Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Holding the Center - "Reading" Sam Kieth's ALIENS

It's funny how, once something is in your head, you begin to see it everywhere. It's understandable. With a new understanding, you become more aware. Anyway. That's what occurred this past week.

One of my favorite blogs is the Comics Comics blog from the guys at Picturebox. They know comics - not just what is good, but the process, the history - and the insights you can glean from the posts at the site are fantastic. Definitely worth checking out if you love comics.

Anyway. Frank Santoro - whose books Storeyville and Cold Heat (with Ben Jones) are two of my recent favorites; great, personal comics that don't look like anything else on the stands - likes to write about process over at the Comics Comics site, and recently he's been discussing the "center" of the comic page. How (if I may paraphrase), if you utilize a 6-panel or similar grid, then the center is being given up to the gutters, and the prime portion of real estate on that page, the involuntary focus of the page, is lost.

Santoro goes into this in more depth in his two recent Comics Class posts - Class #1 and Class #2 - and does a far more informed job than I of discussing the importance of the center. It's intriguing and I would recommend hitting the links, and then put Comics Comics into your RSS feed.

This relates to my "Halloween month" revisiting of Mark Verheiden's initial ALIENS trilogy from Dark Horse in the late 80s/early 90s. I hadn't read them in years, and after watching Ridley Scott's director's cut of the original ALIEN, I was excited to dive into the longbox. I'll write about the stories therein later. But what I found interesting was a particular page of art from the third series, subtitled Earth War and drawn by Sam Kieth. The page in question is this one:

This is a complex layout, considering the reading of the panel does not follow the traditional left-to-right/up-and-down path. It goes down the left side of the page, and then jumps back up to read down the right side, despite the lack of dialogue in that final panel.

It made me think of debates I hear on some of my comic podcasts, where they lament the fact that there is no more centralized office where new artists get to learn about comic storytelling from masters of the form, similar to the mythical stories we hear of the Marvel bullpen where artists like George Perez interned with Rich Buckler while learning from others working in the same space. Some artists today want to create these elaborate page layouts, but then we, as readers, don't know how to follow the action on the page.

But Sam Kieth's layout for this page works perfectly, and he is ably assisted by Jim Massara who did the lettering for this series. You can follow the action with my rudimentary photoshop arrows below:

In the first panel, we have a marine reaching into a hole where a second marine has fallen. Our eyes follow the word balloons as they wrap around the first marine's head, following the final balloon as it stretches out into the second panel below, leading us directly to this marine's head in that second panel which is blown through by the alien. The trajectory of the alien's inner mouth (what is that called?) and the blood and brain matter sends our eyes away from the center of the page down to the bottom left corner. The blood spatters all the way to the edge of this panel and our eye falls into the bottom left panel, which has the second marine turning away from the spattering blood and brains - which tie this panel in with the previous one above it. Our eyes then naturally cross over to the panel beside this one - and it is important to note that these two panels at the bottom left of the page are as wide as the second panel right above it, the single gutter going up the right side of these panels effectively demarcating the left and right of the page. In this fourth panel, our eyes are raised up toward the top of the image by the retreating bit of food the alien took with it and the word balloon that falls out of the upper boundary of this panel. And this leads our eye over to the final, tall panel on the right and to the alien hanging above the marines. The dripping blood from the alien's mouth then leads our eye back down to the bottom of this panel and the two marines looking up into its hideous maw.

I was really impressed with how this page was laid out. I know I have encountered some difficulty in reading recent comics, mainly because enough thought has not been put into the layout of the page.

This is what I appreciate from Frank Santoro and other artists like him, and like Sam Kieth in this example. I also found it interesting to note that Kieth, whether conscious or not, refused to give up the center of this particular page. You'll notice that the dividing line between the right and left of the page is off-center, nudged toward the right. And it is telling that the main focus of this page - the alien's attack on the marines - is found within the center, as noted below.

These are things I didn't think about when I was just reading comics. But now that I'm trying to write comics, I examine the books more closely than I ever did. And having teachers like Santoro to show the way at Comic Comics is certainly a help.


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