O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
Buz Sawyer for October 7th, 1944. Roy Crane.
If it isn’t quite a lost art, the daily comic strip is certainly a format on the wane, and that’s a pretty terrible shame as these things go. More great comics have been presented in this form than perhaps any other (Krazy Kat, Peanuts, and Calvin & Hobbes make a pretty stiff argument all by themselves), and the ties to the medium’s earliest history the strip provides shouldn’t be overlooked either. But most importantly — most interestingly — strips present comics in their most compact, immediate form. No less than two panels, very rarely more than five, they’re almost exclusively a reading experience of a minute or less, and as such they encourage a direct, no-frills approach that stands refreshingly at odds with so many long-form comics, in which complexity is seen as a cardinal virtue.
The story of DC Comics’ house art style during the superhero genre’s “Silver Age”, from about 1955 to ’68, is often repeated, and with good reason: it’s the most compelling explanation for why the company, until then always the top publisher of action comics, surrendered their dominance to Marvel, which has held onto the number one spot ever since. During the mid-’50s, in the wake of government censorship trials that effectively destroyed EC, the publisher of the most aesthetically advanced material the comic book format had yet seen, DC came to the fore with a visual identity crafted by future company art director Carmine Infantino: sleek and economical, with long, distended panel shapes, cookie-cutter settings that shifted almost imperceptibly from Swedish-modern suburban to futuristic, and an approach to portraying action that, perhaps in response to the recent outcry against excessively violent comics, emphasized grace and fluidity of motion over bone-shuddering impact. It was a style tailor-made for success in the socially conservative Space Age, and as the comics industry went comatose following its near-death experience, DC’s resurgent superhero comics provided one of a very few aesthetic and commercial bright spots.
“Hellboy” page from Dark Horse Presents #151 (2000). Mike Mignola.
Mike Mignola’s Hellboy universe might be the most common place for readers to notice something different is being done with the sequencing of the imagery that makes up the comics they’re reading. A large part of what makes Mignola’s stories so wonderful is the way they behave like typical examples of action-adventure comics until they suddenly refuse to do so any longer, and parachute off into far weirder and more interesting realms. The same thing can be said for the way Mignola (and the numerous notable artists who’ve followed in his stylistic wake on the property) puts his pages together. If any post-Jack Kirby artist can be said to have created a truly unique and formally innovative style of constructing action comics, Mignola’s undoubtedly a strong candidate for the top of the list. And as far as the influence that style has had on the form, he’s peerless.
From Hell #7 (1995), page 12. Eddie Campbell.
One of the most consistently interesting aspects of Eddie Campbell’s comics art — whether it’s drawn in paint or ink, with pens or brushes, in color or black and white or hazed in screen tones — is the push and pull between chaos and control it always carries. Campbell sticks to the grid as much as anyone. His stories progress in an almost uniformly metronomic, evenly measured, deliberate fashion, more concerned with catching clear pictures of as many moments as possible and letting readers come upon the important ones naturally than thrusting anything into the audience’s face. But there is always a strong element of wildness present in Campbell too. No matter the tools or the approach he’s using, there are always lines or brush strokes or tone dots that wriggle away from whatever figurative content his panels hold and out toward the edges, seeking the place in the frame where they can best exist as nothing but media on paper, set free from the picture’s meaning in search of their own. It’s the way these two truths of Campbell’s work interact, now in harmony, now struggling for control, that brings the comics to beating, vibrant life.
Here’s last week’s installment, featuring an intro to who Krigstein is and what he’s all about. Short version: the best artist to work for the best genre-comics publisher of all time (EC), unsurpassed in his masterful use of sequencing, but — this is the important part — frequently hemmed in by the undercooked stories he was assigned to draw and the limited length he was given to explore what dramatic potential they had in. Krigstein never drew a story longer than twelve pages. However, the way he went about solving these problems, as we’ll see, was a big part of what made him not only unique but truly great.
And now to business.
Here’s a prime example of how Krigstein seamlessly elevated less-than-inspired script material. Saddled with wordy, adjective-weighted narration that nonetheless transitions between scenes at the snap of a finger, from bundled up on the streets of London to pajama-clad in a hotel room with a single narrow panel in between, Krigstein has no hope of giving the action a blow-by-blow reading. The rapid jump cutting employed here is a necessity, not a choice; but look at just how elegantly Krigstein carries it off, by placing an element in each panel that ties it to both the previous and the next. We move smoothly from the lamp in panel one to the streetlight in panel two to the wall torch occupying the same exact spot in panel three. Then Krigstein takes advantage of the strict top-to-bottom reading the high, thin panels he’s boxed into creates, ending panel three with his character’s feet before featuring them in the tier’s final frame. It’s an incredibly awkward format somehow made to flow like melted butter, a beautiful little bit of work.
