A Closer Look At Some Pages
Travis Hedge Coke
I love comics. I don’t mean I love monthly superheroes or I love daily comedy strips or I love 49ers’ boys school romances, Milk Morinaga cute girl does cute thing comics or Stan Goldberg cute girl comics. I love all of those, too, but when I say I love comics, I mean the gamut, I mean the medium, the very basics elements and that distinguish comics from other forms of artistic expression, and the ones that muddle the line between comics and prose or comics and visual art, comics and movies, comics and music (okeh, that’s a difficult one to muddle, but someone could). Part of my love of the medium is a sense that even if a comic is mostly bad, it’s almost impossible for everything to be wrongheaded or tin-eared. A movie can just be a wreck, just a decimated wrongheaded thing because directing, acting, editing, sound, visual, motion, arrangement, and script mix together so readily that one aspect done horribly can hobble all the others. Comics, in general, can support their more flawed aspects by excelling elsewhere, at least in my opinion. Great layouts can overwhelm poor dialogue, for instance, while a great plot can can cover for poor drafting. With a painting or a short story, the elements at play are by nature fewer than a comic can use.
So it comes that I like to look deeper and longer at pages of comics than I do, at least very often, movies or songs, poems or pen and ink drawings. I feel there are valuable lessons even in poorly executed comics, and that the brilliant ones can reveal so much more than their story or characterization, if a few minutes are given over to looking at technique and authorial decisions, or just happenstance that happily works.
1. Let’s have a look over this Winsor McCay strip from Little Nemo in Slumberland:
Neatly arranged in four stacks of panels, the strip is further subdivided into two equal-sized segments that just so neatly fit on a postcard which at the time was a thing that can and did happen. The even structure is further aided by each panel being numbered, something we need less of now, but at the time of original publication (1905-11) multi-panel comics were still a relative rarity in America and printings were still likely to be recut and reordered to fit a newspaper’s space allowances. The technique, however, of ordering panels by numbering can still be seen more recently in things such as Walt Simonson’s infamous issue of Fantastic Four where every page opened with a timestamp that allowed a reader to jump back and forth in the time-traveling protagonist’s adventure in objective “real time.” Even techniques that seem to have seen their day may be easily repurposed, utilizing the strength of the lessons we’ve already subconsciously learned from them.
Further, Nemo is set up for an at-sight reading, with visual elements carrying us from one panel to the next or establishing clear differentiation between things represented in ink and paint without thinking on them or relying on the more or less superfluous dialogue balloons. The moment-to-moment change in the first two panels, the visual anchor of the dirigible in panels five and six in the second tier, and the clear line of brown skyline and blue/green/white water framed by intricate blacks in that third tier of panels all give a reader an instantaneous sense of placement, keeping us rooted and routed, moving our eye along with the story.
Also, the owl is just awesome.
2. Next, we have a page from Naoko Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon:
Arranged as two vertical tiers, this page of a cat walking in on two human lovers is seemingly very simple. Cat sees people, people kiss and don’t see cat, cat runs away. But, pay attention to the cat and people in the top righthand panel, it’s obvious that the cat is not a giant or the people tiny, however on casual read, the question probably doesn’t even come up. There’s no attempt at naturalistic foreshortening or to put them in a proper real-world perspective because, in essence, they’re not part of the same panel but a panel bisected by an invisible whitespace. Similarly, the final two righthand panels are divided by a band of zip-a-tone as the page, also, become progressively filled with star flake patterns, flowers, and splotches that are not in-scene at all. Most of this page is not — and cannot be — diegetic, but it is all evocative.
The couple, as well, as both designed and arranged for maximum effect as a couple. The woman’s black hair and patterned sleeves are foregrounded, the man’s white hair (which isn’t white in-scene, but is visualized without color for us to distinguish him from her) and white clothes are used to frame his lover. The interplay of their bodies and hair keeps the two figures from blending together and encourages our eyes to remember a sense of the human form distinct to each of them.
