts, The Rewatchables by The Ringer. Our goal is to make it to Amazing Spider-Man #200. Will we make it? Grab your Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus or crank up your tablet to Marvel Unlimited, and then tune in every Wednesday to find out!


Doctor Doom attempts to recruit Spider-Man, but instead accidentally kidnaps his biggest fan, Flash Thompson.


DUY: Not the first Betty Brant, but the first time we see feelings developing between them.

BEN: Second use of a “fake” Spider-Man, with the first one being the Chameleon in the first issue.

DUY: First sighting of the iconic half-face, since last issue was a half-face-and-torso.  Apparently the half-mask is also because Stan wanted Spidey to show up as often as possible, so in sequences where Peter is in it too long, he'd add a half-mask when applicable.


BEN: Flash loving Spider-Man as much as he hates Peter is a great angle. Something they’d later use with a romantic spin with the Black Cat.

DUY: "It was just a Doombot" has its beginnings here, I think.

BEN: No way, really?

DUY: I mean it might be Fantastic Four, but still, this is a really early instance. He talks to Doom for a whole page before realizing it's a robot. They wouldn't use it as a plot device to retcon stuff for a while, but I'm surprised it took a while.


DUY: So Jameson owns a newspaper, a magazine, and has his own TV show? Also why didn't they just use stock footage of Spider-Man from his entertaining days? It's stuff like this that makes me wonder how much of this was well thought out and how much of the good stuff was accidental.

BEN: Also, in the age of smartphones, there would be hundreds of videos and pictures of him already.

DUY: Also, why does Peter Parker wear a suit and tie to school??

BEN:  I assume that’s how Ditko had dressed since he was 3 years old.


BEN: Piggybacking off what you noticed, that clearly wasn’t the first footage of Spider-Man. He was a TV sensation.

DUY: Spider-wave transmitter? I think Dr. Doom has had better inventions.


DUY: The telephone company having a gigantic telephone display makes me laugh.

BEN: Flash hiding behind the fence like a Looney Tunes character is what has stuck with me from this one.


BEN: I guess I have to go with Flash Thompson. I know he’s a bully and we’re supposed to hate him, but he’s such a dumbass.

DUY: Yeah, it's Flash. I want to give it to Doom, but this is way too low-key for Doom. And this is also where I think Marvel really starts differentiating itself from DC. DC's top guys in their universe are the same top guys in real life. Marvel's top guy in real life is Spider-Man, and he's small potatoes in this universe.

BEN: My favorite hero against my favorite villain, and yet it seems so...average. Doom must have been really bored that week.


BEN: Judging by the letters page, it seems like #3 is where most fans thought the comic hit another level of greatness.

DUY: That was probably the best one so far, but it's still a far way from being complete. Again here, Spider-Man at least considers not saving Flash Thompson. He basically ends up saving him because he can't live with himself if he doesn't. Still no mention of Uncle Ben.

BEN:  I know the money is a consequence of Ben dying and they probably assumed we remember he died, but it still seems so strange since later on in the series it gets rehashed in every issue. I don't even think he's mentioned Ben's name the entire series.

DUY: He did in issue 1, and something about how he wasn't able to save him, which isn't the same as being able to prevent it.  And that's weird they would assume we remember he died though, or how... it's not like comics were constantly reprinted or available just about everywhere. And didn't Marvel's distribution affect where they could be seen back then?

BEN: A fan in the letters column even asks if they could provide the on sale info, and Stan basically says "there’s no way to tell."

DUY: That's it for Spider-Rama this week.

BEN: Thank you, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko—

DUY: —for telling us we aren't the only ones.

Leave us a comment below or on our Facebook page. See you next week!

Feb 4, 2019

Gutters and Closure, Presented by Calvin and Hobbes

I've been rereading Calvin and Hobbes quite a bit recently, and a couple of strips stuck out to me. Calvin and Hobbes is a strip about, among other things, imagination. A boy has a stuffed tiger that his imagination brings to life, even if just for him.

Gutters and Closure, by Calvin and Hobbes
by Duy

Take a look at this:

November 21, 1985
This is pretty straightforward. When Ms. Wormwood is in the frame, or speaking within the confines of the panel, Hobbes is depicted as a stuffed animal. When it's just Calvin, Hobbes is real. We get it. Our brains fill in the gap. 

This is a process called "closure," the idea being that in this series of still images, our brains will fill in the blanks — the literal blanks that take place in between panels. That little white space is called the "gutter."

So that strip above has a very explicit visual cue: Calvin is in all the panels and we can connect stuffed Hobbes to real Hobbes. This is something we take for granted now, but consider that this was only the fourth strip of the series and at a time when most comics felt overexpository. In a DC or Marvel comic, an editor might have had Watterson put in a caption to the effect of "Calvin's mind brings Hobbes to life!" in panel 3.

But it's not necessary. We can fill in the cues.

Here's another that's even more fascinating to me.
February 5, 1989

There is nothing in that second-to-last panel that's in the last one. There is nothing that visually carries over. And yet our brains fill in the blank anyway. I'm going to make one change to this strip. Let's see how it affects the reading experience.

You've already read the strip as it's meant to be, so I'm not gonna ask you if the transition is still clear. But doesn't it feel super off all of a sudden? There's as many items in the now-second-to-last panel as there are in the actual second-to-last panel that are in common with the last panel.

The trick is Calvin's grin. It's essential. Going from happy Calvin to the dinosaur ruining the city is so random, but seeing Calvin's mischievous grin knows he's up to something, allowing us to connect the visual of a giant destroying tiny people with another giant destroying tiny people.

It's interesting that our brains work that way. We take it for granted.

Here's another.

