Strange Tales #179, page 2 panel 5. Drawn by Jim Starlin, colored by Glynis Wein.
The typical divided-labor superhero comic is a great way of getting more story to more people in less time. That's a big plus, and it's what keeps Marvel and DC at the top of the American comics heap, but there are certain things comics can deliver that get lost when you've got one guy writing and at least three making the art. There's a particular coordination of story and visuals that can only be had when the artist is drawing his own scripts, that only comes to the fore when the whole comic is the product of one mind. That coordination is most often seen in interesting formal tricks, which is why lowest-common-denominator mass audiences rarely care about (or even notice) the extra quality inherent to mainstream comics done in the atypical auteur style. But there's a reason why a hugely disproportionate number of the great mainstream books are the work of single writer/artists; it's those little tricks and details that separate a mundane, seen-it-all-before comic about people fighting from one that feels entirely fresh and new.
Jim Starlin's Warlock is an example of a comic about guys hitting stuff that manages to transcend its verbose, sometimes clumsy (if still very ahead of its time) scripting with a pure-comics synthesis of story and art that blurs the line between the two disciplines. Some of the time the panel compositions, the layouts, the drawings themselves, seem to carry more narrative weight than the captions do; and sometimes the writing seems to exist only as an excuse for Starlin to bring whatever abyssal visions have seared his brain to the page. But most often, Starlin's art -- especially his fluid, experimental layouts -- serves not only to illustrate, but to characterize the story. The panels open into large, Kirbyist vistas during the battle scenes, then condense into claustrophobic subdivisions when the tale turns to paranoia or regret. (Mea culpa: I recently held up Marshall Rogers as the only real post-Steranko proponent of panel subdivision, but Starlin is easily his equal, and was doing career-best work years before Rogers was.) At every turn, Starlin's visuals can be counted on to go the extra mile for a story that simply could not exist without the exact drawings that go along with it.
The panel above is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. Starlin, with a colorist's knowledge of the importance of white on the page, leaves nearly half the panel's space for Warlock's narration -- not only allowing his words enough space for a little dramatic break in the lettering, but also very effectively de-emphasizing the amount of actual space shown in the frame. It isn't what we see in this panel that counts, but what we read, as the flashback prepares to subsume us. The words, the narrative, are the connecting thread between the present action and that of the story Warlock is about to tell, and the panel's minimalist composition conveys that perfectly. Even the storyteller's face is half-drowned in shadow, his memories literally covering over his physical body. This alone is a much more effective way of segueing one part of the story into another than the typical wobbly panel borders or color changes.
But the best part of this panel is obviously Starlin's fourth wall-breaking method of stacking the frames on top of another to indicate a passage back in time. It's a beautiful device, taking the form (itself composed of nothing but panels) head-on, and showing an ingeniously literal version of what a character who lives in those panels "thinking back" might look like. The fade-out from the stark blacks of the "present" panel through bright colors and into faded benday screen tones is also a very nice touch.
The direction of the stacked panels, though, initially baffled me. They point neither to the bottom-left corner of the page (where the last panel is, the direction the artist is "supposed" to point you in), nor even to the next panel after this one. Instead, the "arrow" the picture forms points back at the previous panel, away from the story's forward progress. After a few moments' thought I chalked it up to a rushed composition, a lack of forethought, those superhero comics deadlines getting in the way as they so often do. With a little more reflection, though, the reasoning is obvious. This is a picture of a person -- to use the term I did a second ago -- "thinking back": their mind existing not in the present, but for a moment in what has come before. By choosing to destroy the illusion of forward motion that the typical superhero comic strives to create, Starlin steps outside his genre's confines to take advantage of his form and do something purely artistic with it. Did I already use the word transcendent? Okay then.