Pipeline: Dissecting Darwyn Cooke's "Catwoman"

Tue, June 4th, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist
3

CATWOMAN JUMPS ON A TRAIN…

I went back to Ed Brubaker's "Catwoman" this week after the events of the most recent issue of "Justice League" left me feeling nostalgic. That first storyline, in particular, is magical. Having Darwyn Cooke (inked by Mike Allred) for four issues will do that for just about any new series, but Brubaker's script is a great example of how to reset a series into a new status quo. Before this, "Catwoman" as a series had been dead for six months, and the character of Selina Kyle was thought dead in continuity. In reality, she was discovering herself with Leslie Thompkins' help, leading up to a new role as defender of the innocent and downtrodden of Gotham City. The first storyline has her helping the local prostitute population under attack from a serial murderer.

It's all well and good, but I kept getting hung up on Cooke's art. It's brilliant stuff. He only drew the first four issues, but I could talk about them for days. Cooke's background in animation and storyboarding is on full display here. I wrote last week of my admiration for animators in comics, and Cooke is another excellent example of this at work. Animators have a way of seeing things that most comic book artists don't have. The typical comic book artist sees things in terms of the frozen image. They look for that "decisive moment" and work hard to maximize the single image. The animators I've seen doing comics are more fluid. Their art moves. Everything about it indicates motion across the page. Characters squash and stretch and bound across the page.

The images are also 'simpler.' They put more panels or more drawings in a single scene. That's what it takes to create that movement in your mind. Adding the crosshatching and the details and the scratchy little lines that define "detailed" artwork in standard superhero comics, for example, would work against the style of work animators want to do.

I saw no better example of this than on the third page of "Catwoman" #2. To set it up, though, let's look at the previous page:

"Catwoman" #2, Page 2

Cooke is going for a stylistic thing here, with lots of little panels giving the narrative a staccato feeling. A 16 panel grid isn't good enough for him, so he ramps it up to 17. It's in those last two tiers that we are introduced to Catwoman, in the foreground running in silhouette. She's rooftop running in Gotham past a train before jumping onto it from above a tunnel it just went through. That sets us up for the continuation of that action in the first two tiers of the third page:

It all seems simple, doesn't it? Catwoman jumps on a train. The train carries her to the police station. (That part is made plain on the following page, where the captions return to the page. For now, the reflection of the neon "POLICE" sign does the trick.)

Let's look carefully at how Cooke gets there. He uses some tricks alongside some storytelling fundamentals. The first two tiers are a single sequence that's a master class in storytelling, how the moving image can influence the sequential narrative, and how comics are a unique art form that can do things you can't do on the big screen. There are lessons here in movement, in directionality, in three-dimensional storytelling, and in “cinematic” cartooning.

TIER ONE

Panel one is a close-up of Catwoman running towards the reader, slightly left to right. As the rest of the action happens on the panels to the right, it's a good idea to keep the eye moving in that direction. She's also filling up the left three quarters of the panel, meaning that she's running into the sliver of negative space on the right side of the panel. This is a classic photographic trick, too. If you put that negative space behind her, it would look wrong. You want your subject moving into the negative space, not the edge of the frame. It lessens the chance of a tangent, and keeps the character from looking like she's about to bonk her head on the artist's thin black line outlining the panel.

The second panel reverses the angle. We go over Catwoman's shoulder, almost as if she had just run by us. That extreme close-up in the first panel is like the subject getting so close to the camera that the lens isn't wide enough to capture everything. In the second panel, she's still very close, to the point where we only see half her body in the frame. As a panel on its own, this one doesn't tell us much. It's Catwoman running on the rooftop. You can't see past that. Note that she's moving, again, into the negative space of the panel to her right.

Thankfully, this is comics. You can, indeed, see the rest of the sequence on that tier of panels. What you see is one background drawn across the last three quarters of the tier, with gutters breaking the bac kground up into three distinct panels showing us three different points in time. With the static background, the "camera" never moves. It sits still while Catwoman runs away from us, left to right. The perspective leads the reader deeper into the panels as they go along, in a straight line across.