The cat is not placed in-panel with the lovers, though she is clearly part of the same scene, and this gives us an unconsidered sense that she is separate from them in other ways, as does their remaining more or less stationary while kissing and the cat both turning and racing away, but also that her eyes (and ears) go all sorts of ways as her body goes through the dramatic contortions of running off.
3. Avengers Unplugged is one of those comics where almost everything went wrong, but even here, at least in the better issues, such as this one, there are lessons other than “don’t do that.” M.C. Wyman can be an incredible artist and his storytelling chops are pretty sound in short bursts.
The upper tier here is, I think, perfect in its pacing and framing. Yes, there is something unappealing about how Monica’s neck is drawn, and I’m not sure smoke has ever behaved as it does on this page, but the neck is a small thing and the smoke still connotes smoke; we can tell what everything on the page is meant to be. But, that upper tier of panels, slowly backing away from Monica’s frozen, unblinking face as she tells us who she is and that she might go mad, and a giant man sits behind her sewing up the back of her head, is wonderful and evocative. It’s upsetting.
The lower two thirds of the page, given over the a sideview of the villain and Monica have him dominating not only the main image, but also the inset, Monica between his legs, facing away from him, the smoke from his cigar jetting over her head as she sits still unblinking and unmoving. And, it is not until those lower panels that we have an explanation for what he did above, for why he was sewing her head and why she isn’t moving. The villain has sewn a device into her brain that makes her his puppet; her thoughts are hers, but all movement is at his discretion and order.
With the second page, we see flaws begin to enter, but they don’t kill the scene.
Monica stands before the villain, the Controller, as he commands her to put out her hand and extinguishes his cigar on her palm, then kisses her and laughs about it while her eyes never close, never wince, her arms never raise in defense or aggression. It’s very close, actually, to a scene in the Millar era of The Authority that DC ordered redrawn to be about unappreciated cooking making a rape victim cry (which is somehow both “safer” and really distressing in its own way; let’s face it, there’s no way to nice up these sort of scenes much, nor should there be).
The elaborate background of the previous page is completely gone, the color of the blank background changes in every panel, and even the Controller’s chair is just, simply, gone. Why? Did they walk somewhere else? Do the colors represent something symbolically or are they meant to evoke some emotional state in the reader? Why, in the final two panels, are Monica and the Controller reversed from their positions in the other panels? While still an essentially well-paced scene, there seems to be no reason for these distracting changes. And, yes, when confronted with something that thoroughly is not working but we can still see some competency behind or beside it, it is perfectly sensible to accept a “don’t do this” lesson.
4. Steve Darnall and Alex Ross’ Uncle Sam was not what Ross’ fans were expecting, but I think it actually shows off his chops as an artist more than painting pastiches or superhero extrapolations, not that he does those badly or can’t make a living off it.
Okeh, to start with: ignore the four inset panels in the middle of the page. Where does the top image and the bottom image end? They don’t. They join together, concrete floor blurring with concrete ceiling, separated, essentially, by those thin bars inset in the center of the whole. People talk of Ross as a Realist painter, but it’s things like that - his willingness and commitment to not-in-scene, non-diegetic imagery or combinations — along with his extensive romanticism that’s channeled into “realistic” hairlines or aging, place him, for me, squarely as a comics Naturalist. What Ross provides is reassurance. He’s never going to paint in a way that will highlight for us why other illustrations of Superman or or even Uncle Sam may be unrealistic. What he will do, is paint a Superman or Uncle Sam who are elaborations, they have textures or details, extrapolations beyond the traditional versions, but will never subvert or counter those traditional takes.
At the top of the page, it is noted in dialogue, and supported by crotch stain, that Uncle Sam has peed himself. Now, there are a myriad of ways to illustrate that, from cartoony exaggeration to leaving it to dialogue alone, visual alone, or merely implied alone. What Ross and Darnell have provided, is a version that is obvious, but not that bad. It’s not mocking Uncle Sam or disgracing what Uncle Sam might stand for. It’s subdued and it’s a bit sad.
