O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
“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.
The Great Adventure (1978), page 102 panels 4-10. Milo Manara.
I’ll never tire of comparing comics to painting, but when sequencing is the topic of discussion the most relevant medium to compare it to is probably architecture. Sequence is all about construction, and all the beautiful drawing in the world can’t save something built on a shaky foundation. And sometimes it’s not about seeing crazy formalist tricks or innovative new approaches to sequence, but the artist’s simple ability to carry you through a bit of story as seamlessly as possible. To stretch the metaphor, flying buttresses and Roman columns are nice, but you also need a place to live in.
Milo Manara takes a ton of criticism and will probably never get his full due as a pure artist of comics (he pretty much exclusively draws material that falls into the “bangin’ girls getting violated in some way or another” genre, if you don’t know), but his skill is formidable to say the least. There’s an algorithm to the panels above, one that’s almost impossible to replicate. Fully fleshed out but never overstuffed, meticulously detailed but not at all belabored, each frame is an isolated glimpse into a completely convincing pen-and-ink world. Nowhere does the pure white of between-panel gutters strike as great a contrast to the space they frame as in Manara, which may not sound like much but is critical to the waterfall-level flow his comics can build up in the space of a few frames. The human eye, being lazy, moves quickest over the lightest areas of space and lingers longest in the dark. Try it up above: this sequence unspools almost as smoothly as a film reel, with the spatial divisions of the paneled page rendered almost meaningless by the simple expediency of Manara’s dense background hatching.
Love & Rockets: New Stories #4 (2011), page 89. Jaime Hernandez.
I don’t think I’m advancing anything too controversial when I say that if there’s a Platonic ideal for the comic book page, it’s a piece of sequential art that works both as an assemblage of individual panels and as a single, unified artwork. This, of course, is a lot easier said than done. When gridded layouts are discarded to turn the page into a poster-style piece of op-art there’s always some readability being sacrificed, and the grid is all too often a vehicle for cartoonists to work inside without paying sufficient consideration to what sum their page’s parts are creating.
Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days (2009), page 23. Al Columbia.
Of course, no matter how realistically drawn or meticulously framed they get, no comics can even come close to accurately depicting reality; or even approximating it, really. When the human eye takes in the work of comics’ great photorealists — Alex Raymond, Neal Adams, Alex Ross — the message it sends to the brain speaks of a certain closeness to the look of the real, but the first thing it tells us is always that we’re looking at a drawing. This is why comics seem somehow lacking whenever they position themselves in competition with film: what that medium depicts is reality, stripped of a third dimension and re-presented at a later date. Comics, which can never escape their fundamental identity as works produced by human hands, are a medium of approximation, forever suggesting the existence of their content, never crossing the line into literal reproduction of anything that’s actually happened in the real world.
Wolverine #3 (1982), page 9. Frank Miller.
For all that Frank Miller deserves as much credit as any other American cartoonist for bringing Japanese comics to these shores, the intersections between his own comics and manga are somewhat surprisingly limited. It’s obvious from a flip through a vintage Miller comic that he’s fascinated by the work of Goseki (Lone Wolf and Cub) Kojima and Katsuhiro (Akira) Otomo — but beyond that powerful one-two punch, and maybe a bit of Golgo 13‘s Takao Saito, the chain of Japanese influence on Miller’s prime-period work is either subtle or nonexistent. Which doesn’t have to be any kind of problem; after all, the Miller of the early-mid 1980s was conducting a balancing act with the cartooning mannerisms of three continents, unifying the systems of visual codes used by comics from America, Europe, and Japan into a single style before anyone else even thought to do it. But it’s nice to see Miller go for a more purely Japanese moment on this page, one that calls back a lot further into that artistic tradition than his usual action manga debt-paying goes.
Will Eisner’s transition from superhero comics production lineman to game-changing action comics auteur to early master of the graphic novel is really something of a stunning career path when you think about it. It happened over such a long period of time that it isn’t seen as the kind of bold, unexpected move David Mazzucchelli’s sudden dismissal of Marvel heroes for one-color art comix is; but past Mazzucchelli there isn’t really anyone else who’s had a career in comics that traced so many disparate paths. Imagine, for context, Bryan Hitch cranking out Blaise Larmee-esque underground webcomics 10 years from now, or Jim Lee announcing his intent to take the reins as the new artist of Prison Pit.
What’s really stunning about Eisner’s many transitions as a comic book maker, however, (and let’s not forget his extended sojourns as a professor of comics and an artist of sequential-art instruction manuals for no less an institution than the United States Army while we’re at it) is that he never really reinvented the wheel, instead following a remarkably smooth and consistent progression from project to project, gig to disparate gig. The Mazzucchelli comparison is useful here as well: While even the smallest traces of the superhero artist who drew Frank Miller’s “Born Again” are barely visible in the work of the graphic novelist who gave the world Asterios Polyp, this page from Eisner’s early-’80s graphic novel prime is immediately, firmly recognizable as the product of the same hand that created The Spirit more than 40 years prior. More impressive still is the way Eisner uses the same bag of tricks he assembled in his decade as the auteur of a weekly (weekly!) superhero comic book on this little slice of understated, observational “serious” comics.
Tintin in Tibet (1959), page 15 panels 7-9. Herge.
