I’ve been thinking about the difference between the theatrical and the cinema as it applies to comics. We predate each form, if you consider the music box of the Sumerians to be the first sequential art, very much like comics. Visual storytelling is the first form of storytelling that survives, in its nascent form on cave walls, beseeching the herd to let the hunters kill them. You know, be nice; that’s what you’re there for, right?

But specific forms have developed for theater that are specific to it. Early cinema borrowed from this, since much of it was adapted from the theater. At the same time, Herriman was doing Krazy Kat, doing better than the surrealists did later. He changed backdrops to the action in ways theater would do, if it had the means.  It found the means in cinema, as it were, with the introduction of the moving camera, evidenced maybe best in Citizen Kane’s opening shot in which the camera moves over rooftops and enters through a skylight, dissolving a windowpane like it was a transparent membrane. Pretty cool.

January 6, 1918

January 6, 1918 Krazy Kat

How does this affect comics? Comics started to take on some of cinema’s language, probably with Eisner’s The Spirit, but it became sort of vanguard with Steranko’s run in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. That’s fifty plus years ago, and now everyone does it. This makes for beautiful, sometimes confusing pages. I think of the phrase by my favorite comics artist, Alex Toth: “Simplify!” By this he meant “Make it readable instantly.”

Why do that?

For the story.

It is the story that drives the comic. All the great art you can shove onto the page falls flat without a great story. And a great story falls flat if is told in such a way that the reader falls out of the fictive dream. John Gardner explains that a good story brings the reader into a dreamlike state, where they don’t ask questions that don’t naturally flow from the story itself. They don’t ask why the character’s motives conflict with its actions, for they fuse together. Gardner tells of editing a book of short stories, going over every sentence, every word, for a good six weeks, making sure each word and phrase and setting matched his intentions. This kind of wordcraft is at the heart of Toth’s call to simplify. I guess I’m in his camp. I studied how Matisse did this, erasing and erasing that which did not match what he was trying to do. He did it in both drawing and painting. His gouache cut-outs of the 40s and early 50s are a product of that search that began in the early part of the last century.


Henri Matisse, working on a paper cut out.

Picasso did the same thing in his classical period, using Ingres as his model. Rembrandt can be seen doing this in his many states he did of some of his greatest etchings.

Alex Toth's ZORRO

Alex Toth’s ZORRO

It’s a long and storied tradition I try to tap into, blended with theater, cinema, and the old Zorro comics I used to learn to read when I was four. Good old Alex Toth. How I love him.

Liked it? Take a second to support theWriter on Patreon!