What makes a good comic-book action sequence? How do you balance dynamic movement and eye-catching art with coherency and continuity?
On Saturday morning, some of DC and Marvel’s most exciting talents sat down to discuss their action-crafting expertise at WonderCon’s “Drawing Action” panel.
Right off the bat, it was clear that the panel had some fascinatingly different approaches and attitudes towards their craft.
Paolo Rivera (Daredevil, Hellboy) prefers drawing action above everything else, because he feels it allows him more freedom and “less rules.” Rivera explained that, in contrast to the studied proportion and composition he applies to “subtle” static scenes, he draws action rough and impressionistic. He loves drawing bodies flying through the air, moving through space, touching the ground as seldom as possible.
In contrast, Russell Dauterman (Thor) considers action one of the more difficult things for him to draw. Annie Wu (Hawkeye, Black Canary) said that she’s better at “moody, actor-y stuff.” (These statements were a little shocking to those of us who’ve read Dauterman’s eye-catching Thor artwork, or Wu’s utterly virtuosic turn in Black Canary #3, but I guess there’s a lesson there. Good artists make it look easy.)
All of the panelists frequently mentioned that their art was informed or influenced by action movies. But those influences worked a little differently for each of them.
Annie Wu uses movies as direct visual references, studying famous combat scenes as well as more non-traditional influences. She quoted Fred Astaire’s edict on his strict symbiosis between movement and camera work: “Either the camera moves or I do.”
Joe Quinones (Howard the Duck) is also inspired by action movies, but he “internalizes” them instead of using them as direct references.
While all of the panelists heavily rely on the visual language of film as comics artists, they also agreed that comics have a huge impact on movies, and that that relationship will probably continue to grow. Rivera pointed out that most movies start out as a kind of “comic,” in the form of storyboards; he also pointed to new shows like Jessica Jones that are drawing direct visual references from the comics that inspired them.
Each artist provided some thoughtful guidelines and strategies for drawing action. Moderator Alex Sinclair weighed in as a colorist, explaining that he likes to use heightened, “exaggerated” palettes to emphasize high-energy scenes.
Both Rivera and Dauterman emphatically stressed the importance of crafting the page as a whole to lead the reader’s eye in a strategic way. Dauterman explained that you can direct a reader’s eye using both panel shape and the direction of the character’s movement. He gave the example of a single punch, which naturally leads our gaze from the shoulder to the point of impact, and maybe even the space beyond. He also described his strategy when drawing big, earth-shaking Asgardian action: re-shaping and rotating panels so it looks like the sheer force of Thor’s action is physically impacting the comic book itself.
Dauterman’s insights about panel shape contrast fascinatingly with Wu’s style, which is equally concerned with creating dynamic movement but in a completely different way: “What if I limited myself to only rectangular panels,” she asks, “but didn’t change the shape of them?”
In my opinion, this was the most valuable lesson to come out of the panel. Dauterman and Wu are approaching the “problem” of drawing action as a deeply physical act. (Wu actually considers the physical act of turning the page as part of her action choreography. Amazing.) They’re both going about this physicality in an entirely different way, but they’re both drawing amazing, frenetic, and involving action. Dauterman frames his moving characters in a way that shows them physically interacting with that framework, while Wu’s frame works like movie camera in an elaborate dance with her actors, “using size and rhythm to imply action rather than shape.”
Here’s my personal insight: when Dauterman or Rivera or anyone is talking about “drawing the eye,” they’re talking about a physical influence and control that the artist is exerting over the reader. Talk about spooky action at a distance. This is that ineffable comic book magic broken down into its component parts.
The panelists also offered new artists more specific tips for drawing action, which they frequently referred to as “cheats (If you flip through a few pages of the action scenes they’ve drawn in their recent books, these techniques look less like cheating and more like expert panel composition. But I digress). Wu pointed out that you can use character details like flowing hair or capes (or Black Canary’s fringed jacket) to emphasize momentum and direction. Dauterman recommended the liberal use of “falling debris” and blurred motion. And Rivera encouraged artists to break “conventional” rules like Left-Right action or the 180-degree rule… if they had a compelling, story-based reason for doing so.
And that was the real theme of the panel: Storytelling. All these artists’ action-drawing skills are awesome not just because they’re eye-catching and dynamic, but they can also tell a coherent, exciting story without the reader consciously noticing how they’re doing it.
Sinclair talked about an artist’s responsibility to impressionistically “fill in” the (implied) action that happens between panels.
Wu and Dauterman agreed that it could be stressful getting a complete “blank slate” script direction, such as “Pages 15-18: They fight.” (Ha.)
Rivera told an intriguing story about working on Daredevil with Mark Waid, who gave him “complete free rein” on many fight scenes. Consequently, Rivera felt like he was doing more “writing” to choreograph the specific beats and plots of Daredevil’s fights, and, as a result, the overall creative process was more collaborative. When he reads the comics today, he can’t remember if he or Waid came up with specific moves.
As someone who writes comics criticism, I’m always interested in finding better, more specific language to describe what artists like Dauterman, Quinones, Rivera, and Wu are doing when they’re at their best. After hearing them talk about it for an hour, I’m excited to get to work. I’m also convinced that, as critics, we need to “zoom in” more and talk about specific pages and panels. Let’s get super wonky about panel shape. Let’s talk about “camera” movement and visual languages and the base materials of excellent comics storytelling.