May 30, 2011

Comics Techniques and Tricks: Jim Steranko

Welcome to another edition of Comics Techniques and Tricks, in which we showcase techniques that only comics can do! Click here for the archive!

I bought a copy of MARVEL VISIONARIES: JIM STERANKO over a month ago, and I could have very easily picked just about any page from this book for this feature because Jim Steranko is a master of comics tricks. (See here for more examples.)

However, the comic I'll be focusing on is TOWER OF SHADOWS #1, which has the short story "At the Stroke of Midnight."

All scans here are from this site.

In this story, Lou and Marie, a married couple who do not love each other, go into Shadow House, Lou's ancestral home, to find something belonging to his grandfather. Steranko uses variations of a grid, laying out each page in three tiers of panels, all of the same height, but changing the widths to suit the mood necessary for the story. Here's the first tier of page 3.

Note how the first five panels are very cramped together, causing a feeling of claustrophobia for both Lou and the reader. You know it's Lou feeling hemmed in, even without reading the dialogue, because Marie has a black background behind her. And also because of their body language. The panels get slightly wider when Marie gets angry, giving her the sole red panel in that otherwise very steady palette of blacks and oranges, showing that she's not feeling afraid.

Finally, note how the last two panels are a polyptych — two panels that really form one big panel, with the gutter in between showing the passage of a small moment in time. Additionally, it shows a symbolic separation between the two characters.

Here's the next tier.

Steranko pulls back for the first panel and widens it to give us a semi-establishing shot. The light held by Lou causes more shadows (and frankly, just look at how well-drawn that panel is), heightening the atmosphere.

But the real kicker is the second to fourth panels, which is another polyptych, this time of Lou's face. It slows down time and once again hems him (and us) in. It's a sharp contrast with the fifth panel, which is about as wide as those three panels put together, really underscoring the differences between the two characters.

Jim Steranko was a master of mood and atmosphere, taking these Eisnerian effects to the next level.

"At the Stroke of Midnight" won the 1969 Alley Award for Best Feature Story. Grantbridge Street &other misadventures has the entire story scanned and uploaded here. If you want to own a copy for yourself, you can find it in MARVEL VISIONARIES: JIM STERANKO.

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