It’s a little something different on Your Wednesday Sequence this week, folks. For weeks now I’ve been wanting to dig into the rock-solid action storytelling of Benjamin Marra, who draws comics like Jack Kirby given a dose of Giotto DNA and filled to the bursting point with speed metal and grindhouse movies. Ben’s work on Night Business and Gangsta Rap Posse (a bracing new issue of which was just released) is about as close to flawlessly constructed as comics get: deceptively simple strings of phenomenal drawings that flow like a waterfall. Luckily enough for me, Ben was willing to answer a few of my questions on composition, layout, pacing, and a bunch of other comic book-making inside dope. And luckily enough for you, I’m posting our Q and A right here. Get ready to learn from a master, kids…
MATT SENECA: Your comics have always emphasized gridded layouts, but in your latest comic, Gangsta Rap Posse #2, you stick almost exclusively to a basic six-panel grid, with each of the frames the exact same size as all the others. What makes that layout so appealing to you?
BENJAMIN MARRA: There are several reasons. Firstly, I think it’s the most efficient system for constructing and reading comic book pages. Many masters of comic book art and storytelling have worked off of it, like Kirby, Alan Moore (to an extent), Kyle Baker and Gary Panter. If the six-panel grid was good enough for Kirby, it’s good enough for me. It’s also a matter of time. If my page layout is pre-determined I’ve spared myself from having to solve many additional problems and can spend time focusing exclusively on what the panels contain. Additionally, I think it’s a more accessible format for new readers. A lot of comics these days focus too much on doing unnecessarily crazy page layouts (I guess stemming from Neal Adams’ response to Steranko?) with panels, instead of focusing on what’s within the panels, which is what’s really crucial. Wild panel layouts just confuse readers who aren’t already versed in comics as a language.
(Side note: Something I’ve been thinking about for a while is how comic art has divided into two ways of thinking. One camp followed the path of Jack Kirby striving for power through the abstraction of cartooning. The other followed Neal Adams, striving for classic illustration — like Alex Raymond — and naturalism or realism. Adams’ camp currently dominates superhero artwork, to its detriment. Its peak is personified in Alex Ross, during Justice and Kirby Genesis. Ross also uses weird, obtuse page layouts.)
SENECA: Yeah, Ross layouts are just bad. It’s always based in Adams’ diagonal compositions, so bizarre looking when they incorporate such realist artwork. And he especially goes into them when the action starts, which is right when a grid would be most useful. No flow whatsoever.
You also stay very consistent with the framing you’re using inside your panels. You use a few close-ups from time to time and draw long establishing shots to kick off scenes, but mostly it’s a simple combination between full figures and two-shots. Is that for the same reasons of clarity as your six-grid, or does it have to do with the content you’re interested in depicting?
MARRA: Definitely. Clarity, or the attempt for clarity, is what all my decisions are based on. I wasn’t aware of how most of my shot selection was so consistent until you just pointed it out. I’m really into pre-Renaissance Italian painters like Giotto, Fra Angelico and Piero Della Francesca, who all used full-figure shots to tell stories. Those images are probably floating around my unconscious and informing my choices on shot-selection.
SENECA: How do you approach moving the figures over the space of an entire page, and arranging them within the panels? They’re pretty much always centered in the middle of the panels, but there’s this sense of perpetual motion, it’s never static. Is there an approach you use to keep everything moving?
MARRA: A lot of the time it’s completely intuitive, the way I arrange the figures. Usually though I’m thinking about the reader reading left to right and use that as a basis for how to lay out the priority and secondary information in the panel. But then subsequent panels will need to follow what’s been already established in previous panels. I try to have most of the movement flow from left to right since that’s the natural flow for the reader, but that’s not etched in stone for me. Sometimes the best solution is moving the information or forces right to left. I try to keep it consistent within a scene at least. It bugs me when I read comics and the way the characters are set up, say their talking to one another, one is established to be on the left of the other, then the artist flips them arbitrarily. That takes me out of the story, and instantly the comic has failed to me. There can’t be any speed bumps in comics to jolt the reader out of the experience of the story or the comic fails. With regard to an approach to keeping everything in perpetual motion, I’m not conscious of applying a method. I do try to make the characters act. Even if they’re standing or sitting in one place they should be gesturing or just moving slightly, emoting, expressing something. I’m glad to hear that nothing seems static.
SENECA: I think that striving for clarity is key, because you manage to pull off a lot of pages where every shot is an impact shot without losing the focus of the overall scene. It’s a skill that reminds me of Kirby, who you mentioned as an influence earlier. Can you talk a little about what you’re trying to pull from Kirby’s comics into your own?
MARRA: What Kirby did that I try to emulate, (which is really just simple, basic, foundational comic book storytelling) is establish information in a scene in one panel — it could be the entire location of the scene or an establishing shot — to set up the blocking of the characters. And then base the logic of subsequent action panels on the previous panels information.
