Why The Russos Are The Best Thing to Happen to the MCU Since Joss Whedon
The easiest way of thinking about sequence goes something like this: multiple panels, related by subject or context and taken together at a steady rate, fuse together into a single, more communicative thing. Something that imparts more meaning than a single drawing can. But it gets a little more complex than that when the question of what exactly constitutes a panel is raised.
One might say it is an individual drawing, and be correct in a high percentage of cases. But the true difference between “panel” and “sequence” is functionally impossible to pin down, better defined case by case than with a single sweeping bit of language. After all, it’s no easy task to define what an “individual drawing” is either. Is it one fully formed object, such as a figure or an environmental feature? Perhaps not — there can be plenty of those in single panels. Is it everything an artist puts down into one uninterrupted space? Maybe, but in that case are word balloons separate panels? The lines blur when you look at it too carefully, and as with everything in the language of comics, an attempt to state a definition with words is doomed to fail. The eyes know better than the written word can say; better to go through a book of your choosing, any will do, and let them tell you that this thing, this drawing or collection of drawings is a panel, and this one a sequence.
Ganges #2 (2008) page 3. Kevin Huizenga.
Comics’ panel-by-panel mode of presentation is incredibly effective at sucking people in. The simple fact that we say we “read” comics when we describe following strings of pictures attests to how strong a tool for immersion sequencing is. And it’s especially strong when we step back for a moment and think about just how weird, how alien cartoons look. A single panel of a comic, especially one drawn with the blend of simplification and exaggeration that forms the look of newspaper strips and many alternative comics, is as much a conceptual statement about form as a depictive drawing. Where the real depiction comes into play is with the sequencing, which turns cartoons from abstractions into living vehicles for movement and action.
Kevin Huizenga is one of the cartoonists whose work addresses comics’ conflict between the abstract and the literal most frequently and interestingly. Huizenga’s attempts at using comics to mimic the visual effect of video games are especially notable: rather than creating the simulacrum of reality that the vast majority of comics do, what is brought forth instead is a simulacrum of a simulacrum, a copy of a copy, something already abstract abstracted further, its ties to reality stressed and stretched about as close to the breaking point as they can go.
Incanto (2006), pages 11 and 12. Frank Santoro.
One of the main problems all visual art has to deal with (comics very much included) is the fact that it’s completely impossible to create an artistic representation of the world that matches the fullness of visual experience we get by simply keeping our eyes open in daily life. Instead, art becomes a lens through which we focus on particular details of the visual world at the expense of others, a process of selective simplifications. The cartoon drawing that nearly all comics art engages in to some extent or another is a form in which art’s move out of reality toward a place of greater simplicity is put right on display. Cartooning is basically a rigorous form of abstraction, in which the world’s every shape and form is put through the funnel of an individual drawing style, coming out the other end as a readable system of pared down two-dimensional symbols.
Put simply, cartooning is a type of figurative drawing, a way to approach the making of representative marks. However, it’s interesting to note that cartooning’s process differs from the basic idea behind figurative drawing fairly significantly. More or less, drawing is an attempt to create a convincing facsimile of the real world, to approximate it by creating a sense of visual reality even if complete duplication is impossible. Cartooning, on the other hand, is more often about creating something solidly other than what surrounds us. The best cartoonists are the best stylists, less concerned with the realism of their work and more with its internal logic, making shapes and lines that have more to do with stylistic consistency than the look of reality. Cartooning jettisons fidelity to the way things really are for a uniformity of appearance: under the brushes of the best, it’s always apparent that everything, from clouds to cars to clothes to characters, have come from the same unmistakable hand.
Watchmen #7 (1986), page 16. Dave Gibbons.
Dream sequences are always a lot of fun. The comics medium nails dream states on a regular basis better than any other medium, in my opinion. Something about it is perfectly pitched to depicting that particular mental activity. Maybe it’s because we dream “in comics” a lot of the time — science tells us that the amount of actual moving images we see in dreams is relatively small compared to the number of still images that flash one after another through our minds, linked into continuity by the imagination. The narratives we create while dreaming exercise the same thought processes we use to read comics, so perhaps it’s no wonder that seeing dreams drawn into comics form feels so right, so familiar.
Dream comics so often means formalist comics — the call to produce a convincingly different state of consciousness gets inside the layouts at least as often as the boxes themselves, the actual mode of working altered to reflect it. The dream sequence is a chance to push boundaries and try things, to cut loose or bring a little something extra. The Dave Gibbons page above is one of the all-time great dream scenes, up there with Jim Steranko’s psychedelic muraling in Captain America and Winsor McCay’s all-time champion fantasies on Little Nemo.
