Travis Hedge Coke
“The layouts are what matter!!”
~ Duy Tano, paraphrasing himself in an email to me.
“I can’t even doodle a dude leaning against a building without losing track of it, and what if he was a chicken with a pompadour?”
~ me, in email to Duy, a few days later.
1) The Swords of Heaven, The Flowers of Hell
I could have made this column about six different Howard Chaykin comics, the man has such an eye for layout and the tactical brain to turn arrangements of panels, figures, color into targeted devices.
This collaboration between Michael Moorcock and Chaykin bisects its pages or spreads in such an unassuming fashion that, similar to Ballade (dealt with below), it feels classical, closer to 19th Century spot illustrations with their nebulous borders, image always consigned away from the text, but somehow never with a definitive edge. Even on multi-panel pages, the division into two dominant, equally sized aspects maintains a subtle master-pacing despite any single page pace, stringing the whole together much as a pattern is knit together in and out, in, out, regardless of what color or specific thread is in play. There is a third, quieter or semi-detached element in this arrangement, though, a counter note to the dominating division of the page. There are no gaps, no abruptness, only a romantic articulation and the surety of one, two count and the third rising yet softer three making not a work camp drive of the comic, but a waltz.
The black frame of the first panel on page one is open at the top left corner, encouraging the reader’s eye to enter in. The close-together panels bring us in aerially to church steps, a woman (Donna Troy) delivering a hot meal to a sparechanger en route to the doors of the church. The second page starts with Donna, mid-panel, entering the church, then a reverse shot to show the enormity of the place, before settling into the small, close-together panels of her sitting and finally speaking. The third page is a full-page image of organized disarray, a superhero caught in the wake as a shell breaks a building behind him into shrapnel. The shelling and its fallout are dealt with in succeeding pages, but the big moment is page three. It is abrupt, no time passing in it the way other pages pace minutes. If this was a movie, that credits page is a clear freeze frame, and it is to Phil Jimenez’s credit that he accomplishes this sensibility in entirely static pages in Why?, pulling the reader into a small, slender, time sense and then arresting it breathtakingly.
The opening issue of Howard Chaykin and Don Cameron’s Cyberella establishes a pattern so strong, it feels implicit in the few pages that do not follow suit. Almost every page has an inset panel in the upper left, distinct from background, either portrait or headshot. A full human figure, often lightly overlaps the inset and lower panels to the right. The opening page inverts this, with an inset at the right top, of a naked man crouched before a television set, but the next eight pages follow the pattern, distinctly, also each containing two stacked widescreen panels below to complete the page. Every other page follows this pattern, with the full figure on the upper right’s legs or lower body usually driving line of sight down into a sharply plummeting Z formation.
4) Dracula vs Zorro
Thomas Yeates and Don McGregor are both big, operatic talents and they launch into this comic full bore and in big style, but every page, each panel border, each gesture is deliberate and controlled.
This short Moebius should never be read panel by panel, but taken in an entire page at a time. The simple rhythm of the imagery, the basic coding of the coloring makes the comic feel classical, fable, exciting but safe and inevitable. Some of the panels aren’t even panels, they’re cutaways, round apertures to another scene, or diegetic elements, such as stone or flame that break up an otherwise unified space. Each page is blocked in three rough sections, one of which is nearly always scenery or empty of event. In the upper part of each page is a significant figure, somewhat detached or distanced from the rest of the page’s ongoings. And, every page is dominated by orange and blue, often creating the sense of two separate worlds or states, even if those are so simple as hot and cold.
6) Fax From Sarajevo
There is remarkable confidence in Joe Kubert’s last decades of work, both in his own penwork and his confidence in his reader. Chapter Five, “The Run to Sarajevo”, opens with a rough mock of a sketch someone else made, giving the not-to-scale layout of a warzone, marked with notes of “attack came from here” and “barricade of trucks” or “Holiday Inn.” When you turn the pages, though it is two pages later, you cannot help but lock eyes with the brilliant red and yellow of a raging fire. Maybe, then, you go all the way left, to the beginning of the page your eyes have so reflexively skipped, and see a much more realistic rendering of what the map showed: bombed out buildings, abandoned cars, smoke. Pushed further into the page, as that damaged cityscape takes up the entire left side, Ervin, Edina, and children sit huddled in the bathroom, entirely tinted, as is everything, in greens and browns.
Ervin with show red in the heat of flames when he journeys outside, and as we see him try to work a car, the panels pull in, half his face, a hand pushing in the key, so that the explosion that flares across the very bottom of that page is a jutting surprise, and though these are static images, it is only after a moment that it settles into scope; this is not Ervin’s car, he is only watching from a short distance.