One Fan's Opinion: Issue #53

Fri, September 1st, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

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There's more than one way to skin a cat.

Not that I want to encourage anybody to start skinning cats...

There's more than one way to tell a story as well. And that's what I'll be concerning myself with this time, okay?

The first job I ever drew at Marvel was done in the true Marvel style. Jim (trouble) Shooter and I sat down at the Chicago Comic Con and hammered out the details of a Hulk vs. Thor yarn. Nothing was written down - there was no script, just the backbone of a story that would eventually see print in "Thor" #385 (kind of - the art corrections and Stan Lee's script changed the story's original intent somewhat).

Plot style was, for years, the standard at Marvel. True, few did the Stan Lee method of talking through the plot and letting the artist run with it, but for years many Marvel artists worked from an extended outline that allowed them to make a lot of the storytelling decisions.

Full scripts were all the rage at DC and it took ex-Marvel guys to break that.

These days, however, full scripts are back in vogue at both Marvel and DC. Some writers provide the bare essentials - basic panel descriptions and dialogue, others go overboard and describe what kind of shoes people in the background are wearing and how many grommets there are for their shoe laces.

Following these scripts can be, frankly, pretty dull stuff. In some cases you're practically painting-by-numbers as the writer makes all the decisions for you! And the writer is not always the most visually oriented individual so there can end up being a lot of talking heads without anything very interesting to look at (or fun to draw).

On the other hand, working plot style can make things even worse - especially if the artist involved is a poor storyteller. I've been faced with dialoguing pages on numerous occasions where I had to scrap what I had in mind because the artist did such a piss poor job communicating that thought that it no longer worked on any level.

The ideal is a cartoonist - a guy that both writes and draws, but even then you sometimes end up with some lazy bastard that writes blank pages for himself or pages set in total darkness or sets scenes in caves or works in crap that he cuts out and pastes in. The temptation to take shortcuts in order to meet the deadline is there and there are those not too shameless to take those shortcuts.

On the other hand - there are those that take the opportunity to try something different, to stretch their artistic muscles and draw something no sane writer could ever conceive of - like the numerous clever and inventive splash pages Will Eisner concocted for the "Spirit" or the crazy stuff Jim Steranko dreamed up.

There are so many options available when it comes to putting lines down on paper and telling a story and each method has its own advantages and limitations.

Look at Frank Miller's the "Dark Knight Returns." The entire four-issue was based on a 16-panel grid. Now, a 16-panel grid can be a terrific thing to use if your goal is to pack the page with information, but it's extremely limiting if you're trying to give the reader a sense of location - what a room looks like - where individual bits of action are taking place. When Batman rescued a hostage, we really didn't get much of a sense of how big the room was where the victim was being held or what was in that room. Frank deftly dealt with the limitations he'd set out for himself and "Dark Knight Returns" is a marvelous piece of work, make no mistake, but there were places where the limitations showed.

A 16th of a page isn't much and you can't pack in too much information without making your panel incomprehensible.

Others have opted for a more "cinematic" approach, with page after page of panels that are the width of the printed page. And that's all fine and dandy, but comics aren't movies and often this leads to a lot of dead space as things that require more height are given too much width.

A nice mixture can be fine, but it can be visually chaotic as well.

There's really no one-size-fits-all rule that can apply to all situations. The times I've experimented with regimented grids I've learned a lot about their advantages and disadvantages. I drew a number of comics based on the old standard Marvel grids from the '60s. Those six-panel pages where every panel is the same-sized perfect square can force you to think in different ways - to work on storytelling and composition rather than splashy jerk shots of characters leaping into the fray. I did an issue utilizing the 16-panel grid Frank used in the "Dark Knight Returns." I did one based on a 20-panel grid and had panels merge so that the second page had 19 panels and the third 18, counting down to a final splash.

The point is - it's nice to have the option to experiment and try something different. I'm not sure that I could go back to drawing other people's stories. I think painting-by-numbers would drive me up the wall in short order. I feel sorry for those guys who find themselves doing it. Maybe they like it - I dunno - but I don't think I could put up with it.

But even within the modern confines there are ways of cutting loose. What about drawing with no spotted blacks and no line weight? What about eliminating all rendering or rendering to beat the band? What about arbitrarily deciding to draw one character cartoony? Or how about trying to draw each character in a different artist's style?

At one point somebody asked me how an artist developed his style. I'm not sure just how that happens. Neal Adams once said (or it's been attributed to Neal) that, "Your style is everything you do wrong." The idea being that doing everything right would give you a drawing which looked like a photograph, but even if that was the case different photographers have different styles and techniques and they take different shots and compose different pictures. I don't think it's quite as simple as all that. When it comes to lines on paper, a photograph really isn't the same thing. Real people don't have hard black lines defining their contours and there's no crosshatching to speak of. My style (such as it is) just happened. It's made up of things I liked from a number of artists and honestly, it still looks to me like an amalgam of a number of others. There isn't a lot in there that is distinctly me as far as I can see. You may feel otherwise.

But I digress...

And speaking of digressing - I know that a certain writer has used the above phrase as the title of his column, but I can't help using it from time to time. I don't mean it as some sly slam or derogatory comment - I just throw it out there when I'm digressing - so don't get all worked up when I use the phrase! It's not as though the aforementioned scribe coined the term, he just purloined the term for his own use. I'm as entitled to use it as the next guy!

It's a little annoying, actually, to have a phrase that's in common usage like that get associated with a particular individual. It seems wrong to use it, even though it existed long before he attached his name to it, and it will exist long after he's gone.

But I digress...

In any case - buy my books before I do some permanent damage and leave you lying in the gutters.

Heh.

Where was I?

Oh yeah, that whole style/storytelling thing.

Years ago, DC had a house style (think Curt Swan) and Marvel had a house style (think Jack Kirby). Over the years, that changed as artists who told stories their own way in their own styles became more prominent. Neal Adams shook up DC and numerous artists shook up Marvel. There was a time when Todd McFarlane came to mind as the Image house style, but that's certainly not the case any longer.

The look I'm seeing more and more these days are those staid, photo-tracers that seem to draw half the books at the big two. It seems a number of guys are so caught up in being realistic that they've forgotten how to bring any life to the page. The monotony hasn't inspired me to pick up a whole lot of their tired tomes.

I guess if there was a point that I was trying to make it's that there are endless possibilities out there. There are no limits! We can do things a million different ways and it's something of a shame, I think, that so many folks are painting-by-numbers and following the herd rather than doffing their imagined shackles and really cutting loose.

But that's just one fan's opinion. I'm willing to concede that I could be wrong.

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