In today’s Leaving Proof: Just because it’s spring break doesn’t mean we have to stop learning. We take the rare opportunity to see “in the wild” how different artists interpret the same script.
Author’s note: The comics pages reproduced in this article are used in the spirit of fair use for the purposes of demonstration, education, and critical commentary.
One of the best ways to learn the guiding principles of effective visual storytelling and sequential art is to compare how different artists execute the same narrative sequence as described in a plot outline or a script. While it is exceedingly rare that a comics script will be illustrated by two or more different artists for use in different publications, it is possible to approximate the scenario by looking at various comic book adaptations of classics from prose literature. Observe the image posted below, where three artists—Golden Age illustrator Louis Zansky, Filipino komiks icon Alex Niño, and the legendary Will Eisner—break down and render what is roughly the same scene from Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick:It’s interesting to note that both Zansky and Niño cross the line of action in their respective pages. Zansky does this in the fourth panel of his page (Starbuck, wearing the striped shirt, switches position from the reader’s right to the reader’s left) while Niño does it in the second panel of his page before switching back to the character orientation as it was originally established in the page’s first panel (with the hat-wearing Starbuck on the reader’s left and the bare-headed Captain Ahab on the right).
Maintaining the line of action (what is commonly referred to as “the 180-degree rule”) is one of those basic rules of thumb in visual storytelling, be it in comics or filmmaking, and it is an important element of visual continuity. Preservation of visual continuity lends a comic or a film a greater sense of spatial and temporal coherence and logic.
The visual continuity violations aren’t fatal in the cases of the Zansky and Niño pages—they’re a minor distraction at worst and there are enough visual cues to differentiate Starbuck from Ahab such that the reader should not confuse one for the other despite their swapped locations in sequential panels. Had both figures been shrouded in shadow, however, or if they looked similar, then crossing the line of action would have been much more problematic. The 180-degree rule isn’t some sacred, immutable law, however. There are times when a comics illustrator deliberately violates the 180-degree rule to achieve a certain effect. While that doesn’t seem to be the case for Niño’s page above (it looks to me like a visual continuity error, plain and simple), the artist, like his comics stylist peers Jim Steranko, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Jack Kirby, has been known to occasionally bend and even break the rules of comic book storytelling (such as they are) in the interest of creating visual drama or to keep the reader on his or her toes.
As informative as looking at these kinds of works side-by-side is, however, there is still a degree of variability in the source material that precludes extensive, one-for-one, page-for-page, panel-for-panel comparison. Specifically, in the above example, both Zansky and Eisner directly adapted the original Melville text (although clearly, Eisner took a more liberal approach to the task of adaptation), while Niño was working with an adapted comics script (an “adapted screenplay,” if you will) written by Irwin Shapiro.
There is, however, one quite notable example of a comics script being interpreted by two artists, and both their interpretations actually seeing print, albeit years apart. Given the disparity of the results, the circumstances regarding their creation, and the popularity of the parties and comics property involved, one could probably even say that this is THE textbook example of how two artists can interpret the same script in quite different ways. What I’m referring to is the case of G.I. Joe #61 (published by Marvel Comics in 1987, with pencils by the late Marshall Rogers) and its misbegotten twin, G.I. Joe Special #1 (published by Marvel Comics in 1995, with pencils by Todd McFarlane), both of which were based on a script written by Larry Hama. Hama, it should be noted, is quite the capable artist in his own right (he describes himself as “not a writer, but a penciler with a word processor”), and he has a reputation for writing “artist-friendly” scripts that emphasize the visual side of comics storytelling.
The details of how the same script ended up becoming two different comics is covered in detail by Brian Cronin in his always-informative Comic Book Legends Revealed blog, but the summary is this:
In early 1987, an up-and-coming Todd McFarlane was given the assignment of penciling the Larry Hama-penned script earmarked for the 61st issue of G.I. Joe, one of Marvel’s bestselling titles at the time. McFarlane’s submitted art was rejected—who did the rejecting, whether it was then-G.I. Joe editor Bob Harras, the licensing people at Hasbro (the company that makes the G.I. Joe toys on which the comics were based), or somebody else, is unclear—and veteran artist Marshall Rogers was brought in to redraw the entire issue in just two weeks. The issue was delivered despite the truncated work period, and Rogers actually went on to draw seven more issues of the series over the next couple of years.
