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Tue, February 15th, 2011 at 1:58pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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FOUR PAGES FROM USAGI YOJIMBO

Reading the opening scene from Stan Sakai's "Usagi Yojimbo: Shades of Death" (Volume 8, the first from Dark Horse, and recently reprinted) got me to thinking about techniques in sequential art storytelling. I think it's a valuable exercise to do once in a while: analyze a page or a sequence of pages for technique. Ask yourself why things work, why the artist chose certain angles or poses, how they told the story, etc. When I sat down with this sequence, I found myself considering all sorts of angles I hadn't originally thought about as as I worked through it. So let's follow along.

For convenience sake, I'd suggest opening each full page below in another window and alt-tabbing (or Command-Tabbing on the Mac) back and forth, or placing the windows side-by-side. It'll make it easier to follow along.

The sequence begins on page seven of the trade paperback. The book is too thick to get a decent scan off it without breaking the spine, so I resorted to holding the book open and taking pictures of each page. Please pardon the distortion in the art caused by that.

PAGE SEVEN:

Panel One: The first panel is Usagi Yojimbo running along a steep cliff, panting all the way. But it's more than just that. First, the very fact that Stan Sakai took the time to letter in the panting word balloon means he's trying to show us that Usagi is tired from running, but that he must continue. Without that balloon, the panel is just a pretty picture of a ronin rabbit walking on a ledge overlooking a stream. Except it's not that. You can tell even at this small size that Usagi is leaning forward and has only one leg on the ground. He's moving and not in a very subtle way. He's running, which is reinforced by that word balloon.

We can also tell in this first panel that it's not a stream below him, either. There's more motion in the water. There's something feeding it. A waterfall, perhaps. You can see those jagged splashes coming up from the water at the bottom of the panel, along with little clouds, no doubt caused by that water flying all around.

So you already have Usagi running cliffside at altitude above a raging body of water. The tension is present from the first panel.

The panel runs the height of the page to emphasize the distance between this perilous trail and the active waters below.

From an inking point of view, pay attention to how Sakai separates out the foreground, middleground and background by ink weight. Usagi and the land mass he's running on are heavily inked, with thick lines and texture added densely to the cliff running up the left side of the panel. The cliffs across the water and just behind Usagi are lighter, inked with less weight and the detail lines are spaced further out.

Behind all that, there are clouds, mountains, and the continuation of the river inked with a single light outline. No detail. Very abstract. It's not meant to capture your attention. It's there to create a background and fill in the detail of the landscape, something Sakai pays special attention to throughout the series.

Usagi is running towards the reader without anyone else in the scene. We're not meant to know just yet who's chasing after him. Sakai has purposefully chosen this angle to hide that information, which he'll start rolling out two panels from now. While the "camera angle" is very wide and the "camera," itself, is far away from Usagi, it's a very tight composition on him. That's the same trick horror movie directors use to keep the audience in suspense. When there's a surprise coming around the corner, you don't show it until you have to -- when the action happens. Here, Sakai has chosen the one angle he could to hide everything going on around Usagi, which includes a traveling companion in Gen and a whole mess of black-clad bad guys chasing after him from both directions. We'll see them shortly.

From a storytelling perspective, writers are often told to start a scene as late as possible and end is as soon as possible. (That's the old saw about not beginning the scene with someone walking through a door, or ending it with someone walking out the door.) Sakai isn't showing us the entire chase. He's showing us the end of the chase here. He's giving himself two panels to identify the who and the where. The reader is thrust right into the middle of the action, and there's no need to explain it right now.

And that's just the first panel.

Panel two: Action moves from right to left. This is antagonistic towards the reader/viewer. The normal course of events occurs left to right. We subconsciously associated left-to-right action with normalcy. When something happens in the opposite direction, it's more tense.

We're introduced in this panel to Gen, Usagi's fellow traveler who happens to be a rhino. He's the one telling Usagi that "They're right behind us" as he's looking back. Some might consider that redundant, but I think it makes perfect sense. Think of the alternatives. If Gen is looking forward, then his word carries no weight. If the reader doesn't see him looking back while he's talking about what's going on behind him, the reader might think he's making stuff up to fool Usagi. If he says nothing at all while looking back, the reader only knows that Gen is concerned about something behind him, but little else.

