The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 200 | Back to School: On Larry Hama’s “Ten Rules of Drawing a Comic Book Page,” comics for the classroom, and more

Leaving Proof 200 | Back to School: On Larry Hama’s “Ten Rules of Drawing a Comic Book Page,” comics for the classroom, and more
Published on Wednesday, September 4, 2013 by
In this week’s column, we go in-depth in our discussion of Larry Hama’s “ten rules of drawing a comic book page,” share suggestions for comics ideal for classroom reading, and talk about our latest binge-watching obsession, Ghost Slayers Ayashi.

Last week, we shared Larry Hama’s Facebook post about his personal “ten rules of drawing a comic book page,” derived from some 40-odd years of working in the comics industry as an artist, writer, and editor. (While he is known in fans’ circles mostly as the writer on G.I. Joe and Wolverine during their peak years in the 1980s through the early 1990s, Hama is also an accomplished artist and as an editor, put together and popularized the “Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work” paste-up that is now part of every comics artist’s education.) Here are those ten rules again:

  1. Don’t have people just standing there.
  2. ANY expression is better than a blank stare.
  3. Avoid tangents, and any straight line that divides the panel.
  4. If you use an odd angle in the shot, there has to be a reason for it.
  5. If you don’t have at least one panel on each page with a full figure, your “camera” is too close.
  6. Plan out your shots in “Lawrence of Arabia” mode rather than in “General Hospital” mode.
  7. Don’t think of backgrounds as “things to fill up the space after the figures are drawn.”
  8. If you know what something is called, and you have an Internet connection, there is no reason to draw it inaccurately.
  9. If the colorist has to ask if a scene takes place at night, you haven’t done your job.
  10. If you can’t extend the drawing beyond the panel borders and still have it make visual sense, you’ve cheated on the perspective.

Hama further notes in his post that the rules are “not universal, they are my own personal guidelines, so there is nothing to disagree about.”

Larry Hama's work on G.I. Joe #21 ("Silent Interlude"), an issue with no dialogue whatsoever, continues to influence artists today and even served as the inspiration for Marvel's 'Nuff Said Month event in 2011.

Larry Hama’s work on G.I. Joe #21 (“Silent Interlude,” cover-dated March 1984), an issue with no dialogue or sound effects whatsoever, continues to influence artists today and even served as the inspiration for Marvel’s ‘Nuff Said Month event in 2002.

While most of these guidelines are self-explanatory to a degree, and even if they are reflective of Hama’s personal practices and preferences and not intended to be immutable prescriptions that should be followed rigorously to the point of monotony, any comics reader should find the majority of the ten rules intuitive. Rule #s 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, and 10 certainly require little additional explication, even for the non-artist, although it is still frustrating to see so many illustrators (and the writers and editors they work with) whiff on rule #8, despite all the free online image reference resources now readily available at our fingertips via the web. Online tools and resources can also help immensely with rule #10: Even the most stereoscopically-challenged artist should be able to find images and free modeling software like SketchUp useful in figuring out how to depict particularly challenging scene perspectives and angles in a way that makes visual sense.

The first portion of rule #3—the one that says “avoid tangents”—however, might need some elucidation for those unfamiliar with the more technical aspects of comics art. What are tangents, anyway, and why should they be avoided by artists whenever possible? Chris Schweizer, artist and writer on the Eisner-nominated Crogan’s Vengeance who also works as a Sequential Art and Animation instructor at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta campus, defines a tangent as an interaction of two or more lines “in a way that insinuates a relationship between them that the artist did not intend.”

One clear example of a tangent is what Schweizer calls the “long-line” tangent, which he illustrates in the example below:

An example of a "long line" tangent, from The Schweizer Guide to Spotting Tangents.

An example of a “long line” tangent, from The Schweizer Guide to Spotting Tangents.