It’s taken me a while to get around to taking a look at Bernard Krigstein on this column, though that’s hardly because I haven’t wanted to. Quite the opposite, in fact: every week when I write one of these things, he’s the first artist I think of spotlighting. The reason he’s gone unmentioned for so long is that the challenge he presents to the analyst of comics art is just so daunting. Even when one sets aside his razor-sharp drawing ability, his intuitive, museum-worthy compositional skill, and his unsurpassed way with graphic design to look at the sequencing alone, there’s more going on than could possibly be said. So I ended up giving up on finding a single, telegraphing Krigstein sequence and elected to pack as many as possible into today’s column, because put simply, Krigstein wrote the book on sequencing — his every page a bold statement about effective, economical, and above all dramatic presentation of content.
Batman #404-407 (1986-87). David Mazzucchelli.
Despite his having drawn two of the bangin’-est, bone crunching-est superhero comics of the modern age (namely Daredevil Born Again and the book at hand, Batman Year One), few would argue that a — perhaps the — defining aspect of David Mazzucchelli’s approach to his mainstream comics work is its great subtlety. The artist’s decision to leave superheroes for the greater freedom of alternative comics may have been surprising at the time, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense: Mazzucchelli was never as interested in the roaring moments of climax that are action comics’ stock in trade as he was in the smaller, tension-filled moments of ascent and decline that bookend them. It was perhaps inevitable that he would one day leave the spandex merry-go-round in order to investigate them more deeply, but in his timeless collaboration with Frank Miller on Year One, Mazzucchelli was able to find an ideal point between noise and quiet, action and inertia: superhero comics somehow created to lack the kitschy “zap bam pow” element, given a truer “real-world” feel than can be found just about anywhere else in the genre.
Ditko’s World #1 (1986), page 19. Steve Ditko.
Few careers in comics are as full of bizarre happenings and unanswered questions as Steve Ditko’s — and yet it often seems to me that the crowning strangeness of Ditko’s six decades (!) as a cartoonist is his popularity, the fact that even the most unadventurous of comics readers know his name and are at least familiar with his work in passing. Ditko’s work is almost aggressively non-mainstream, and grows more so with every passing year. He happened to be in the right place at the right time once, when an angular, surrealistic strip with a near-pathological lead character and the unlikely name “Spider-Man” hit it big with a generation of comics readers on the lookout for something different. But even Ditko’s most famous creation only really took off once he walked away from it, leaving John Romita to smooth the rough edges from a strip that Ditko lanced through with menacing shadows, an urban landscape on the brink of decay, and an attitude that danced between aspiration and hatred, pulling back the curtain on the dark side of youthful energy.
“Jimbo” strip (1987), page 4. Gary Panter.
Smooth, even, uninterrupted flow is very often held up as the cardinal virtue for a sequence of comic book art. And most of the time, it is. Cartoonists are able to get around one of the fundamental problems of the comics medium — accurately depicting the passage of time — when they can create the sense that their panels represent a unified, unbroken section of time in motion, rather than single frozen moments put in order. But it all depends on what kind of comic is being made. In sequences where the forward thrust of the action isn’t the most important thing for the reader to feel, flow goes out the window, and other, more unusual considerations begin to play a greater role.
Most often, sequences that lack a definite sense of linear motion are atmospheric, establishing a sense of tone or place that eventually provides a background for more typical action storytelling. But on the page above, Gary Panter is up to something quite different. Atmospherics require extended exploration of a single theme, which is the last thing on Panter’s mind. Rather than spend the time taken up by multiple panels evoking a setting, Panter simply gives his establishing shot a vast amount of space, grounding his sequence with the single, nearly half-page sized panel of gloomy, cavernous sewer innards that literally hangs over the rest of the page. It’s the same trick George Herriman frequently employed in his panoramic Sunday strips: keep readers in plain sight of a setting and there’s no need to beat them over the head with it in every panel.
The Amazing Spiderman #88 (1970), page 6. John Romita.
John Romita came to his decades-long tenure on Marvel superhero comics from a career as a solid-to-outstanding illustrator of romance stories, and when he arrived he was asked to pencil his first costumed-action book over rough layouts by Marvel’s main stylistic voice at the time, Jack Kirby. He learned his lessons from the King well. Decades after Kirby had ceased to be the company’s prime mover, young artists recruited by Marvel were still sent to learn their fundamentals from Romita.
Silver Surfer (2nd series) #1 (1987), page 13. Marshall Rogers.