Both characters are running at full pace -- notice that neither have a foot touching the ground. Heck, they're virtually in the same exactly pose, minus the two different directions in which they look.

Again, although to a lesser degree, we see ink weight being used to define depth. There are some rocks in the foreground that have a little more texture added to them than the wall of rock behind the two characters.

Panel Three: Usagi is looking forward as he mentions that the bad guys are in front of them. Again, this isn't redundant. He's filling in Gen on the situation in front of him, where Gen's not looking.

Usagi's outline is an especially heavy black ink line to really pull him forward to the reader. The details inside of that outline aren't as pronounced, but they don't need to be. The visual layer is already in your mind from the outline.

Again, action is happening right to left here, maintaining the tension.

The word balloons are carefully placed behind Gen in panel two and ahead of Usagi here. They stay out of the way of the informative portions of the art, obscuring only rock and cliff face. They show up in the same direction as the character is facing. They point towards the mouths of the spakers. Sakai is a master letterer. It's another one of those things he doesn't get enough credit for, but he hits every little thing right here.

We also have a repeating motif. Usagi and Gen are together on this adventure but they're always looking in opposite directions. As they're surrounded by the men in black, they each take half the crowd, fighting the people in the direction in front of them. This is more pronounced in the two page spread following, but let's not get ahead of ourselves too much here.

Panel Four: I love it when a word balloon breaks the panel border. John Workman is the master at this, and I tend to think there's a generation of letterers after him doing the same thing that learned it from reading his "Thor" work with Walter Simonson. (Check out Robert Kirkman's lettering from early issues of "The Walking Dead" for one example. It's a style that Rus Wooton has maintained.)

In any case, this panel is the mirror of the previous panel. Where the bad guys were on the left side of the panel and Usagi was looking at them in panel three, here the bad guys are to the right and Gen is off to the left observing them. Even the sky is mirrored, with two sets of lines to indicate thin wisps of clouds off in the distance.

Panel Five: This is the set-up panel to the big double page spread. Gen and Usagi draw their swords in this panel, go back-to-back, and prepare to fight the bad guys coming at them from both sides. That's what this page has established: Gen and Usagi are on the run from unseen bad guys, who are suddenly seen coming from both directions. They are trapped and can only hope to fight their way out.

This might be overthinking it, but I think Sakai made a conscious effort in this panel to overlap the two characters just a bit. He could have gone with something more iconic, with the two characters truly back-to-back in profile, looking straight left and straight right. Instead, Usagi is in front of Gen and looking both to the left and slightly in front of the panel he's in, while Gen is looking to the right and behind the panel. It's a little thing, but it adds depth to the individual panel. There's also little negative space here. The two characters fill up the frame. Things are getting a little claustrophobic in the panel and, again, tense. Sakai could have drawn them smaller in the panel and shown the dead space between them and the encroaching bad guys. But that might have given the reader a sense of comfort in thinking that they had room to move in. They don't, as we'll see across the next two pages.

PAGES EIGHT AND NINE:

Panel One: Here, we have a double-page spread. Now this series is starting to remind me more of a manga volume, perhaps "Lone Wolf and Cub." There's serious mayhem on this page. There's very little negative space, with the bulk of what there might have been taken up by the story's title, "Shades of Green." (I like the circular textures that fall behind "Shades" and "Green" there on the back wall.) There's also an attempt made to create different lines of attack. It's not just a mirror image of five bad guys lined up on one side and five on the other. Usagi's group has one going over the cliff already, one dead on the ground, one in the midst of fighting, and three inching closer. Gen gets one on the ground, one attacking, two next in line, and one guy actually leaping up in the air to get to Gen faster.

Usagi and Gen are still back to back, though they're not overlapping anymore. I think a big reason for that is the page divide. Sakai takes into account that this action will have a natural break in the binding halfway into it and uses that. Still, it's not a static image. Usagi is clearly slightly in front of Gen. Note his left foot on the rock, which partially obscures Gen's back foot/leg.

