Writer. Creator. Large mammal.

Storytelling Lecture, Strange Tales Part 8

Storytelling Lecture Series, Part 19 (Edited from the transcript of a 1994 seminar)

Page twelve.

Okay, this is an extended pull-back-to-reveal sequence.

We see Cap using a remote control device. What is he up to? No clue yet. A skyhook-thingie pulls him up. Again, a little vertigo in this shot. You know these buildings are planted on the ground, by now you’re pretty sure that way is up, so no confusion here.

Cap gets pulled into…something. We can’t see it. Boy I wish I could see it. What is it? Kirby isn’t showing us yet. He’s setting us up for the big surprise.

The Torch sees it, whatever it is. He looks impressed. Man I cannot wait to see this thing!

Turn the page.


Now is a good time to mention that I do not recommend this story. I recommend the STORYTELLING. Think about it, if Cap can afford a flying helicopter rocket launcher platform, why does he need to rob the bank? Maybe it’s to make the payments? I don’t know. Unbelievable.

Here is the first time in the book that action takes place where the figure is cropped. Why? Because the main action is the big rocket, the booster, blowing up and the little rocket, the capsule, taking off, and that’s shown at action depth. 

By this time Kirby is pretty sure that we understand that they’re high in the air. We understand that the Torch is flying. So, Kirby uses him as a design object, foreground. This is the main action, booster exploding, capsule taking off. That he shows “full figure.”

Action. Back to full figures. 

Panel four.

Action, full figures.

Page fourteen.

Look at panel one. Ask an artist to draw that scene today and he or she will give you a double page spread and still crop the windmill.

Okay, action, full figures, action, full figures, action, full figures. Like a Cameron film. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Like almost any good cinematographer’s film. Check it out. Watch T2 with the clicker in your hand. Pause a lot and think “Why did he show that the way he did?”  Movie people know what to do. Comics people?  Well…Kirby did.

This last panel…. I had an argument with Barry Windsor-Smith…I actually won a bet with him on this one. At his request, I used to do panel-by-panel plots for Barry when I worked with him at VALIANT, with a pretty detailed description of what was in every panel. Once he came in and said, referring to a certain panel, “This can’t be drawn.” I said, “Why not?”  He says, “This action takes at least four panels.” I said, “Barry what if I told you I want you to draw a guy who is sliding across a wet floor, snatching the mop out of another guy’s hands as he sails by him, and at the same time, establish the location, a sporting goods store.” “Can’t be done. Three panels at least.” So I got my Captain America book out, pointed to this panel and said, “How about that?” That really annoyed him. [laughter]

Actually Barry’s not wrong. He just has a different approach. When we get to the subject of pacing I’ll explain to the different approaches. They’re all legitimate. Kirby’s approach was this way, “Kirby pacing,” and that tends to be more like mine. No, mine is like his. Sorry. Make the biggest jump you can between panels, especially in action sequences, for which the readers can still imagine the “in-betweens.” Barry’s style, I think, tends to be more European, though Barry is so good he can do anything. Most European comics artists tend to play things out more deliberately. Japanese comics creators tend to do one and only one action in each panel. Different strokes….  

Page fifteen.

Look at panel three.

Here’s another one of those trick shots. It’s action, but Kirby crops Cap. It’s a looking-down-the-bow shot, cropping one of the figures in action, a trick shot in my opinion. But it works. Why? Because he set it up, just as he set up the turn-the-world-on-its-side shot a few pages back. Set it up, make it clear, make whatever’s going on unmistakeable and you can do anything. Kirby sets it up. 

Let’s say panel two wasn’t there. Let’s say we put the archery kit on the floor in panel one and went directly from panel one to panel three.  First of all you can count on the color separators to get the pants colored wrong, which doesn’t help. Second there’d be some people who’d say, “Well what happened?”  With this shot there, panel two, they cannot fail to understand this extremely dramatic angle, what’s going on, in panel three. 

Isn’t that cool? 

Okay, more of the same. Great stuff. Look at those expressions. Look at that body language. Trust me, the good guy wins.

That’s a crash course in storytelling my friends. What am I getting at here? Drawing like Kirby? No, not at all. I’m advocating keeping your priorities right. You’re here to tell a story. 

If you’re doing fine art, then it’s between you and your muse and no one can criticize you because no one knows what the muse whispered in your ear. You’re satisfying some instinct in your soul. Maybe people will like it, maybe they won’t, but you’re the only one who knows what it’s supposed to be. 

