They’ve just always been there. Comic books. Ever since I was a kid I’ve found them very interesting. Because of the superheroes their pages showed me. And because they just stuck out. These crazy little drawings inside crazy little boxes — that you read.
Nothing else was comic books.
And in fact, they still get my mind going.
I can read the worst one and still find something to say about it. Like, about how dumb the plot is. Because of how poorly it was written, and the artist that drew it … they couldn’t save it. Like, that’s a shame. Because it could have been something. And that sticks with you.
But, you know, comic books are a business. And that’s where it goes wrong.
But, isn’t that interesting, too? With all its stories about real people who created, wrote, and drew to make a middle-class living, on insane deadlines. Competing with each other.
Making stuff up!
These creative-types evolved from a point of origin. A guy who did it first — A central, defining artist, who laid the ground rules and instigated copycats. And then they summoned new, working artists. People who grew up reading as fans. And then they took over the business, slowly. But first, they had to learn the ropes via the standards of their time.
Or steal from the best, their tricks and stylistic flourishes.
All for a paycheck.
And to keep the comic book machine printing and the good money coming.
Because, you know, comic books are a business.
But it’s run by people, and some of them are great.
Some of them are really bad, too. But that’s not what I want to say right now.
I want to show you something, instead. An example of what I like:
Just take 10 seconds and look at that image. Whether you think it’s ugly, or goofy, or not worth your time. Just realize that’s a real drawing in the world, and someone spent a lot of time on it.
They’ve spent a lot of time throughout their lives trying to draw that image that way.
It required their sustained progress, month-to-month, year-to-year. There are people that do this and succeed. There are some people in comic books that want to do something with comic books. And you can see who they are. And I love that.
A man named Bill Sienkiewicz drew the image shown above. Its subject is Moon Knight, a Marvel Comics superhero. A Batman-like character with a religious turn and a thing for brutality. He’s a man with multiple personalities, a disorder, playing a hero. To somehow change his past.
The image shown above is a two-page spread.
It’s two separate pages that amount to a whole, grandiose image. A two-page spread is often employed as a storytelling tool to emphasize dramatic moments in the plot.
This Moon Knight example, shown in Moon Knight #26 from 1982, serves as a final snare drum snap. It concludes the piece of music soundtracking the introduction of this comic book story, where Bill Sienkiewicz is the storyteller.
I mean, he has help — and a co-author. It’s the writer Doug Moench, who created Moon Knight, thought him up, who actually wrote this specific comic book. And there are the art assistants who helped the main artist, who helped Bill Sienkiewicz, such as the colorist, Christie Scheele.
Plus, there’s the person who letters the text. Joe Rosen.
You can see their names in the little box at the bottom right-hand corner of the image shown. All of those people contribute something.
But it’s Bill Sienkiewicz who ultimately tells the story.
How? Look at it again:
The text captions, written by Doug Moench, are rhythmic. They connect the character, Moon Knight, to the liveliness of the world around him. “Cats in windows … Money itching to change hands.” The character is a part of this scene. Another element of the city. And Bill Sienkiewicz draws this sweeping, graceful presence connected to a cape, high above a night-time mess. “Always, always blood to be spilled” down below in those streets. And Moon Knight looks light as a feather.
That visual characterization tells you who this guy is. He’s a lunatic at ease in the debris. Comfortable with extremes. Bill Sienkiewicz presents him with style and composition. From a perspective anchored at a point that extends beyond the character. It encompasses what the image is really about. The image is really about those two buildings set in the background … and their yellow-lit windows. The people inside, having dinner, watching TV, that look out and see what we see. They look at this image, too, of a costumed man gliding through the sky, and recognize something. They see the world is fucking crazy.
Bill Sienkiewicz decided to act to show this part of the story in this way. This is his brain at work. It’s his conceptualization and guiding hand that portrays it. He is communicating to a reader. And the communication of this idea, visually — that the world is kind of wild, and beautiful, and what the fuck — when that image is complemented by thoughtfully written prose … It is an example of someone saying something through an art form often doubted. In a genre that’s super nerdy and corporate and Disney-fied. But doing it, nonetheless.
I think about comic books because there is potential in them, and that potential can be realized.
Here’s another example (not superheroes):
This is a complete story.
It’s called The Lifted Brow, and it’s by Lala Albert. It was self-published online in 2019.
Notice how it’s designed to be read as you scroll on your phone.
Then, notice how it’s the only image shown per “page.” There are no panels. There are no small boxes, just like you would see in a classic example of the comic book. But, when you scroll and realize these images are sequenced to show something happening, to show that eyebrow going back, the mechanics behind the story really take over, subconsciously.
Your brain is taking static images and connecting them in a sequence. It’s a much slower version of what your brain kind of does all the time. Comic books can just show us that process.
And like Bill Sienkiewicz, Lala Albert made these choices.
An artist is directing your experience of the story. They are employing storytelling tools to show and communicate the story in a specific way that also contributes to its meaning.
Why does Lala Albert want to show us this moment this way?
I believe the meaning of the story varies between its readers.
I can see a feminist concept in the story. Someone may connect to that — or understand it better — than someone who connects to or better understands the broader stress the character seems to be experiencing. Or maybe this entire comic is a reference to a similar piece of art, a way of talking on it? Maybe the story isn’t about anything other than showing the mechanisms of a story?
But just like Bill Sienkiewicz, Lala Albert drew this, and we can recognize something in it.
We can recognize that someone is saying something to us, and we can listen.