Sunday, March 30, 2008

Talking Theory - The Art of Comics Storytelling - 6/05

Talking Theory


by Bill Morse
June 1, 2005

There are times I come close to hating the word manga. I hear far too many people going on about "the manga style”, or various titles being plugged as “American Manga”. When I Manga, the Japanese word for comicstrawl the art section of bookstores for the occasional useful tip I find many books, demonstrations of Sturgeon’s law, telling me how to draw "The Manga Way,” which seems to mean how to draw large eyed busty girls in miniskirts. It sometimes seems that anything that deviates from these cliches does not even count as manga.

Let’s make something utterly clear… It’s Just The Japanese Word For Comics!!! I look forward to discussing many excellent Japanese titles and talents, but here at Talking Theory we follow the words of Maurice Sendak: “that’s just marketing, books are books.”

Having gotten that out of my system I would like to start us off with one of the first, and one of the best, Osamu Tezuka.

Osamu TezukaOsamu Tezuka, 1928-1989, has frequently been called the father of Japanese comics, as well as, thanks to his contributions in both comics and animation, the Japanese Disney. Before Tezuka Japanese comics were cramped, flat, and static – not far removed from traditional woodblocks. Tezuka brought in a dramatic sense of depth, space, and story lines with dynamic pulsating rhythms. His stories have an incredible epic scale and he was equally proficient in all genres – from fantasy and period pieces to horror and science fiction. He left his mark on the entire medium, leaving Japanese pop culture with such classics as Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy), Metropolis, Ribon No Kishi(Princess Knight), Jungle Tatei(Jungle Emperor (Kimba the White Lion to all us GenXers)), Hinotori(Phoenix), Black Jack, Adolph, and influenced countless other artists – including Reiji Matsumoto, Shotaro Ishimori , Fujio Fujiko, Hideko Mizuno and Shinji Nagashima.

Tezuka finished his career with an output of about 150,000 pages. I’ll focus on only one of his titles, created at the height of his powers, Buddha.

Buddha is a graphic novel in the most literal sense. It is a self-contained narrative in comic form, and not a collection of comics bound together in book form. In it Tezuka mixes mythology, history, philosophy and religion with a large dollop Animals in a ringof comic relief to make a truly entertaining biography. Throughout this biography he intersperses the story of the Buddha with the lives of others who, in one way or another, affect or witness the life of the Buddha. In fact Siddhartha Gautama is not even born until page 264 of the first volume.

Tezuka uses a whimsical, almost childish, style in his drawing, resembling the style of an animated short from the thirties and forties. Tezuka uses this style throughout his career – you definitely expect it in a sweet juvenile work like Astroboy, but you also get it in his grim tale of World War II, Adolph. It has always fascinated me that a “cartoony” style is frequently better for conveying realism then a realistic style. I think that in a realistic style, say Bolland, Perez, Jimenez and Ha, you notice every wrinkle in the spandex and your mind is 'set too scrutinize' – you notice and question everything. With a style like Tezuka’s you already have a suspension of disbelief, enabling the artist to focus more on the story.

Tezuka also has a bit of a repertory theater going on. He uses many supporting characters over and over again in different roles throughout his works. Their level of stylization varies depending on what Tezuka wants us to focus on. One of the best examples of this is the character Asaji. He is usually used for comic relief and most of the time he looks like a human caterpillar in monks’ robes. However, when the need arises, most notably in the third volume where he is deathly ill and carried by Siddhartha, he temporarily becomes a realistic boy.

In Buddha Tezuka uses every trick in the book…but he wrote the book. At first glance Tezuka’s narrative style seems unassuming; a good number of the pages hardly look different from any American comic… But quickly the basic template of a 4 x 3 panel grid changes. The size and length of the panels change, as we are required to focus on certain objects, increasing and decreasing in number to denote the pacing of the action.

From these basics Tezuka becomes increasingly creative. He does not stop at merely rectangular panels. Tezuka will make panels that are a series of vertical columns across the page, allowing for a slow view of scenes and actions in a long cinematic pan. He will angle panels in action scenes to add to Astroboythe dynamism. In the most extreme example Tezuka shatters the panels into a scattered mosaic, giving the story a sense of frantic desperation. The variety of these successful experiments seems truly endless.

