How Comics Work:

The Fight Scene, Part 4

Young Avengers 3

Kieron Gillen (writer), Jamie McKelvie (artist), Mike Norton (artist), Mathew Wilson (colourist), et al

The third issue of Young Avengers breaks all the rules. The fight has little to no context in the overall story, it doesn’t have story beats, it doesn’t have any choreography (here’s where I wish I had a better word), and consequently it doesn’t have anything to communicate via pacing. And it kind of works. The fight is really just there to provide some action in an issue that’s mainly talking. Normally I would argue against randomly inserted action pieces, but it’s completely in line with Young Avengers. The series wears its focus on its sleeve: it’s all about youth, excitement, and cool. The series is all bright colours and fashionable clothing. The first story arc even has a villain that’s taken the form of a characters Mother. Right before the fight scene there are a few panels with Volstagg, who says: “Ah to be young again…such high spirits…I miss it so.” It’s not subtle. This fight scene is not intended to feel significant; it’s intended to feel fun.

I have the outmost confidence that when the story calls for it Gillen and McKelvie will be able to craft a dramatic, intense, suspenseful, fight scene. This is not that fight scene though. This fight scene is meant to be a moment of excitement and cool, it just happens to involve punching. It’s about the fun of being a superhero. So naturally it’s a random fight. Nothing quite says “superheroes” and “fun” quite like randomly having to fight a frost giant. The fight is mainly splash pages with inset panels. The choreography is frequently not visible, but the few panels where it comes into play are drawn fabulously. These panels are all close-ups; facial expressions, hand gestures, falling weapons, and the like. This fight may ignore the most basic rules, but it knows why it’s doing it. More importantly it ignores the basics well. The fight is cool, youthful, stylized, and fun. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie accomplish what they set out to do. The thing is; most comics shouldn’t set out to be cool at the cost of drama. Many do, however. Nine times out of to the desire to craft something cool leads to something completely devoid of drama or significance. The desire for cool will make a scene that’s all surface and has zero emotional effect. Young Avengers is no different; it just works in the context of the larger story. A good rule of thumb: if you’re planning a fight scene and you’re not Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie don’t try to make it feel cool.

So where does that leave us? Now that you know how fights scenes work what next? Well, odds are, if you’re reading this site, you have more than a passing interest in comics. Maybe you want to make comics, in which case knowing how story elements, choreography, and pacing effect a fight scene is fairly relevant. Maybe you’re just an avid reader. In that case I implore you to think about the fight scenes you’re reading. So many comics get away with having sloppy fight scenes. Even otherwise excellent comics frequently have terrible, forgettable, fight scenes. More often than not creators will try to do the same sort of issue-long fight scene Mark Waid and Chris Samnee got away with in Daredevil, but they’ll try it without knowing how fight scenes really work. Obviously fight scenes are hard. You have to juggle a lot of elements between a lot of people. But ask yourself: is there really an excuse for having boring fight scenes in superhero comics? Conventional wisdom would even go so far as to suggest that superhero comics are entirely built around fight scenes. I’m not saying you should stop purchasing series with bland fights, because there are some great comics out there with awful action scenes. And that’s rarely any one creator’s fault. Can you blame the writer; who has almost no control over the choreography?  Can you blame the artist; who has no control over the story elements? Even a creator saddled with a mediocre counterpart has plenty of opportunities to better the product. An artist should be capable of adjusting a script and working with an artist’s skills- and around their limitations. Likewise an artist given two pages and a rough idea of what to draw can add in effective beats. Look at that Daredevil fight again. Most of those story beats could’ve been improvised (to some degree) by an artist (in the case of Daredevil they clearly weren’t though). So if you’re a young creator or a loyal reader think about your fight scenes a little more. Readers shouldn’t settle for mediocre fight scenes in their books. Creators should make sure they’re not crafting mediocre fight scenes. Together we should all try to make Batman punching things cool again.

And for the fun of it, the awesome Marvel Boy fight scene from Young Avengers #4

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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  1. Nick Ford says:

    As someone who wants to make comics (write them to be more specific) I just wanted to say that I appreciated this series so thanks for doing it! :)

  2. R Harper says:

    Thank you so much for writing this!

    A number of weeks ago I came up with this intricate plot idea for a superhero comic series; a unique setting, two separate worlds, consequences and high stakes, and characters which I hope readers would find compelling and relatable. After writing out the story, setting, world history and planning several arcs, I began writing the script… And just a handful of pages in got stuck at the very first fight scene where I planned to introduce my heroine. Unfortunately for me, I have always been more interested in prose than script writing and while I do love graphic novels, I must admit that I have only ever read manga and webcomics. It’s not out of a disinterest for western illustration or an obsession for Japanese storytelling, understand, rather that I have never had the money to buy the physical issues and so I usually read whatever is legally published online.

    But I digress, the point being that I have a list of things I want the first fight scene to covey. It has to show my heroine as inexperienced, somewhat fearful, unskilled or at least short-sighted in combat, without making her seem completely incapable or hopeless. A large part of the story is her growth both morally and in sheer competency, so setting up obstacles for her to overcome and introducing both her strong and weak elements is very important. Also I wanted to introduce both her ‘Ability’ and its consequence within the realm of the setting, with a resolution which is slightly more bitter than sweet. It’s a lot to fit into a few pages which I am considering making void of any text, excluding sfx.

    Bit by bit I planned this idea of introducing a heroine in a wordless and comparatively insignificant fight, mentally planning blow by blow what would happen, and it just didn’t transition to paper very well. Even just writing I found that the pacing was either too slow or too fast, that the stakes weren’t high enough to really be the creative hook to draw an audience in on, and that the moves I had initially planned were simply tired and uninspired.

    I wanted an idea of how to make something visually dynamic, interesting, unique, and in keeping with the character I had designed, which is how I came across this article. I really appreciate how you break down bit by bit what works and what does not, particularly since you don’t focus on the ‘scale’ (Which I think some writers have this idea that making characters more powerful or a fight less even makes for an automatically more interesting conflict, for some bizarre reason), but rather the storytelling and visuals which make a scene succeed or fail. There is a lot about panel planning you explain here which, I’ll admit, I hadn’t taken into consideration as I should have. As someone more comfortable writing than anything else, planning the choreography didn’t seem as important as forming a narrative, which is really a backwards way of thinking when creating something which conveys story through illustration.

    Again, thank you for this article, I have it and this site bookmarked now. Also I hope you don’t mind my rambling, I just wanted to explain why your writing was so helpful to me (And, maybe, subtly beg for advice).


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