by Greg Ruth
Welcome back for Part 2 of our series on the craft of comics storytelling, and Happy 2015! If you want to catch up, you can find the earlier installment, (Part 1) HERE:
So. Assuming you've been playing around with short stories and interpretive translations of prose to comics, this outing will discuss the dynamic versus the subtle strengths of comics. Again the goal here is not so much to teach the individual physical rules of comics (as any rule that can be broken is not really a rule anymore and all rules in comics can be broken), but to speak to the understanding of why and when to use them in telling your story. As a disclaimer, all of this is merely my own personal view and manner of approaching comics, and not meant to be a doctrine. I can swiftly list at least a dozen peers who would not agree with any of this, so grains of salt should be included. If this doesn't speak to your way, please go find a path that does as it really helps to have a few exercises to take around the block before the plunge.
Comics do the fabulous very well. It's a big reason why despite the forced ubiquity of them beyond their actual import, superhero stories work so well and are so dominate in American in comics. But with the shiny punchy cape books are a lot of tempting devices that will siren-sing you to shipwreck. Big angular panels, the ever present splash page, breaking the fourth wall and leaping from the strictures of the panel. Personally I look unkindly on nearly all of this kind of thing, and I think at this stage, you should as well. They are the comics version of the explosive set piece in every Die Hard movie and a button you should only press when necessary and when earned. A lot of bad comics try to hide behind these flourishes of color and insane storytelling trickery, but personally I think your time is better spent learning the nuts and bolts of the craft. Think of a Michael bay movie without the minimal plot and character development. There's enough of that malarky out there, and if you're going to distinguish yourself from the pectorally obsessed, work a bit harder to get the basics. Here are two basic categories towards this end:
I often cite David Lynch or Roman Polanski as an example of this in film. Carl Theodor Dryer is another favorite, but their comics counterparts can be found in David Lloyd, Dave Gibbons, older Mazzuchelli and even weird as it sounds, Jim Woodring to name a few. The thing all of these storytelling masters have in common is an elegantly conservative use of dynamic trickery. Lynch and Polanski manage to make the slightest of off center tweaks to how they present an image that informs the mood and place of that image without being overt. The result is far more effective even if it's hard to notice specifically. A room seen from throat level is a different room from one shot from a standard sit-com style eye level. Polanski's most exquisitely weird and subtle film, THE TENANT is nothing but a catalogue of this example, using especially the close up not just for a scene of shock or reaction, but as a place to cram the viewer so close to the character as to be within his or her own psyche. Think of dynamic trickery as a firecracker: a single black cat, lit thrown too late and exploding brings a longer and more memorable moment of drama than lighting the whole string over and over again endlessly. If you're going to utilize the dynamic tricks, surround them with more basic and mundane modes of story so they really stand out. A rose amidst a field of cobblestone is more meaningful than a single rose in a field of rose bushes. Use your boom-booms only when needed and they'll reward you with a louder bang every time.
LONE WOLF AND CUB
by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
LONE WOLF AND CUB
by Kazuo Koike
and Goseki Kojima
|from THE LOST BOY|
|from CONAN: BORN ON THE BATTLEFIELD by Kurt Busiek and Greg Ruth|
|from THE LOST BOY|
The best rule as taught to me by my good friend and former editor, Spencer Lamm, was that every single panel of a comic should tell us something new. I've never found this to be false, especially if you broaden the spectrum of what "new" means. Each panel is an opportunity to tell us about the moment, the world, the character or the story. Forgetting this means you end up subtracting from all of the above. Pay attention to your normal tricks, and don't over use them. Tray to tell even insane action scenes without angled border panels or breaking the regular lines of the panel structure. If you can make something exciting under those circumstances, you won't need those visual crutches and your tale will be better for it in the long run. Woodring's FRANK is one of the most well told and effectively weird comics in all of human history, and yet he never once breaks from his grid structure or his panel rules. If he doesn't need to do it, neither do you.
2. Figure and life drawing
|CHRIS WARE from his sketchbooks|
The thing is, comic storytelling is all about lying with aplomb. Really, this is true of any kind of storytelling, but with comics the goal is to craft real enough characters and places and remove the tricks and devices to the background as to be nearly forgotten. Will Eisner coined it best by saying "comics is what happens in between the panels". Meaning the magic of comics narratives is only in evidence in the smooth transition between panels, rather than within the panels themselves. We don't have the luxury of motion, time or sound in comics the way film does. We lack as well the exploitation of all of our other sense than sight in fact, and that provides a great deal of freedom as it does difficulty. Your drawing of a fat man weighs no more than one of a mouse, but if you really do it right, this fact is never even considered. The goal is to maintain for as long as possible, the invisibility of the structure of your story; the individual mechanisms, cogs and gears that make the clock go and turn and function so that all you do by looking at the clock is find out what time it is. There are many ways to achieve this and I again refer you to Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics for some details, but barring that I recommend you stick to the simple rule of keeping to a single idea per panel, show less by telling more and avoid leaning on dynamic trickery when what you're doing isn't working dynamically on its own. Comics is work beyond almost all other creative fields. You are essentially your own cinematographer, director, screenwriter, casting director, set designer, and producer, and with this comes a tremendous amount of power and freedoms but as Uncle Ben from Spiderman says, a great amount of responsibility to own and accomplish your tasks well. Any less is a disservice to your reader, and ultimately to your self. Challenge yourself, venture into but not too far towards uncomfortable territories. If you're not scared a little you're not doing it right.