Tezuka's panel experiments bring us to his panel transitions. In most mainstream western comics there are three primary forms of transition. First there is 'action-to-action', the panel switches from one action to the next – for example a baseball player swinging his bat. The next is 'subject-to-subject', the transition goes from one image to another related image – in one panel someone looks at her wrist and the next panel show a close-up of the watch. Finely there is 'scene-to-scene', such as in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds when Tippi Hedren has seen the flock of crows gathering behind her, as she slowly gets up to leave we switch to the interior of the school house where Suzanne Pleshette is leading the class in song. In most western comics action-to-action makes up nearly 75% of the transitions.

In Japanese comics things are different. There are two more forms of transition: 'motion-to-motion', an 'action-to-action' transition in stop motion; and 'aspect-to-aspect', as in Lawrence of Arabia when we see the unrelenting sun and then Lawrence and Prince Faisal’s army slowly trudging through the desert. With these two additional transitions there is also a change in the use of transitions, 'subject-to-subject' is used nearly as frequently as 'action to action'. For a more comprehensive explanation I suggest you check out Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, pages 70 to 81.

Tezuka uses these transitions to their full potential, frequently mixing them in unique ways. My favorite trick is when he mixes a 'subject-to-subject' transition with a 'motion-to-motion' transition. He divides the page vertically. On one half (more like two thirds) we are shown an establishing shot of the setting, a scene, event, or a crowd. The other section of the page is a vertical strip of five to ten 'motion-to-motion' panels showing the character participating in or watching the proceedings.

For Tezuka pacing is everything. Depending on the story he may have pages with as many as 15 panels in an especially active scene and then slow to a series of pages with only two panels. He has no problem with casually spending ten pages Buddhaestablishing the setting in stunning visual montages. The opening of chapter three of the third volume: Devadata starts with an eight page vignette of prey being caught by predators, who in turn die to be eaten by ants, which are washed away in a deluge to be eaten by a fish, which is caught by the boy Devadata.

I have barely scratched the surface of Tezuka’s art here. No doubt one of you could write a full doctoral dissertation on the subject and still barely scratch the surface. Reading Tezuka’s work, Buddha especially, reminded me of the first time I saw a production of Hamlet. My first reaction was “they’re talking in clichés” and five seconds later realized that this was where all of those clichés came from... One last note is that Buddha is definitely what a religious comic SHOULD be. Pity us poor Christians who have to suffer Tim LeHaye adaptations.

Bill Morse is a freelance illustrator and the creator of the webstrip Rhapsodies, his portfolio can be found at

Talking Theory - The Art of Comics Storytelling - 4/05

Talking Theory

Raymond Briggs

by Bill Morse
April 18, 2005

I find that the instant we start idealizing our genre we miss some good work and forestall creativity. So today I would like to look at a comic creator who, while extremely well known and popular, is not usually identified with comic books. Raymond Briggs is the creator of such classics as The Snowman, Father Christmas and When the Wind Blows. A cameo of Briggs’ father running into a fellow working stiff.
Briggs is best known as a children's book illustrator, most of them done in a comic book format, but he has also produced some extremely powerful adult pieces. It is not a secret, but it is often overlooked, that many popular children's books are also comic books. Examples, along with Briggs, include Maurice Sendak and Jules Feiffer, Gregory Rogers, and Marcia Williams. Briggs' work is popular throughout the world and many of his works have had successful film adaptations made.

Briggs' work, while often sweet, shows a refreshing lack of sentimentality. I find it interesting that when most people think of comics they think of superheroes or other mythological figures. It is refreshing that most of Briggs' characters are 'smaller than life' British working class people who seem primarily motivated by inertia. Even when dealing with a fantasy character, such as Father Christmas, Briggs writes him as a lovable and grumpy old teamster, stoically going through his busiest day of the year, and dreaming about his next vacation.

One of the advantages of a book format is that you are not as constrained by a particular size or shape. The usual proportions of a comic book are 1x1.5, which does put some constraints in composition choice. For a children's picture book, the format is the choice of the creator – the book can be as wide or as tall as the creator wants it to be.

The first thing you notice in Briggs’ composition choice are the panels. He uses a lot of them. Typically he will use as few as 12 and as many as 20 panels per page. This allows for a slow methodical pacing, almost as if it were a storyboard project. (Perhaps this is one of the reasons all of the animated adaptations of his books have been so good.) The panels are presented in standard grid composition, 3x4, 4x5, etc., but Briggs never allows himself to be a slave to these formats. He will change the number and size of the panels depending on the needs of the narrative. The most obvious effect here is with pacing, here the size of the panel depends on how long we are required to look at the subject matter. When we are going at an average slow pace, the panel is a perfect square, or thinner; when more of our attention is required the panels stretch horizontally into rectangles.

