Terry and the Pirates 10/29/1939, panel 10. Drawn by Milton Caniff.
When people talk about Milt Caniff, the phrase "cartoon realism" is bound to come up at some point. More than any other artist, Caniff was the discoverer of an ideal synthesis that lay between depictive realism and simplified cartooning, of the urtext for action comics. He wrote the book, and of all the action artists since, only Jack Kirby has surpassed him for sheer influence.
Caniff's genius lay in an almost instinctual grasp of how to mix cinematically-styled composition and layouts with ones more native to comics (Will Eisner, for one, was taking notes); and in a drawing style that fleshed out backgrounds, props, costumes, and landscapes in meticulous, impressionistic detail while simplifying faces and movements into iconographs that carried great impact and could be read quickly and easily. Here he employs a movie style close-up to perfectly frame his action, but drops the backgrounds to pop the figures out at you. The faces and body language are simplified and then exaggerated, but the clothes and skin display perfect realist shadowing, no fold or pucker overlooked. Tellingly, the only place the shadows move away from reality is where they overlap with the comic book-y starburst of pain around Klang's head -- there they are almost perfectly parallel with the lines of force spreading outward from the punches. Note also the blood on Pat Ryan's knuckles and Klang's face; this might be a cartoon, but in Caniff, cartooned actions have realist repercussions.
This panel, though, is more than just an exemplar of Caniff's synthesis of abstract and concrete. It is also an example of the artist's formalist side completely unchained. Where most other artists would have gone with a straight impact shot and drawn the moment the fist connects with the jaw, Caniff revels in the comics medium's prerogative to distort time -- it's impossible to tell whether this is a sped-up depiction of six or seven punches in a row, or a single punch slowed down into stop-motioned stages. Either way it's depiction of sequential action, a "comic" in a single drawing. No mean feat. Caniff was a master not only because of his immense talent, but because he took chances with panels like these, and in doing so went places that no one had gone before -- and that few have been able to since.
Your Monday Panel is a continuing series examining the building blocks of comics -- individual panels.