Realism and the Art of Action

Sequential art is a purely visual medium, one that relies on the combination of words and pictures in order to give the illusion of animation and sound. In superhero comics, characters are often flung into moments of intense action, with many creators hoping to reach the excitement of a Hollywood action movie using merely ink and paper. In contemporary American comics, special attention is often paid to making the artwork in comics appear more lifelike, but what I’ve found is that the more photo-realistic a page attempts to be during an action scene, the less true the scene actually feels.

These days, the most common way that I have noticed for creators to convey action in superhero comics is with a “widescreen” panel capturing the characters in mid-motion with probably a few incidental sound effect captions popping out, the way Patrick Gleason has chosen to illustrate this fight scene from an issue of Batman and Robin.

The lines are very clean, as are the movements. The path that the action is taking is skillfully implied by things like Robin’s bootlaces in the top panel or his rope in the bottom panel, and the art is very fluid and conveys a bit of animation. This works. It accomplishes exactly what it’s set out to do, and although it is brief, there’s lots of space for the artist to play in and the page itself is visually pleasing enough that you’ll want to linger on it for at least a good minute.

Another technique I see a lot is a variation of the “widescreen” panel action scene, only this one contains no visual cues at all with which to infer sound happening within the scene. The example I’m using here is a page from issue 20 of Secret Avengers, drawn by Alex Maleev and written by Warren Ellis. As you can see, a lot is happening on the page, such as guns being fired and Black Widow hitting a button on her device, which you’d assume would make a beep or click or buzz.

In this case, the omission of sound could be a conscious decision to ramp up tension in the scene by simulating how singularly focused our senses seem to become during a life-or-death situation, a trick used a lot in cinema. However, I have seen examples in the past of creators dropping sound effects altogether, which seems to be an effort to make their comic less like a comic and more like a movie being played with the sound on mute. The art in this scene is also less clean than that of the Batman page, possibly to convey confusion and chaos of a firefight.

Both of these variations on the “widescreen” technique for depicting action are fine. They both tell the story appropriately, and they look nice while doing it. However, I find that they’re too much like a movie storyboard and not enough like a comic book. They’re flat. They lack the appropriate depth to really put me in the moment. Comics have the potential for doing much more interesting things with action scenes than simply a linear, top-to-bottom fight scene. There should be more creativity to it.

Take, for instance, this creative spin on the “widescreen” panel that Frank Quitely employed for the graphic novel We3. The panel itself takes up the upper half of a two page spread, but the action is chopped up into several other paper thin panels that rotate past your eye as the character “Tinker” jumps through each one. Instead of showing a flat, face-up layout of panels depicting the cat mauling his enemies, the panels are stood up like little windows for him to pass through as he bounds from the top right of the page to the bottom left. Ultimately it’s still a “widescreen” panel, but it’s also several different scenes in one and it conveys more momentum, violence and speed than any of the previous examples.

Now, I realize that a panel like this is an exception to the rule, and you can’t always come up with dozens of these for every issue you illustrate, but it would be nice to see more imaginative solutions to the problem of depicting action in a comic. An illustrator can do anything he or she wants when drawing a comic, why would they settle for imitating a flat surface covered in still photographs? How artistically fulfilling could that be?

The final example I’d like to refer to comes from an old issue of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book series, featuring art by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. I had the pleasure of reading a few of these early issues for the first time a few days ago, and I was taken aback by how effectively sound effect captions are employed. I’m not sure if it’s exemplary of the era in which this comic was published, the personal artistic choices made by the two creators, or both, but sound effects aren’t merely tolerated here, or muted for the sake of keeping things “cinematic,” they are the hierarchy of whatever panel they’re in. In fact, they are sometimes the focal point of the action in that panel.

It wasn’t enough for the artists to just show characters standing upright in one panel and losing their balance in another, a large “RUMBLE” is placed in between the panels, overlapping the two, acting almost like a mathematical formula: standing plus rumble equals collapse. Likewise, if the turtles were thrown back by an explosion, it wasn’t the blast that threw them, it was the word “BOOM” itself. I never realized before how important words are to comic book art. This is visual storytelling, guys.

Putting action on a page and making it exciting, or at least fun, is not an easy thing. It takes lots of skill and a great understanding of how the medium of sequential art really works. There are a variety of techniques that can be used to make drawings exciting, and dressing them up like movie frame only serves to limit the tools that a comic creator can use to give these scenes the depth that they deserve.

I am often an advocate of blurring the lines between reality and fiction when it pertains to comic books, and of using comics as a lens through which to view one’s own reality. Crossing comic books with reality is certainly the job of the writer, who is tasked with creating a plot and characters that resonate with the human experience. This is not, in my opinion, the job of the illustrator, who is more like a performer whose work is intended to make the story feel as though it’s alive on its own. It’s when these two roles are clearly defined and each are excelling at their own individual strengths that, in my opinion, we get the best funny books.

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Mike Greear is a journalism graduate from the University of West Florida currently living in New York City. During his time as an undergraduate, he reported on everything from Presidential campaign stops to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, eventually working his way up to being the editor-in-chief of the University of West Florida’s student newspaper, The Voyager. Since graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for Foster’s Daily Democrat in New Hampshire, reporting on crime and municipal stories in the city of Rochester as well as interviewing Republican primary candidates, before returning to Florida and freelancing for the Pensacola News Journal. He now resides in Long Island City, writing weekly columns for and hoping to break into the comics scene.

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