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Prince Valiant, March 16th 1941, panels 4 and 5. Hal Foster.
Sequencing is unique among the comics artist’s crafts; the one skill that’s completely remote, completely theoretical, that doesn’t involve making something that exists in actual physical space. The artist creates the sequence in his or her head, and then makes it real. Once medium hits surface to begin that process, though, what’s being done is no longer sequencing but drawing. In division-of-labor comics that are drawn from someone else’s scripts, sequencing is the only outlet an artist can use to “write” their own work. It deals not with the look of things but with the flow of information, the rhythm of the story, the way the reader is led to comprehend what the comic is showing them.
That’s why sequence is easily the aspect of comics-making that has the vastest and most complex potentials to it. But in another way, it’s also the simplest. If one were to explain clearly what it is to write comics, plot and character would need mentioning, and then there’s dialogue, dynamics, dramatic expression… and on and on. To describe comics drawing is a similarly tricky task: there’s the age-old tug of war between cartoon and realism, plus simplification, individual stylism, design, and that’s all without even getting into the question of what medium is being used to put the information on the paper. The act of sequencing — despite the complexity its more advanced practitioners bring to the table — is a pure, immaculate truth by comparison. It’s making a decision about how the next panel looks, and that is all.
The simplicity of sequencing is easy to lose sight of when one studies the work of the artists who’ve taken it the farthest, done the most audacious things with it. While “good sequencing” can mean climbing deep into the mechanism of comics storytelling and tinkering with the reader’s perception of time or space or content, it can also just be about a superior ability to place images next to one another. That’s the kind Hal Foster exhibits here.
While writing comics is obviously closest to a literary endeavor, and drawing them engages with the visual arts, I like to think of sequencing as having more to do with music than anything else. It’s easy enough to see layout as rhythm, with each panel break a beat and each tier of panels a measure. But something that gets a lot less consideration than rhythm (even though it’s at least as important) is harmony in comics, the interactions of each panel with the last and the next. Beat, by comparison, is easy. Anybody can keep steady time by clapping their hands, just as anyone can take a ruler and draw one of Foster’s go-to nine panel grids. But it takes a real skill and inspiration to compose within that rhythm, to drop notes or panels that create something greater than the sum of the parts when they sit next to one another.
Foster’s composition is wonderfully harmonic: two chords, beautifully struck in a rich and assured ink line, that complement each other perfectly. Though the panels use different camera angles and depict different subjects at different distances from the action, they share a remarkable symmetry. Both direct the eye diagonally from top left to bottom right — with lines of the ships’ masts and riggings in the first, and the king’s outstretched arm and the edge of the parapet in the second. Both resolve on the soft, pleasant note of a clean white space at bottom right. The route between the bottom right corner of the first narrative caption (where you stop reading) and the top left of the second (where you begin again) is a diagonal line that’s perfectly symmetrical with the drawn ones. Need I even mention that top left to bottom right is the path the English-language reader’s eye insinctively takes to read something? Foster pulls us smoothly along the path of least resistance, creating a sequence that’s almost impossible not to read through once it’s been seen.
And even when the notion of reading the sequence is put aside for appreciation of it as pure visual, as two pictures placed next to one another, the harmony remains. Foster creates a smooth interplay between the images by placing their horizon lines on a nearly exact level with one another. The base background color — a mild sea-green — is also the same from one panel to the next, like a single tone underpinning the gorgeous harmony that the interval of blue to orange in the sky creates. A complementary interval is created by the pure red space of the sail at center left in the first panel giving way to the pure white of the caption in the second. This is comics as symphony, with Foster piling pictorial elements (line, color, shape, composition) into this simplest of layouts, never hitting anything but notes that look gorgeous together.