Most Superhero comics are based around two things: character-based drama and fight scenes. Many even forgo the former for the latter, under the horrible impression that they’re the same thing. This is in part due to the superheroes humble origins. The Pulps that most early creators drew on were often simplistic fare. This is certainly not true of all pulps, there has been many a great science-fiction story published in them, but it is true of many. Just look over collections of pulp covers and you’ll see, almost regardless of genre, hideous monsters, masculine men, monstrous foreigners, and scantily-clad women. Often there are more than just one of these components, and they’re fighting. For years superhero comics would conclude their conflicts in a fight, often made more interesting by who was fighting what as opposed to the presentation or storytelling at play. Now I can hardly claim a definite knowledge of comic-book history, but I think it’s safe to say what the next big change in the comic book fight was the arrival of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Stan Lee’s interest in character drama and Jack Kirby’s interest in explosive mythology were a beautiful combination. Suddenly these inevitable fight scenes were dynamic again. They were firmly grounded in the very human emotions these characters had, and they were exciting and larger than live. Fight scenes (and comics as a whole) quickly evolved to meet this new standard. The second major development in comic book battles comes from another media, film. With the popularization of action movies came a change in the way comics presented these conflicts. (If you want to read a great article about cinema fight scenes, which conforms to many of the same rules a comic has to, check out this.) With the action movie came a new kind of fight scene, one still popular today. These new scenes had even more of a focus on physicality, on martial arts, on gunplay, and on explosions and their ilk. Comics (and to be clear this article is about superhero comics, not all comics: assume that’s what I mean when I use the generic term) are built around fight scenes. They are an integral part of the superhero genre, so why are so many of them so bad? It’s a shame, but Sturgeon’s Law seems to hold true over superhero fights. Most of them, even in otherwise excellent comics, are forgetful, uninteresting, unoriginal, or just plain bad. Anyone seeking an in depth exploration of storytelling and action sequences should read this link from before. Some of the technical stuff doesn’t hold true in comic form, but most of the storytelling principles do. I will touch on these concerns throughout the issue, but if you find yourself wanting to know more you should read that article. So- what makes for a good comic book fight scene?
Before trying to critique fight scenes one has to understand the principles underlying these sequences. Here are the basics:
Every fight scene in everything ever (exceptions to follow) needs to be story based. Ideally it should be a part of the comics’ larger plot. It should also act as a mini story in of itself. It should set goals for the characters involved, it should build and be paced in a compelling manner, and it should be character driven. A great example (from something I know you’ll have read) would be Rorschach’s fight in his cell in issue eight of Watchmen. It may not be a conventional action sequence, but it works for our purposes. You know the character’s goals throughout this scene. Big Figure wants to murder Rorschach; Rorschach wants to defend himself, hopefully killing Big Figure in the process. It also acts as a story in its own rights. It has a prologue, the tension and stakes rise for both Big Figure and Rorschach, and it’s well paced (think of the moment when Lawrence’s blood splatters on Rorschach, or Big Figure’s terrified expression after Rorschach electrocutes Michael). Watchmen makes a good example because almost every comics fan has read it, but its action scenes are not really the sort we’re touching on. They still follow all the exact same rules, they’re still meant to be compelling, but they’re not meant to entertain. Consequently a few of Watchmen’s depictions of violence work as examples of the exceptions to the rule. Brutal, sudden acts of violence don’t need to be story based, (think the Comedian’s or Mason’s deaths) but if they’re going to transform into a prolonged fight scene (which I would argue is completely countering the goal) then you still need to follow the other rules. For those in need of another example Manga does this all the time. Think of entire series that resolve around video-game style bouts between two people. Something like Bleach, for instance, is completely predicated on regular one on one fights. These fights always follow the same principles. They are almost always necessary for the story. Characters are continually placed in situations where they need to, say, save someone, but first they have to fight their way through three levels of guards. Thus each fight is story based and moves the story forward with its completion. These fights are also stories in of themselves. They are continually ramping up stakes (oh no his sword can actually turn into a Soul-Caliber styles whip-sword thing!) and almost always feature beats where a character doubts themselves (how can I beat his whip-sword!?). These video-game stories might be poor examples of actual storytelling, but they do manage to entertain.
I struggled to find a name for this section. If this was an article about film it would be significantly easier. I would casually mention that fight scenes are better when superior stuntmen and choreographers are involved. In comics this is really one person: the artist. The artist’s command of anatomy, of martial arts, and general combat related knowledge greatly affects the final work. Compare this drawing:
to this one:
The first panel is by the fabulous artist/author Ron Lim, the second is by Frank Quitely. Both are great artists but Quitely has a superior understanding of the human form. Quitely even understands how actual martial arts work. Ask yourself which of those two drawings feels more plausible? Lim’s drawing is not meant to feel grounded in reality; the two characters are cosmic deities. But here’s a secret: even something completely fantastical will have more effect on the readers if it is grounded in reality. Getting your readers to understand and empathize with outlandish and implausible scenes is a challenge. Lim chooses to embrace this. His drawings and stories are psychedelic and cosmic. Though it is hard to say that a comic where a guy dresses as and bat punches crazy circus freaks is realistic. Which of those two panels feels better? Which blow feels more significant? Odds are it’s Quitely’s. Quitely understands that his audience can tell, on some level, that his drawing actually works. No amount of cool or Kirby Crackle can replace the effect a drawing with actual, working, anatomy has.
When crafting a fight scene for a film editing is indispensable. In comics that falls on the shoulders of the panel layout. Panel layout is a hugely important and frequently misunderstood part of cartooning. It completely effects the pacing of any scene. A wordless story-beat completely depends on the size and shape of its panel for pacing. Compare this kick:
to this punch:
Which panel feels faster? The punch, no? (If not you’re weird.) The absolute basics of panel layout are pretty simple- thin panels are quicker beats, wide panels are longer, and square, circular, or borderless panels feel timeless. Panels with dialogue last as long as the text takes to read, with the width of the panel affecting how quickly the audience reads the dialogue. Panels with more than four sides, or with irregular panels, are a strange beast. Irregular panels can’t really be delved into quickly, but suffice it to say it takes a pro to use them appropriately (and their affect can change wildly depending on the context). Most fight scenes nowadays have little to no dialogue. Writers have moved away from verbose mid-punch dialogue towards minimalistic grunts or captions. Captions also affect the pacing of a panel; they work similarly to dialogue, with an added level of confusion. Someone reading an action packed panel with a caption will linger on the panel in order to read the text, while processing the fact that the time it takes to read isn’t the time the same as the time the captions occurs over. This affect can often be muddling for the reader, but in the hands of a smart creator it can read like slow-motion. Watchmen is a prime example once again. Pacing can make or break a fight scene. Bad pacing leads to a blur of a fight scene, one lacking proper definition and compelling beats. Compare a fight scene from Watchmen to one from the New 52′s Justice League. One is sharp and memorable. Odds are you could remember moments from Watchmen without having to reread it. Could you say the same of Justice League? If you think using the “Citizen Kane of comic books” as an example is unfair try the same exercise with a fight scene from Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye in its place. Isn’t Hawkeye far more memorable?
Now that we’ve examined the basic, underlying, principals of the fight scene it is time to put that knowledge to use. Let’s examine three fight scenes; a bad one, a good one, and an unusual one. Let’s not just condemn one scene and praise another. Let’s properly break apart why they succeed or fail. Because if you’re going to work in a genre built around people hitting each other it should, at the very least, be exciting when the punching starts.