Figuring out the density of a page of comics is one of the most important challenges that a cartoonist faces between idea and finished product, but it’s also one that’s frustratingly tricky to talk or even think about. How does one measure how much happens on a page other than pointing and saying “this much?” And how does a cartoonist decide on the optimum amount of story to convey with each canvas? I’d hazard a guess that most of the time for both reader and creator, these aren’t conscious practices, and the varying densities of different cartoonists’ approaches simply occur rather than being plotted out.
(I dunno what I’m doing with the numbering on these things either)
New Gods (1984 reprint series) #6 page 30. Jack Kirby.
The comics-critical landscape that has sprung up around Jack Kirby — often the man himself as much as his work — in the past few decades can be worryingly polarized. Though there’s plenty of good, clear-headed writing on what Kirby did with and for comics, there’s reams more of both hagiographic praise (which is fair enough, because this is one of the great artists not just in comics but of the 20th century) and the-emperor-has-no-clothes teardowns (which is also fair, because no one short of world leaders can really be said to deserve the amount of hosannas that have been heaped on Kirby).
“Frogs!” in Comixscene #3 (1973). Jim Steranko.
Right down to the phrase “reading comics”, there’s something about the medium we get wrong all too often. Narrative storytelling is not inherent to comics. Other media — film, music, and even to a certain extent prose — are continuous, a single uninterrupted flow from one place to another. We assign narrative to even the most abstract works in these forms, yielding to the temptation to figure out “what they mean”. Comics, on the other hand, is a medium of constant truncations, constantly cutting itself off from panel to panel, never able to establish much narrative momentum before the view into the action switches and the story rebuilds itself again. Continuity in comics is suggested by the artist at best, and even when things are presented as clearly as possible, when they exist in multiple panels it ultimately falls to the reader to put things in sequence, to make drawing after disconnected drawing line up and make sense.
Ada (2010), pages 2-3. Atak.
The sequence that the pictures on a page of comics run in is the most important decision an artist in the form can make; everything proceeds from there. Less pressingly important, but still often worth examining, is the sequencing of words. I don’t mean the poetic order that the individual units of language are put in, but the actual organization of text on the page, the way the reader’s eye is invited to move from one line of text to the next. It’s so important to effective comics storytelling that the through-lines between blocks of type be clean and easy to follow that it can be difficult to find anything really out of the ordinary being done with them.
The predominance of designated letterers in commercial comics only adds to this homogeneity. A good letterer’s typefacing and balloon placement can elevate a comic greatly, but division of labor between the hands putting the pictures and words on the page places an inevitable disconnect between the two. Cartoonists of all stripes forget too often that words can be made to work as pictures, with the same telegraphing power and simplified grace as the most elegant drawings. And that the words on a comics page, just like the pictures, are open to bold and different sequencing techniques, pieces to be moved into place with all due abandon.
One of the most appealing things about the comics form is that no one’s ever been able to offer a satisfying definition of it, a telegraphing sentence-or-two that puts everything that is together into one continuum while simultaneously providing grounds to exclude everything that ain’t. What is comics? you ask. The best answer is that it’s complicated. Without a hard and fast verbal box to place it in, comics remains a fully living field, open to new claimants. There are plenty of kinds of comics that we’ve never seen before, that we won’t even know are comics until someone points it out. Mayan pictoglyphs, Mondrian canvases. The possibilities are endless.
With that said, I’d like to claim the movie trailer above for comics, if I may. Get over the fact that it’s a trailer for a bad movie: as always in this medium, there are more important things than the content going on here. And yes, I realize that the content isn’t the first impediment to a reading of a piece of film as comics. In our current era of genre comics that want nothing more dearly than to be big Hollywood blockbusters, the comparisons between comics and film are made over and over — to the detriment of both media, I believe. While both are ways of visual storytelling, that’s pretty much where the similarities begin and end. Film is all about the actual depiction of the world in motion, while comics’ raison d’etre is to strive against the impossibility of creating still images that also move. Comics, from Jack Kirby to Osamu Tezuka to Robert Crumb to Herge and on from there, are about the suggestion of motion more than its actual existence. Nailing down the pose that speaks of a whole gesture, finding separate planes within a single picture to pull the reader’s eye over it, organizing figures in space so that a read-through of a panel becomes an animation of a choreographed scene, these are the cartoonist’s tasks. To bring life to stillness; something from nothing.
Jonny Double #2 (1998), page 17 panels 1-5. Eduardo Risso.
The fight scene is like a litmus test for cartoonists. Of all the medium’s conventions, only the gag strip comes close to the sheer amount of depiction fighting has been given in comics. Like the gag, most good artists can choreograph one effectively. What’s much more difficult and much more rare is a fight that’s both blocked out well and unique looking. Unlike gags, however, the fight scene is a very specific thing: impact shots of multiple human figures in motion, negotiating one another’s presence in physical space. Again, just the number of times people fighting have been drawn into sequenced panels over the past century-plus of comics means it can be tough to find an acme for it that’s truly one’s own, completely untouched by anyone else.
So tough, in fact, that I don’t feel 100 percent comfortable declaring this Eduardo Risso sequence to be completely his own. Though I’ve read my fair share of comics and never seen anything like it, the possibility always exists that somewhere in some moldering Toth back issue or barely-distributed Tim Vigil zine, the same exact route was taken into showing the same actions. That said, it’s a great little piece of comics, and Risso bangs it out in a high style well worth examining regardless of its ultimate individuality.