Sans Genre II
There are certain devices that pop up time and again in comics art, irregardless of time or place or milieu. I'm talking about the basics, stuff like POV shots, figure animation, speed lines, starbursts. Comics grammar, the acts of drawing that enable the medium to do what it does. But then there's a rarer stratum, more richly individual gestures or concepts, ideas you can actually trace an influence through. Kirby krackle, Eisner borderless panels, Krigstein subdivision, Todd McFarlane crosshatching. And then, finally, there's the things guys do that we haven't got a name for yet; the stuff we can see happening on the page that goes out ahead of what we know. Innovation is a word for that -- but there have been a hell of a lot of comics come out in the past century-plus, and one of the things that's so fun about the medium is the number of innovations you can catch happening before being repeated again and again, the number of artists who do the same thing without ever knowing it.
Here's a panel from a 1922 Gasoline Alley strip by Frank King. This particular picture comes toward the beginning of an absolutely hellacious four-year run, one in which King pulled out dazzling new formal devices and drawing techniques on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. When you're reading the '22-'26 Gasoline Alley it's just about all you can do to hold on and watch the ink and ideas flow, but this one panel just about stopped me cold. The technical trick here is a killer: King implies a flow of continuous motion across his panel (left to right, as our eye moves) by arranging multiple figures in sequential stages of a single gesture. Look at those guys -- the first figure's right hand goes down and his left hand raises as he pivots away into the second figure, and then the right arm comes up again as he takes a jaunty step into the third.
It's one gesture, one action, but King uses three different characters to perform it. Why? Because he's still being true to the snapshot nature of the comics panel. In comics, each frame is a single, razor-thin slice of time, stretched between borders for us to contemplate. One frozen moment leads to another and another, with our imagination stitching up the gaps in between them. This is why "flow" is so important in comics art; if the artist can cut down on the amount of time that seems to elapse in the gutters with a clever layout or a dynamic gesture, he makes the work more vivid, the story more engrossing, less of a mental workout for the reader to engage in and process and more of a presentation that just spools out before the eyes. Or at least that's how it usually works. Single panels like King's jump right into one of the richer paradoxes of the medium, the temporal disconnect created by the juxtaposition of snapshot images and the word balloons that hang over them. It takes time to say something; even the most basic, monosyllabic speech act is a process that begins at one point and stops at another. So stick a word balloon connoting speech into a frozen moment and we get a little bit of thaw: it's not a drawn photograph anymore, it's the (usually small) amount of time it takes to say those words that's getting crammed between the left border and the right.
Most artists just ignore this and draw snapshot comics anyway, which is fine and they come out looking great when the artist is great et cetera. King, however, chooses to exploit it. He isn't totally alone in that -- check this out (second to last panel) -- but his approach to it is nearly unique even among the few practitioners of in-panel animation. Where Steranko, Neal Adams, Jim Lee, et al, will trace single figures' movements across the space between their borders, King is more concerned with time. He keeps the snapshot, at least in concept -- this is a frozen moment, there's no doubling of figures, no blur, not even any speed lines to connote the individuals' movements -- but he arranges it such as to imply a vigorous, perfectly free-flowing multiple-stage gesture. It's a gorgeously elegant solution to a problem most artists never even come close to recognizing: leaving aside figure-doubling, or any non-naturalistic formal device at all, keeps this panel a storytelling unit as opposed to the comics-specific visual displays stuff like the Steranko panel always reads as.
That panel was just the beginning of something big for King. Three years later we got this, which takes the basic concept to a high-flown, supremely virtuosic level. Follow along: a bit of off-panel action to the extreme left (the foiled robbery) puts a jolt into the normally subdued alley, with those nearest the altercation (the boy and the dog) galvanized into a sprint, which slows into a quick walk into a perambulation into stillness as our eye moves across the scene. Somehow this is still a snapshot -- remove any one of these figures and slap it against a blank background and you've got cartoon drawing about as plain as it gets -- but once again, the array of the figures gives us gallons' worth of time passing, enough for word of the robbery to spread out, lose its urgency, and find individual reactions throughout the entire alley. King gives us the cause of all the commotion, but he uses the rest of the space in this single-panel strip to show the long chain of effects it has on its environment.
