Pipeline: Comic Storytelling and Artistic Journeys

Tue, September 25th, 2012 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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"R.I.P.D." AND AN ARTISTIC JOURNEY

I can see why "R.I.P.D." has been optioned by Hollywood. It has a high concept that makes it a lot like the classic police procedurals, but with a fantasy twist. It could be the new "Men In Black" if things go right for it. The comic (the trade of which was published by Dark Horse almost a decade ago), written and copyrighted to Peter Lenkov, is a forgettable and sloppy piece of storytelling, but there's enough there on the page to inspire a creative Hollywood executive to buy it.

The Rest In Peace Department is made up of dead cops who work the beat in the afterlife for 100 years before retirement. They chase the bad demon guys and get the chance to solve a personal mystery/case of their own. In RIPD's case, we follow Nick Cruz, who has joined the force in exchange for finding out who murdered him. He's partnered up with a cowboy, who just lost his Capone-era cop partner. Cruz is, to follow through with every police cliche in Hollywood's book, the last case for Roy Powell, whose imminent retirement serves as a ticking time bomb. Except it doesn't. It's part of the story, but it's not stressed and so doesn't add much to the drama. It's almost unnecessary, though it provides a nice moment at the end of the book.

Artist Lucas Marangon has a cute style. It has a bit of that Carlos Meglia/Humberto Ramos flair. The characters are nicely designed and expressive. Those large eyes and big square heads help enhance the effect. The problem is, his storytelling is poor. It gets better as the four issue mini-series goes on, but it's often confusing with haphazard layouts. Some of the choices made can only be explained by a lack of experience and maturity. There are sequences in the book that the dialogue attempts to save by explaining what you're looking at, but still doesn't succeed.

The biggest offense for me is the panel layouts. They're oddly positioned. Things generally flow left to right and top to bottom just fine. While not everything in comics needs to be a strict tiered grid of panels, size changes and placement shifts that don't aid in the storytelling for a specific reason often look like examples of poor page control and incomplete skills. Let's take a look at a couple of examples here:

I've drawn boxes over the panels and numbered them to show you the sequences. This is an attempt to simplify the layout to show you what my problem is.

Show me where on the page the forethought is. The three panels at the bottom that attempt to form a sequence can't even line up across the top. They're drawn at that particular height because that's all the room there was left on the page. Even so, why stop the last panel over Powell's eyes? Why not line up the top of that panel with the top of the preceding panel, giving the balloon room to sit in the same panel, and eliminating the awkward white space surrounding it? Panel three has a similar problem with space and lettering, though it looks to be caused by the letterer not wanting Cruz's word balloon tail to cross over the waitress' body.

And why is the bar's sign in the first panel sticking out beyond the panel, leaving weird white space below it?

More odd placement of balloons can be seen in this sample page:

Again, we have lettering forced to overlap a border to fit in an area where the panel could have been expanded to allow room for it. Perhaps they weren't working full script and so the artist didn't know how much room to leave. It's possible, but it happens a lot of times. The panels, themselves, have right angles, but are all different sizes, with no two connecting in a satisfying way. Why's panel #2 so stubby? Why is panel #6 slightly too small for the space it could comfortably fit into? The flow from panels ##3 to #4 to #5 works really well to bring the eye from the upper right to the lower left, but I still am not a big fan of a tier of panels where you read across and then down.

Here's another example:

This one uses a technique that I think Brent Anderson is the best practitioner of. Check out "Astro City" to see how many times he does the trick of the background of a major panel on the page forming the backgrounds under the subsequent panels. That nearly happens in the first panel on this page, where the room the characters are in appears to be the background area the other panels are placed on top of. But check out those four panels in the middle. They're all over the place for no good reason. Once again, it leaves awkward white space between panels. The layout inside each individual panel is fine. Nobody's getting cut off at the edge of a panel for no good reason, and their layouts follow the rule of thirds or just plain make sense to the lay reader. They don't come together here, though, because the eye is playing pinball around the page at the randomly sized and spaced four panels in the middle there.