Fast-forward eight years later and McFarlane is now one of the industry’s most famous artists. His comic Spawn is a bona fide hit, its first issue selling 1.7 million copies and later issues consistently generating six-figure preorder numbers despite mixed reviews and missed release dates. Marvel, in a bid to benefit from McFarlane’s popularity despite no longer employing him (the artist had an acrimonious split from the company in 1992), resurrects the shelved McFarlane art originally intended for G.I. Joe #61 and repackages it as G.I. Joe Special #1. The issue features a cheeky cover by Phil Gosier and Scott Koblish that has fan-favorite G.I. Joe commando Snake-Eyes aping Spider-Man’s pose in the McFarlane-drawn cover for 1990’s multi-million copy-selling Spider-Man #1 (true to the quick cash-in nature of G.I. Joe Special #1, Snake-Eyes has barely anything to do with the events in the issue, only appearing in cameo in two panels in the issue’s final page).Now, before we go into the page-for-page comparisons, let’s discuss some history to keep things in the proper context: At the time that McFarlane drew the art for what would become G.I. Joe Special #1, he could have been described as something of a newcomer, an upstart even, especially when compared to Marshall Rogers. Rogers, who studied architectural drawing in college, had already put in a decade of regular and steady comics illustration gigs by 1987, and he had the benefit of working with and learning from some of the industry’s best pencilers, inkers, and writers. Thought of by many of his peers and collaborators as a naturally gifted visual storyteller, Rogers had a six-issue run on Detective Comics with writer Steve Englehart during the late 1970s that is considered by people like former DC Comics editor and publisher Paul Levitz and comics historian Robert Greenberger as one of the greatest writer-artist pairings ever on a Batman comic. McFarlane, 11 years Rogers’ junior with an educational background in graphic art and communication, didn’t start getting paid for his comics work until 1984 and despite his work ethic and meteoric rise in the industry as a polarizing wunderkind, there was a clear gulf between them in terms of technical acumen at the time, as would be expected given their difference in age, training, and experience.
If we’re to trust Cronin’s account of the timeline for the creation of G.I. Joe #61 (and there doesn’t seem to be any reason for us not to), then it is almost a certainty that Rogers had either seen McFarlane’s rejected pencils for the issue before starting work on his own, or that he had at least been notified by Hama or Harras about what specific aspects of McFarlane’s submission led to it being rejected. Thus, it might be that many of the differences in Rogers’ and McFarlane’s interpretation of Hama’s script were due not to intrinsic differences in their approach to visual storytelling, but were instead due to Rogers already being instructed as to what to avoid in his art for the comic.
It can also be argued that Rogers’ more naturalistic tendencies in rendering figures and environments better complemented—in a wholly subjective sense—the tone of Hama’s script for G.I. Joe #61 as opposed to McFarlane’s more stylized approach to human anatomy and gesture.
With those considerations in mind, let’s start comparing select pages and panels from the comics in question (I’d love to compare all the pages, but I also want to avoid being slapped with a copyright violation notice, so let’s go for a reasonable nine pages). For all the examples below, the pages on the left are from G.I. Joe #61 (penciled by Marshall Rogers with finishes by Danny Bulanadi) while the pages on the right are from G.I. Joe Special #1 (penciled by Todd McFarlane and inked by Mark A. Nelson).
Page 1The respective first pages of the two versions of “Beginnings and Endings…” has G.I. Joe commanding officer Hawk briefing a small four-man team on their upcoming top secret mission to rescue an American journalist jailed in the fictional Eastern Bloc nation of Borovia. The pages aren’t drastically different, but take note of McFarlane’s more zoomed-out distance that emphasizes the isometric perspective. This will be a recurring theme in these comparisons. Check out the angles: Rogers’ panel makes it plain to see that the team being briefed by Hawk is looking at a flat projector screen. On the McFarlane page, the projector screen almost looks like a three-dimensional holographic projection like one would see in a science-fiction comic, due to the fact that the projected image has been given a sense of depth, when it should appear flat and two-dimensional.
Also, note that Rogers is given the credit of “storyteller” instead of the usual “penciler.” I’m not entirely sure if this means anything significant with regards to this specific issue, but Hama is known to provide thumbnail sketches for his artist collaborators to work off of with along with his scripts. Maybe this means that Rogers was given free rein to bypass Hama’s thumbnails and do his own page breakdowns as he saw fit, which wouldn’t be surprising at all given the issue’s tight deadline schedule.
