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Mystery In Space #71 (1961), page 6. Carmine Infantino.
Carmine Infantino holds a rather odd position in the comic book medium’s critical consciousness. Basically, he gets talked about for all the wrong reasons. I can’t really argue that he’s under-recognized; among a readership who know the guy that first drew the yellow circle around Batman’s chest-bat but haven’t heard of Herriman he’s probably over-recognized. The reason Infantino’s legacy has lived on is that he more than perhaps any other artist in comics history was in the right place at the right time. Any one of the consummately professional journeyman cartoonists DC employed in 1956 could have been tapped to give reviving the superhero idiom a shot, but it was Infantino who stepped into that void, and it was his art that superheroes made their first steps toward industry domination on the back of.
But while that’s a nice story, and while Infantino’s art was certainly a wonderful match for the high-speed pastorals DC churned out in the early Silver Age, it’s not what makes him special. If Jack Kirby was the superhero era’s great storyteller, Infantino was its great formalist, batting out page after page of pabulum stories that nonetheless managed to make a stunningly thorough exploration of layout, space, shape, and pacing. Infantino never worked on stories that transcend their time in the same way that Kirby and Ditko’s comics of the same time do; his transcendence isn’t in the reading of his work but the studying of it, the lessons about pure craft they hold.
Infantino himself was using his drawings to study forms as much as tell tales — the form of drawing itself in addition to comics. As above, the figures that are his sequences’ ostensible focus are frequently rendered as small as possible, dashed off with a kind of casual grace and left to the inker (Murphy Anderson here), to make make more room for his vast and gaping backgrounds, the main feature of which was their very lack of features, the yawns of negative space that filled his pages with a haunting, almost elegiac quality. It’s rare that superhero comics manage to be truly stark; it’s rare that Infantino’s don’t.
An interview with Gary Groth provides a useful way into considering the formal qualities of Infantino’s comics. “I would have preferred to have gone to school to be an architect,” the great cartoonist said in 1996. “That was my really deep desire.” And it shows. Beyond the great attention to technological detail on view in panel 3, this entire page carries an architectural emphasis on efficiency and the value of space. This page even reads like a building, with skyscraper-shaped panels that lead from bottom to top, streamlined shapes reaching for the sky. Rather than lead the reader in the usual truncated zig-zag pattern of the gridded page, Infantino manages to make the eye do a great deal more movement by tracing a vigorous reverse-S shape with his layout. The placement of figures is an object lesson in composition; the eye never has to pick up and start again from the first panel in a new tier. Instead panel melts into panel, following a perfect, uninterrupted flow.
Infantino even manages to turn the immense amount of verbiage put on the page by writer Gardner Fox into an asset; as his characters bob and weave and contort their paths of movement to avoid the densely distributed text boxes, we follow them first up, then down, then up again. The four full-figure panels on this page, bookending the close-ups at bottom left, are a marvel of form bent to function; in each one the characters mimic the action of the reader’s eye, leading us from one panel into the next so effectively that the directional arrows Infantino places between the panels are wholly unnecessary. It’s a nearly free-improv approach to layout, one that takes the full rectangle of the page as space to be freely negotiated and moved through — but just as importantly, one that never muddles itself or loses the reader for a minute.
This kind of comics is Infantino’s alone; no one before or since has combined quite the same mixture of fundamental, craftsmanlike skill with such a dramatic flair for the unconventional. And though he is and forever will be remembered as the guy who put the little yellow circle on Batman’s chest or the little lightning bolts on Flash’s boots, he also made things to be looked into rather than simply looked at, comics about people who almost seem to move…