But if you’re doing commercial art you have an AUDIENCE. Commercial art has a GOAL. And therefore, there is a standard by which it can be judged. Did you reach the goal? 

Your audience might be all of you people right here. It might be the Pope, if you’re Michaelangelo, for instance. It might be an editor you’re trying to please so he or she will pay you. Who knows? But you have an audience and that audience has a desire, they have a goal, in the case of our audience, to be entertained. They want a story. Tell them the story! 

If you’re selling stuff to us, DEFIANT, or most comic book companies, the goal is to tell the story. Unless the editor is brain-dead, that’s the goal, that’s how your work will be evaluated, assuming you write or draw at a professional level. Gotta do that. Anything that contributes to telling the story is good, anything that detracts from it is bad. That’s the yardstick. That’s how you can evaluate your own work. Think about it. Is this helping? Is this hurting? What?

I remember the day young Frank Miller came into my office at Marvel and said, “I get it.  We’re telling the story. We know the story and they don’t, so we’re telling them the story!”  Yep. Then he stopped being a beginner and quickly became great. Now, he’s a genius zillionaire. 

Let me tell you a few other little things here that may help you along the way, pencilers and writers. First of all let me tell you quickly about pacing. You understand there are two different ways to do comics that are prevalent these days. There’s what they call Marvel style and the DC style, although nowadays both companies do things both ways. 

Marvel style, you do a plot first. A plot is a brief—usually brief—description of what the story’s about, writers. Could be a single page, could be like Claremont’s plots, as thick as the Manhattan telephone book. That is handed to the artist. Then, the artist tells the story in pictures. He or she doesn’t know what the dialogue is going to be, exactly, unless the writer included some dialogue in the plot. So, it’s sort of a silent movie. Okay, it’s still pictures, so it’s sort of a silent slide show.  

The artist might write little notes in the border to suggest dialogue actually. Good ones do. So, the artist draws the story, then the pages are sent back to the writer who writes dialogue to go with the pictures. He or she places the balloons—that is, indicates where he or she thinks they should go, usually with a blue pencil, on the original art or on Xeroxes. Then, assuming that the editor approves all of the above, the whole thing goes off to be lettered and inked. Okay, that’s the Marvel method. Good news/bad news. If you have two guys who work together really well, like Stan and Jack, who really know each other pretty well, it works very well because it lets the artist do more of the visual thinking and that’s basically what he’s good at, and lets the writer react to the pencils when he’s creating the dialogue so if he sees a little gesture or expression, it might inspire something. That’s the Marvel style. That’s the most prevalent style, so if you’re going to be a penciler you’re going to encounter that. If you encounter that, you are the cinematographer. It’s up to you to pace the story. 

The other way is full script. It’s sort of like what I did for Barry. You, the writer, basically tell the artist panel-by-panel what to draw.  In my full scripts these days, I describe what is to be drawn in detail, write all the captions and dialogue and provide all the reference. Because I’m obsessive/compulsive, I guess. Because I want it just so. Never quite get it just so, but hope springs eternal…. 

In that case, artists, you are just drawing. You’re just executing what you’ve been instructed to do. You might have some latitude, but you’re basically executing. Bring your “A” game, execute well. 

So, writers—and artists working Marvel style—let’s talk pacing for a minute. What do I mean by pacing? I said you have about 100 panels in a comic book to get across the story. How do you know how much to put in a panel? 

Need a little history here. Back when I was a kid most comics, most DC comics were done by what I would call extremely fast pacing. Every panel was a scene. I remember old Legion of Super-Heroes comics with every panel starting with a caption. “Soon, at Legion headquarters–a fateful meeting!” You’d have the Legionnaires sitting around a table one would say, “We must pursue the space pirate.” Next panel, the art showed a Legion space ship chasing the pirate ship.  The caption read: “Later in deepest space…”  Dialogue coming from the Legionnaires’ space ship: “There’s Roxxas, the space pirate!”  Next panel, in which the pirate ship was damaged, another caption: “After a massive battle…”  “We got him!”  Every panel was a scene! And they were able to do a lot of story in very short space. At that rate, you could do War and Peace in 24 pages. But it was kind of dull, kind of dry. 

It doesn’t mean that that kind of pacing is useless. It does have its uses and I’ll tell you later.

