I’m going to quickly go through a comic book for you. This comic book, an issue of Strange Tales later reprinted in Captain America.
Why this one? This one is an old comic by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and it was probably done at a time when the page rates for artists were around ten bucks a page, fifteen bucks a page, so it was probably done very quickly. I guarantee you, Jack didn’t spend a great deal of time pondering each panel. You couldn’t do that if you wanted to earn a living. He didn’t give it a lot of thought. He did it from instinct more or less. Nonetheless, it’s a great illustration of fundamentals.
I’m not recommending that you draw like Kirby. I don’t advocate any particular style. I don’t care. But this will help you understand storytelling. This particular book, Strange Tales 114 reprinted in Captain America #216 is a very old Kirby story, therefore it’s cheaper than going out and buying the original issue. Buy a reprint copy. You should be able to find it. I’ve bought and given to artists hundreds of these.
There are a lot of reprints out now. The Marvel Masterworks, Marvel Essentials…stuff like that. Any old Kirby story is instructive. You’ll find other people too—old Wally Wood stories, old Steve Ditko stories are very informative. But let me walk you through this one and show you examples of some of the things I just told you.
Here’s the splash page.
In order to understand the story, a reader has to know where each scene is taking place. He or she has to know who is present, everyone who’s present, at that location. So, this is our establishing shot. We understand immediately—it’s clear at a glance—that we are in the backyard of a suburban home.
You notice this little piece of air right here? That tells that you’re seeing the whole house. If you didn’t have that little space, if the house was cropped, you might think that was the wing of a mansion. But it isn’t. It’s a small house. So Kirby tells you very clearly you are in the backyard of a modest suburban home. And that tells you a lot about the people who live there.
In order to understand the story, you need to know who the characters are. What do they look like, head to toe? Are they wearing roller skates? Got to see their feet…. This overall look establishes the characters. Now we know, in general what they look like. Okay, what do we have here? We have this pretty woman in a uniform, this guy who seems to be on fire, flying, and three young men arriving in the back yard. We see all of them head to toe. They are established.
That’s everybody who’s in the scene. I absolutely guarantee you that there is not a fourth young man arriving, just off panel. Kirby shows you everybody who’s there. Because that’s important.
It is also important to introduce the characters, that is, give the reader a good look at their faces. That’s how we recognize each other, isn’t it?
Kirby manages to get a lot done in this panel. The location is clearly established. The characters, everyone involved in the scene, are established. We even get a pretty good look at their faces.
One problem you face as a comics storyteller is that you only have so many panels, something around 100 in a standard length story. In a few seconds of film, you can show a wide, establishing shot of a location, show where your characters are within that location, provide a head-to-toe shot of the characters and provide a close up, so the viewer can get a look at their faces. All that in about three seconds. That’s 1/1800 of even a short movie, a tiny fraction of one percent of the running time of the film. If you took three panels to accomplish the same thing in a comic book, that’s three percent or more of your space.
So, Kirby “telescopes” the storytelling obligations. That is, he collapses several important storytelling necessities into one panel. Brilliant. But he won’t stop there. Wait till we get to page two.
Remember, the reader has to know where we are, where in particular, and who’s there. Everyone who’s there. We have to establish the figures, introduce characters by showing their faces well, and then we choose the appropriate depth to effectively show what’s happening.
You don’t have to do that in that sequence—it’s not a drill, it’s not a thing you do by the numbers. But, somewhere in the course of every scene you must get across the location, where the characters are within that location, who’s there and you have to make sure we know they’re not on skates and we know clearly who they are.
Watch any Cameron film. Any Spielberg film. Any Lucas film. You’ll see that they do what I’m preaching here every single scene, every single time. It’s only comics guys, out of all the visual media creators, who don’t seem to grasp this. Why, I don’t know. Do it! Tell the story! Make it clear. Communicate. If you don’t communicate, if you don’t tell the story clearly and effectively, nothing else matters.
I've become a big fan of this site since Super Punch turned me on to it. I wholeheartedly acknowledge Kirby's skill and place in comics history – likewise, I recognize your points. However, I'd be interested to see a dissection of a story that you think isn't done well, where the artist neglects to hit the marks your explaining. While this would be at the risk of that artist's feelings, I'd be curious to see how someone could try to tell a story without knowing what you're talking about.
As someone who writes prose outside the comic format, I am very appreciative of your insights, Mr. Shooter. They are fundamentals of basic storytelling learned and earned through practice so as to be instinctive, like the Kirby panel above. Though I can't always translate what you are talking about into my work, I am learning quite a bit as a longtime admirer, and applying your lessons. We are really all in the same business with the same aims, if different objective tools.
Lichtenstein wasn't trying to tell a story. His work is also one of my inspirations, if not always in prose, then in my painting. They are both arts, but they are not the same thing.
Flying Tiger Comics
Sup wit dat- comics were a true part of the underground and the real counter culture, not the manufactured protest of the hippie era.
Therefore the wellspring of creativity had to be controlled and subverted. Hence, crap like Lichtenstein.
Also, hence, Lucas lifting New Gods for Star Wars without a backward glance or acknowledgement.
Related but not really..
How come Roy Lichtenstein can have his works go for 6/7 figures w/o breaking a sweat… yet Kirby or Ditko or Steranko… they havent made the transition to acceptance in the Fine art world?
He seemingly sampled comic Panels and never did a complete comic to my knowledge. Talk about a lack of visual story telling
Sup wit dat?