Emma Peel Sessions 39 – “Have you seen the Lady From Shanghai? Orson Welles… that one makes no sense.”

Comics sequences are often referred to as “cinematic”, which usually means that the story in question is delivered slowly and in wide-shot, with larger panels on the page. Often it’s interchangable with “widescreen”, which was coined to described Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s Authority run and the books that followed suit. “Cinematic” could actually mean many things when describing comics storytelling, but it’s been devalued as a term. Especially in the wake of nearly every manga review written by an American using it.  In the first installment of his 1985 essay series “Writing for Comics”, Alan Moore talks about the term “cinematic” in comics at the time. As well as nearly all filmic reference in comics being the tricks of classic noir film. Worse yet, the tricks of noir were not the vast vocabulary of lighting and camera tricks that one could get from film noir, they were filtered through the tricks Will Eisner had picked up during The Spirit. Largely they were techniques from Orson Welles films, and they were diluted through 40 years of digestion and filtering. He also talked about how he had been trying to incorporate the ideas of Nic Roeg and Robert Altman into his work, tools like non-intuitive cutting and comprehensive ensemble dialog. Reading it now its interesting to see what parts of those ideas he gave up on and what he didn’t (the published issues of Big Numbers are the closest thing anyone will ever get to Altman’s everybody-talk-at-once style from A Wedding and Nashville on the comics page). Nic Roeg’s cutting got assimilated pretty well, mostly because Bryan Talbot figured out how to do it on the page.
But in appraising “cinematic” sequences in comics, Moore skipped over that a) Frank Miller took Eisner’s tricks and flipped them, expanded that vocabulary into a language of cinematic action uniquely his own; and b) that “cinematic” in American comics had another significant figure. That precedent was Jim Steranko.
Steranko’s S.H.I.E.L.D. pages are cinematic in a way completely alien to Eisner (the two even referenced the same movies, The Lady From Shanghai in Steranko’s hands is all dutch angles and psychedelic distortion, a thing easily cut into stories about pop-art spies, 60s Hitchcockian long suspense builds, and Kirby splashes). In this sequence, Steranko used panel size, sound effects, and depth of field to turn the page into a hothouse of dominant chase-scene tension. The angle Nick Fury runs across the page, and the growing roar of the rocket on the page are used to show how fast he’s really running. So fast that he actually overtakes the roar and gets in front of the machine in time to leap onto it. You may not realize that Steranko does that the first time you read it, because the page flies by in seconds. Something as simple as the break between the roar sound effect acheives an effect that is almost invisible it’s so well executed. Steranko had his imitators of course, but even as Steranko owed a lot to Kirby but completely reconfigured his style, Gulacy owed a lot to Steranko. Gulacy’s variation of “cinematic” was even more sophisticated, combining an action-movie economy with an understanding of complex thematic montage.

This Gulacy Master of Kung Fu splash, written by Doug Moench, is almost a platonic ideal of what film’s influence on comics could do. Like a Sergio Leone montage, the page is full of largely innocuous and unremarkable panels, (well drawn of course). Nothing really happens on this page. But the base grid on the left page creates a sense of rhythm, and the silence in the four sequences gives the images a quickness and simplicity that captions or dialog would hinder. Each tier also quickly defines each character by action, and then the page is followed up by a massive establishing shot, aided by voiceover narration. Whats interesting is that the narration could have been placed over the panel grid, and was likely intended to. This changes the splash by giving it a paced rhythm of its own, describing the characters as after-the-fact rather than in-the-moment. Both Steranko and Gulacy had processed film’s rhythms as much as as its iconography and technique, but Gulacy understood that film could influence more than action scenes.

Comics’ relationship with cinema is complex. While it has become rote to hear creators compare comics to everything from pop songs to television to theater in recent years, film is probably the dominant influence on comics, if only because both employ editing from moment-to-moment and image-to-image. The comic as film pitch complaint that is common these days is valid ( there are so many comics that barely exist as comics), but it maybe ignores the closeness of the media to each other. The problem isn’t that comics is influenced by film, it’s that comics aren’t influenced by the medium but influenced by films. So ripping off the plot of a scifi film du jour is common rather than working out why John Woo times his action scenes the way he does.