January 28, 1995

Look at that. There is nothing in the first panel that's the same as the second panel except for the fact that Calvin has dots for eyes, and the dog is happy and Calvin is happy, and even then they're not smiling the same smile. Yes, we know that's Calvin's hair in the first panel, but Calvin's hair isn't even shown in the second panel. And yet, a reader who can read comics* can still connect it. We know Calvin peed outside because his dad asks how he went to the bathroom and back so fast, and we know dogs pee outside. There are a couple of things that connect the panels together. One is the relative size of the dog to Calvin; they're about the same. And another one is the direction. Our eye moves with the dog, then we know time passes and it's the next scene, and our eyes and brains just transform the dog into Calvin. Look at this altered version and see just how it feels wrong:

Growing up in a time when most comics felt overloaded with exposition, it's impressive how little hand-holding Watterson did. In his TED Talk, "The Clues to a Great Story," Andrew Stanton says: "Make the audience put things together. Don't give them four, give them two plus two. The elements you provide and the order you place them in is crucial to whether you succeed or fail at engaging the audience."

Calvin and Hobbes is a story about imagination, and Watterson does a perfect job of taking us along Calvin's mind trips by not explaining everything to us and letting our brain fill in the gutters and provide closure. He makes our brains work, even if we don't realize that's what it's doing. He was incredible.

*I mention "a reader who can read comics" because I believe reading comics is a skill that comes naturally to some and not so naturally to others. I read about a teacher, years ago, who was trying to teach comics, and as an example, he showed two panels: one of the sun above the ground, and one of the sun halfway to the ground. He asked the class how they saw the panels, and some of the class said it was a setting sun, while some of the class said it was two separate pictures of a noon sun and an afternoon sun. Reading comics is a skill that not everyone naturally gets into. In the last Calvin and Hobbes example, someone unskilled in reading comics could easily interpret it as a picture of a dog and a picture of Calvin and his dad, unconnected.

Jan 30, 2019

Spider-Rama: Amazing Spider-Man #4

Welcome to Spider-Rama! Each Wednesday, Ben and Duy will look at a Spider-Man issue from the very beginning, in chronological order, and answer questions for various categories, inspired in large part by one of our favorite podcasts, The Rewatchables by The Ringer. Our goal is to make it to Amazing Spider-Man #200. Will we make it? Grab your Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus or crank up your tablet to Marvel Unlimited, and then tune in every Wednesday to find out!

by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Spider-Man versus the Sandman!


BEN: This is the first appearance of the Daily Bugle, Betty Brant, and the Sandman. They count Amazing Fantasy #15 as Liz Allen’s first appearance, but she gets a name in this issue.

DUY: It's the first appearance of the Steve Ditko haircut.

DUY:  This has the first sighting of the half-Peter/half-Spidey visual. This isn't the iconic shot though, since this is half-Spidey in full body, while the iconic shot only has a half-mask.


BEN: I’m amused by the idea of anyone selling used shoelaces

DUY: That can't have possibly be based on reality, right?

BEN: I sure hope not.

DUY:  Mine is this. This is Ditko.

BEN: I always remembered Ditko having the look nailed down from the beginning, but it was still a little crude in places. It’s not like it’s ever bad in these early issues, it’s just not as good compared to later comics.


DUY: Jokes like this never get old.

BEN: Like I mentioned last week, the teenagers being fully on Spider-Man’s side while everyone older is, at best, unsure of his intentions, and in the case of someone like Jameson, convinced he’s a menace and a bad influence. Adults frightened by what their kids are into is a timeless theme.

DUY: Peter Parker rationalizing the most unethical thing he's done so far — faking photos of fighting the Sandman — is very human, I think.

BEN: Sandman’s power set is pretty inventive and provides for an unlimited amount of cool visuals. You can tell by the cover that it’s almost like they couldn’t decide which visual to pick.


BEN: Sandman’s powers. Yes, I put this in both categories. What makes them cool also makes him impossible to defeat, so it’s always a really contrived scenario.

DUY: Sandman's hair. Also, there's really no way in the modern day that Peter would have to wait for a TV news report to find out anything on Flint Marko as long as it was available. We have the internet now. And also, this panel, for reasons that are obvious:

BEN:  I’ve tried not to reference outdated technology here, but there’s a lot of relying on television or radio broadcasts. Hadn’t discovered the patrolling aspect yet.


BEN: Peter leaves webbing in JJJ’s chair and it lasts overnight. The 1 hour lifespan of his webbing hadn’t been established yet, but still.

DUY: Why did Sandman have to form a fake key when he could just slide under the floor?

BEN: The whole sewing his own costume angle is cute, but seems unlikely. Or not, maybe he’s a much more talented sewer than me.

DUY: I know nothing about sewing, but I'm pretty sure you can't just sew together the mask the way Peter tore it.


DUY: Allan comes off here as someone who wants to be Peter's friend and doesn't want to lose her social status. It's actually seeds for the future storylines. I'll give it to Liz.

BEN: She does stand out in only a few short scenes. Even a little thing like telling Flash to ease up on Peter added some layers to her.


BEN: The comic begins with Spider-Man stopping three guys from robbing a place, before they start robbing the place. So they call the cops on him for harassing them. Again, it’s hard for us to put into context how different it must have been to read about a teenage hero constantly messing up, but it must have seemed so new and revolutionary.

DUY: There's still no mention of Peter having been able to prevent Uncle Ben's death.

BEN: Have we seen any mid-fight quips from him yet? Let’s keep an eye out for that.

DUY: This doesn't count?

BEN: I guess, but it’s about as good as “did your husband get it for you?”

DUY: That's it for Spider-Rama this week.

BEN: Thank you, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko—

DUY: —for telling us we aren't the only ones.

Leave us a comment below or on our Facebook page. See you next week!

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