In the third panel, Catwoman jumps up off the roof and towards the train that's speeding by. The train was established on the previous page, as was the tunnel it's coming out of. The shadow below her shows us how high she's jumping. Her outstretched legs show us she was running at some speed and is leaping far ahead of herself to keep up with that moving train. About the only complaint I have on the page is here, where her right hand is just touching the panel border. That's a bad tangent, but the detail on her hand is so slight that it's not distracting.

Brief tangent: Putting the outstretched hand in front of the panel and breaking its border would have been a bigger mistake. That would destroy the perspective of the shot. The character is moving away from the reader. Have a hand jutting out towards the reader would give the reader's brains fits. An obvious observation, perhaps, but there are lots of comics from the mid-1990s that showed how many hadn't learned the lesson yet...

The fourth panel is just before Catwoman lands on the train. You can see the small shadow under her feet to indicate that. Her body language is great here. It's an awkward outstretched look, not classically superheroic or athletically limber. With her head bent down and her shoulders and arms up, she looks more interesting than she might have in a simpler pose. She's also completely in silhouette at this point. The level of detail on Catwoman has decreased as the sequence goes on. As the subject gets further from the reader, of course, it's naturally that you'd lose detail.

There are also curves in this sequence that can't be ignored. I'm not talking about Catwoman's figure, though it was a big shift from the Jim Balent-era curvaceous Catwoman to this one. No, I'm looking at the way the train tracks move in the frame. The action happens across the page, moving away from the reader. But the train line moves in a curve. It bends as it gets further from the reader, twisting up and slightly to the left after travelling strictly left to right in the rest of the panels. It gives the sequence greater depth in that it gives the train an even greater distance to travel away from the reader, which helps push the beginning of the sequence out towards the reader. It also keeps the reader's eye on the page. If the train went straight out of the panel at the end, it would run off the page and the reader would have to work his or her way back to the left. You can run something off the edge of the right side page, but that works best with the last panel of a page, when you want to lead the eye to the next page. Running off at that point is workable.

There's not much detail on this page. There doesn't need to be. The movement and the action of the scene are what draw your eye across the page. The number of windows on the passenger cars or in the buildings behind the train tracks is not important. It would be a distraction. Short of drawing every minute detail -- a la Juan Jose Ryp, perhaps, or Francois Schuiten -- such detail would make things look too simplified or too cartoony. Leaving them out all together keeps the mind focused on the movement in the sequence. Yes, the train is cartoony and very much simplified, but you won't notice it because Cooke doesn't point to it by making a half-hearted effort at adding enough details to make something look "real." There are indications of a busy cityscape in the background, but it's mostly a collection of simple straight lines.

The two most detailed items on the page are Catwoman and the police building. They're also the most important things on the page for the story's purpose.

It should also be noticed at this point that colorist Matt Hollingsworth doesn't try to attempt to add textures or excessive gradients or line-hiding color schemes. It's simple, almost monochromatic. The city is a basic steel blue/purple. The train is more gray. The rooftop is a different shade. But the coloring is flat, lacking gradients or special effects. The coloring remains consistent across the page, keeping with the idea that this is one long shot that just happens to be divided up into for separate panels to help show the succession (?) of events. It's not realistic coloring. The sky isn't a radically different color from the train or from the buildings. The colors are more subtle and flat.

TIER TWO

Take everything I wrote above and reverse all the directionality. That's the second sequence. Cooke reverses all of the directions and it works.

But…not exactly. That's what I thought when I first read the comic. When I read it closer to write this, though, I found something better. Yes, there are reversals. The action goes from back to front. We end on a close-up instead of beginning there. We start with a silhouette and end on a more detailed figure. In effect, these eight panels form one circle. It's very cinematic. We push from extreme close-up to extreme long shot and right back, in the sequence of one run-and-jump moment. All it's missing is a couple of large fat arrows overlaid on top and you'd almost swear you were reading storyboards for an animated movie.