Page 2We see here the very first major deviation between Rogers’ and McFarlane’s approach to the storytelling. The former pairs each character’s introduction with a corresponding individual close-up of their face, ensuring that the reader knows which G.I. Joe operative bears what code name. This is especially important since two of the characters look quite alike—both the G.I. Joe code named Outback and the G.I. Joe known as Snow Job are Caucasian males who sport blazing red hair and full beards—and they can be easily mistaken for each other out of costume/uniform.
Compare that with McFarlane’s version of the page on the right. It is hard to get a sense of who’s who and in panel three, Hawk is actually looking at Snow Job while the panel’s first word balloon has him talking to Outback. That could potentially confuse even a long-time G.I. Joe fan. It could be that McFarlane drew that panel thinking that Hawk would be addressing Outback in panel two, but that panel is already so cramped that the letterer has no choice but to put that bit of dialogue in the third panel.
Remember what we said about visual continuity contributing to a scene’s coherence and logic? Quick-Kick had his sword slung on his back in the McFarlane version of page 1, but it has disappeared in page 2. We also see a crossing of the line of action in panel three of the McFarlane page (alternatively, it may be that there just isn’t any consistency as to the characters’ position relative to each other in the briefing room)
There’s also a minor bit of dialogue order switching between the two pages—in the McFarlane page, Hawk shows the team a picture of Spigou, their local contact in Borovia, before explaining their cover identities for the mission. In the Rogers page, Hawk gives them their cover identities before showing Spigou’s picture. Was the dialogue order changed in the time between the McFarlane rejection and the Rogers hiring or is Rogers’ panel arrangement actually more in line with what the script originally called for? There’s really no way for us to tell just based on what we see here.
Page 7The team is now in Borovia, and they’ve met up with Spigou in a seedy hotel room. Not really a major storytelling point, but it is odd that in the McFarlane page, Stalker is the only one in civilian disguise while Snow Job, Outback, and Quick-Kick are still wearing the same outfits they had on during the briefing. Also, take note of Snow Job: He goes from being at the door in panel one of the McFarlane page to suddenly standing behind Spigou on the opposite end of the room in panel two despite no significant amount of time passing in the transition between the two panels.
McFarlane’s decision to elevate and radically pull out his “camera” for the final panel in the page also seems unnecessary—the first panel already served as an establishing shot. This is just the “camera” zooming out because it can. There’s no readily discernible storytelling-motivated rationale for why the page has to close with five tiny figures viewed from an isometric perspective.
Page 8The dialogue has Spigou referring to a picture of their target building’s front and a picture of the building’s rear loading dock, but McFarlane only draws the latter, which could lead to some confusion for the reader. Also note that there is again no consistency in terms of the spatial relations of the characters in the McFarlane page. Quick-Kick goes from being on Stalker’s right in panel two to being on his left in panel three, to having Outback between him and Stalker in panel four. Granted, it’s within reason that the characters moved in-between the panels (i.e., the movement occurred off-panel, “in the gutters,” so to speak), but that doesn’t change the fact that the panels on this page, despite depicting events occurring in the same room and within a brief span of time, are all seemingly disconnected, with no consistent spatial relationships to tie them together.
Page 12The team raids the jail where the American journalist is being held. Both Rogers and McFarlane make a point of loosely recreating the picture of the rear loading platform seen in page 8, just so there’s no confusion as to where the team is—good stuff from both artists. Rogers almost crosses the line of action in panel three. Any potential confusion from this switching of viewing angles is somewhat mitigated, because Outback’s position relative to Spigou, from the reader’s point of view, is still the same even though the “camera” has traveled almost all the way to the other side of the truck.
Page 13The most dramatic difference in the artists’ treatment of the storytelling here is in the fourth and fifth panels of their respective pages. The way Rogers has constructed the scene where Quick-Kick is waiting in the shadows of the unlit stairwell to ambush the two Borovian jail guards conveys so much more and is perfectly in keeping with the character’s background as the G.I. Joe team’s designated “silent weapons” specialist: The nunchaku is held in his hands with the chain stretched taut so as to keep it from jangling. His stance suggests martial arts expertise, and he unquestionably demonstrates it in panel five.
McFarlane’s Quick-Kick, on the other hand, looks quite the opposite of Rogers’, running willy-nilly down the stairs with one end of his nunchaku left free to swing about. It is letterer Vickie Williams who makes an effort to make Quick-Kick look even remotely stealthy, encasing the character’s panel four dialogue in a broken line word balloon that is comics shorthand for a character speaking in a whisper. There is also nothing particularly graceful or suggestive of elite martial arts skill with McFarlane’s crude choreography of Quick-Kick’s attack on the two guards.