On Fantastic Four #99 Page 12 (one of my favorite comics ever, which was often referenced in Stan Lee and John Buscema’s How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way) where Johnny Storm is facing off against the Inhumans in the throne room of Black Bolt [above]. In the first panel we can see the positioning of all the characters who will be active on subsequent panels on the page. Johnny in the foreground, ringed by Inhumans protecting Black Bolt and Crystal in Panel One, where we also get a bit of background scenery and flavor. Panel Two is a close up of Crystal with Black Bolt to her side. Kirby hasn’t changed the camera angle much, Black Bolt is still to Cyrstal’s left. Then the same for Panel Three as Johnny evades a strike from Karnak the camera angle hasn’t changed from what’s was established for the reader in panel one. Also in panel three we’re reminded of Medusa’s presence and location in relation to Johnny so there’s the set up for Panel Four. In Panel Four there aren’t even any faces, but we know who the three characters are. Also, Kirby has progressively dropped any background scenery at this point since establishing it clearly in Panel One. Kirby brings the back of Triton’s head and hand position into the composition of Panel Four to set up for his Panel Five close up.It’s also worth noting that the word balloons in Kirby’s page, in addition to adding dialogue to advance the narrative and define character, stand as visual elements pointing to the the most relevant characters in the panels. For instance, Karnak speaking in the first panel alerts us to his presence in the composition to set up for his primary role in Panel Three. It’s all really basic stuff, but I don’t try to just stick to the basics. Sort of like really stripped down rock ‘n roll. You can make a lot of cool-sounding stuff with some attitude and three chords.
This reminds me of a favorite saying about comic book storytelling Marcos Martin told me that he heard Javier Pulido say to some fan who’s work he was critiquing at a convention, I believe. Javier said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Every panel is both a question and an answer. It answers the question posed by the previous panel and offers a question to be answered by the subsequent panel.”
In David Mazzucchelli’s comic book workshop class he was giving a presentation where he had a slide of a Kirby page, from an early Western comic I think, Two-Gun Kid or Rawhide Kid or Kid Colt, where the hero was in a saloon with a bunch of bad guys approaching him, in the First Panel you could see a wooden chandelier hanging from the ceiling. In Panel Two the hero shoots upward. And in Panel Three the wooden chandelier established from Panel One lands on the group of villains.
Also, Jim Shooter does an excellent analysis of Jack Kirby’s storytelling powers on his blog. In particular I liked this post.
SENECA: In your recent comics you’ve really pulled back on using line weights and spotting blacks — it’s pretty much all basic linework now. What influenced you to make that decision, and how do you find it affects your pages?
MARRA: I was looking a lot at Matthew Thurber, Matt Lock and Gary Panter stuff. All of them render to a degree and use blacks as shadow. Panter does some cross-hatching with line, too. So does Thurber sometimes, but he uses line for texture mostly, and black is usually used as a color in his drawings, or sometimes a deep shadow. I was looking at comics and drawings that I thought looked fast — 1-800-MICE, Jimbo — that looked like the artist was moving quickly, getting the drawing down decisively, confidently. When I would spot blacks I spent a lot of time filling in those blacks. Time for me is a huge element in creating comics. Actually I heard an audio from a panel Kirby did at an early San Diego comic con, I think? He said that time is always what he and every comic artist is working against. I’m always trying to streamline my process, so eliminating the shadows, using black as a color, sparingly or not at all, and relying solely on line saved me time. I was able to complete Gangsta Rap Posse #2 in a month, from conception to sending it to the printer. A lot of that was because I eliminated shadow and most of the rendering from the drawing. I tried to be very economical with my drawing and just to get across what was necessary for an idea or a narrative information. I think a lot of comic artists, myself included, get too caught up in the aesthetic quality of their drawing instead of just trying to get the information across with as much economy as possible.
How a lack of shadow or spotting blacks affects my pages aesthetically is the look lighter, more raw and less refined compared to the pages which carry shapes of shadow. From a process standpoint I can create pages faster without having to execute shadows and worry about a balance of black and white shape.
I actually like the way a lack of line weight looks. I like a sterile kind of line. But I’ve been looking a lot at Raymond Pettibon recently, particularly the flyers for Black Flag shows and I’m going to use a brush to drop shadows into the next issue of Night Business, which requires shadow as a story from a visual and content standpoint. I’d like for that issue to look like a comic illustrated by Pettibon.
SENECA: Oh man, that’s awesome. Okay, last question: do you have an approach to balancing the concerns of creating a sequence that reads as clearly as possible and also making drawings that are satisfying as single units?
MARRA: I don’t have an approach trying to balance a sequence of drawings while creating a singular drawing that’s satisfying. I don’t worry about the drawings operating as independent of each other. I’m only concerned with how they function as a sequence. That’s what’s creatively satisfying to me. The construction of the sequence. And the clarity of the storytelling is the most important thing. If the drawings can succeed standing alone that’s a byproduct of my primary intent. I actually have a lot of trouble creating single drawings or illustrations now. I’m more comfortable and it’s more satisfying trying to create a story through several images rather than just one illustration.