Schweizer goes into further detail about the different kinds of tangents in his informative Tumblr post, The Schweizer Guide to Spotting Tangents, a very useful illustrated resource for anyone looking to become better as a comics artist. There are specific reasons as to why particular tangents undermine sequential art and visual storytelling and Schweizer explains these succinctly, but the general idea is that tangents can create unintentional confusion in the reader and ruin the illusion of depth in the panel. One way to think about tangents is to consider the intentionally comedic forced perspective photographs that people love to take and share:

Comedic_forced_perspective_example

The three photographs above use implied “parallel tangents” created through forced perspective to undermine the perception of depth and distance for comedic effect.

While the above photographs are obviously extreme (not to mention intentionally framed) examples, they serve to illustrate how the interaction and abutment of perceived lines in what is supposed to be a representation of objects of varying distances from the “camera” in three-dimensional space can upend our perception of depth and distance.

Comics pros take the issue of tangents very seriously, as well they should: representational art in comics is fundamentally about the creation of the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional medium, and tangents go against that very basic tenet. Erik Larsen and John Byrne even got into an extended online tiff earlier this year over (among other things) the former’s criticism of a tangent found in an illustration of the Thing by the latter.

byrne_vs_larsen_thing_tangent

Left: John Byrne’s Thing drawing, note the “parallel tangent” formed by the Thing’s right forearm and the lamppost, adding distracting clutter and detracting from the overall composition. Right: Erik Larsen’s “fix” of the illustration involved removing the lamppost and some of the texturing on the Thing’s rocky skin.

In reading through their back-and-forth, the attentive student of comics art can surprisingly learn quite a bit from both artists. While Larsen is correct in pointing out that there is a “parallel tangent” (a bit of an oxymoron, I know, but that is the common term) in Byrne’s illustration, Byrne is also right in saying that any depth problems the tangent creates are rendered largely irrelevant by the fact that the illustration was intended to be colored—a visual separation based on different colors would have come into play between the Thing’s forearm and the lamppost—and Larsen’s criticism of the work as if it were intended to be for black & white publication is somewhat disingenuous. That’s an important detail: Tangents are much more noticeable and distracting in black & white comics art than they are in color, and what might be a practical proscription against tangents in black & white comics art might be more of a suggestion in color comics art.

A page composed almost entirely of panels set at "dutch angles."

An example of a page featuring what some might describe as the injudicious employment of “dutch angles.”

Hama Rule #4, which maintains that “odd angles” are only to be used when they serve a narrative purpose, is another rule that may need further elaboration for those uninitiated in the language of film, storyboarding, photography, and comics art. The odd angles that Hama refers to can be interpreted as being synonymous with the canted angle shot or “dutch angle” (also known as the “Hong Kong angle”) in storyboard design, as well as the bird’s eye view shot, the worm’s eye view shot, the extreme close-up, and other so-called “extreme” angles. These angles retain their potency only when they are used judiciously—the dutch angle, for example, is used to create a greater sense of dynamism or generate a sense of dissonance in a scene to set it apart from more conventionally framed shots that make up the majority of a visual storytelling sequence. Used gratuitously and without consideration for contrast and context, these angles lose their utility. Additionally, I believe this rule can be extended from odd angles to include irregularly-shaped panels and the practice of having figures step outside panel borders. (Larsen addresses this topic briefly in the story linked to above.) Former Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Jim Shooter explains why the overuse of irregularly-shaped panels, overlapping panels, and other panel gimmicks can detract from the storytelling in a comic in his particularly detailed review of 2011’s Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, where he approached the exercise of reading the comic book as somebody unfamiliar with the characters or the conventions of comics storytelling. Of course, as with just about any “rule” in art, there’s a “your mileage may vary” qualifier for what constitutes an overuse of odd angles and irregularly-shaped panels.

Irregularly-shaped and overlapping panels may look "cool," but they can also needlessly confuse the reader and muck up the storytelling.

Canted viewing angles, having panel contents cross panel borders, and irregularly-shaped and overlapping panels may look “cool,” but they can also needlessly confuse the novice comics reader.

