As anyone following this series of posts will be aware, there’s been more than a little friction between ‘The Marvel Way’™ and my own way thus far.
Stan Lee and John Buscema (RIP) were both men at the top of their game during the books initial publication and I wouldn’t presume to question their professionalism or understanding of the medium, but as a comparison to my own work and approach there have been some irreconcilable differences in our practice. That said, besides being thoroughly expected given the conflicting goals of our genres – heroism/anti-heroism, superhuman/Inhuman etc – along with the book being more than three decades old, they have gone some way to refocusing my project, considering exactly what Branch is meant to be and I how I should go about continuing to develop it.
There have been areas of overlap too though which have proven remarkably helpful as general tips in the medium, so it’s not as if I’ve learned nothing new from this study and pleasingly the books final chapters prove to be some of the most applicable and broadly useful yet.
Picking up with composition Lee starts with an explanation on the ‘flow’ in an image, a concept familiar to me treated in a typically methodical manner here. The pencilling in the simplified versions of the examples below charts the important elements in the panel (e.g. characters) within arrangements of simple shapes, identifying strong groupings and simple, appealing patterns. As he puts it:
‘The shape is never drawn first (…) Rather, the picture is originally sketched out with the shaded areas taking form in the artist’s mind. Sometimes, after a picture is drawn, too many elements fall outside the basic shaded areas. In such instances, the artist changes his drawing until everything falls within a pleasant, unified mass.’
(Lee, Buscema, 1978, p110)
I’ve never explicitly thought of my own compositions in these terms but I do typically work by a similar grouping of elements, often two clumps of people, usually on a foreground and background basis. Flicking through my first issue it’s reassuring to see that this test can be applied to almost all of my panels with the few violations being ones I was unsatisfied with in the first place. When in doubt of an image’s arrangement this could be a handy trick to test it and figure out potential improvements.
Getting into the details more, these compositional thoughts are expanded on with a breakdown on ‘camera angles’.
As shown above, importance of the angle chosen is emphasised by the enormous boost in drama and tension created with a lowered ‘Dutch angle’ over the flat side-on view. The angle is irregular and unexpected, preventing the flow from becoming monotonous while giving the character in question a more dynamic appearance.
This is advice I’ve always been aware of thanks to my film education – similar rules apply – but haven’t followed as closely as I perhaps should have. It pains me to draw attention to it, but looking back over Branch most of my angles are completely flat with the horizon line. Sure, I’ve kept the distance from the subject and elevation fairly varied throughout but there are only a handful of exceptions where the ground and panels bottom line are not parallel.
I hesitate to use the word ‘lazy’ to account for this but I may have been inadvertently avoiding such adventurous angles due to the difficulty they create; the more bizarre the viewpoint the more exaggerated the perspective and subject foreshortening become. Put simply, I haven’t had the confidence to attempt them.
This is not all bad in light of the fact much of the comic thus far has been built up where I wanted to save the most intense visuals for the most intense scenes. Still, very soon I won’t have that excuse and the only way I can seriously expect to develop my skills is by taking a few artistic risks – this is one of them.
The next chapter moves onto layouts with the initial instructions being fairly rudimentary but fundamentally important, as Lee puts it alongside Buscema’s example (below):
‘Remember to always lay out the entire page before you finish any individual drawing. Also, always draw the entire figure in each panel, even if it won’t all show in the final artwork.’
(Lee, Buscema, 1978, p126)
I already do this process of rough sketching first albeit with a few variations on their template. In my case it tends to be a super-rough disposable version first to consider basic layout and composition, followed by a separate detailed sketch which will then be worked over digitally – applying hard lines, colour and text as required – perhaps not a wholly orthodox method by Marvel’s standards, but regardless, adequate for getting a sense of the overall page before working in details.
This matter of drawing the ‘entire figure’ outside of panels is somewhat alien to me however; I do often allow scenery to extend along perspective lines into the gutters if I’m having difficulty planning out a background but with figures I usually just take my chances and try to capture the fragment in question. All the same, I do see the value in this method as it allows the artist to consider the part in focus as piece of a whole and thus how well it functions as part of that whole.
Once in a while after obsessing over the minute details of a face, expression or hand I will indeed fail to notice that the form itself is warped due to reduced anatomical awareness; whereas when I’m capturing the majority of a figure I find this almost never happens. My usual solution these days is to periodically place a mirror alongside such drawings to bring attention to faults early on but as a more practical method I’ll try the Marvel recommendation on my next page.
The next area covered (no pun intended) I find to be possibly the most infuriating aspect of comic book production while somehow being one of my favourites too. Naturally, covers…
When they’re done right I love comic book covers, they’re an art unto themselves and while I’m not quite sure I agree with Lee’s assessment of them as ‘the single most important page in any comicbook’ he’s spot on about their function: ‘if it catches your eye and intrigues you, there’s a chance you may buy the magazine. If it doesn’t cause you to pick it up, it means one lost sale’ (p138).
There’s a magic to the best covers; an image which concisely captures the essence of a comic while having enough standalone appeal and/or intrigue to convince readers it’s a worthy purchase. I’m especially aware of this coming off the back the recent MCM Expo in London, witnessing how others sold their work at face value, while having to do the same myself.