This sequence from Winter Men, written Brett Lewis and drawn by John Paul Leon breaks a cardinal “Comics Are Not Film” rule, where they break out a car chase sequence. The first page occurs with minimal dialog, the panels are collapsed and expanded due to their importance – the third and fourth panels cut back and forth like a two-shot, and the smoothness and speed of the cut comes from the panels being the same size. They pull back, and the wide shots are squeezed to show these shots are just accents. The second page careens, and pushes against cinematic clarity by employing sound effects that take on consistent visual properties with what they are describing. The third page is four evenly sized panels, denoting a matter-of-factness to the violence, shooting it like it was a car crash in a film. Like a film, we don’t get too close, as if Leon required a certain distance to get the shots correctly (the sequence even recalls The French Connection in its setting/layout). I guess the most “cinematic” aspect of this sequence, and probably the defining feature of storytelling that gets called that, is how willing the creators are to let long stretches of a story be silent. Narration in comics, while its used just as much in film, is considered a literary technique. Silence denotes cinema.

But, lets drop the term “cinematic” for a moment, and talk about comics editing. To reference Moore’s “Writing for Comics” again, “Rather than seizing upon the superficial similiaritiies between comics and films (…) wouldn’t it be more constructive to focus our attention upon those ideas where comics are special and unique?”. So lets look at a similarity that benefits comics, editing. While film could be described as the language of the edit, in comics things like shot choice, framing and juxtaposition all exist on the same page. Film can do that with splitscreen and optical effects, but it is poorly used in all but the greatest of hands (De Palma, probably someone else who isn’t De Palma).

The master of editing in comics is/was Frank Miller in the 1980s. In Ronin, Dark Knight Returns, Martha Washington, and Elektra Assassin, Miller revolutionized time on the comics page. Grids, panel size, abstraction, motion in the panels and motion of the panels, sound effects, captions, insert shots, everything. He would cut on the page, dropping one scene into another. On the first DKR page here he does it, not even sticking to its own tiers, overlapping the scene in the tv studio onto the scene with Batman and the helicopter. This creates a sense of simultaneous action being cut between, the moments on top of each other instead of being scene-on-page which is normally the rule that most comics would follow. Elsewhere, Miller lets the page design reinforce the actions in the frames. Batman dragging the Mutant leader into the mud pit is shown as cascading tiers of panels. The second tier also shows that the mudpit is the show, two center panels surrounded by the entire faceless mutant gang on both sides, watching him scream like a wounded child. In another helicopter sequence, Miller uses the tiers and the size of the panels to denote distance and speed, the size of the 16-frame grid panels for the hand to hand combat as the long shot of the copter is little more than a dot and a line. In the book preceding DKR, Ronin, Miller was working out the techniques he’d use in that book and experimenting with layout even more. The grid on this page is 18 panels instead of Miller’s traditional use of 16, and the page consists almost entirely of negative space. This is a good example of how something described as “cinematic”, or at least is used for that effect, is actually something that could only be done with the comics page, emotional drop in a character is shown as a physical one dropping into blank space. Lighting being used dramatically rather than naturalisticly, the empty space on the page adding an echo to sound effects only in the reader’s head.

Miller’s use of dominant, sometimes overbearing blacks in Ronin‘s page designs are one of the most interesting things about Miller, how willing a young cartoonist was to use no more than he needed of every page. Negative space is almost a hallmark for how well the creators understand the page, moreso than even film. Going back to Winter Men, in this action sequence Leon uses black panels as both seperation between moments and moments themselves, in a way unique to this book, even to this page – the first black, incredibly thin panel is simply a beat. The second black panel is an impressionistic cut of gunfire in darkness. The third dark panel is the sillohuette of a gunman in the dark, and the fourth is both an empty beat and a shot of the interior of the bus. The page in its entirety shows that Leon understands the pacing of actions scenes by directors like John Frankenheimer and Michael Mann, that gunfights have an uneasy blend of chaos and silence. It could be read as an expansion/ refinement of the 4-panel tiers that Gulacy used in the above splash, illustrating a character through action, ending on the characters face. The close up offers a glimpse into the character’s interior life, the effect of violence on the personal, but it also serves another master, cementing the character’s face to the reader. A similar technique of black panels is used in Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ 2nd volume of Criminal, for a much different effect. The character of Teeg Lawless is having blackouts and the negative space / black panels are used to show not just the passage of time but the disjointed nature of the man’s life.