The big difference, though, is that the second tier doesn't have a continuous background. That segment of the train has moved closer in the second panel from the first. See where the break between train cars has moved up in the panel and how Catwoman has grown larger while standing still. This part of the sequence shows Catwoman landing on the train and standing up. If you read through this fast, I wouldn't blame you for assuming she had landed in the first tier of panels and was running up to the reader in the second. The second tier is really just to stand Catwoman up.

In effect, this is the dramatic pause between actions. It's all run and jump, then slowly stand heroically, then get ready to jump again onto the side of a building.

Cooke even introduces some speed lines in this second tier to show the train as being in motion and to help highlight Catwoman's appearance in each panel. He didn't have those in the first tier, perhaps because the train wasn't moving in the panels. The train was static and Catwoman moved. Now that both Catwoman and the train are moving in each panel, the speed lines help indicate that movement. The speed lines also appear in the third tier more prominently, emanating directly from Catwoman.

Also in the second panel, Catwoman's eyes appear as the only non-silhouetted part of the image. This shouldn't actually work. I guess it might if she happened to be moving through a perfectly positioned spotlight and glanced across only her eyes. I tend to think this is more in line with classic comic book shorthand. Eyes can glow in the middle of a silhouetted figure at will. Think of Batman's white slits for eyes, or every Spider-Man's large white eyes. They may be the only visible part of the characters standing in dramatic shadow in a dark alley. It's artistic license, but it works for comics. It would be harder to pull off in live action. I don't think they ever tried it in the Batman movies, did they? I honestly can't recall.

CINEMATIC STORYTELLING WITHOUT 16:9 PANELS

All of that was what stopped me dead at the beginning of the second issue. Eight panels. It's the top half of one page. But it's something worth stopping to think about. When people think about cinematic storytelling, they automatically go to widescreen comics. They think about 16:9 panels to mimic the movie theater -- and now television -- screen ratio. I think this sequence shows that you can have a very cinematic feel to a comic book that still respects the idioms of the comics storytelling medium. It's not about fitting the storytelling into a specific shape, but rather of directing the eye in a specific way. Cooke restrains himself by using the same panel shape repeatedly to pace out the action, it's true. But there are other examples in the same issue of Cooke using what's unique about comics to his advantage. Take the title page, two pages later:

He has a splash panel of Catwoman digging her toes into the side of a building, but then insets a series of panels down the right side of the page to show her climbing up to the roof. The credits are sandwiched in amongst those smaller panels perfectly. Truthfully, Catwoman looks a little off here. There's something weird going on in her upper body and the way it twists, but I can't quite describe it. Very wide ribs, perhaps?

Either way, Cooke isn't constrained by the 'rules' of either medium. He blends them together. It's the best of both worlds, done in a way that you might not think about or even see unless you stop to think about them. And it's more than just a post-production coloring effect to blur out the background to simulate bokeh. It's more than just photocopying the same panel multiple times and zooming in on each to mimic a camera pushing in on someone. I'd like to see someone mimic the push/pull camera movement in comics sometime, though. I don't think the effect would work at all on a still page, though.

So, there, I'll make the argument that Darwyn Cooke did a great cinematic comic using a 16 panel grid back in 2002. It didn't involve blowing up any national landmarks. Or sideways panels. Or photorealistic actors standing in for superhero characters.

Wait, there's more to cover in this issue:

ON ANIMATORS AND FILLING IN THE BLANKS

I read an interview with Mike Kunkel recently, where he joked about how he uses his animation background to create more work for himself. He knew in drawing "Herobear and the Kid" that he could have told the story in fewer images. He didn't need five drawings of Herobear to show the transition from toy to superhero bear. He didn't need to show Tyler walking across a room by drawing an entire walk cycle. He couldn't help himself. It's how he saw things.

I think Cooke has a bit of that, too. Most of the book is eight panel pages, arranged two by four. But in the action moments, he breaks the panels apart even more. A small action gets smaller panels. Here's Catwoman picking an item out of her backpack and throwing it against a wall. These four panels are in one eighth of the page. It's an action that could likely be done in two just as easily.

