Robot 6

Your Wednesday Sequence 5 | Hal Foster

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.

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15 Comments

It’s rich, beautiful and complex…good grief, but that man could draw!

He could draw, but I disagree that he was a good or natural storyteller. He seemed to fight with every conscious decision against everything that made comics read smoothly, and as a result has beautiful for trudging pages. His disdain for word balloons, the “low culture” of depicting any moment of genuine action (he’ll show the lead-up or the aftermath, but rarely action itself – that excellent bridge picture being one of the notable exceptions), and a dozen other attempts to keep himself “above” comics renders his stuff stiff and unengaging, at least for me. Now, there are tons of Foster fans, so he must be engaging to others. I just think that he’s an excellent illustrator, and a terrible comic artist, in that what should be the first priority – to move the story – seems to be entirely subservient to aesthetic.

Another note – he seems so concerned with the individual images that the panel relationship Matt addresses here, though succeeding admirably on an artistic level, fails as a comic. There’s no sense of the spatial relationship between Lamorach and the sailors. Is he on the dock? On a castle on a hill overlooking the dock? Again, Foster fails to give us a story that moves through pictures, only beautiful images tied together by prose.

I forget if its Gianni or Shultz who rabidly argues that Foster IS in fact a comic artist/cartoonist, and a good one, and his essays are floating around online, but they’ve failed to convince me. Worth reading, though.

Jeez, that’s gorgeous, Matt. I don’t really know anything about color in Foster’s work–did he do it himself? That’s a wonderful palette, not necessarily intuitive based on how colors tend to work in comics today.

@ Sean as you know, “do it himself” is tough with old newspaper comics but yeah, he made meticulous guides and apparently worked pretty closely with the production men to get the right effects. In the volume this one’s from (1941-42) he starts dropping black linework on a significant amount of his backgrounds, so to get the forms at all right I imagine he would have to have been pretty heavily involved with the process. The intro to volume 2 (by Mark Schultz, I think?) gives some pretty good information on it.

@ Chris well, if everybody else has failed to convince you I won’t try, though I wholeheartedly disagree. But to rebut your specific points: Foster’s narrative captions work really well to move you though the action, the continuity of the single narrative voice acting as a constant ellipsis that encourages the reader to keep going. You’re just wrong about him shying away from depicting moments of action. Prince Valiant and Tarzan weren’t always “action comics”, with environmental exploration and character dynamics playing much larger roles than they do in most of Foster’s acolytes’ work, but when it came time to throw down, Foster could and did. As for the spatial relationship between the panels, I think the shared horizon and the white-into-white across the bottom gives a pretty clear picture of exactly what you said: he’s standing on a parapet above the dock.

Here’s where I really think you’re trippin’, though:
“what should be the first priority – to move the story – seems to be entirely subservient to aesthetic.”

In comics, STORY IS AESTHETIC. AESTHETIC IS STORY. Pictures don’t just contain infomation, they create an atmosphere, a sense impression, that’s at LEAST as important to the reader’s experience as “what’s going on”. The whole false notion that “art has to serve story first” is entirely a construction of the factory-style division-of-labor process by which mainstream comics have been created for the last 75 years or so, in which the artist isn’t allowed to go to work until he’s been handed a script by a “writer”. Did Winsor McCay draw every panel thinking “serve the story”? Did George Herriman? Lyonel Feininger? When the comics are springing from one person the service of self-expression is just as important as that of plot occurrences, and it can quite easily be just as aesthetically valuable. That limited “story first” mindset is the product of a diseased, impure corner of the comics world.

Whew! In my humble opinion, of course…..

This was a provocative article that was fun to read. But this specific Hal Foster stuff is an interesting choice for what you’re calling “sequencing” (which admittedly might be throwing me off, since it is an uncommon term). I like your observations on the composition intra-panel; and yes, the mechanics of a 9-panel grid plays a kind of click-track that always resets in every panel–but these are illustration tricks, not strongly what I would call comics sequential “storytelling.” Sematics aside, illustration tells a story in a single image–a skill that’s also used in comics, of course. But shouldn’t “sequencing” play more to a moving, breathing story? Yes, there is a chronology (reinforced by a cringe-worthy, heavy handed “AND THEN…”), but how does the first image telegraph the second, and how does the second continue the first? There’s the L-R composition you talk about, but to my mind that’s like a clever arrangement of singles on a “Best Of…” album. I think the “sequence” in sequential art needs to address what happens IN BETWEEN the panels. And quite frankly there’s little of that in the particular example. You can argue that the regal king is looking down on the sailor’s toil in the previous panel, but that’s a reach: the composition doesn’t really line up, to say nothing of the king’s line of sight or lack of other visual continuity cues. So I read this two panel sequence as consecutive illustrations: planned, perhaps, like a series of photographs, but there’s no film-like flow where the reader inserts his own imagination to animate the story. I don’t think this indicative to all of Foster’s stuff (Scorsese is a fan of Prince Valiant, specifically that the strip as a kid made him ‘remember stuff in the story that actually wasn’t there’–i.e. in between the panels). But I think some words on sequencing should address an omission of necessary off panel action–and how, if at all, we’re getting more than the bare minimum of comics art above what illustration would do when depicting two consecutive scenes in any text.