Revolutionary as it is on its own terms, this stuff was just practice for King, who would soon enough bring the panoramic precept to his Sunday pages, add figure doubling, cross it with subdivision, and create a new type of full-page presentational comic whose influence would seep across the decades to artists as disparate as Kaz and Chris Ware. What's missing from those landscape-painting Sundays, though, is the robust sense of physical action that the strip experiments have, where the movement of the figures, not the stillness of the environment, is the central focus. Not to mention the irresistible visual pull from left to right that the flat, broad, camera-on-ground strips create. It's probably where King wanted to end up: the big, still, perusing, somewhat remote nature of the Sundays is much more in sync with the tone of Gasoline Alley than the focused beams of horizontal energy that the strips above shoot across the page. No, for King's device, innovated and promptly forgotten, to live again, it would take the better part of a century and a straight-action artist who took up the same concerns. I'm talking, of course, about Frank Quitely.
King's horizontally-oriented panoramas were solidly based in the strip format, which pulls the eyes right across the art anyway. Action comics, however, have chiefly been the province of the comic book, vertical in orientation. Flip open a 20th-century action comic; at least half, usually more, of the panels will be taller than they are wide, which makes it basically impossible to employ King's trick. More than that, action comics as they've traditionally been drawn downright glory in the frozen moment, ideally suited as it is for depicting the action/reaction transitions that power bangin' fight scenes. Action panels aren't there to read through -- they hit, pop out at you before you move on to the next one which does the same thing again. In the best Kirbyist tradition, they're pure stop-motion, an accretion of gestures across a page rather than a panel a la King. There've been dissenting voices in the past few decades, from Howard Chaykin's stretched-out vistas to Frank Miller's balletic fight choreography to the "widescreen" comics of Bryan Hitch, but only Quitely put all those together, and only Quitely ended up with his shoes planted squarely in King's footsteps.
Quitely has taken King's interest in the progression of action and made it an intergral part of his approach, with short, wide, definitively horizontal panels that almost always graph the action occurring through its various stages, while still holding onto some sense of the snapshot. Like King, Quitely achieves a sense of unfolding with his compositions, his precise arrangement of a picture's elements to draw the reader's focus from one end of the frame to the other. Check out the above, for example. The extreme left, with the back end of a car whizzing by the destruction unperturbed, is the last moment before anything's happened. Then we get the big impact at center left, and the passage of a few distinct instants after it, as the wrecked car's machinery spreads itself out across the page. That leads us into the reaction (in the same panel, mind) of the people in the other cars, who brake to avoid becoming part of the accident they've just witnessed, and proceed to slam into each other instead.
It's like a diagrammatic reading of how a three-car pileup happens from beginning to end (with a giant robot dog thrown in for sport, of course) -- it works as a snapshot if you take it as one, but examine the individual elements and they fall into a strict cause-and-effect sequence, moving left to right with our eye. Of course, this is the exact same territory King was staking out 80 years earlier: individual elements frozen in moments that are slightly removed from one another, laid out in a precise line for us to follow.
Quitely, like King, sticks the camera on the floor and pans our eyes across, his wide panels basically becoming one-frame strips, moving through time rather than sectioning off a tiny portion of it. Here we get a nice flow-through of dialogue too, an exchange -- one thing said, space adding a beat, then a response given -- that mirrors the sequence of the action. First the girl runs off screaming, then Robin leaps into action and responds, his movements through the three thugs he takes out precisely tracked, with a chop to the first's throat, a knee to the second's face, and a kick to the third's windpipe. Finally, a shadowy figure appears in the doorway on the extreme right. It's this in-panel flow that gives Quitely's multiple-panel sequences such a smooth, continuous movement through fight scenes; by the next panel the girl has grabbed that candle on the far left, Robin has finished off the last villain standing with a fist in the jaw, and the shadowy figure has joined the fray -- all in precise sequence, of course. King's daily-strip format limited him to one of these panels at a time, but Quitely stacks tall tiers of them, mixing the the verticality of the pamphlet format with his horizontal frames for maximum results.
Of course, Quitely's used this device far more than King ever did, and in the process probably created more wiggle room in the space between the snapshot and the progression of time than anyone before him. His use of embedded sound effects in his recent Batman & Robin run was another, differently considered leap into that uncertain region -- this one shows the "BANG" of a gunshot with the splattered blood it engenders, followed, of course, by the reaction of a witness.
And he can get downright baroque with his King-innovated progressions, using them to find perfect visuals for the psychedelic, high-concept conflicts that superhero comics so often depict. Here, for example, the device birthed by King's folksy, homespun strip is used to put a dead-on picture to the various stages of psychic torment inflicted on this poor schmuck -- conceptually removed, maybe, but we've still got motivating force on the left, stages of action through the middle, and conclusion on the right. People are always calling comics "pictures you read", but that bit of vernacular only finds a literal expression in panels like these, full "comics" or "sequential art" in one image. From the suburbs of Chicago to the funhouse tents of Gotham, across decades and genres, in comics you can't keep a good device down.