Hama’s fifth rule is one that I think could be better phrased, even though the thinking behind the rule is easy enough to grasp. It’s just that I would contend that a page composed of panels featuring only full figures would be just as poorly composed and visually boring as a page full of panels that feature partial figures exclusively. I do think that the spirit of the rule is that variation in distance is a good thing when laying out and breaking down a multi-panel page, and that’s something no one would seriously argue against.

This leads us to Hama Rule #6, which I can imagine reads as somewhat the most obscure in the list to “comic book civilians.” What I’m assuming Hama means when he says that artists should plan out their shots in Lawrence of Arabia mode instead of General Hospital mode is that artists should think about using a cinematic scope to their scene composition. Daytime soap operas like General Hospital operate with a limited budget, and are usually shot with multiple fixed cameras. Scene and angle cuts are repetitive because shifts in perspective are generally achieved by simply switching from one static camera to another. Shot distances are limited because the immobile nature of the cameras means they are simply restricted to zooming in or out without changing their physical distance from the scene being shot. Big budget productions like Lawrence of Arabia, on the other hand, are shot with a single film camera mounted on a motorized dolly which allows for expansive, sweeping shots and a much wider range of shot angles and distances. In comics, where filming budget is of no consequence whatsoever, the only reason why a comic book page should look like a daytime soap opera is if it is the artist’s intent to actually recreate the daytime soap opera aesthetic. In the below four-page sequence drawn by the late John Severin for Marvel’s The ‘Nam comic, note how “cinematic” the pages look, with a dynamic “camera” that doesn’t settle on rote perspectives and distances.

severin_the_nam

The exceptions that prove the rules?

As with most any “rules” that govern the creation of art, there are the so-called “exceptions that prove the rules,” subversions of guidelines that show new ways of telling stories visually by creatively and intelligently skirting established conventions. (Of course, this should not be confused with the aimless, breaking-rules-for-the-sake-of-breaking-rules flailing about of artists more interested in “making a statement” than effective storytelling.)

The late Will Eisner, for instance, elected to use a “documentary-style” perspective for his short story Last Day in Vietnam, leveraging limited perspective and eschewing traditional panel borders altogether to create a sense of closeness and intimacy for the reader that would have been more difficult to achieve using an approach that utilized a more diverse array of shots and more conventional panel divisions.

Artist Adam Warren admitted to doing exactly what Hama’s seventh rule warns against—the practice of drawing backgrounds to fill the space around finished figure drawings—in an interview with the Comixverse last year that focused on his work on Empowered. Warren resorted to this method of doing things out of sheer necessity, as designing the pages so as to minimize the need for drawing detailed backgrounds, and sticking largely with medium shots and close shots in panels was really the only way he could maintain his prodigious page output at the time.

It is a credit to his abilities as a sequential artist and renderer that the clarity of the storytelling in those early volumes of Empowered does not suffer significantly for the practice.

There are many more examples of accomplished artists deliberately or incidentally violating rules similar to the ones offered by Hama in his Facebook post, or even the significantly more detailed ones laid out by Jim Shooter in his blog, by Scott McCloud in his landmark text Understanding Comics, and even Eisner himself in Comics and Sequential Art, with no negative impact on the reader’s perceived overall quality of the composition and storytelling. The existence of counterexamples isn’t to be taken as proof that the word of experts and industry veterans like Hama, Shooter, McCloud, and Eisner is invalid, of course, or that proper planning and techniques aren’t vitally important in the construction of a preeminently “readable” comics page. Rather, what the counterexamples do prove is that as with a lot of things, even though there are heuristics that can help us determine what is “right” and what is “wrong” in the creation of comics art, a lot of the time, the verdict as to a work’s “correctness” in terms of effective visual storytelling is largely context-dependent.