Memory and experience mix for Teeg, and the use of panel with isn’t simply a stylistic tick but one to indicate the significance of events seen and events lost. The panels missing are things that happened too and he doesn’t know about them and neither does the reader. It’s subjective in a very specific way that doesn’t necessarily ask the reader to identify with Teeg so much as understand him. It’s unsettling because it must be horrifying to live like this, let alone so recklessly. Phillips’ page design is simple to the point of abstraction, and it becomes really noticeable when used for a sequence like this. The most interesting uses of page design, the showoff tricks that Steranko mastered on S.H.I.E.L.D., are usually there to cover up flaws in things like editing and story, but there are rare cases like JH Williams III who follow in Steranko’s footsteps by using those tricks to serve the story.

In this two page spread from Williams’ and Grant Morrison’s Black Glove story, the layout is built onto the establishing shot and distinguished by lighting – there is no part of this spread that doesn’t convey information. Williams layout tricks are usually more fomal than this, more ornamental. Not here, a geography of the room, a real sense of space is layed out and then delineated, even though the eye recieves little more information than what we’re given in the underlying splash. We see that the focus is the dead guy, that Batman is more actively dealing with the problem than everyone else in the room, that the figures are walking around the body as they are talking, and that the second most important character in the story is Dark Ranger (the guy in the white helmet, designed to look like Chris Sprouse designed him), once again we are looking at a grid as a way to convey rhythm and complexity in an easily-interpretable manner. This grid manipulating is nothing new, Jack Kirby found a comfortable way to tell big action stories in 4 or 6 panels. You can trace the complication and manipulation of the grid to convey storytelling decisions all the way back to old-school Steve Ditko.

In this page from a silent Mr. A short story, Ditko shows that Dave Gibbons and Frank Miller weren’t really innovating in the 80s so much as coming to terms with classic techniques. The 16 grid of Ditko’s page is manipulated here, and the 16 grid is almost exclusively used by the masters. When he was working on Fell, Warren Ellis described the 16 grid as a tool that only works for writer/artists, something barred off from being used by just writers because it is such a difficult technique to write for. This Ditko page is probably a great example why. The fractional changes between frames in the first and second panel are the kind of move that you’d have to at Ditko’s skill level to pull off. The minimal approach he takes to everything here, from the page design to sillohuette of the figures, is boiled down to its purest form. But if Ditko’s simplified forms are the end result of refinement, Katsuhiro Otomo’s depth of field in his work is the height of virtuousity and is comics art taken to the opposite extreme.

In Domu, Otomo’s non-Akira signature work, he shows a kind of post-Moebius vision of a fully realized world. The first page, of the old man on the bench and the girl on the swingset in front of the office block, is a great single-image example of Otomo’s ability to draw huge fully rendered environments and place his characters credibly inside them (not ontop of them, which is a big problem in comics, a divorce between figure and environment). While this scene is the emotional climax of the book, it stays wide at first to establish that these are human beings defined by their surroundings. They are dominated even though they are immensely powerful. The page of the old man and the girl bouncing around the stone at each other has the opposite effect, of an artist who can draw anything but knows when to drop out everything but the figures, to focus close on faces and expression, to make the characters act in order to give meaning to their actions. The third page is a great example of how Otomo uses negative space in differring ways – the whole book is about telekinetics, so action against nothingness is given portent, and the childish barking in the darkness is a horror moment. The way Otomo could work in small scale even when he’s better known for endless, massive scale destruction. In Domu and Akira, Otomo used his page count to show almost scientific hyper-real documentation/interpretation of wrecked cities. Gabriel Ba’s work on Umbrella Academy had him attempting to convey the same kind of destruction but with a simplified style and a fraction of the pagecount, he did it kind of brilliantly.