The hardest thing in comics is compressing time. How can you draw more than one action in a panel. You can't. You need to pick your actions carefully. Let the reader fill in the obvious gaps while still getting the point across. Or, shrink your panels and drawn every little step. Cooke doesn't always do that, but he does it when it counts or when it leads to an interesting page dynamic. Otherwise, every issue would need to double in size to convey everything that happens.

Here's another interesting row of panels from the bottom of the same page:

Why is this interesting? Cooke's constrained himself (again). By using so many small panels, he doesn't have room for an establishing shot. You have Catwoman slowing her fall down a ventilation shaft in previous panels. Cut to a room where a police officer (presumably) is working, accompanied by two things: the sound effect to indicate the sound of Catwoman scraping past, and two ventilation ducts visible in the background. In the second panel, we see Catwoman looking straight down. The third panel is half-size, showing just a grate. In your mind, you know that's what Catwoman is looking at. In the fourth panel, we are looking through the grate again, and can see some boxes below. We guess it's the same grate (it's at the same angle, just larger in the panel) and we guess we're getting closer to it because we're assuming Catwoman's point of view because of that look down a couple panels earlier. Finally, at the end, she pops out of the grate, on top of the two boxes (well, two brown colored three dimensional rectangles) we saw in the previous panel.

It might be a bit of a head fake on Cooke's part, though. The room shown in the first panel doesn't look anything like the room in the final panel where Catwoman lands. Was that first panel meant to be a cut away to a random person on a random floor trying to work while the noise of Catwoman dropping through the walls behind him happens? Are the vents there to get you thinking that that's where she's going to pop out, or to just plant the idea that she is going to jump through one of them? It establishes the idea that Catwoman will fall out of a grate and into the middle of a room, so it does its job that way. When she does land, it's in a different room, but with the same idea -- a vent in the ceiling.

Was the "POP!" sound effect at all necessary at the end? The "SKANG"s at the beginning of the sequence were, because without them there's nothing happening of any interest to the reader. It's just a dude in a room. The point of the panel is the sound in the room. In the final panel, we can see Catwoman kicking out the vent. It's obvious what's going on. And since the sound of that happening doesn't impact the story at all, the sound effect is unnecessary. However, this is comics. And in a mostly silent scene, the little bits of sound are breaks in the quietness. It's a comic book. You're used to reading something.

There's never a shot with both Catwoman and the exit point in it until she pops out. We're running blind, but we understand what's happening because we can fill it in in our mind. Cooke gave us enough tools to use. Paired with common sense (someone falling down a ventilation shaft will eventually come out a vent) and some cliché action/thriller knowledge (people crawl around those vents a lot), we can read and understand the story. It's a trick that also works with the moving image, but there you have the benefits of time and movement to guide you. Here, it's a series of static images that you have to interpret as a reader. With the right artist, that's not a chore. Cooke commands the page and makes it easy for the reader without drawing arrows and signs to explain it all.

TWO FINAL NOTES

This four part storyline was collected by DC last year under the title "Catwoman, Volume 1: Trail of the Catwoman."

If you're a fan of Cooke's "Parker" books at IDW, you need to find a copy of Cooke's original graphic novel, "Catwoman: Selina's Big Score." It's early "Parker" work in many ways. You can see a lot of the tricks and techniques Cooke uses in the Richard Stark books in this earlier DC work. There's even a major character named "Stark" in it. You know that can't be a coincidence.

It's pure Cooke. While the monthly "Catwoman" series had Mike Allred on inks and Sean Konot more-than-capably handling the lettering, Cooke inked and hand-lettered all of the pages in "Selina's Big Score" himself. (Matt Hollingsworth did the coloring.) The end result looks much chunkier. Cooke's inks are thicker, heavier, less smooth. Backgrounds often look more suggested and less detailed. Broad strokes of Cooke's ink brush suggest what's going on behind the characters. The hand lettering has the organic feel missing from most comics today. It's imperfect, and I love that in a comic today.

If I ever get the time to read "Selina's Big Score" back to back with the three "Parker" books done so far, there's probably a column in that, too. Hopefully, it'll be less than 3500 words.

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