Monday, May 4, 2020

Comic Book Making: Lettering & Art working together

With relatively few exceptions, the creation of a comic book is a collaborative effort, especially when discussing work from the larger publishers, Marvel and DC.  Much of their output consists of color comics, and much of it is published on a monthly basis.  For a standard 20-24 page comic, that's a lot of work to get done in a short amount of time.  Which is why a division of labor was formed:  writing, penciling, inking, coloring, lettering.  Parsing out these various aspects of a comic to different specialists allowed the schedules to remain intact, for the most part.  And, though all parts of the comic need to come together in order for it to work, there is an obvious hierarchy, with writing and art at the top and, more so now than ever, the writers even getting higher billing than the artists. 

Anyway, preamble aside, I've been reading some older comics recently and came across examples of "unorthodox" panel layouts in two different issues -- one that didn't work and one that did.  The former was from the Wally West era Flash series, issue #201, and the latter was in Saga of the Swamp Thing annual #2. 


Now, comparing anyone's work to that of Alan Moore and his collaborators is almost always a losing proposition and terribly unfair.  But if you want to learn how to do things well, you need to learn from the best, so let's get on with it.  

First, let's look at the page that didn't work.  The issue was published in 2003, written by Geoff Johns, drawn by Alberto Dose, with lettering from Kurt Hathaway.  

An important thing to remember, when dealing with a page layout that does not adhere to any recognizable grid (such as a 2 x 2 panel grid like Kirby would utilize or a 3 x 3 panel grid that epitomized Ditko's Spider-Man and Moore & Gibbons's Watchmen) is that there need to be some way for the reader's eye to smoothly follow the storytelling -- because our natural progression, in western comic and reading in general, is to go left to right, top to bottom; anything outside that norm will necessitate hard work on the part of the creators, to get it right.  That doesn't happen in the above page. 

Looking at that page from the Flash, we start in the upper left corner, obviously, as Wally steps from his car, which is hanging in midair (due to Wally's sped up perceptions as he goes into superspeed mode).  This follows to the tall rectangular panel just to the right, overlapping with the initial panel.  Now, this middle panel at the top also heavily overlaps with the larger panel in the upper right.  Our eyes naturally move in that direction, with nothing to hinder our reading progress . . . BUT this would be wrong.  That "third" panel has Wally already on the ground, looking into the vehicle beneath his own.  We only discover is it the wrong order, though, when we shift our eyes back to the left and find a panel that, in time, falls between that second panel and that large one in the upper right.  The caption box:  "My car's floating in midair." also indicates this panel comes before the one where he sees the driver in the neighboring car.   Nothing -- in the art or the lettering (since that caption box appeared not to be attached to that second panel) -- showed readers they needed to move downward rather than to the right.  So, in reading it out of order first, followed by a need to go back and re-read it correctly, the creators have taken the audience out of the story and any emotional response they may have been attempting to spur in the readership is lost. 

Now, let's look at a less hectic but still unorthodox panel layout in the Swamp Thing annual.   This comic was published in 1985, written by Alan Moore, with art from Stephen Bissette & John Totleben, and lettering by John Costanza. 

In this issue, and all the issues to date that I've re-read, the lettering and art come together in a near perfect harmony to bring these stories to life in a way that few comics, even today, are able to achieve.  There's a reason these comics are stone cold classics, part of that's the writing, part of that is the art, including coloring from Tatjana Wood, and part of that is the lettering. 

On this page, we start, as we always do, in the upper left corner.  Deadman is hovering above Swamp Thing as they talk.  This panel leads into the tall panel at the right, which overlaps the first and third.  Of course, our eye naturally moves this way, but just to emphasize the reading of this page, Deadman's hand leaks into that second panel.  There, we have a double-image, wherein we see Deadman and Swampy walking through the nether-realm as a ghost-image of Deadman's face looms above them, speaking.  His word balloons wrap through the image of the two characters, leading directly to the third panel, where Swamp Thing's speech balloons lead directly off from Deadman's in panel two.  Note that, in these first three panels, not only have the word balloons directed our eyes through the reading order of these panels, but the figures also snake through in the direction we should be reading.  Deadman's response in this panel falls outside that "arrow" but, again, we have the art to lead us into the next panel, which is the tall, rectangular one at the lower left.  Not only does Deadman's arm once again point us to the next panel to be read, but the slight overlap of that panel into the third one also pulls us toward it.  And then, once again, we have the characters turned around, facing toward the right, which leads us into the final panel. 

Certainly, this page wasn't as complex as the Flash panel, but it adhered to some fairly "unspoken rules" about comic art, which is to have the images in the panels leading readers in the correct reading order, and adding to this clarity of expression is the lettering from Costanza, who masterfully weaves the word balloons through this page, and other similarly expressive pages, to keep the audience engaged with the story and not having to pause and think about which panel they need to go to next. 

And if you're looking for another example of masterful art and lettering that provides a clarify of expression in an unorthodox panel layout, check out my earlier post on Sam Kieth's Aliens work, here.  It's pretty interesting (the page layout if not the explanation from me), in my opinion.

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