We are invited to ally with Uncle Sam because he pissed himself. Just as we are invited to follow him because only we have his monologue, only we have him framing his situation for us, while it remains a mystery to anyone in the scene. And, note that Sam does not look at anyone in the scene, but he does, in the near-center of the page, look to us, the reader.
I’m actually not sure how the layout of the cell there is working, in those middle panels. I can’t follow the people from one panel to another, one angle to another, except for the two police and Uncle Sam. But, I am not bothered by this the way I was with the abrupt changes and lack of continuity in Avengers Unplugged, with Sam and the cops acting as visual anchors similar to those seen in the otherwise dissimilar Little Nemo comic.
Everything here, from the soft colors to Uncle Sam’s line of sight and the fact the only dirty thing in the drunk tank at all is the pee stain on Sam’s otherwise immaculate outfit, reassures us. A robust reassurance, but so are Norman Rockwell’s reassurances all ruddy and robust.
5. Which brings us to the Starjammers miniseries, penciled by Carlos Pacheco, written by Warren Ellis, and otherwise helped into being by an assortment of talent including the brilliant colorist, Ariane Lenshoek.
This is another one that looks simple, it reads simple and directly, but there is an incredible amount of thought and technique in evidence.
The main visual is framed by black bars, like a widescreen movie would be on a TV back then, evoking all the cache that carries. It’s inverted, as it’s a reflection in water, but easily still identifiable as a man and a furry, cat-eared woman. The lower black bar also holds the title, a one-word highfalutin’ term that also carries direct and simple connotations, being close to “collapse” and actually meaning a collapsed star. The upper black bar holds only a streak of water, as it is, implicitly, where the actual woman and man are standing and speaking.
The colors are bright and strong, with purple and green rubbing against one another aggressively, and red and blue, white and black. The man rests on a sword pommel, looking down the earth, the woman grabbing a handful of water in her hand. Pacheco is an excellent character artist and he does the fronds and flowers here wonderfully, as well, the whole from body language to ripples in the water giving a radiant sense of grief and listlessness enhanced by the only dialogue, “We’re dead.” Lenshoek’s base colors and especially her variations and highlights are exceedingly more intricate than you’re likely to find in another Marvel comic from that year.
Warren Ellis’ sense of style, or visual and page structure was possibly unparalleled at Marvel that year. I see no evidence even the best Marvel writers at that time other than Ellis were thinking as hard, planning as craftily as he was, in terms of what a layout or design aesthetic says to a reader. I am sure most of them weren’t, a evidenced by the average cover or opening page from a Marvel comic in the mid-90s. Here, paired with a remarkable art team, everything just comes beautifully into place and does its job with ferocious efficacy. While the humanoid figures are inverted, moving from foot to head downward, and also looking down, the water ripples out evenly to expand and frame them, and the flora all spikes upward romantically as do the reflected clothing, which, were we seeing this not in reflection, would be hanging pointedly.
The black bars and central image evoke cinema but they also add a classical sense of a frame, the black bars push the lush colors and dramatic line art into a sense of depth that the unbounded image would never achieve. This is a movie scene doing something a movie would not do (breaking the ratio), it’s a distinct isolation of text and image but they are not independent of each other, it’s breaking high school level drafting, color theory, and writing rules… and it should. They’re not in high school. These are professionals. Professionals make stuff look good. They make it work.
And, that, probably, is the final lesson these can all teach us, that professionalism, that attention and conviction and consideration can help you find ways to do anything with any scene, to achieve your goals using whatever techniques are at hand, that are possible or necessary. Creation takes a strong hand and open mind, and sometimes a hand that is confident enough to go loose and a mind that is sure enough to be fierce.