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Little Nemo in Slumberland, February 2nd 1908. By Winsor McCay.
Comics and animation have an interesting relationship. Both can be broadly designated “pictures that move”, both have the same typical end goal of visual storytelling, and both rely on frame after frame of closely considered progression to push themselves forward. Someone smart (I can’t remember who right now, apologies) once said that animation is comics at 24 frames a second, which is basically true, especially when the physical medium — film strips — that animation resides on is considered. A stretch of animation celluloid is a comic, maybe a weird, incredibly slow-moving one, but a comic nonetheless. A litany of great comics artists, from Alex Toth and Jack Kirby to Matt Groening and Ben Jones, have done serious time in animation. The skill set isn’t the exact same thing by any means, but there’s plenty that translates.
Probably the artist whose works blur the boundary between comics and animation most severely is Winsor McCay. An early virtuoso in both media, McCay came closest to a fusion of the two with the page above, which finds its animated parallel in this video. The strange, funhouse-mirror distortions of anatomy are the same on the screen and on the page; by 1908 McCay possessed such an intimate knowledge of the character-forms he’d been drawing for years on end that he could stretch them out and squash them down perfectly, elongating and impacting their lines and contours without ever betraying the fundamental shapes behind them. It’s interesting to note the difference between the printed and projected versions of this scene. On screen, the focus is on the continuous transmutation from form to form to form, the flowing and ebbing of lines that never disappear, the characters’ interaction with the fixed borders of the frame. On the page, it’s all about the remarkable difference between fixed forms, the way the lines change disappear and reappear in immensely different form between panels without changing what they depict in the slightest.
The great cartoonist and critic Frank Santoro is once again tackling grid-pattern panel layouts, and this time he’s talking about arguably the most famous nine-panel grids of all: Those used by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in their stone-classic superhero dissection Watchmen. Here’s a sample that includes an insight about the art in that book that had never occurred to me before:
Get ready for some serious comics wonkery: Cold Heat cartoonist Frank Santoro (he of those bitchin’ Strange Tales II Silver Surfer pages) is talkin’ grids — specifically, the grid panel layouts most frequently used in North American comics. Frank’s argument is that the common six-panel grid is a great framework for pacing the flow of images but “loses the center” of the page, to which your eye would naturally be drawn, since there’s basically nothing there but a gutter. Three- or nine-panel grids, on the other hand, have a big ol’ box smack dab in the center, which gives the page extra power on an almost unconscious level. Santoro goes on to discuss some tricks artists have used to create a “center” for a page that uses a two/four/six/eight-panel grid, even though the grid itself gets in the way. It’s an eye-opening post if you’ve ever made comics, that’s for sure — read the whole thing.