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Krazy Kat, April 4th 1937. George Herriman.
George Herriman has spent the better part of a century as the pick of those who know for greatest cartoonist of all time. And yet his masterpiece, Krazy Kat, is a much less striking thing than work by so many others in the pantheon of immortal comics makers. It doesn’t bowl the reader over visually like McCay or Moebius, and it doesn’t grip and not let go like Mignola or Kirby. One doesn’t marvel at its intricacy of structure like one does with Ware, or feel dizzied by its singularity of vision as in Panter. Krazy Kat is not a comic of surface effect, and Herriman did not intend it to be so. Rather than stretching a dazzling skin over his creations, he left them open — full of empty space, available for differing interpretations — and simply put forth content.
ACME Novelty Library #1 (1993), page 28. Chris Ware.
Chris Ware is one of a very few artists working in comics — honestly, a very few ever to have worked in comics — to have developed a completely unique visual style. We can look at anything Ware draws and know it’s him by the precision of his meticulous, even lines, the muted but expressive color palette, the simplification of forms that manages to seem both naturalistic and artificial. Any single Ware drawing codes for an entire way of making comics, a language the artist has created for himself from the raw material of panels and balloons.
Which makes it all the more interesting to see work by Ware done in different styles. The experience of reading a comic hammers the style the artist uses into our heads so relentlessly — the goal, after all, is that you fully believe their particular system of shapes and colors represents objective reality — and it can be easy to forget anyone can draw in a different style than we’ve seen on their most recent pages. With Ware especially, the world drawn is so rich, so much more varied in what it presents than almost anywhere else in comics, that seeing him do something outside his usual mode is almost a visceral shock.
Corto Maltese in Africa (1978), page 51. Hugo Pratt.
American action cartooning has Jack Kirby, the Japanese have Tezuka, France has Herge — and in Italy, there is Hugo Pratt. Like all the truly great cartoonists, Pratt picked up his country’s comics tradition and moved its trajectory into line with that of his own work: the epic historical adventures contained in his Corto Maltese saga provided a stylistic blueprint Italian cartoonists would draw on or react against for decades after the series began appearing, and Pratt has provided inspiration for comics artists around the world — Paul Pope is an avowed devotee, Eddie Campbell and Mike Mignola picked up more than a few lessons, and hey, does anybody remember the name of the contested island that provides Frank Miller’s Dark Knight with its nuclear conclusion? It seems bizarrely fitting that in the week Moebius passes on, the English-speaking world should be reintroduced to late 20th-century Europe’s other foundational cartoonist via a new series of Corto translations.
Truth #2 (2003), page 12 panels 1-4. Kyle Baker.
When you boil it down to the core, action comics is basically an artist manipulating a set of stock poses. The writing can invent different reasons for conflict to come about and layer significance into it as it’s happening. Different page construction tools — both layout and in-panel composition — control the ebb and flow of what we’re reading, making each impact feel a little different and each action taken pop out as unique. Even if we’ve all read thousands of panels in which someone gets punched, each one is the only one that shows it happening a certain way. Finally, the stylism a cartoonist blankets their drawing with is as much a part of any piece of comics as the content — even if an artist copies another’s page panel for panel, the mannerisms that are an unavoidable byproduct of the act of drawing ensures that the result will be something significantly different.
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.