Writer. Creator. Large mammal.

Storytelling Lecture, Strange Tales Part 4

Storytelling Lecture Series, Part 15 (Edited from the transcript of a 1994 seminar)

Page three.

Here’s the establish-the-big-new-location-shot, the Los Angeles Coliseum shot. Now that’s an establishing shot.

If you look carefully, you can see Johnny in the lower right hand corner. That’s Kirby ”telescoping” again, establishing our featured character’s position within the location. This really needed two shots, but remember, Kirby had fewer than 100 panels to tell this story, and he compromised here—probably hoping that Stan would mention Johnny’s presence in the caption. He didn’t. And the colorist colored Johnny’s shirt wrong. Oops.

Don’t be too hard on the colorist. This work was done at a time when colorists were getting 50 cents a page. He was in a hurry. I forgive him.

All right, so now we go right from Johnny very small to a close up. Why did Kirby do that?  Why do you suppose he did that? Well first of all, Johnny’s wearing different clothes. The only shot we have at recognizing him is seeing his face. Kirby also throws in the gratuitous sex object no extra charge.

Establish the location, locate your featured character or characters within the location, establish and introduce the character….  Because this is a comic book, with limited space, telescope if necessary.

Okay, action happens. The camera comes back to that action depth, that medium shot depth. In this case the actor is a car—with two guys in it—but the theory is the same. Pull back, show full figures, that is, the entire car.

Johnny flames on. Notice the similarity between his pose in this panel and his pose in panel two. No accident. Kirby took the trouble to show him flame on. He didn’t cut right to a shot that showed him entirely aflame. Why? Because, so far, you’ve never seen Johnny flame on before. Kirby wants you to understand it. 

You are communicators first. Make it clear. Introduce concepts—like flaming on, the transition between human and fiery super-hero—just as you would introduce a character.  

I’ve never heard anybody complain that a comic book is too clear.

So Johnny flames on and now we see, supported by the same body pose here, that this guy is the Human Torch, and that’s what he does.

And he flies, as already established. Cool. Background, action, full figure. Foreground, reaction, up close. Kirby usually follows the general SOP.
(JayJay note: SOP = Standard Operating Procedure)

This Kirby guy knew his stuff.



Storytelling Lecture, Strange Tales Part 3


Storytelling Lecture, Strange Tales Part 5


  1. In 1992, at the Diamond Comic Distributor retailer conference, in front of a huge audience, Stan, Bob Overstreet and I were given Gemmies — "lifetime achievement awards," a testament to the fact, I suppose, that we were old. Anyway, after the banquet, Stan and I worked our way through the crowd to each other. I told Stan that I had just finished a month during which I wrote six comic books. It almost killed me. I asked him how the hell he could have written 12 a month for ten years or so. He said, "You put a lot more into it than I did." That was a highlight reel moment in my life. Not true, of course. Stan idled at genius, and was better at hyperspeed than anyone else with all the time in the world. But what a nice thing to say. Thanks, Stan.

    I'll post my lettering/balloon placement memo, Stan's theory passed on.

  2. Dear Jim,

    Thanks for putting Stan Lee's copy placement in perspective. The speed at which Stan and Jack worked is remarkable. You lived it at VALIANT but most of us can't even imagine it.

    I confess I'm guilty of overanalyzing this example story. Stan and Jack were masters, so I'm looking at everything with a magnifying glass, trying to reconstruct their reasoning, which was all instinctive at their pace back then – whoosh!

    I remain interested in your theory of copy placement. I've struggled to read comics with balloons placed from right to left and concluded that left to right is best – at least when the dialogue is written in a left-to-right script! – but I suspect there's a lot more to copy placement than that.

  3. Dear Marc,

    Interesting points, but remember, back in those days Stan was writing and placing balloons at the speed of light, as many as 12 books a month! I forgive him.

  4. Jim,
    Thanks for the reply. I''m trying to become a competent comics writer and your examples are helping me cement my understanding of craft. When I question panel three, it's to get my head around it.
    Again, thank you.


  5. Dear Misfit Comics,

    All I can say is that I had no trouble understanding this sequence when I first read it as a kid. But, sure, it could have been improved — pretty much everything can be improved, unless we're talking about the Pieta or somesuch — and maybe Jack would have liked your suggestion. Who knows? Remember, as I said, it was done quickly, and, in my opinion, isn't an outstanding work of Jack's (though all of his work is outstanding compared to most). This, an average Kirby job, is nonetheless solid in its fundamentals.

  6. Dear Jim,

    Although "decompression" is all the rage these days, you're writing the best defense of "compression" that I've ever seen. A panel-by-panel explanation of the principles of what I call "infodensity." Kirby packs without overstuffing. His pages do not feel cramped. Instead of tons of noodling, there is ample negative space. There has to be if full figures, houses, etc. are established.

    Panel 1 proves that an establishing shot doesn't have to take up a whole page. I'm impressed by the effort that Kirby and Ayers put into the antiques. They *look* old. Maybe they're not recognizable like the Mustang on the cover of HARBINGER #1, but they are believable. I wonder if a modern artist would put that much effort into drawing cars from the 60s.

    The caption of panel 3 adds information not in the pictures themselves. It implies that the car was part of the exhibit before two thieves jumped into it off-camera.

    Misfit Comics makes a good point. Perhaps a reaction shot of Johnny could have been included in panel 3.

    Watching Johnny transition into the Human Torch in panel 4 isn't just good storytelling. It even looks good. A cool power should be eyecatching even right after it's turned on. People wouldn't walk out of a theater or change the channel if they saw an adaptation of this panel. Why hide this bridging moment?

    What do you think of the copy placement in panel 5? If you were Stan Lee, which figure would you have made speak first, the one on the left or the one on the right? I think either could work. The elevation of the passenger on the right relative to the driver on the left and the bottom of the panel enables the dialoguer to make him the first speaker. The eyes read the first balloon first, dip to see the higher of the two talking heads, then rise from mid-right to mid-left before scanning down toward the bottom left: balloon 2, Torch, talking head #2. I think right-to-left and upward eye movements should be avoided. I would have made the guy on the left talk first ("What are you shooting at!?"), followed by the guy on the right ("The Torch! He's after us!").

  7. Would it improve the story flow and visual continuity if Johnny or the woman from panel two were in panel three?

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