Sequence doesn’t NEED to do anything. There are a variety of sequencing techniques available to comics artists, none of which is “neccesary”, none of which is any more or less valid than another. The kind Foster uses may not be in vogue any more, may not be your cup of tea, whatever, but to argue that it’s somehow “not comics” or “less comics” than anything else is silly. Comics can be anything.

And honestly, how often in the work of people I’d imagine you’d consider more “real” cartoonists (Kirby, Kurtzman, Clowes, whoever) do you see two images that aren’t implicitly “connected”, that focus on different subjects without creating a “film-like flow” between them? All the time! Like, at least once per page on average! That filmic sequencing is good for physical action scenes, but to insist that is MUST play a part in ALL sequencing is to limit oneself to a single, inflexible mode of expressiveness that gets old really quickly.

How does Foster compare to Rob Liefeld?

http://deathtotheuniverse.blogspot.com/2010/11/your-monday-panel-39.html

Sorry, hard to take anything you have to say seriously after that…

Then why are you reading his articles? Besides wanting to poke Rob Liefeld, and Matt, in the eye with your virtual stick, of course.

Thanks for the reply, Matt. I don’t know where your emphasizing is aimed–I certainly didn’t say comics “needed” or “must” be anything (within reason, of course). I was talking more about the aesthetic point you’re making in regard to layout or “sequencing” (and if you’re making a differentiation between layout and sequencing, my apologies, I clearly missed it). You start the article with an interesting observation about theory and making something that doesn’t exist in physical space, but then decline to go the step further: where an artist, in determining sequence, chooses what NOT to draw. Your article stresses how an artist grabs the eye and moves in through the panels–but in these two consecutive panels, to what end? It’s doesn’t advance the storytelling…or create a mood, or flesh out a character or concept. It’s a compositional trick, being employed only slightly differently than it would in illustration (or photography, sculpture, &c.). Of course it’s comics–it’s great comics… it’s just not the fullest example of what I think puts the “sequence” in sequential art (just my opinion, obviously). Even establishing panels that are meant to break the rhythm are jarring on purpose.

But we can agree to disagree! For the record, I’d never say that one cartoonist is more “real” than another. Kirby, if he could, would definitely disagree that there isn’t a constant connection of every panel in his work. Frank Quitely, who you profiled last article, can and would disagree. Sometimes the flow is subtle instead of blatant; sometimes the artist’s skills are less instead of more–but you go way too far saying that on an average of ‘every page’ the artist (every artist? or just Kirby, Clowes, & Kurtzman?) neglects to consider a sequential layout throughout. It’s not even that the statement is mean spirited–it’s that it undermines a fundemental of the medium.

@ Brandon did I say that? It’s not that they neglect sequence, it’s that they don’t use filmic flow between every two panels. And I wouldn’t say every artist does that, but every good one with more than one trick in the bag does.

@ James don’t speak on what you don’t understand

@ everybody else, I wrote about my color = music analogy in a lot more detail here: http://deathtotheuniverse.blogspot.com/2011/04/harmonicomix.html

Yes, Matt, you did say that. You said that on an average of every page there are two consecutive panels without an implicit connection. If you’re unsaying it, that’s cool. And you’re putting more authority in “film-like” than I ever intended–so don’t get too hung up on it. I was only trying to be descriptive by way of an analogy to photographs which weren’t arranged to tell a story. Again, I don’t want to get bogged down in semantics but I don’t see how one can have “sequence” without flow, “filmic” or otherwise. If one image doesn’t lead to the other, I can comfortably say that THAT is (probably!) not comics. And I still would like to hear your thoughts on the role the space between panels might play in a consideration of the larger subject of layout.

And I should note: unlike James above, I liked your Liefeld piece (as did many others). It was the first thing of yours I read, and I found it thoughtful enough that I keep an eye out for your other commentary. But I do disagree with your analysis of Steranko layouts–and see echoes of those opinions in the current Hal Foster discussion.

Dropping disconnected images is not “neglecting to consider a sequential layout”. speaking of getting too hung up on things

DONE

Aw man, come back, Matt–this is interesting!

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