Monday, October 29, 2012

Mystery in Space!

When I first started reading comics, I was a kid & I was struck by the things that might strike a kid – dynamic art, interesting characters & story arcs, fantastic locales. 

I loved the Fantastic Four both for their group dynamics, the way they seemed to complement each other, and the epic scope of their adventures (I guess here I’m talking about the John Byrne run, which was my first & still dominant impression of the team).  I remember devouring any scrap of Adam Strange material I could find partly because I found the (admittedly repetitive) plot contrivance really satisfying.  But it’s fair to say that these examples (& the many many more I could list) all center on the CONTENT of the comics.  Aliens & cosmic cubes / other dimensions & unexplained phenomenon.

But I want to step away from the fanboy talk for a minute.  At the risk of oversimplifying, I want to talk about the FORM of comics as separate from content.  Because to me, it’s only through an understanding of form that I ever really thought I could approach comics as something I could do myself – not just a form of entertainment (or enrichment even), but as a method to explore my own drives. 

Thinking about form was the key that helped me to take a constructivist approach, a way to think about the process of making comics, which in turn allowed me to start in.

One of the first times I ever thought about form in comics came in 1984, Larry Hama’s ‘silent’ issue of GI Joe (it was #21).  It only took me a few pages to catch on to what he was doing, letting a whole issue run with no dialogue, no narration.  I “read” that issue over & over (ironically, many more times than I read other contemporary stuff that was packed with prose), & I was aware that certain choices were being made in how the comic was unfolding, the actual construction of it.  It was like seeing behind the curtain, understanding that certain deliberate choices were at work.

Sure, artists & writers always make a lot of choices but, either because I was a kid or because I was blinded by content, I was unaware of those choices – panel perspective & coloring, plot twists & characterization.  But here, in this issue, the FORM took precedence over the CONTENT (which was pretty awesome, actually, as Snake-Eyes busts into a Cobra Temple alone & takes on Storm Shadow).

There were other examples of FORM coming to the forground in my pre-teen & adolescent reading:  that hardcover Silver Surfer graphic novel by Stan Lee & John Buscema where every page was a full panel splash, the cramped & obsessive 9 panel grids that Keith Giffen used on his Legion of Superheroes.... 

Then, obviously, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics played a big role in first opening my eyes to the mechanics of the page.  Also Matt Madden’s 99 Ways to Tell a Story, which demonstrated the methodology of selection & perspective & tone. Also, hundreds more books of this type, & also also probably every comic I’ve ever read has influenced my thinking on this.  I wish I could provide a clear trajectory or a simple reading list, but it gets pretty messy.  And maybe that’s the point.

I think there’s a huge difference between seeing the comics medium as one that is primarily motivated by entertainment or seeing it as a viable creative outlet where a certain set of common parameters help dictate the larger set of open parameters a practioner might employ.  It’s the difference between neat & messy, between easy & difficult.

Next time, I’ll get into some of the more direct inspirations for my comic – those that are more CONTENT based as well as those that are more FORMAL.


  1. It was difficult to break the mold for most superhero comics during the Silver age. Frank Brunner was pretty good about mixing up his panel designs and layouts in the '70s Doctor Strange series. His art really gave Strange a larger-than-life feel that fit his cosmic-scale stories.

  2. Brunner's detail work was great too. Then you've got Steranko's stuff from right around the same time, & countless others. But I didn't figure any of this out until later. It was there, but not there for my eyes to see until I got a little more sophisticated about looking.