Space is the first practical consideration an artist needs to tackle when composing a page of comics. The size of the page itself is important, but it’s been standardized at something around 6.5″ by 10″ (with an original size of 10″ by 15″) for so long that many of America’s greatest cartoonists spent their entire careers composing for nothing but “comic book size”. Within that dominant stricture, use of the area available becomes a pressing question. Approaches to fitting more than usual into the same amount of space as ever are many and varied, to say the least; but more often than not they involve some kind of addition, a new method for cramming a lot into a little. Meticulous detail, bigger amounts of smaller panels — we’ve all seen these approaches succeed, and we’ve also seen what happens when there’s simply more than can please the eye being put on the page.
What’s fascinating about the Marshall Rogers page above is the amount of space being explored with five panels drawn in the workaday, simplified-realist Marvel Comics house style. Rogers, like Carmine Infantino before him, was a student of architecture, and brought the architect’s understanding of practical construction within a limited amount of space to his every page. Panel-to-panel transitions sizzle and page turns strike notes of suspense or release under Rogers’ direction — as much because of the smooth, perfectly choreographed paths he led the eye down to them as the content of the pictures. Finally, Rogers colored his own pages, giving him a leg up on just about every other superhero artist in history as far as getting the work to do what he wanted it to.
“Pablo Ferro Films” (1967). Victor Moscoso.
There’s always some education to be had from looking at comics by artists who are better known for their work in other media. Victor Moscoso is one of two members of hippie-era San Francisco’s legendary Zap Comix collective whose work on rock concert posters is arguably more notorious and influential than his comics. (Rick Griffin accompanies him in this category.) That isn’t to say, however, that Moscoso’s comics have wielded anything less than a tremendous influence over the past few decades, despite the fact that they remain somewhat under-discussed. Moscoso brought color printing to the medium’s underground, did work in Zap that anticipates the most adventurous of today’s experimental comics, and brought a cubist-inflected fine art sensibility to his pages that echoes in the work of cartoonists from Gary Panter to Art Spiegelman.
Gasoline Alley Sunday page (1934). Frank King.
Even when cartoonists working in the comic book format caught on to the fact that it was possible to design sequential pages that also worked as unified visual statements, it never quite worked the same as the Sunday strip. The context of the single-page broadsheet comic is something that the form lacked for years post-1950 or so, and has only recently begun to make a return. To really understand Sunday pages it’s necessary to think about how they were originally presented, not how we see them today.
For the better part of the medium’s first half-century, its territory was the funny pages, not the pamphlet and certainly not the book. The comics sections of yesteryear provided artists with a presentational challenge that the comic book format avoids: when each page of the work’s delivery system is drawn in a completely different style on a completely different subject by a completely different artist, that work lacks a pre-existing context. It’s forced, essentially, to create its own. To my mind, the emphasis the comics section put on creating a fully-rounded aesthetic statement in one page is at least as responsible for the staggering weight of brilliance the Sunday page format produced as a more frequently discussed property — page size — is. When the turn of each page doesn’t add to the experience of a single work of art but actively works against it, the one-page spotlight an artist is given becomes an urgent call for something fully formed, a single page that stands alone. Like the one above.
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.
It’s a little something different on Your Wednesday Sequence this week, folks. For weeks now I’ve been wanting to dig into the rock-solid action storytelling of Benjamin Marra, who draws comics like Jack Kirby given a dose of Giotto DNA and filled to the bursting point with speed metal and grindhouse movies. Ben’s work on Night Business and Gangsta Rap Posse (a bracing new issue of which was just released) is about as close to flawlessly constructed as comics get: deceptively simple strings of phenomenal drawings that flow like a waterfall. Luckily enough for me, Ben was willing to answer a few of my questions on composition, layout, pacing, and a bunch of other comic book-making inside dope. And luckily enough for you, I’m posting our Q and A right here. Get ready to learn from a master, kids…
MATT SENECA: Your comics have always emphasized gridded layouts, but in your latest comic, Gangsta Rap Posse #2, you stick almost exclusively to a basic six-panel grid, with each of the frames the exact same size as all the others. What makes that layout so appealing to you?
BENJAMIN MARRA: There are several reasons. Firstly, I think it’s the most efficient system for constructing and reading comic book pages. Many masters of comic book art and storytelling have worked off of it, like Kirby, Alan Moore (to an extent), Kyle Baker and Gary Panter. If the six-panel grid was good enough for Kirby, it’s good enough for me. It’s also a matter of time. If my page layout is pre-determined I’ve spared myself from having to solve many additional problems and can spend time focusing exclusively on what the panels contain. Additionally, I think it’s a more accessible format for new readers. A lot of comics these days focus too much on doing unnecessarily crazy page layouts (I guess stemming from Neal Adams’ response to Steranko?) with panels, instead of focusing on what’s within the panels, which is what’s really crucial. Wild panel layouts just confuse readers who aren’t already versed in comics as a language.