The Amazing Spider-Man Sunday Spectacular (2011), pages 5-6 panels 4-7. Marcos Martin.
The basic motivating idea behind comics art is “pictures that move.” The whole point of sequence is to force readers into seeing motion between images, to position individual pictures as the captured points of larger, extended passages of movement. That said, on the printed page “pictures that move” is an obvious oxymoron. The stillness of drawn images is one of the most fundamental problems that comics have to work against, and as with other non-negotiable truths of the medium like its lack of ability to produce sound or light, pretty much every artist of note has come up with a slightly different way to overcome it.
One of the more convincing ways to imply real motion is with layout. An individual drawing can communicate a single motion wonderfully when it’s done right, but beyond that it’s limited, unable to do more than pin down one small section of time. When individual drawings are put together they form a string of single moments, single actions, but it’s the way they’re put together that determines whether or not that string reads as something continuous, unbroken. At its best, layout amplifies the motion implied by the drawings it holds, smoothing out the gaps between them and forcing the reader to stitch them together into one unified whole.
The Wrong Place (2010), page 72. Brecht Evens.
The printed comics page is rarely allowed to exist as a whole. In comics as they’re traditionally done, the page is basically a vehicle for strings of panels, connected to one another by narrative and the flow of action but usually nothing more. Panels are typically conceived as isolated moments, with poses and camera angles and color schemes unique unto themselves. When one follows the next it almost always tracks the same dialogue streams, the same characters, the same forward thrust of time; but rarely if ever does it expand on the actual space set out in the box before it. Comics cut and cut and cut again, like a film helmed by a hyperactive editor. This is most often a searching medium, forever sliding into new angles and new compositions, looking for a newer and more immediate way into the spaces being set out by the story.
But the page itself is a space too — a single, uninterrupted space, one surface, even when it’s been sectioned up by gutter lines. The artists of comics worth paying attention to are usually aware of this to some extent or another, composing passages of panel-to-panel cutting that also work as a single visual unit, treating the page as a venue for both incremental storytelling and immediate fine art. There’s something to be said for pages that can be taken in all at once, that pull all the space the surface has to give into the accomplishment of a single visual effect.
2001 (2011). Blaise Larmee.
The comic we’re going to talk about to day is a webcomic, which is cool because it means you don’t have to leave your seat to read it. That’s just one picture up there: the sequence is here. Go take a look, then come back.
You good? Ok.
The webcomics medium itself forces the artist to confront choices that the printed page does not. The most obvious as well as the most important is just that, the lack of a page. In print, everything a cartoonist does has to hang around the page, the non-negotiable single unit, the contributing part of the whole. Unless the work in question is a Sunday page-style one sheet (pretty much a dead form in comics, honestly), it has to deal with those splits, the spaces between pages. One of the most special and unique things about comics is how it can present multiple story moments for simultaneous viewing with paneled pages, but that simultaneity only extends until the end of the page. Pages break things up by the very nature of what they are.
Garden (2011), page 12. Yuichi Yokoyama.
(remember, manga means read right to left)
Saying Yuichi Yokoyama is the best artist of environmental processes that comics have going is a bit like saying somebody is the best right fielder the nation of Switzerland has going: it isn’t really something we’ve got a lot of. Even with the increasing prominence of landscape drawings in American comics — I’d guess it’s a combined effect of the art-comix revolution, which put sequential pages on the same level as fine-art paintings for the first time, and the translated manga boom, which introduced many a stateside reader to the more landscape-heavy Japanese comics tradition — the emphasis I see is surprisingly foreign to the comics medium. In both American and Japanese cartooning, most landscape scenes seem mainly concerned with using the form to put forth a panorama of images, a bouquet of still shots. That’s fine, but it misses a potential that this Yuichi Yokoyama page taps deep into.
What simple landscape drawing misses in its depiction of environments is that the world is a living place, a constantly unfolding process rather than a fixed background. Traditional, single-image landscape painting can’t really be called on to depict that process since it’s only single images; but comics can, and yet it does so rarely. That’s the purest, most transcendent aspect of Yokoyama’s strangely literalist manga: he draws the living world, and he uses the comics form to do it. In Yokoyama, environmental forces perform the role of “characters” with regularity, propelling sequence with the development that their very existence entails. Here, more typical characters drop out entirely and the page fixes around an unusual type of interaction for comics: not that of living things, but of the natural and man-made worlds. And still, it’s as dynamic and recognizable a “short story” as any tracking of human movement through space or conversation, a beginning, middle, and end in five panels.