Special note should be made here of black space. One of the things that many newer artists don't take into account is the important of a certain weight to a page, as defined by larger chunks of black ink. To a certain degree, high end computer coloring can make up for that, but to an artist of Sakai's skill, it's still done at the drawing table. Usagi and Gen's black pants and the bad guys' black outfits all keep the page grounded. This is something I'm not sure I can adequately explain, but those heavy blacks across the page help make the images feel more real and weighty. (Surely, Will Eisner wrote about this somewhere, but I can't find those books at the moment. I'm guessing "How to Make Webcomics" would have covered this topic, as well.)

Panel Two: We pull back quite a distance to frame just how chaotic the scene really is. The silhouettes show us that there is more than five bad guys to either side, and that Gen and Usagi are giving them quick rides to the rapids below at a pretty good pace. There's not much attention paid to creating a depth to this panel, because there doesn't need to be. We don't care so much about what's happening in the foreground as opposed to the background. Everything occurs on roughly the same plane, given the distance from the reader to the action. Yes, those guys plunging to their deaths are likely at least five feet in front of Usagi, but the "camera" is so far away that those five feet are insignificant. They're well within the depth of field, if I may use a photography term.

Panels Three and Four: These two go together. The bad guy, in action from left to right, is being killed by Usagi, just to the right and swinging his sword to the left, where the panel with the bad guy is. The size of the bad guy in panel three versus the size of Usagi in panel four shows us that these panels aren't meant to be one large image with a gutter inbetween. They're still separate actions, but they're related.

Panels Five and Six: It's the mirror image of the previous two panels, just with Gen.

Panel Seven: This is the mirror to panel two, but this time we close in on one particular Man in Black about to meet his doom in the water below.

There's a symmetry in these two pages. There are two sets of three panels across the bottom tier whose images mirror each other. And even the double-page spread across the top tier has a similar thing happening in opposite directions on the two pages.

This is a good example of how comics is so different from film. This kind of page layout is entertaining in and of itself. You can't have this kind of thing happen in film. I guess the closest you could go is in having a long single take or maybe even a split screen effect. But the way you can take in a whole double page spread at once like this and then notice how the storytelling is mirrored in this way is something you won't get in a movie.

I still haven't seen the "Watchmen" movie. Did they even attempt anything with the "Fearful Symmetry" issue adaptation?

PAGE TEN:

Not seen here. Let's just say things get worse as the archers come in, and Usagi realizes the only way out of this mess is to jump. I want to hit on something in the next page, so let's pick it up from there.

PAGE ELEVEN:

Panel One: Looks a lot like the first panel of this sequence of pages, doesn't it? It's almost like Sakai was setting things up like that, isn't it?

With the action moving in a downward direction as our two main characters jump, it's a smart idea to use a longer panel than wide. Widescreen storytelling doesn't work so well here. It can be made to work with a low dramatic wide angle, I presume, but this is one of the great things about comic book storytelling as opposed to movie storytelling: You can change your frame of reference. Not everything needs to be 16 x 9 wide. Panel shapes can be dictated by the story being told.

Sakai gets creative with the lettering here, too, drawing Gen's word balloon and scream being dragged down along with him. Even the tail on the balloon is a bit wiggly, instead of the standard straight lines pointing to his mouth.

Panel Two: Sakai breaks the border of the panel with Gen's hand. This is not something he often does. Usually, Sakai would only do it in the heat of battle when action is furious and things can't be contained. Here, it also lifts Gen up higher in the air. The extra thick outline on his body helps. We see Usagi's splash below, and all the action in the panel points to it. The direction Gen is falling in leads there. Gen's eye line (even if his eyes are closed shut) leads there. The direction of the splash leads there.

Panel Three: This is the panel that I scanned this page in for. It's an amazing example of storytelling, but I don't think most people would realize why when they first read it.

Check out how Sakai masterfully guides your eye in this panel not just to show you what's going on, but what's coming next. Your eye generally moves from left to right and top to bottom, right? So we begin here with Gen landing in the water. We start with his right hand, open and floating in the corner of the panel. We know from the previous panels that he's moving down the page, so we follow his body language and wind up at his foot that's kicked up a bit. Directly in front of that along the same line is Usagi's foot and leg. Your eye is dragged diagonally across the panel from Gen's hand to Usagi's hips, and that's when the eye takes a sudden turn back up. Usagi's body is bent at the waist, as his upper body is starting to reach up again. Usagi's eyes and head are pointed that way. His arms are 90 degrees apart, but anyone who's ever swum underwater knows that he's pulling himself along and trying to go up. That's just reading body language.