When Marvel came along in the early ’60s one of the big revolutions was slower pacing. Don’t get me wrong, it was fast and exciting, but every panel wasn’t the whole scene. The action was fast and furious, but played out, not described in captions. Usually. They went to what I call “Kirby pacing,”—basically going from significant action to the next significant action, or reaction, or both, making the biggest logical leap possible. Remember my famous tightrope scene here. It’s a pull back to reveal but notice that he doesn’t pull back to reveal Cap on the roof, then show him get on the tightrope, then show him cross. Kirby takes the biggest logical jump he can possibly take. So you still have the sense that things are moving fast, but you get a lot of info, dense content.

When the scene wasn’t action—let’s say it was a conversation, or a romantic scene—Kirby, Ditko and other Marvel creators might slow the pacing down. Play it out. Drive the emotions home. 

I worked for DC Comics in the mid ’60s. The editors there used to howl at this stuff, Marvel Comics. They’d sit there and say, “Look at this. They got two pages of the guy talking to his aunt! Oh, my God the kids are going to be bored to tears!” I’m thinking, “First of all, we’re not all kids, second, no we’re not. No we’re not.” I didn’t say anything because I wanted to keep the job. My family needed the money.

But, anyway, they didn’t get it. That’s just it. 

So the pacing thing, this is a revolutionary development. Think about pacing. Make your pacing choices consciously. 

Some people are inclined to show every detail of every action. That’s why we have these stories that take many issues and they’re still not done. “Decompressed” storytelling, they call it. Feh. 

I wrote an Avengers story way back a zillion years ago and I did my favorite kind of pacing, which is this Lee/Kirby pacing. In the course of the story a character got injured.  He was in the hospital. I did the old DC pacing to get over his recovery. Lickety-split, one caption later, explaining that a month had passed, he was out of the hospital and back. Who wants to see the guy convalescing? Unless there’s some dramatic consequence to that. 

You know, I got letters. “We thought he’d be in the hospital for at least eight months. What happened?’ People were so used to everything being dragged out….  Nobody complained, however. They liked it. Hey, Mikey!

I recommend that you understand pacing. Look for it. Plan it in your own work. Think, before you write or draw a scene, “Is this essential? Do I need this panel? Do we need this panel here or would it be better if we jump to the next significant action?”

Or, if this is this a time where you want to have a romantic conversation, you want to do every nuance of it—every little detail of it, slow the pacing down. Be conscious of pacing.

Skip the convalescence.


Storytelling Lecture, Strange Tales Part 7


The Inking Rant


  1. Jim, One thing that I love about your Avengers work is that you allowed the story to be drawn out and develop at more realistic pace than the other comics written at that time. In issue 168 of the Avengers you introduce Michael/Korvac then you skip to another story. You drop hints and things but you put the story on hold for a number of issues, only bringing Michael back in #175 and you resolve it in issue #177. What anticipation this creates and the payoff is so worth it.
    It seems that with all the big crossovers that are going on these days the story telling techniques that you pioneered have become commonplace, but I still prefer your initial efforts over the modern ones. While your stories were special, today's stories are more than not banal.

  2. Dear Jim,

    That "flying helicopter rocket launcher platform" exemplifies one thing that really bugs me about supervillains. If they can afford such technology, do they just commit crimes for fun? My guess is that Kirby just felt like drawing it and it wasn't in Lee's plot at all. Drawing – or writing – whatever feels good at the moment isn't necessary good for the story in the long run.

    The use of strategically placed labels and props help to tell the story. Lee didn't have to have Cap specify "sporting goods" in panel four, page fourteen – the items behind the store window and the words on the window speak for themselves. In panel two of page fifteen, Cap uses a bow from … nowhere? No, from the "archery" box in the foreground. No need for a caption saying, "Captain America grabbed a box off the shelf, opened it, took out the bow," and so on.

    Panel two, page 16 is a type of scene that made early Marvel special. Can you imagine a Silver Age DC hero using heaters to dry off? Johnny has superhuman powers, but he's doing what we'd do if we were in his flaming boots.

    Stories are journeys. Storytellers are tour guides. They should vary their speed. Slow down to take in the sights. Not everything is a sight. It's a storyteller's job to figure out what's important and what to drive past. Like you said, "Skip the convalescence." Who wants to go on a tour in which the bus zips past everything? Or the bus stops at every single block? Pacing entails prioritization.

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