On most every page, panel borders are broken for no good reason. Characters stand way out in front of the panel, or the top of someone's head crosses over the top border. (You can't see it because of the blue boxes, but the top of the character's head in the final panel actually overlaps into panel #5.) Someone's gun shot explodes out of the panel, crosses a random gutter, and disappears behind a panel in the opposite direction of the storytelling flow. It's a trait that I thought came of age, blew up, and was quickly shunned during the early to mid-90s. Marangon was still utilizing it in 2000-2001.

Also, some panels along the borders go full bleed to the edge of the paper, while others don't. There's no rhyme or reason there, either.

Here's one of my favorite pages:

The first panel is too small. The second panel is cut off at the top for the sole purpose of having the two characters' heads stick out into the negative space. Panel four might be my favorite: A simple backgroundless picture of a mailbox is under the caption "I had a house." Is this an excercise for the reader to use his or her imagination to add in the house that should be sitting just behind that mailbox? It's weird because Marangon does draw the house in the final panel, thought it appears to be one that lacks a front door and sits very close to the road.

I'll leave it as another exercise for someone to analyze what it means that "A wife" is accompanied by a picture of a topless woman in bed with the character. The kid and dog comes in the next page with "A life." That's a nice picture, with a good low angle and strong movement. The action, though, leads the eye straight off the left side of the page on what is a left-side page. That leaves your eye to have to jump back across the page and up to start reading the next page on the right.

"R.I.P.D." is a great case study for those wondering what little things can add up to bad storytelling. The book isn't necessarily bad. There's a high concept there you can enjoy, art that isn't offensive and or needlessly grim/hyperdetailed, and a few good moments. But the shortcomings pile up, leading to a forgettable book that is only memorable for Hollywood's long interest in it.

Am I alone in thinking this? Maybe I've read too much "Smurfs" and "Lucky Luke," et al, and just prefer the grid format. Maybe I'm a product of the times when a grid layout is considered the height of webdesign and where all the boxes line up along the same strong lines. Maybe I'm being too formalistic for an artist who wants to "break the rules." But seeing pages where panels have random sizes and leave oddly wide gaps in the gutters drives me nuts. I just flipped through a stack of books I've read and enjoyed recently. They're all filled with evenly spaced panels in square or rectangular shapes on clearly-defined tiers.

Obviously, rules were meant to be broken and there are exceptions to every rule, but I think the slightly more formal design of a page is going to win every time. People like J.H. Williams III will challenge that at every turns, but he's the exception that proves the rule.

This thinking did help to explain why it is that, although I love Darick Robertson's artwork, some of his storytelling has always bothered me. Check out a few pages from "Happy" #1, due out this week. It's a great comic, but the thing that bothers me is the way objects in some of Robertson's panels overlap each other or other objects. Page 3 has a good example:

Check out the middle tier, where you have three panels. The second one overlaps the previous tier as well as the previous panel, while the third panel is just a giant head of a character sticking out from the edges and blocking a chunk of the previous panel.

There are other examples throughout the book where the panels don't quite line-up or where they overlap one another just by a hair. It's clearly a part of his style, but it doesn't look right to me. It distracts me. But, again, maybe I'm more of a formalist than I ever thought I was.

Great, now I have something else to nag me when I read comics for the immediate future. . .

SIDE NOTES

  • I'm very happy to see that the "Walking Dead" lawsuit between Tony Moore and Robert Kirkman has been resolved. As expected, everyone's being mum on the final deal. Let's hope that's the end of that, and that everyone is happy.

  • Sean Gordon Murphy lays it all out for why artists should give writing a try. He's very persuasive.

  • Happy [Big Round Number Deleted]th birthday to our favorite comics autobiographer, Tom "True Story, Swear to God" Beland. Feliz cumpleanos aqui! (I learned that from Dora...)

  • This isn't the last you've heard of Pipeline this week. I'll be back later in the week with a review of the new Blu-ray version of "The Avengers."

  • And check out the first link below. My blog's been pretty active in the last week, as I've been playing with voice dictation and posting straight from my iPhone. Ain't modern technology grand?
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