Ba’s work on Umbrella Academy (which he does with writer Gerard Way) showed a kind of intuitive action choreography that could only exist on the comics page. In this page from the second Umbrella story, there’s a knife fight with a squad of Vietcong Vampires and a towering flaming mummy. The sequence isn’t remarkable for its high concept flourishes but for how fluidly Ba’s figures move around the page. He shows the moments around imapact and violence before ending on a punctuating stab in the final frame. Ba’s characters aren’t cinematic because they move too fast and too much happens per frame, yet everything is clear and simplified. There is no confusion in a Gabriel Ba action sequence, or crowding. Even in an earlier issue where a character fights literally hundreds of people, it is direct and dynamic in a way even the finest martial arts film would fail to match. Comics are a place where shit gets fucked up better than most other art forms, and Ba is it’s Yuen Woo Ping. Really, from Johnny Ryan to Simon Bisley to Killian Plunkett, comics excel at showing violence. For example, this page from Rob Schrab’s S.C.U.D. (the return arc that he did a decade after the fact), where the fight is clearly shown over the course of 34 panels on a single page.

That kind of density and chaos, without sacrificing clarity, is something unique to comics. Even the things in other media which attempt at creating the same effect as comics-only moves like this one – the Frank Quitely cubism of certain scenes in Crank 2, the notebook-scribbling-animation-of-a-diseased-mind of Superjail, they come up pretty short. “Cinematic” as a descriptor of comics is a wider term than is often used but then again “comic book” and/or “graphic novel”, they are terms in much more need of expansion in the public eye. But who cares really? While I can go through and find many examples of cinematic sequences in comics, it’s rare that comics and film reward you with experiences unique to their art form, yet alone recreate those moments in a completely different one. There are no comics that have given me the same feeling as watching the hotel catch fire in Barton Fink, and there are no films that will ever blitz my brain the way that Geof Darrow’s books ever have.

But there are moments where something intrinsic to one art form shockingly pops up in another. Which is where the comparisons get difficult to defend or dismiss, because rarely does one art form replicate the accidents and flaws of another so perfectly, but it does happen, and more often than would seem possible. The last page of Cold Equator, the third part of Enki Bilal’s Nikopol Trilogy,  shows a character shooting a plane flying away, telling the cameraman to shoot until the film runs out. On Bilal’s part, as someone who spent a lot of time on film sets and eventually began shooting his own films, he is being coy. He is maybe intentionally or maybe accidentally falling on the same moment of intense NOW that Martin Scorsese accidentally shot then intentionally left in in the final shot of the Last Temptation of Christ, where the film runs out to white light. Its hard to describe, but both Bilal and Scorsese use it as a surprise, something seemingly innocuous but too singular to recoginize as anything but the perfect ending. The flaws of the creative process making something beautiful, seemingly at random. When Bilal does it, it’s a copy of that moment, but the power is still there. It’s a cinematic moment, literally applying the nature of cinema to another work of art, only Bilal understands that film can be more than how a story is delivered.

- Sean Witzke July 2010

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About sean witzke

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12 Responses to Emma Peel Sessions 39 – “Have you seen the Lady From Shanghai? Orson Welles… that one makes no sense.”

  1. Fiona says:

    Wonderful and insightful piece, thank you.

  2. You’re insane. This is fantastic.

  3. Douglas Wolk says:

    This is totally great. I’m going to be coming back to this one a lot, I think.

  4. Abhay says:

    This is great! Thanks.

  5. Sending this to everyone I know. Great work.

  6. pillock says:

    Awesome; essential! There’s usually so much apology buried in the film/comics comparison that the real talking-points get buried — not here. The way you choose the right examples, it’s pretty refreshing: perhaps much like Otomo placing his characters inside their environments, not just on top of them?

    Fucking stellar and necessary work, here! Bravo! It’s going in a special file I’ve got.

  7. SEK says:

    Absolutely brilliant. As someone who teaches (and is currently under contract to write a textbook on) the relationship of comics and film, all I can say is … no, I have nothing to add to my first sentence.

  8. James T says:

    Thank you! It’s rare and precious to see such a smart article on this subject

  9. Adam Rose says:

    all i can say is…thanks!

  10. Deco says:

    great article – also check out bernie krigstein for fragmenting the page in “cinematic” ways (which I think is really about controlling the effect of the flow of time, as you say). Or even further back to Captain Easy (more subtle, and easy to overlook, since the lessons from that have been completely ingrained, but it really was “dawn-of-time” excellence setting the standard”)

    again, nice work

  11. Edwin Laabes says:

    Great article! Great blog! Thanks.

  12. Ross says:

    Really great analysis here.

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