Pipeline: Four Rules for Happier Comic Book Reading

Tue, March 15th, 2016 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist


  1. You don't have to read all the comics.

  2. You don't have to like all the ones you read.

  3. You don't have to like the ones everyone says you're supposed to.

  4. Like what you like.

The Internet would lose a few fights if we all followed these rules, but I could live with that. Spread the word with this handy image, suitable for most major photo sharing sites:

longbox manifesto web


I think of all those classic comics where two teams fight, and it's a 5 on 5 or better brawl. It's a hard thing for a comic book artist to choreograph, but there are ways to sort of work around it:

Man to Man: Everyone pairs off. We've all seen those fights, where the fire guy of one team fights against the fire guy on the other, the strong guy takes on the strong guy, etc. Over the course of however many pages the fight goes on, the story shifts focus from one fight to the next.

Focus: You need an establishing shot to show the teams going after each other, and you'll likely want one at the end to show one team victorious over the other. Everything in between, though, can stay focused to the matter at hand to the exclusion of everything else. Focus on the strong guy fight for a couple of pages before shifting over to the fighting armored guys and losing the strong guys.

Forget the Backgrounds: When you're focusing on one match, eliminate the backgrounds which might show one of the other fights. Put that fight over in a corner away from everyone else. The flying characters will fight high in the sky. The strong guys will be grounded. The martial artists will be fighting close together, hand-to-hand, over to the side.

Non-Linear Storytelling: The story doesn't even have to be linear this way. It likely isn't. Five fights are happening at the same time, but drawing them all at the same time would be hellish. It's too much more for the artist to handle in a month, and too messy for a reader to clearly understand what's going on.

Thinking of all that, picture what "Captain America: Civil War" has to manage. Look at what they're setting up in the most recent trailer:

It's an unfair 6 on 5 fight, but we know both sides also have an unaccounted for character on their side in this fight that we don't see in frame here...

Movies are a whole 'nother beast. How do you craft one of these fights in live action? It's not just a swarm of identical Ultrons crawling over everyone, or a sea of nameless aliens fighting the same way against everyone. This is more personalized combat, with a dozen characters. (In this gif, it's five against six, but close enough.) You can't hide the backgrounds entirely. Non-linear storytelling would be too confusing. You can isolate characters in different areas to a certain extent, but then you have a dance between cutting back and forth and keeping the viewer from not getting sea sick.

In other words, cross your fingers for the storyboard artist on that sequence.

OMG 5ed38
This was one of the standout moments in the second Avengers film's trailer. We love this stuff.

I suppose we could look at the opening scene from the second Avengers movie for some reference. You still have the superpowered team jumping across the screen together to fight the bad guys, but as with the later Ultron fight, it's more of a team versus a sea of random faceless interchangeable opponents. The one on one part is less important.

As superhero comic fans, we want the team versus team dynamic, which is something the Marvel movies have not delivered on yet. It looks like that's going to happen in "Captain America: Civil War."

It'll be interesting to see how they pull it off. I can take some guesses based on what we see in the trailer, but I don't want to analyze things that much. I just want to enjoy the movie, and save some of the surprises for myself.


gen13 cover

Alongside the monthly main series, WildStorm published a lot of ancillary "Gen13" material, bringing in top artists to take a turn with the turbulent teenagers for an issue or two. J. Scott Campbell has never been a fast artist, and the team was so popular that WildStorm needed to strike while the iron was hot. While this Re-Read series is focusing on the Campbell issues, I'd be remiss to ignore what was happening around it.

Story continues below

This week, I read "Gen13: The Unreal World," with a title no doubt taken as a play on words from "The Real World," which the series' original editor was a cast member on.

Written by Mike Heisler, the big selling point for the comic is that it was drawn by Humberto Ramos, who had just done the fill-in on "Gen13" #9, as you might recall. This story takes place just before the issue, and is set in a world where Caitlin Fairchild is a struggling diner waitress and Freefall (Roxie) is a troubled student at a Catholic high school, where the nuns still rap their rulers on the students' knuckles, no doubt.

How did they wind up there? Is this a parallel dimension? An alternate universe? A story within a story?

It almost doesn't matter. Like so much of "Gen13," the plot is just the thing you hang the character moments on. Here, the situation is to put the team into crazy situations slightly to the extreme of their characters. Heisler does well in creating moments in the issue between those characters, trading on their best known traits to deliver the laughs. Seeing Grunge as a yuppie in a three piece suit is good for a laugh, though Roxie's reaction to it is perhaps funnier.

The plot -- and here come the major spoilers -- is that a slightly superpowered guy, Cull, was brainwashing Southern California (in part through a nightly television broadcast), creating a new shared existence. He wants to be powerful and wants the world to worship him, but he's not nearly strong enough to pull that off.

gen13 unrealworld astral
The WildStorm astral plane inspires digital colorists to explore the tools available to them in Photoshop.

One by one, the Gen13 teams snaps back to reality and bring the fight back to the less-than-awe-inspiring villain in the astral plane. I guess Chris Claremont didn't get the trademark on "astral plane" when he was on X-Men.

The good guys triumph in the end, of course, and the team is one big happy and slightly dysfunctional family once more.

Aside from the big fight scene at the end, the issue feels less than dramatic. You know everyone is going to wake up from their trance. Doing it one by one feels a bit repetitive after a while, even if each character's situation is wildly different. (Mr. Lynch is a soccer coach, and Bobby is lost in the woods, for example.) And while there are funny moments, they're not so numerous nor so hilarious that they make up for the pacing. There are also a couple of pages of exposition that drag things down, and Fairchild's one moment of self doubt -- is reality so much better that it's worth returning to? -- feels tacked on and de rigueur.

There are lots of small things to recommend this story, but I'm afraid they don't glue together as well as they should. As an artistic showcase for Humberto Ramos, it sort of works. Ramos is great at characterization and expressiveness. But if you prefer his superhero costumed antics, you're probably not going to get enough out of this issue.


In Cull, though, you do begin to see Ramos start to warm up for "Crimson," his creator-owned vampire series that began a couple of years later. For the record, and completely off-topic, I preferred "Out There," which I don't think ever finished its planned run.

Still, the "Gen13: The Unreal World" one shot is 32 pages of story for $2.95, only 45 cents higher than the monthly comic at the time. If you find it in a dollar bin and you're a Ramos fan, it's worth it.

I mentioned that Ramos drew a lot of unhinged jaws in his issue of "Gen13." He toned that down a lot by "The Unreal World." Still, it's worth looking back one last time to "Gen13" #9 for the montage of Jawbreaker moments:

gen13 ramos
"Open wide and say ahhh!"

As "cartoony"/"stylized" as Ramos can get, "The Unreal World" doesn't approach that level. I love the way he draws larger hands, heads, and feet. It gives his characters an expressiveness that's often missing from artists who prioritize proper anatomy over gesture and emotion. If you want to sell a gesture, the head and hands, in particular, are the best places to start. Ramos' style is a natural fit for a book that's more character based for just that reason.

gen13 cover
Big hand and big feet, but the faces are empty stares here.

Great, now I want to go back and re-read "Impulse" again...


  • Picked up a new computer last week. Decided to not just transfer everything over from the old one, but rather install stuff as I needed it and copy as I go. It's been slow going this week, but I think I'm mostly up to speed and Pipeline should get back to its usual length next week.

  • The final issue of the first story arc of "Codename Baboushka" (#5) does a nice job in wrapping up the story with a bow on top. But, even more important that that, my fan art appears in the letters column. That's pretty cool.
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