Pipeline: Steranko and the Art of Comic Book Storytelling

Tue, September 3rd, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

DON'T YIELD; LET'S LOOK CLOSELY AT S.H.I.E.L.D.!

Jim Steranko is an interesting figure in the comics community, particularly on Twitter. I've been looking at his S.H.I.E.L.D. work again recently, and couldn't help thinking about Steranko's choices on many pages. It's a bit of an occupational hazard as a "comic book reviewer," but it's also because there are so many interesting things going on in these issues. It sparks the imagination and the inner analyst.

I was struck by the eight panel sequence that you've likely seen before from the third page of "S.H.I.E.L.D." #1.

That page was originally drawn 45 years ago. I can't claim to have read nearly enough comics that old or older to say how much of it was revolutionary or even new. I don't know how many techniques created for "SHIELD" have since been assimilated into the common comics vernacular. You'll need someone else to put this work in its proper historical context.

For me, though, it's a page that stuck in my head long after I read it. So I'm writing this as comics therapy. Maybe by analyzing it out loud like this, I'll figure out what it is that fascinates me about the page so much.

For simplicity's sake, we'll refer to the characters on the page as Nick Fury, the guy in the green uniform is a Hydra member (because that seems so very SHIELD-ish), and the third character as Purple Ultron, because he looks vaguely robotic.

The script is simple: Nick Fury wants to cross through a room. After distracting and knocking out a Hydra agent, Purple Ultron kills him from behind.

We start in the first panel with the hand of Nick Fury throwing something out from the doorframe into the floor in the middle of the room, looking to distract the Hydra agent inside. The action happens bottom up, but also slightly from right to left. That's counter to what we'd look for in page layout these days. We don't want to draw the eye outside of the page from the first panel. Shouldn't that object being thrown move from left to right? Does the page get stronger if that panel is flipped?

Let's take a look:

I think I like it better flipped. If you're a lefty, you'll really like it. The one drawback to it is that it looks like Nick Fury just threw a coin out over the Hydra agent's head if you're looking at panels one and two together.

In looking through the rest of the book ("Nick Fury: Who Is Scorpio?" collection "Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1-3, #5), though, I noticed something. Fury is drawn drinking tea with his left hand, holding a communicator he's talking into with his left hand, wearing a watch on his right wrist, and even punching with his left hand. Did Steranko flip the panel just to avoid the issue I mentioned in the last panel? Is Fury really a lefty? Maybe he's ambidextrous? He does, after all, fire a gun with his right hand in this story.

The second panel brings the action back from top to bottom, as the agent reaches down the panel to pick up the item. Steranko approximates a gradient here in his inking. While everything above the agent is solid black, the area below him where we need to see the item is done with a dotted pattern. I can only imagine what that looked like on the newsprint of the era. It serves to highlight the decoy Fury just threw out, though, so it's a necessary bit of storytelling.

In the third panel, Steranko draws a horizontal action from left to right in a narrow panel. It cuts off Fury's foot, as well as the Hydra agent's head and legs. Fury does, however, stand firmly on the bottom border of the panel. That's no tangent. That's a decision made by the artist to have panel border along the bottom double as the floor. The leg kick moves from left to right, so it works with the reader's expectations and carries us straight over to the final panel on the tier. Looking back now, I see where Steranko did the same thing in the second panel.

Still, though, I picture how this panel would work if, say, Erik Larsen were drawing it. Then I could picture a more dynamic panel where Fury kicks straight out towards the reader more, and the Hydra agent is doubled over and zooming out at the reader. It would feel less confined by the panel borders that way.

At this point, we see that Steranko is crafting a silent page without the use of any lettering at all. Not even sound effects. In the first three panels, he indicates sounds with grouped lines. In the first panel, it's the clinking of the item Fury skips across the floor. In the second, I'm guessing there's a slight beep coming from the device. In the third, it's the boot to the head. But that's the last we'll see of the technique on this page.

Panel four is a dramatic pause with a purpose. Fury's shadow on that door gives a clear indication that that's where he's heading. We don't need Fury thinking it to himself. We don't need to see him having a conversation with Dum Dum Dugan over an intercom to indicate that he's heading for the door. His shadow on the door is all we need. It feels understated and practically subtle compared to the standard over-the-shoulder shot we'd expect from such a panel.

The "action" here is right to left, keeping the eye inside the page, and getting the reader ready to go back to the far left of the second tier of panels. Fury's shadow is roughly the same size as Fury was in the previous panel, so it feels like the camera is keeping the same distance. That helps make it more jarring when the next panel features a close-up.

Panel five comes without warning. Here's Purple Ultron with a gun pointing up and across the panel. There's no indication at all of where he is or where he came from. It reminds me of the trick in suspenseful moments in movies when the camera gets up so close to a character that you know it's being done to hide something from happening just off-camera that'll jump out at you next. That shadow panel from the previous page now strikes me as something that's laid out to do that. Steranko doesn't want to give away the trap door too early, so panel four is composed to cut that section off.