Pulphope (2007), page 32. Paul Pope.
Creating the illusion of movement is one of the main goals of comics art. It’s what sequence is there for. That said, it’s not the hardest thing to do when the movement in question is that of human figures or familiar machines. Dynamic posing and composition work quite nicely much of the time, even when it isn’t quite certain where the movement is being directed, or how. Comics have a library of stock gestures and shot transitions for artists to pull from in order to sell their action. Creating a sense of real life on the page is one thing, but to simply put some jump in the pictures, two words — “copy Kirby” — are often all that’s needed.
However, that’s only true as long as the artist is dealing with easily recognizable forms. Abstract comics have become a more and more significant part of the dialogue surrounding the art form over the past few years, and artists in that section of the medium are faced with a different set of challenges. How does one animate pure shape or color or linework, how can these things be convincingly brought to life? It’s not a question with a solid answer yet. There’s no How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way for abstraction, no solid set of rules cartoonists can turn to to string their non-figurative drawings into sequences that work as comics, accumulations of images that build power and function as more than the sum of their parts. I think it’s probable that one day some artist is going to come along and lay down a broad, workable grammar for abstract comics the way Kirby did for action or Ernie Bushmiller did for gags, but until then abstract comics are shots in the dark, unarmed forays into unknown territory.
Yes, yes, I can see perfectly well that this is only one panel. But sequence is just the same as anything else: one definition works fine until you run across something that contradicts it. To my eyes, the picture above is one such something. Today we’re going to examine how an artist can build sequence into a single image, creating pictorial motion without having to subdivide the page with panel borders.
We’ve already seen how sequence is subjective. The information on any page of comics exists independent of order, and while most artists lay out their pages in a way that leaves little of that order to question, it’s easy enough to skip around in the panels of comics your own way, randomizing the events or stitching new meanings into them. (What do you mean you’ve never tried that? You really should.) This is especially true of silent comics, where there are no strings of dialogue or narration to get in the way. Similarly, there’s almost never one correct, proscribed way to read a single panel, a logic the reader is meant to follow to move through one picture. In multi-panel comics, the images are most often meant as quick hits of action or locale, with only a single stage of the events taking place communicated within them before the next one hits. When there is more than that going on, as in this single-frame strip by Doug Wright, the Charles Schulz of Canada, what the reader is dealing with is sequence.
Poem Strip (1969), pages 151-153. Dino Buzzati.
The action sequence is probably the type of comics-making that the greatest number of artists have engaged in (except maybe the gag), and it’s also one of the best tests of a cartoonist’s ability to do what they do convincingly. Action demands that an artist utilize a number of skill sets all at once: an understanding of the human figure to sell the gestures, composition to produce impact, panel-to-panel transitions to move the reader through it, attention to detail so that the action’s environment never gets lost behind it. Beside that, words on the page become meaningless at best during action, actual impediments at worst. Action is perhaps the facet of comics storytelling in which it helps least to be told what you’re seeing. The artist alone sells action. And as we know, sequencing is what sells comics art.
Dino Buzzati’s early graphic novel Poem Strip is sequenced with an incredibly loose touch, with long prose captions spilling over into poster-style full-page panels or irregular grids. The sequence above is really the only point at which Buzzati digs in and makes comics in a way that’s at least close to his era’s more typical Kirby/Ditko method. It’s striking to see kinetic, moment-to-moment storytelling from an outside-comics artist like Buzzati (who only ever made one entry into sequential art) — this is obviously not the work of someone who learned to block out a fight by standing at the foot of a journeyman cartoonist’s drawing table or poring through Mort Meskin back issues. Yet it gets so much of the grammar so right while evading the cliche musclebound drawing mannerisms, and beside that it brings an exhilarating sense of newness onto the page, a feeling that physical conflict and motion in space has never been done quite this way in comics before. It’s beautiful, violent poetry.
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Saga of the Swamp Thing #34 (1985), page 17. Steve Bissette.
The grid, in one form or another, is such a ubiquity in comics art that it’s hard to think of logic to apply or standard rules to serve as guidelines for breaking out of it. Even when panels of the strangest shapes are used, even when the lines they follow are counter-intuitive and asymmetrical, the basic look of the comics page is a rectangle filled up with smaller pictures that have been neatly arranged to fit inside it like puzzle pieces. Pulling the grid off the page is like pulling the cloth off a table — the space is large, and bare, and it can be daunting to figure out how to go about setting it. The great comics artists have worked in grids, period. One has to go far afield, typically to the medium’s forgotten psychedelicists, names like Greg Irons or Philippe Druillet or Alex Nino, before encountering comics art that attempts to make grid-less pages work as anything more than cheap novelty. Without a grid, the artist is truly alone — no automatic compositional axis to base the page around, no storytelling rhythm in place, and few canonical works to draw inspiration from.