So check out the way your eye has gone through this panel. It's almost a downward facing parabola. Down, across, and then up. It's a backwards check mark.

It also features an inking technique I mentioned last week. Gen's figure is outlined in a very thin and very wavy line to indicate that he's just splashed down and water is rushing by him. Also, he's in the background of this panel. Usagi has the heavy (weighted to the eye) black pants and more distinct and sharper figure.

I love this panel.

OK, the fish floating in the background might be a bit much, but I'm not going to quibble.

Panel Four: It's the continuation of panel three, and it's perfect. As your eye led you to read in an upwards direction at the end of last panel, this panel maintains that direction and focuses on Usagi alone for just a brief moment.

I think there's a different kind of reading flow in effect with this page. Many artists would shy away from the previous panel, which leads the eye right off the page. This is a right-side page here, so the eye is taken not to the facing page but to the empty space outside the comic you're reading. I'd like to suggest something different here. I'd like to say that the reader is maintaining directionality inside the panel he's reading next. And since Sakai's panel layouts aren't terribly complicated and are all rectangular, it's not like the eye needs to be led along the primrose path. I mean, the first panel should lead your eye off the bottom of the page and into the abyss, too, but it doesn't. Instead, it maintains the downward movement we see carried through on the second panel and halfway into the third. At that point, the motion in the second half of the third panel, as well as the fourth and fifth, moves upwards. We're not complaining that the last panel's motion leads us back up a tier in the storytelling, are we? No.

Panel Five: Continuing the story as you'd expect it might at this point, we see Usagi already comfortably above the water line, Gen just popping his head up in a way similar to how Usagi did a panel ago, and the archer's arrows flying into the water. The panel is tight on the characters, again giving the reader a narrow perspective of the scene and increasing the tension just a bit. It also provides a moment of decision for the two characters, who are now in trouble. How will they get out of this? That jump didn't solve their problems. The arrows are still coming at them. Their options are limited, as they're floating in the water. The danger is imminent, there's no time to lose, and we're at the bottom of the page. Don't you want to flip over now to see what happens next? That should be the goal of the last panel of every page: Drag the reader to the next page. It's doubly true for right hand pages over left hand pages. The left side final panel isn't as mysterious as the right side final panel. Since you can see the next page, if only peripherally, as you read the left page, the artist/writer can't try to hit you with a big reveal on the page change.

Directionality-wise, there are two directions working in this panel. First, you have Gen continuing the upwards direction from the last panel and a half. Secondly, you have the directions of the arrows coming diagonally across the panel from the upper left. That collision of movement, I think, adds to the feeling of chaos in the story for our two protagonists.

I might be reading too much into all of this. I'm sure that if Stan Sakai were to make his way through this column, he'd nod his head at a couple of points and that kindly point out that I'm making too much of what he did. Maybe it's all second nature to him, but it's certainly fun to think about all of this stuff, and it's nice when I can apply knowledge I've picked up over the years.

If you want to try something like this, do read Will Eisner's instructional books and Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics" trilogy, at the very least. They'll help guide your eye and show you some things to look for. Then watch a lot of DVD commentary tracks, hundreds of interviews with artists and writers discussing their craft and not just plugging this week's new release, and take in some outside art reference. I know my training over the recent years in photography has given me a brand new eye on comics storytelling. One bleeds into the other. It's all good.

Also, spending a few summers as a kid watching Mark Kistler couldn't hurt, either. If you can't learn foreshortening from that man, then it's just not meant for you.

Next week: I had promised last week, "A European album gets translated, and more." I'll try to write that column this week for you.

At AugieShoots.com, James Blunt music video overdoes the DSLR video tricks, a new header image, a swinging primate, new Canon cameras, and lots of links.

Over at VariousAndSundry.com, we check in on a diabetes solution from five years ago that (as I predicted) didn't solve anything, a Verizon iPhone whoopsie, and one or two other things.

How to get in touch: Twitter @augiedb || E-mail || Pipeline Message Board

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