Briggs' storytelling has a documentary quality to it. There is generally no more action than a character doing chores and he usually has the camera following the characters through their day, slowly orbiting them and switching between medium shots and close-ups. Briggs revels in the tiny little details of ordinary life. Lovingly following tiny events, a child putting on his winter gear before going out to make a snowman, an old man loading up a sleigh (after packing his lunch), a pensioner building a fallout shelter out of wooden doors, or a middle aged bogeyman riding up to the surface world on his bicycle for a long night of scaring people.

It is difficult to generalize all of the works of a creator into one set of rules. A cartoonist can and will use various tricks throughout his or her work and take different approaches to each project. Still I will now try to briefly summarize key elements to Briggs' various The Snowmanworks.

Snowman is a sweet little piece, done lovingly in pastel, about a boy and his snowman come to life. It is probably Briggs' most conservative work in composition, staying true to its 3x4 panel format and only using larger panels as punctuation in moments of whimsy. Briggs increases the magnitude of the fantasy by switching to two page panels when the snowman takes the boy on a magical flight.

Father Christmas follows the Snowman's basic composition. The story follows the not so jolly old elf through his day. Briggs begins to uses larger panels and more two page spreads as Father Christmas goes through his rounds. My favorite is a page where we see Father Christmas heading out to do his rounds; Briggs fills two pages with four row single panels detailing the length and hardship of the trip.

Fungus The Bogeyman takes us to the wonderfully disgusting world of Bogeydom. Here Briggs sets the atmosphere immediately by making the panels look as if they were glued, bolted or tacked to various surfaces or backgrounds. In this instance the panel format is usually 2x4, and in a spoof of Rein Poortvliet and Wil Huygen's Gnomes Briggs takes up a good third of the book with asides and commentaries on Bogey biology and culture. In the process he provides a wry satire of British life. (My favorite is the Fungus The BogeymanBogey words for Library and Librarian: Liberality and Libertarian.)

Gentleman Jim introduces the perpetual innocent, Jim Bloggs. Bloggs is a janitor who cleans public lavatories while dreaming of moving to better things. Most of the pages have as many as 25 panels, which gives the whole piece an atmosphere of claustrophobic mundanity. These constraints are exchanged for borderless clouds of pastels whenever we are witness to Bloggs' dreams. As Bloggs fruitlessly tries to pursue his frequently ridiculous fantasies he is blocked by various authority figures. Briggs does a wonderful job portraying them as stylized archetypes so obsessed with the minutiae of the law that they are oblivious to what Bloggs is actually doing.

When the Wind Blows returns us to Jim Bloggs and his wife, Hilda. Bloggs, now retired, has just discovered that World War III is imminent. Briggs continues to use the 25-panel format as we When the Wind Blowswatch Bloggs prepare for the imminent apocalypse by following all of the government instructions carefully and as if it were just a new hobby to help pass his retirement. Briggs then switches periodically to two page spreads of submarines or B52 bombers looming out of the darkness, allowing us to fully take in the inevitable doom that Bloggs will never understand.

Ethel and Ernest is probably Briggs most personal work. Many of the characters in his other stories are based on his own parents. Here he tells the story of their life, from a chance meeting in the depression to their deaths in 1971. It serves simultaneously as the biography of a couple and as a social history of England in the twentieth century, as seen through the eyes of the couple. Briggs tells this story as a series of short, frequently trivial, vignettes that add up to a larger story. Briggs uses 3x5 panels, but here he uses them more as a template then a format. He rarely uses the full 15 Ethel and Ernest look optimisticly to the future.panels per page potential, except for long conversations. Otherwise his composition choice is varied, depending on the scene. He usually uses the larger panels for setting a new scene, or for emotionally charged events – such as Ernest being devastated by his wartime job of unloading corpses from the boats, his disgust about the first hydrogen bomb being dropped, or when the couple optimistically look towards the future.

Briggs has made an important contribution to comics and illustration. Many of the works are hard to track down, but they are definitely worth the effort – and do not feel embarrassed to look in the children's section to check out the rest.

