Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Knot?

I felt the need to put down some late night thoughts on making comics. So if you do find the courage to wade toward the abyss of my mind I hope you'll forgive me any soapbox I might end up on and the bad grammar I may use while on it. I'm clearly no authority, these are simply thoughts I felt I needed to see in order to help process--

The common area in our studio space here is generally home to dozens of castaway comics. Usually the victims or survivors of the fickle, abusive needs Chris and I might have for them. So often times I will find myself re-examining something out of casual interest, just some odd or end that I happen to pick up out of boredom or strange unknowable attraction. This "morning", looking for some inspiration for a dynamic pose, I casually thumbed through an old collection of Walt Simonson's Thor that I'd found in the pile. As I flipped through the pages one literally leapt out to me--


Aside from it's aesthetic and and imagination, I believe that the page above is worth looking at as a way to illustrate a common predicament that all comics face: How do we use the tools at our disposal to control the flow and rate at which a reader takes in information?

In the simplest, most reductive sense I'd like to think that a reader begins with the first panel and navigates from word balloon to word balloon, processing the visuals along with the words in a perfect balance. But I tend to believe that no matter how engaged they might be, a reader is unable to completely narrow their focus to one panel at a time. In reality, as a they physically flip from page to page, a reader takes in the entire page as a whole. A first impression that, be it either active or passive, is unshakeable.

That leads me to the page above. As best as I can remember I believe I followed the hammer in panel one directly to the image of Odin "growing" in panel 3. The problem being (aside from skipping panel 2) is that as my eye was drawn downward with the momentum of the page, causing me to read panel 3 as Odin shrinking. Given that the earlier story informs me of the fact that Surtur (the big red devil) is a giant, it's a confusing notion to see the "shrinking" Odin suddenly appear to be the same scale as Surtur in the last panel.

I realize it's a bit unfair to pass judgement on a story I'd only wandered into the middle of, but before I'd even started to read the page the perfect balance of art and story had been broken. Initially that struck me as a rather poor choice by Simonson. No great sin mind you, in fact something I could have just tossed off had I not attempted to read the page. As I did read it I realized that following the dialog balloons as intended lead my eye upward from the word balloon along the bottom of panel 2 and up into panel 3. This seems to create the illusion of Odin growing and seemed like a much better solution to a tough problem (how DO you go against the natural downward flow of a page on a panel that's not the last of a page?). But the fact remained that I had already taken in the page as a whole and I was never going to shake seeing "shrinking" Odin.

So what I was left with is a kind of storytelling knot. It works and it yet it doesn't work. In my very short and modest career I've realized that you're going to encounter a lot (I mean like a metric lot) of storytelling problems like this. It's just inherent in the job of balancing a dozen to half dozen images every 2 page spread against the needs and wants of the story. These ideas are competitive. You're at every turn trying to narrow focus in a sea of information, without losing a sense of the waves that crest in the distance or the wake you leave behind you. In that sense I believe what Simonson is taking on here is monumental. As such this story's failures and successes should perhaps be weighed more against his ambitions or lack thereof and less so against the scrutiny of too many individual moments or pages. Basically what he's doing as a whole is TOUGH work.

So my point... my point.. Well, what I take away from this page is this---We could debate the success of this scene forever, but I believe that were it "silent", with lettering and dialog as just an afterthought, it would be a story telling failure. What saves it and possibly catapults it into the realm of success is the consideration of the entire process used to create a comicbook story. Here the lettering and design are used in aid of the storytelling. The word balloons and their placement is nothing less than a measured choice. Be that it were made by Simonson or John Workman or an editor, doesn't matter. What matters is that all the tools of making a comics story are at play to the benefit of the scene. The page above may not be an optimal solution when broken down into it's components, but balanced against the intent of the larger goal the result is that the story is better for it than it would be had those details not been considered.

We're entering an age in the production of comics where, for whatever reason, those considerations are becoming of less and less value. While the success of modern comics vs. comics of the past is up for debate, there is one sure thing... as modern comics move away from such considerations and lessons we will continue to lose more and more of our center. It's a center that I think is essential, not as a rule but as a guidepost. Awareness of why things are or are not done is essential to telling better stories. And frankly better stories are good for everyone, from the most pretentious arteest to the most cold hard numbers minded businessman. Solutions like the one above may not be the best, but they provide us with some gauge when we are making our own choices as to what directions our own stories should go.

As long winded and winding as that may be I think it's something worth thinking about.

More soon...


  1. The "shrinking" Odin can be fixed fairly easily with color. Making the full figure white, or just light yellow and going to full saturation in the big face on top would imply a direction in the transformation, starting small and ending big.

  2. You're right, Mark. Which actually further illustrates my vague point. But I think it's probably best to react to what's there rather than to open up the "this is how you fix it" or don't fix it discussion.

  3. I think (as you mentioned) this really is a great example of how powerful the right lettering can be and what a lost art it's becoming. Far be it for me to criticize Simonson but it's still a hiccup. I think another solution would be to move the Hammer from panel one over to the left a tad so you flow into Surtur's head, down his arm and then to the right.


  4. Yeah--given how much I love Simonson's work, I feel like a jerk even pointing it out. I'm really glad you don't think I'm out in left field at least.

  5. Just jumping in to defend the legend. :)

    I think where action is concerned, you always have to consider the page as part of a whole and not just a single page. If we don't see any indication of Odin's size before this page, then that panel is problematic. Also, we know that Surtur's a giant so it would follow that Odin is growing to meet his size. Even without dialogue, we can see that Thor's hammer is miniscule compared to Surtur's hand.

    By the way Jason, your stuff has just gone from good to outstanding. Congrats on everything.

  6. No need to defend him, sir. He IS a legend. He's one of the most influential artists on me personally and I believe that makes looking at his work critically even more important.

    You're absolutely right about context, but I think context can be undermined. I do contend that the flow of info is confusing and at odds with itself in this specific example. But jesus, y'know it's a one off blip in a massive body of work that is at worst up for debate. It's certainly not "wrong". I'm mostly interested in the idea underneath it all and the fact that his work stimulated me to that degree speaks of how good he really is.

    Also--- thanks for the kind words, bud. It means a lot to me to hear someone who's been around since the early days say that. I really take that to heart.