Typically when people think of superhero comics, they think of action-packed fight scenes and daring rescues. What most people don’t think of, or at least what I didn’t think of until very recently, is the challenge comic artists face in making a static image on a flat surface appear dynamic. Some of that work will be done by the reader’s imagination. Readers don’t have to be shown every slight movement of a character in order to get a good idea of what that character is doing. But for the artist who wants to provide the reader’s imagination with a little extra help, there are several ways to create the illusion of motion in comics. These include altering the size and shape of the panels in correspondence to each other, adjusting the angle or the perspective in the panels, or drawing the characters in exaggerated, and sometimes implausible, action poses.
What first got me thinking about the difficulties of giving motion to motionless characters was the 1954 series Black Cobra, published by Ajax-Farrell, which I stumbled upon while looking for inspiration for another project.
My experience with comics is pretty limited. Still, I have seen awkward poses and comic book characters whose anatomy barely resembles anything you would find in real life, but never have I seen so many unnatural poses (and expressionless characters) in one series.
In the above strip my favorite panel has got to be the first one. I’m not sure what was going through the artists’ head when they decided to draw Black Cobra prancing dangerously close to the edge of the building, supposedly trying to sneak attack his victim while waving his arms around in the air (like he just doesn’t care). There are other problems with what we see depicted in these three panels, such as the fact that the victim is nowhere near Black Cobra when the protagonist decides to pounce on him from above, and the tray the victim appears to be carrying mysteriously vanishes after the first panel, and the lack of expression on either of the characters’ faces. But anyway, back to the main focus of this post.
People are hard to draw, and comics are all about drawing people. I counted the number of human figures for one 12 page issue of Black Cobra and came up with 157. Being able to draw that many people (along with the panels, and backgrounds and everything else) under a deadline is pretty impressive, even with all the strange poses and anatomical errors. And if over a hundred figure drawings were used in a simple, twelve-page comic, it blows my mind to think how many go into a graphic novel like Watchmen.
So I really should give the artist for this series some credit. It’s not as if all of the figures he drew were terrible. In fact, most of them looked fairly natural in terms of anatomy and the position they were drawn in. On top of that you could argue for exaggerated poses as a stylistic choice in comics. After all, do a Google image search for Spiderman and in pretty much every image you’ll see him either crouched or flying through the air in some contorted posture. These weird poses help show off the heroes’ powers and their character, and sometimes they actually look really cool.
With that in mind, it’s difficult for me to draw the line between what constitutes as a stylistic choice and what constitutes as laziness or lack of skill. For me, the distinction ultimately comes down to intent. If the pose is meant to be distorted, it can be called stylistic. If the pose comes out looking distorted because the artist was in a hurry to finish 150 figure drawings by the end of the week, then it’s a fault on the part of the artist, albeit an understandable one.