A continuing look at the building blocks of comics -- individual panels. Introduction here.
Superman #156 (10/1962), page 9 panel 6. Pencilled by Curt Swan, inked by George Klein.
Curt Swan is an essential, if sometimes overlooked, member of the superhero comics canon. Probably the action artist to best inject the characters he drew with convincing emotion and interiority, he's best known as the defining Superman artist of all time -- the man who gave us the myth. Such an archetypal drawing style presents the critic with a challenge: Swan's stories, layouts, linework, et cetera, are so ingrained in us from the moment we first start reading Superman that it's hard to describe what exactly is so good about them. In the end they just "look right", and in the end Swan's art is Superman comics more than anyone else's.
It's easier to study the formal elements of Swan's work, rather than attempting to define why exactly he was so well-suited to Superman. This kind of scrutiny is an honor Swan has long deserved, but rarely been given -- perhaps because while Kirby and Ditko at Marvel and Kane and Infantino at DC were iconoclasts with overwhelmingly individual styles, Swan dealt a little more in things as they are. It's easy to lump him in with the inferior artists in Silver Age DC's crop of magical realists than to take the time to pick out the little things that made him the best of that bunch. Only when we come along a panel like this one is Swan's brilliance, the subtlest of geniuses, made tangible enough to talk about.
The most remarkable thing about this panel is its formal audacity. Swan's approach to a staple of superhero comics -- a character flying through the time barrier -- is almost absurdly literalist, yet somehow imaginative and well-composed enough to ring truer than any other. To offer a comparison, Jack Kirby would probably have depicted the scene in this panel as an epic struggle with crackling energy fields and Steve Ditko would have drawn a long journey through psychedelic geometry, but Swan draws time travel as a kid would -- stripped of bombast or need for explanation. A simple solution, yes, but one that gets its point across perfectly, and allows for maximum compositional freedom. (Note that the actual physical space Supergirl travels is about two feet forward, with nary a millimeter of the panel wasted.) Comics' mixture of image and text to communicate meaning is taken full advantage of, with Supergirl simply moving through a flurry of years, no abstraction neccessary: I immediately think of Dash Shaw's similarly stunning melds of image and explanation into single drawings.
Formalist bravery or not, this image has all of Swan's trademark grace: Supergirl descends from the prismatic ecstasy of time travel like a messenger from heaven. Haloed by the rainbow bands of past decades, cape arrayed to resemble red angel's wings, the impact of her sudden appearance in the future is not shoved in our faces or bombastically trumpeted -- it's just shown. Swan's care even extends to the space left for the lettering, with two big balloons separating the Legion from Supergirl, neatly symbolizing that she's still in the process of getting through to their chronological plane. The composition follows a tricky Z shape, nearly impossible to draw cleanly, but Swan pulls it off with ease by posing Supergirl in the exact shape of the path the reader's eye should follow. (He also makes a vertically-oriented panel work for him, a tougher thing to do than it might seem.) The event depicted here would have probably taken any other artist three panels, but it's boiled down into one perfectly elegant one. No wonder Swan was the penciller of choice for the Mort Weisinger era's hyper-condensed Superman epics.
And all the little details -- the way Swan makes superhero costumes look like futuristic high fashion rather than bizarre spandex concoctions. The classical figurework and postures, recalling nothing more than Renaissance-era religious art, older hero myths than this one. The use of minimal backgrounds to paint a picture of a better world of tomorrow, drawing on our collective association of perfectly-manicured lawns with order and safety. The simple futurism in the Legion's clubhouse and time-travel globe, more natural and evocative than any technopolis that Kirby ever drew. The lightness of Supergirl's figure in flight as compared to those of the earth-bound Legionnaires. A million more things, half of them unquantifiable, just there in the artwork somewhere. You can't explain the whole thing, all that this panel is. Like everything Swan drew, it simply looks right.