No matter how much I might love covers though, I find that getting them right can be a small nightmare. Comics are a medium which thrives on efficiency of visual communication, however, while a narrative page doesn’t have to be visually astounding or self-contained as part of a sequence a cover lives and dies on these qualities. Missing the mark even slightly could lose you a potential reader, regardless of the overall quality of the work. Shallow it may be, but covers will almost always be what ultimately sells a comic.
Take the collection of Buscema roughs above for example for the same issue as the previous image, each illustrates some kind of mistake; the first has the characters too small, the second fails to show its star’s face and the third does the same for Spider-Man. There are a whole plethora of potential pitfalls for a cover like this and getting that perfect composition is nearly always a challenge. Even experienced professionals with otherwise consistent quality can deliver a dud once in a while with only the slightest misjudgement.
Lee does offer a rundown of things to be kept in mind when making a cover, however once again I find some of these tips to be quite Marvel specific :
‘Always leave enough room at the top of the illustration for the logo (title of the magazine).’ (Lee, p140)
Common sense really, but possible to forget when one is sucked into an image rather than text based concerns.
‘Nothing important must be drawn at the outside edge of the bottom or right side of the cover, because some of that paper is trimmed off at the printing plant. This area, approximately a half inch in width, is referred to as the “bleed”.’ (Lee, p140)
While on a basis of good composition I typically wouldn’t draw important elements near the edges of a cover, I did run slightly afoul of this printing my first issue. Pages tend to be alright thanks to their gutters but with a cover where colour and line work extends to the very edge of a page I’d do well to allow proper margins for the bleed when preparing a physical issue.
‘There must be a number of “dead areas” on the cover – areas which although exciting- looking to the reader, are unimportant enough to be covered over by dialogue balloons, captions, and/or blurbs if the editor so desires.’ (Lee, p140)
I do attempt to do this as I would within any other page but rarely in any formal kind of way; given the style and genre of my comic I’m not prone to including much in the way of dialogue balloons or blurbs on covers since I’d prefer to have an image do the talking.
‘Since colour on a cover is vitally important, the artist mustn’t use too many heavy black areas in his illustration. The expression employed in the Bullpen is: “Leave the drawing open for color.”’ (Lee, p140)
This one goes almost entirely against the grain of my own work; besides having a noirish influence which makes heavy black areas dramatically beneficial – especially for a cover – I’ve thus far used a restricted colour palette and stylised texturing for my two efforts. It’s not to say that colour isn’t potentially important, but it’s dependent on context and in the case of cyberpunk and its dystopian themes bright Marvel colours across the board may not be exactly the best decision…
‘The drawing must be provocative enough to make the reader want to get the magazine and read the story, but it mustn’t give the ending away, or tip the reader off to any surprises.’ (Lee, p140)
The last piece of advice here loops back to the initial point about a cover selling a comic, ‘provocative’ is something just about every cover wants to be, to capture the reader’s attention and make them think. Not spoiling it is an obvious point too but I can think of exceptions where part of a surprise within is revealed to great effect, luring readers in without compromising the plot.
Finally, the books last chapter covers inking. At a glance this part seems redundant to a project I am now inking digitally when all the techniques covered here are traditional; still, one particular page caught my attention. Running by some posture advice – mine’s terrible but I try – brush specific tips and matters regarding the pencil/inker – I’m both – they have a summary on use of the ‘feathering’ effect with two examples demonstrating the difference between economic usage and overcooking:
It’s ironic I should be seeing this now but it at least affirms some of my more drastic changes to Branch’s style across the project. My earlier pages exemplified much of what’s wrong with the image on the bottom, being furiously feathered and crosshatched out of some stubborn belief that greater detail equates to greater art. As Lee explains in relation to the example:
‘Adding too many details and too much texture in the inking has made the figures blend with the background instead of standing out in a sharp relief as the penciler intended. In short, the picture has become much harder to read, less pleasant to look at, and will be more difficult to color.’
(Lee, Buscema, 1978, p149)
It’s not that maximalist inking can’t look great – artists such as Bob Crumb prove this – but I most certainly lack the skills to pull it off at present, while as I’ve stated before and as Lee emphasises it’s a lot more difficult to colour without creating a murky mess. At this point, I can’t really argue with any of this advice.
So, to wrap this unwieldy beast up: have my thoughts on Marvel changed?
I can’t deny that I’ve learned a great deal more than expected from a book I’d initially set out with intent to criticise rather than directly study. The truth is that whatever I might think of Marvel they’re successful professionals, who’ve run a successful business for the better half of a century. I can pick at artistic integrity from the security of amateur publication all I want but like it or not they’re a part of comic book history and for all our differences I’d be a fool not to respect anyone/thing that can teach me something.
I’ll most likely continue to love hating Marvel for their overblown media franchises, seemingly zillionth iteration of disposable plot developments and inexplicable crossovers with zombies – Just as I’ll continue to hate loving their colourful characters, obscure mythology and addictive Saturday morning cartoons.
We’ve got a love-hate relationship, Marvel and me…