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Poem Strip (1969), pages 151-153. Dino Buzzati.
The action sequence is probably the type of comics-making that the greatest number of artists have engaged in (except maybe the gag), and it’s also one of the best tests of a cartoonist’s ability to do what they do convincingly. Action demands that an artist utilize a number of skill sets all at once: an understanding of the human figure to sell the gestures, composition to produce impact, panel-to-panel transitions to move the reader through it, attention to detail so that the action’s environment never gets lost behind it. Beside that, words on the page become meaningless at best during action, actual impediments at worst. Action is perhaps the facet of comics storytelling in which it helps least to be told what you’re seeing. The artist alone sells action. And as we know, sequencing is what sells comics art.
Dino Buzzati’s early graphic novel Poem Strip is sequenced with an incredibly loose touch, with long prose captions spilling over into poster-style full-page panels or irregular grids. The sequence above is really the only point at which Buzzati digs in and makes comics in a way that’s at least close to his era’s more typical Kirby/Ditko method. It’s striking to see kinetic, moment-to-moment storytelling from an outside-comics artist like Buzzati (who only ever made one entry into sequential art) — this is obviously not the work of someone who learned to block out a fight by standing at the foot of a journeyman cartoonist’s drawing table or poring through Mort Meskin back issues. Yet it gets so much of the grammar so right while evading the cliche musclebound drawing mannerisms, and beside that it brings an exhilarating sense of newness onto the page, a feeling that physical conflict and motion in space has never been done quite this way in comics before. It’s beautiful, violent poetry.
(Warning — nudity after the jump)*****
Buzzati begins by setting the scene. Simple backdrops always work best in action sequences, given that they offer no distraction from the interaction of the figures, and Buzzati goes as simple as can be. The backdrop here is an empty, featureless gray box, its corners spreading vectors to the corners of the panels. This shows us the whole room, and it also effectively turns the panel into a three-dimensional space, defining the depth field of the environment along with the height and width. More than that, this background allows Buzzati to go backgroundless on the next two pages, letting all incidental detail slip away in favor of a flat gray field. This focuses our complete attention on the figures without losing any of the sense that everything is still occurring in a real space; after all, it’s still happening in a gray box.
The first panel gives us total stillness, an utter absence of action. That quiet emphasizes the blast of the second panel — suddenly a giant mass of scribbled visual noise bursts in, meeting the figure in the exact same space where it stood still, and causing a rigid, demonstrative gesture. The girl’s pose is more theatrical than fluid — the pose of a ballerina or a mime, a bit of sculpted, considered language that tells us of sudden physical conflict rather than actually showing it. All the immediacy comes from her broadly cartooned facial expression, pain and surprise boiled down as far as they’ll go.
The elegance of this panel, of beauty meeting ugliness with a bang, is all the more striking in the context of the next two pages, which take us deep inside a thrashing, desperate bit of action that’s absolutely shocking in the vigor and brutality of what it depicts. Buzzati doesn’t focus on the points of contact between the girl and the terrifying machine-creature brutalizing her — those, usually the linchpins around which action panels swing, are all on the periphery. What we’re asked to consider first is the girl’s body, the object of her tormentor’s malice and aggression, and as a result we don’t feel the blows and impacts so much as the adrenaline and pain. The generality of being attacked rather than the attack itself. The use of a nude figure here is especially effective: it makes the posing that much more evocative and dramatic, but it also tears away everything between the machine’s claws and the girl’s skin, forcing us to consider her total vulnerability.
Buzzati’s tightly cropped close-ups cut off arms and legs and most of the machine itself. It’s an old rule of horror storytelling that what you can’t see is always more dreadful than what you can, and this is undoubtedly a horror sequence as well as a fight scene. Not only that, the grotesqueness of the girl’s twisted poses is amplified by the panel borders’ sudden abutting of them, and the sense of being overwhelmed by something becomes palpable when you can’t see everything that’s going on. The second page’s close tracking of the girl’s torso, the central point of her body, enhances the cold shock of the third, which first turns that torso into a curving, blobby mass (accompanied by a truly gruesome, disturbing facial expression at the first panel’s bottom left), and then leaves the human figure behind completely, abstracting the human form into a tangle of jutting points. It’s a supremely effective evocation of violent death, especially with the sudden change in color palette from warm peach to dull green and red. Only the gray box remains.
Buzzati’s sequence is an abstracted, remarkably innovative reading of the “action scene” standard, a bit of comics that fully inherits the kineticism and physicality of Kirby while bringing an almost Picassoesque willingness to mutate the human form onto the page. It’s a horrific occurence communicated entirely in beautiful, elegant drawings, a humanistic look into something beyond the pale. It’s action comics, the most commonplace kind there is, done in a way that isn’t much like anything else out there, and that’s exactly why it’s so worthy of study, so ripe to be learned from.