Steve Bissette went “off the grid” at an almost feverish rate in his mid-’80s work with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing. Though Moore’s scripts have drawn (at least) hundreds of times as many praise, Bissette’s artwork isn’t just the aspect of the comics that’s aged best — it’s what makes them work at all. This page is a prime example of why: Moore’s captions are poesy rather than narration, verse and not prose. They swirl around in blatant disregard of the idea that an artist must put direct action of some sort or other on the page, calling up flashes of color and shadowy half-forms instead. Gridding a sequence in which “clusters of insect eggs burn like nebulae, suspended in their unique and vine-wrought cosmos,” and things only go on like that too, would border on the ridiculous. These words are not intended to produce an exact counterpoint in the art. They’re flights of fancy. Bissette understands this, and does the same thing: this page is anything but literal, vague in its depiction of both progression through time and movement through space. Instead, it gives us multiple, somewhat interconnected views into one scene, leaving plenty of space for Moore’s image-rich writing. Rather than simply act as an echo to the words, Bissette finds their purpose and creates a complementary piece of art.
Upon A Star (1985), page 37. Moebius.
Of all the reams of beautiful comics made by the legendary French cartoonist Jean “Moebius” Giraud, I think this page is my personal favorite. Moebius is one of the rare artists whose work becomes more and more interesting the further it goes from story content and straight depictive drawing. His renditions of the human figure are flawless, and he’s one of the best designers comics have ever had, but his art reaches its greatest intensity and elegance when it’s at its simplest, presenting not futurist vistas or eye-popping creatures, but elemental forces, strong and simple. Crystals, still skies, light projections; these transcendent subjects, not much suited to instigating story action but perfect for mesmerized contemplation, have inspired Moebius’s most transcendent drawings.
Moebius’s art always feels like it’s straining at the barriers of reality, negotiating the points where the way things really look meet the fundamental, cryptic forms to which his pen is best suited. He’s a storyteller whose most potent skill is abstraction, and that’s why this sequence is such a perfect example of his work. It’s got every facet of his drawing style prominently displayed: shimmering auras, softly psychedelic colors, smooth, laser-sculpted forms, an ebullient sense of movement, a thin, clean line whose delicacy is matched only by its immediacy. Style itself becomes subject here. It’s at least as easy to focus on the virtuosic level of craft Moebius brings to this page as it is the actual content, which is hermetic and mysterious, perhaps even downright incomprehensible.
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.
“Pop!” one-page strip in Solo #12 (2006). Brendan McCarthy.
At times the things that can be achieved by comics’ usual mode of sequencing — strings of single panels after single panels — can seem almost limitless. Looking at it from the inside out, as a comics-literate reader who can see the vast differences in approach to sequence that distinguish a Ware from a Kirby from an Eisner, it’s easy to get lost in just how diverse the pages can get. But take a step back and look at comics as one visual medium among many, a vehicle for creating information to be absorbed through the eyes, and the methods of sequencing used by its artists begin to look surprisingly limited.
Think about it — or better yet, get out a bunch of your comics, all genres, all drawing styles, as diverse and differentiated a selection as you can find, and give them all a flip-though. While comics have no shortage of different colors on their pages and different methods of mark-making swimming through their panels, a ridiculously large majority of them stick to that one typical mode of sequencing — boxed panels following boxed panels, groups of them fit more or less perfectly together like puzzle pieces, jammed snugly into the rectangle of the page. The grid, as wonderful and variable a sequencing tool as it is, possesses a downright tyrannical stranglehold on the comics form.
Now I don’t know about you, but personally I like reading comics better than I like reading prose chiefly because their pages don’t all look the same. And it’s frustrating to see how many comics lock themselves into prose’s side-scrolling, line-above-line sequencing pattern to put their information across. Try to think about a page of comics as a painter or a sculptor would and it’s almost laughable. Why does everyone stay in those safe little boxes all the time? A page of comics is a canvas, a big pure space that can contain anything, and yet for over a century now, its artists have jailed their pictures in panel borders rather than exploring the possibilities of setting them free on the page, leading readers’ eyes along lines that aren’t straight and short and easy.