Other things worth noting on this page:
- Excellent use of the “Dutch angle” by Rogers in the first panel of the page, underlining the disorienting effect the sudden violence of Stalker’s assault has on the jail guard.
- Quick-Kick grinning in the background while Snow Job interrogates the jail guard in panel two of the McFarlane page looks oddly out-of-character.
- Panel three of the McFarlane page again has the artist relying on a long-shot from an isometric angle. We’ve skipped a number of pages in our comparisons, but trust me when I say that McFarlane has used this combination of distance and point of view multiple times at this point.
“Decompression” brings up all sorts of negative connotations among comics readers these days, but as we’ll see in this two-page sequence, decompression is really just another instrument in the artist’s toolkit, of great value when applied with purpose, useless when employed with little direction.The first thing the reader will notice in page 15 above is that Rogers only uses the first three panels (comprising just the upper half of the page) to convey the same sequence of events that McFarlane takes an entire page—five panels in all—to depict. What was the motivation behind Rogers’ decision to go for brevity?
By “compressing” the alarm sequence into just three panels, Rogers gives himself the space to expand and decompress the much more involved getaway sequence that follows (the getaway sequence starts in panel four of page 15 in G.I. Joe #61, while the same sequence doesn’t start in G.I. Joe Special #1 until the first panel of page 16, as seen below). The benefits of Rogers’ approach speak for themselves:The extra half-page of storytelling space means that Rogers’ depiction of the getaway sequence is much more clear, dynamic, and visually interesting. Contrast that with McFarlane’s interpretation, which relies excessively on panels crammed with tiny, indistinct figures viewed from a distance in order to advance the same amount of narrative. What we see here is actually a reversal of what happened in page 15: McFarlane compresses into the bottom half of page 16 what Rogers needs a full page to deliver. The key difference is that while Rogers’ narrative compression and its concomitant decompression ultimately created a clearer two-page visual sequence, McFarlane’s decompression and subsequent compression resulted in a bit of an uneven, stilted mess.
- There’s an apparent lettering error in panel two of Rogers’ version of page 16: Quick-Kick seems to be talking to himself when he says, “Haul it, Quick-Kick!!” That should be Snow Job’s line, based on the McFarlane version of the same page (although I’m just guessing that it’s Snow Job—it’s impossible to tell with any real certainty who the figure is supposed to be given the tiny, ant-sized figure in the panel).
- It’s curious that Larry Hama, a military veteran and firearms enthusiast (his old Bullpen Bulletins Pro File listed “shooting big-bore handguns” as one of his hobbies), was okay with Marshall Rogers depicting multiple members of the team using Uzi submachine guns. Stalker asked Spigou in page 8 (see above) for “sterile weapons from a neutral country” to ensure that they wouldn’t be traced back to the United States. Israel, where Uzis are manufactured, wasn’t exactly a neutral player during the Cold War. It’s likely that the deadline prevented any redrawing of these props.
Page 21There are subtle but essential differences between Rogers’ and McFarlane’s respective takes on page 21. Rogers actually shows Stalker losing consciousness after being kicked by Col. Ratnikov. This is important because the dialogue makes references to Stalker passing out from the kick in the succeeding panels. By contrast, the reader is left to assume that Stalker has lost consciousness from the kick in McFarlane’s page—leaving something to the reader’s imagination is an important aspect of comics storytelling, but in this case, all it does is undermine clarity. Readers will also notice that McFarlane has crossed the line of action in the final panel, disrupting the visual continuity of the ending sequence. Compare his page’s final two-panel sequence with the one on the Rogers page: The transition from one panel to the next is much smoother in the latter because the viewing angle is maintained while the “camera” zooms in on Outback’s face.
Cronin, perhaps in an effort to be politic, declined to offer a reason in his Comic Book Legends Revealed blog post as to why McFarlane’s art for G.I. Joe #61 was rejected. And who knows, maybe the rejection had nothing to do at all with the quality of the work—only the people actually involved in the decision can say. What we can be sure of, however, is that the whole affair has given us the rare opportunity to see “in the wild” how different artists interpret the same full-length comics script, and it has allowed us to refine our notions of storytelling in comics in the process. That can only be a good thing.