The Great Adventure (1978), page 102 panels 4-10. Milo Manara.
I’ll never tire of comparing comics to painting, but when sequencing is the topic of discussion the most relevant medium to compare it to is probably architecture. Sequence is all about construction, and all the beautiful drawing in the world can’t save something built on a shaky foundation. And sometimes it’s not about seeing crazy formalist tricks or innovative new approaches to sequence, but the artist’s simple ability to carry you through a bit of story as seamlessly as possible. To stretch the metaphor, flying buttresses and Roman columns are nice, but you also need a place to live in.
Milo Manara takes a ton of criticism and will probably never get his full due as a pure artist of comics (he pretty much exclusively draws material that falls into the “bangin’ girls getting violated in some way or another” genre, if you don’t know), but his skill is formidable to say the least. There’s an algorithm to the panels above, one that’s almost impossible to replicate. Fully fleshed out but never overstuffed, meticulously detailed but not at all belabored, each frame is an isolated glimpse into a completely convincing pen-and-ink world. Nowhere does the pure white of between-panel gutters strike as great a contrast to the space they frame as in Manara, which may not sound like much but is critical to the waterfall-level flow his comics can build up in the space of a few frames. The human eye, being lazy, moves quickest over the lightest areas of space and lingers longest in the dark. Try it up above: this sequence unspools almost as smoothly as a film reel, with the spatial divisions of the paneled page rendered almost meaningless by the simple expediency of Manara’s dense background hatching.
That smooth flow across the tiers is what makes the layout here work so well. The top tier is a testament to Manara’s status as one of the few cartoonists who can compose single pictures that “read”. It’s a still image, but there’s story time passing in it nonetheless: we follow the first figure through the silhouetted birds into the second, a progression rather than a single impact. Manara’s use of light and dark space is as expertly considered within the frame as it is on the page as a whole — the dense thickets of linework clustering at both far sides of the first panel ensure that we move our eyes all the way across it, with a stepping stone at the black sandbar in the middle. We’re given more than the figures and the space between them here, asked to spend time with their environment as well as them. It’s a panel that grounds its figures in their surroundings beautifully, a wonderful bit of staging that gives the action following it as good a setup as could be asked for.
The action in the second tier, then, is the real showpiece of this sequence. It isn’t just Manara’s achingly tangible landscape drawing in the first panel that prefaces it so well: that long, low first frame also sets up a strictly horizontal reading of the tiers here, a direct through line rather than the zigzagging up-and-down-and-up-again motion lettered panels usually demand. Telegraphing one single, robust gesture along that straight line over three panels, Manara draws it out and dramatizes it more effectively than any more jarring angle or hyperbolic posing could. It’s the same action slow-motion shots achieve in film, brought to comics with simplicity and an almost sinister amount of grace.
It’s also a striking example of something comics almost never pull off with any success: an action sequence with only one participant. These panels aren’t given any impact by the relationship of one figure to the other. Instead their dynamic force comes from the sheer panache with which Manara draws the fluid unraveling of a single knife-stroke’s sweep, perfectly rippling musculature and all. It’s an action sequence that actually achieves the balletic beauty so many artists claim to be attempting with their violent sequences — but for a few small ink-drops of blood at its very end, all the actual violence is off-panel here, and the simple joy of seeing the human figure in motion is the real focus.
The final tier of black panels is easy to overlook, but it’s as intelligently composed as the rest of the sequence. By breaking it up into three panels instead of just dropping one black rectangle at the bottom of the page, Manara keeps us engaged in the action of reading. We continue to follow passing story time even without any pictorial frame of reference for how much of it is passing. The placement of the gutters breaking it up is also expertly considered; they fall slightly to the left of those in the tier above them, slowing down the irresistible motion of the head-chop to a punctuated thudding. It’s a great way of giving the high drama in the first two tiers a final punctuation mark that still doesn’t disrupt the flow Manara has so painstakingly built up.
A perfect little sequence all around. And I’d also like to mention that this came out a whole year before Apocalypse Now did. Comics: always foremost in visual storytelling.