Comics for the classroom

With school starting this week for most primary and secondary school students in North America, it’s the best time to talk about Diamond Comics Distributors list of graphic novels that are compatible with the Common Core State Standards for American primary and secondary schools. The full list of of 98 graphic novels, which includes library classifications, subject headings, and Core Standards, can be downloaded here (.xls file, 319.5 kB). I’ve reviewed four of the books on the list for the Comixverse—Xoc: The Journey of a Great White (recommended for readers third grade and up), I’m not a Plastic Bag (recommended for readers fifth grade and up), Play Ball (recommended for readers fifth grade and up and a personal favorite of the books I reviewed last year), and Krishna: A Journey Within (recommended for readers seventh grade and up)—and have read (but have yet to write about in detail) another half-dozen or so titles including the aforementioned Schweizer’s Crogan’s Loyalty, Eisner’s Fagin the Jew, Ben McCool and Mario Guevara’s adaptation of Eisenstein’s Nevsky, and Eddie Campbell’s The Lovely Horrible Stuff.

PRINCELESSv1_TPB_CVROf course, parents, teachers, and librarians looking to introduce age-appropriate comics and graphic novels to children and students need not be limited to Diamond’s selections, as good as those books are are, as long as they’re willing to do the legwork and screen titles prior to giving them to young readers. Off the top of my head, I would list Jeremy Whitley and Mia Goodwin’s Princeless, Book One: Save Yourself (Action Lab Comics) and Chris Northrop and Jeff Stokely’s The Reason for Dragons (BOOM!/Archaia) as providing a blend of suitably complex narratives and fantastical conflict for readers in the 12 and older age range (sixth grade and up). I also think that Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon’s Pride of Baghdad and Jason Aaron and Cameron Stewart’s The Other Side (both titles published by DC/Vertigo) are works that can help readers in tenth grade and above gain an appreciation for international history and current events and the human cost of armed conflict, with the caveat that students will need a supervising adult familiar with the works’ themes and the historical context they are embedded in, and is capable of guiding them through material that can be quite disturbing, emotionally challenging, and politically tricky.

On Ghost Slayers Ayashi

ghost-slayers-ayashiOne thing I’ve noticed with the availability of online streaming services like Netflix, Funimation.com. Crackle, Crunchy Roll, and the various official distributor channels for anime on YouTube is that I’ve become a “binge-watcher” of the worst sort. I’ll go days, even weeks without watching “Internet TV” (or whatever the corporate/marketing tag for television shows on the Internet is) and then go through a dozen episodes or more of a particular show in the course of a weekend. I’ve done this with FLCL, Samurai Champloo, Mushi-shi, Fractale, Occult Academy, Minami-Ke, Ga-Rei: Zero, Black Lagoon, Oreimo, Blood-C, Spice and Wolf, and School Rumble, just to name some of the perhaps two dozen or so anime series and OVAs I’ve consumed over the past few years via legal streaming options (and that’s not even counting shows from my youth that I revisit every now and then, such as Rurouni Kenshin and Galaxy Express 999). My latest binge-watching obsession is the anime series Ghost Slayers Ayashi (viewable for free on Crackle.com), whose plot is summarized on Wikipedia thus:

In 1843, the fourteenth year of the Tenpō Era, ten years before the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and the Black Ships, Edo is under attack by beasts from the underworld, known as Yōi. Members of the Bansha Aratamesho, called the Ayashi, are assembled to repel the emergence of these yōi.

The basic premise isn’t really all that different from your typical ghost/monster/demon-of-the-week set-up, except that storylines span over multiple episodes and the core cast is quite quirky, to say the least—for example, two members of the Ayashi team, one a priest and the other a young actress-turned-retainer, are cross-dressers and one of the main supporting characters is an indigenous Mexican girl who has somehow made it all the way to Japan on her own with the help of a mystical horse—and the mechanism with which the main hero defeats the monsters, by drawing out the enemy’s “true name” in the form of an ideogram that can be weaponized, is something I don’t see too often being employed in Western comics or animation (although similar devices are used in Spirited Away and Death Note).

I’ve already seen all 25 of the “regular” Ghost Slayer Ayashi episodes and will likely start on the Ayashi Divine Comedy OVA later this week. As for what’s next in my binge-watching list? I’m not sure yet, but Madhouse’s anime adaptation of Kurozuka is looking good.

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