Action!

Another Berenstain Bears Bike Lesson

I’m going to do my best to follow the “if you don’t have anything nice to say…” rule here, slightly adapted. It is very doubtful I will ever post artwork of absolutely no merit. If I’m going to teach a skill, I can find an example of someone great illustrating it rather than just grabbing the first mediocre artist who happens to do it. That said, sometimes the best way to learn is through the mistakes of others. These negative examples of what not to do will also be culled from the greats because when you’re doing twenty-two 10×15 inch pages with up to nine panels each in just thirty days, even the masters sometimes drop less than stellar results. It’s easy to attack garbage; it’s more telling when someone I have nothing but admiration for made a choice or took a risk that I find less than successful. And if we only observe great artists, even pages with “mistakes” on them are stunning to look at and have hundreds of “successes” all around the corners.

So here’s a page by my all-time favorite mainstream artist.  Joe Quesada, an artist himself who I give complete credit to for salvaging Marvel from the cesspool it had become, once apparently said that if he could, he would let John Romita, Jr. draw their entire line. I couldn’t agree more. Watching Romita work on a superhero book is akin to when I heard Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young play at Madison Square Garden in 2001. I just wanted to hear some great acoustic guitar-work and Crosby’s luscious harmonies. I had no idea the solo chops Young and Stills had playing back to back electric guitars. They seemed to feed off one another telepathically. When you’ve done something that long, it’s like alchemy: the elements all mix perfectly, and the leaden work of others in seasoned experts hands becomes gold. And in the case of Romita, it’s in his blood. What’s more, for as long as he’s been in the game, he’s still adapting. In his case, his work has become even more punk rock, and thus appropriately super-heroic, as he’s aged. You can now tell that he encourages his inkers to put away the nibs and slash his forceful pencil lines with those big fat Sharpies. Spider-Man has never looked as good as he does today, and yes, I include the version of his creator Steve Ditko (who found the perfect outlet for his unbridled weirdness in Dr. Strange) in that assessment. The only books I pick up on the newsstands up here are anything by Romita and New Avengers by Lenil Francis Yu (for similar reasons). Frank Miller taught us with DK2 that superheroes work best at their most boneheaded. Keep the muscles big, the action bigger, and the lines frantic.

Well, the following slugfest Romita drew in the pages of Hulk has plenty to recommend. It could be an action class in and of itself. However, I chose the one page here where Romita perhaps said, “What the hey! Let’s see if it works,” and it didn’t. Sorry John. This is just in the interest of instruction:

Marvel Comics Group © Marvel Comics Group

pencils: John Romita, Jr. inks: Klaus Janson book: Incredible Hulk publisher: Marvel Comics Group © Marvel Comics Group

Now that middle panel should be devastating. WHAMMO! But is it just me, or does that punch have exactly the same amount of impact as Ang Lee’s pretentiously edited split-screen action scenes from the movie? You’re almost wondering how Hulk could’ve fallen over since it looks like he just bounded into Abomination’s fist from a light trot. Why, for all its speedlines and page-breaking full-bleed-iness, does this image seem so frozen and static?

Because every image is static.

Comics are just a series of lines, drawings if you will, on a page, with no real relation to each other outside of a spatial one, and certainly no movement.

The way these images are juxtaposed, and the selection of shots within the panel borders create the illusion of movement when properly selected and constructed. Romita broke the cardinal rule of punches. One formulated, actually, by two friends of his father’s, Stan Lee and John Buscema, in their more-informative-than-one-might-think book How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way: never show the moment of the punch. Show the moment just before or right after.

The reason for this is actually quite simple. Because we are not observing all movements in the action (the pullback, the lunge, the hit, the followthrough), we are left to ascertain what happened and fill in the gaps based only on the image we have. If Romita had pulled back Abomination’s fist just a fraction of an inch, just left, let’s say, a Creation of Adam gap, we would’ve seen how powerfully these two behemoths were charging at one another, completed the intense blow in our head, and not been the least bit surprised by the next panel of Hulk being sent reeling. Or if, instead, he had used the massive spread to show us Newton’s third law in action: Hulk’s neck whipping back while Abomination’s body spun forward with continued momentum, we would have known the power of the blow that just occurred split-seconds before without even seeing it. But by choosing the shot that depicts the moment of impact, we are denied the cock-back and charge that proceeded it, as well as the resultant energy that followed it, and left with an image that could just as easily depict the two leaning towards one another slightly with Abomination resting his fist on Hulk’s face. And all the speedlines and sound effects in the world can’t fix that. It’s an oof moment, and it should have been an omigod one.

Give your reader no doubt as to what is occurring in your image by showing the twists and turns of bodies before and after impact. There is only one way for our brains to fill in those details. Pausing at the moment of connection leaves us with awkward, often silly, choices…and once your reader is thinking, sorry, but you’ve lost them. Contemplation is for page twenty-three, certainly not needed in the heat of a knock-down, drag-out melee. Trust me, if thinking were permitted then, Michael Bay would be out of work. Can we please keep our fight scenes out of the cerebral cortex and planted firmly in the amygdala where they belong?

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