Bill Morse is a freelance illustrator and the creator of the webstrip Rhapsodies, his portfolio can be found at

Talking Theory - The Art of Comics Storytelling - 3/05

Talking Theory

Sin City
by Bill Morse
March 27, 2005

Hello, and welcome to Talking Theory. This column intends to focus on the part of comic book art that is usually under-appreciated, if noticed at all. That is the art of telling a story through layout, composition, pacing, and mes en scene.

Since the film adaptation comes out this April I thought I would start with some comments on Frank Miller's Sin City. Frank Miller has been one of the great innovators in the Sin City A Dame to Kill ForAmerican mainstream superhero genre for the last thirty years. Typically his work combines cinematic techniques with various other influences, most notably the work of Will Eisner and Goseki Kojima. He has been quoted as saying that "Francois Truffaut's Hitchcock interviews are the greatest reference for comic creators ever written," looking at his work it shows.

Sin City is Miller's take on classic 'film noir', cranked up to the max. He throws into it everything a film noir fan could possibly want, beautiful women, vintage cars, guns, martial arts, and lots and lots of violence. I feel that the most useful way to examine Sin City is to view Miller as a Romantic in the 19th century literary definition, characterized by an emphasis on subjective emotional qualities and freedom of form. Some of the best examples of this are Herman Melville, Victor Hugo and Samuel Coleridge. Sin City fits this definition by being set in a corrupt pit of depravity with morality that is, at best, Nietzschien. There is no room for subtlety in the nocturnal city-state of Sin Sin City ShingCity, and Miller portrays this by his use of an extremely expressionistic style—blocking out space with overwhelming shadow, making an overexposed chiaroscuro.

The most obvious thing in a first look at any of the books is the palette. Sin City is deliberately almost monochromatic. Miller occasionally bring in a single color for effect - yellow in "That Yellow Bastard," pink in "Daddy's Little Girl" and blue in the various "Blue Eyes" vignettes—emphasizing the stark black and white that dominates most panels. The second most obvious thing is lighting and atmosphere. With the pervasive shadows you wonder if the sun ever shines on Sin City. Miller using everything from Venetian blinds to prison bars to affect what lighting is there. Miller also uses numerous effects to define shape and space, including cigarette smoke, snow, and rain. Scenery in this title is truly minimalist. Nothing unessential to the plot is shown. The pervading darkness and shadow is as important as anything else and hides everything that is unnecessary. A bedroom consists of a bed, a window, and darkness. The interior of Club Pecos, one of the only recurring locations in the title, only consists of the bar and a couple of tables. The crowd and the players stand in a dark smoke filled void.

The only times Miller shows us more detail is when extra information is needed. Establishing shots when the characters arrive at a new setting in "A Dame to Kill For" show us a hacienda style estate, and a Frank Lloyd Wright inspired fortress in "Family Values." He also uses details for character studies. When we first see Dwight's agent in "A Dame to Kill For," we are shown his office in sleazy, sloppy, detail. This tells us far more then we would ever want to know about the man, as if Dwight's narration was not enough to provide us with understanding. Miller takes his time telling his stories. He rarely uses more than three panels a page, giving his pacing a staccato strobe-like quality. Often the pictures are only illustrations for the clipped tongue-in-cheek narration. When Miller does use more than three panels on a page it usually shows the action or tension picking up, or the reaction of everyone present. Miller frequently slows down even more with groups of single panel splash pages focusing on items of interest, or punctuating an action so as to magnify the brutality, or sensuality, of the event. What Miller does with the panels on each page is further enhanced by what is going on in the panels. This particularly supports my view of Miller as a Romantic.

There is no room for subtlety in Sin City. Every gesture by the characters is 'over the top' and theatrical. When someone points or pull out a gun they thrust out their whole arm as if they were throwing a punch (which they do quite a bit in this title too). Talking seems to require the entire body. People do not walk - they stride, lumber and swagger. When someone shouts they look as if they are going to hurt their neck and vocal cords. When I read Sin City I have an impression of theSin City Marv cast belting out arias. Forget Sin City the movie, I want to see Sin City the opera! This is magnified even more by Miller's use of close-ups and medium shots in his panel composition. He usually only pulls back when he is showing crowds or car chases. This puts scenes that are already 'over the top' under a microscope and insures that they completely dominate our attention.

While I concede it is not for everyone, being unrelentingly dark and frequently depressing, Sin City is worth the effort for the careful viewer. And Miller also draws very very well!

Bill Morse is a freelance illustrator and the creator of the webstrip Rhapsodies, his portfolio can be found at