Go close, cut to something that almost seems like a non sequitur, then pull back wide quickly to explain it all.

Slightly left-to-right, panel five avoids the issue the first panel on the page had. Your eye is led directly to the next panel, where we can see Fury is the one the gun is pointed to. If you overlapped the two panels, as a matter of fact, you'd see the end of the gun is in roughly the same spot as Fury's upper torso. The eye picks up on that repetition and puts the two and two together for you.

Steranko digs into his bag of artistic tricks, using radiating circles coming out of the gun to draw attention to just how important the gun is to the very existence of this panel.

Panel six gives us the relevance of that panel. It lays out the relationship between the new gunman and the Nick Fury. He's right on top of him, just behind. Steranko draws your eyes up that panel in three different ways: The agent is rising up from the floor, with his gun pointing up to where Nick Fury stands just above him. Up, up, up.

He reverses it in panel seven, where Fury is now in the foreground, being shot at from behind and above by the new bad dude. There's no sound effect again, just the glow at the end of the gun to tip us off. Fury is also highlighted with red coloring, which is a pretty easy blood symbol.

In panel eight, we flip back around, looking over Purple Ultron's shoulder in the foreground to Nick Fury's LMD lying dead on the floor in front of him. The neat perspective trick here is that, given the angle, the action works diagonally across the panel from lower left to upper right. It's a shot of one character looking down on another, yet the reader sees it as a look up the panel.

Looking at panels seven and eight together, I see something else that's interesting. The direction your eye moves in with each panel is the same. The line runs from the upper left corner to the right edge about halfway down the panel, and then back out to the left. In the seventh panel, it's Nick Fury's shoulder and turned head guiding your eye over; in the eighth, it's his leg leading to the unmasking Purple Ultron. They're both strong leading lines. (In fact, when you place these two panels one on top of the other, you see that Nick Fury's shoulder in panel seven is at the same exact position in the panel as the top of Purple Ultron's head in panel eight.)

If you look at the page as a whole, you see something else. Steranko has moved his camera around not just up and down, but also back and forth. With the exception of panels two and three, Steranko flips the scene around 180 degrees between every panel. I went so far as to draw myself an overhead view of the room and the characters' relative positions in it, along with a rough estimate of where the camera is positioned in the room. It flips back and forth constantly, creating a visual rhythm. In the last two panels, Steranko stands by the classic 180 degree rule strongly, but that rule is irrelevant for the rest of the page, given how everything is laid out.

This is the overhead diagram I drew of the action as it happens in the room. It's an overheard view. The arrows indicate the rough position and direction of the camera. Nick Fury is the little eye patch. The different bad guys are just circles. Watch the arrows flip flop back and forth.

There are no wide shots on this page. There's a claustrophobic feel, overall, likely owing to the confined space in which the action takes place. Steranko places his camera throughout the page very close to one character or the other. The sixth panel is the only one in which a character's entire body can be seen. Every other panel comes closer than that.

Having said all of that, what did I learn?

  • There's a lot more that goes into a single page of art than we often think about or give credit to the artists for.

  • Likely, some of it is coincidental. There's probably some over-analysis at work here, finding patterns and clever things where none exist.

I prefer to believe comic artists are misunderstood masters of storytelling, whose bold splashy images are often remembered too much over their unique storytelling skills. Paying close attention to those skills every now and then will help you appreciate the material you're reading even more.

COSPLAY PHOTOGRAPHY

The new Syfy Channel show, "Heroes of Cosplay," ran some photos from photographer Brian Humphrey that they didn't have permission to run. So he sent them his bill in the form of a $30,000 invoice. NBC-owned Syfy's defense? The cosplayers claimed they owned the photos, since they starred in the pictures.

One of two things is happening here: Ignorant cosplayers are wrong. Or NBC knows it's wrong and is trying to throw cosplayers under the bus to cover their own butts and guilt the photographer into letting things drop.

OK, there is a third option here: The photographer didn't get a good model release signed by the cosplayers, in which case the whole thing becomes a muddled mess that NBC will win because they can afford better lawyers to bury the thing in too much paperwork to make it profitable for the photographer to bother defending his own rights.

If there are no releases signed, the default is that the photographer owns the images. The fact that NBC did get in touch with other photographers to clear rights shows that NBC knows this.

Check out the photographer's portfolio someday. He has some very strong work that's a lot more than just a random dude snapping quick pics of people dressed up on convention floors.

FARE THEE WELL, iFANBOY

Just wanted to take a moment this week to pass along our best wishes to the whole iFanboy.com crew, who announced over the weekend that they're scaling back operations. They're going to be a podcast from here on out, and not a general comics blog. The comics industry isn't one with overflowing advertising budgets, and the blog biz is not an easy one to hack. The fact that iFanboy made it for as long as they did is to their great credit. We got a lot of great discussions from their columnists and their podcasts, and I hope we'll see some of their writers pop up elsewhere in the weeks ahead.

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TAGS:  pipeline, jim steranko, nick fury agent of shield

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