Nov 28, 2011

Archie vs. Transformers: A talk about storytelling.

Man, this is such an unfair fight.
How do you beat Archie?
So I was reading a modern Transformers comic recently and I found myself bored out of my skull. It's weird, because the story wasn't awful or anything, it's just that I couldn't engage with it.

Why not? Well, it was the art. The scenes I was trying to read were talking scenes -- scenes without any main action beyond characters yammering at each other. That's fine -- I love those sorts of comics when done right. Exposition scenes are actually something I really enjoy. The comics medium is able to create really dynamic exposition sequences because it's able to show things in such diverse ways.

But, that's not what we go here at all! All we got was a boring, grey, and very static sequence.

And y'know what? I think I know who could have done it better. Samm Schwartz.

Samm Schwartz was an Archie artist, famous for his work on Jughead. His comic career started in the 1940s and he drew today's story in 1971. I don't know that he ever drew any giant robots in his career -- maybe he did. If he did I can't imagine they'd be as boring as the giant robots Brendan Cahill gives us in IDW's Transformers #25.

Brendan Cahill started as a web comics artist, and has done a handful of issues of Transformers. His web comic (called Outside the Box) was a flash comic affair, with okay art, and his work on Transformers so far has been okay too. He works with writer Mike Costa, whose scripting seems to bring out the blandest in artists, so there's only so much one can blame Cahill for the boring art. Actually, as we go through this analysis we're going to look at how everything, lettering, colouring and even scripting contributed to the final product in both comics.

My goal here, such as it is, is to show how these things can be done right. So to do that, let's take a look at 8 pages of Transformers #25 (don't try to read it, you'll fall asleep), and 6 pages of the Jughead story, Jughead 1: First Love, and see if we can't break down where they're going right and where they're going wrong.

To start let's look at pages one and two of Transformers #25, and page one of First Love.

Page one and two of Transformers are part of a panning sequence. Basically the image here begins in closeup, then each subsequent shot pulls back further and further, revealing more and more visual information, until you finally turn the page for a dramatic splash page.

The first page of First Love on the other hand, well... it gets right into the action, without any pussyfooting around. This immediately illustrates the fact that we have two very different formats here -- a 6 page story, vs. a 22 page story. Obviously one needs to be thrown much more immediately into the action in a 6 page story.

So do the Transformers pages succeed? Well... no. No, they really don't. This sort of panning sequence (commonly seen in cinema, as well as sometimes in comics) require each new shot to reveal new information. Look at that first page, you have four panels. Each panel should be revealing new visual information. Start close up, revealing the character's face. Next shot pull back further, showing his dog tags, revealing him to be a military man (tying in directly with the caption on the panel). Next shot pull back even further, revealing him to be in a wheelchair. Then on a final panel pull back, revealing the robot's leg.

Adding these layers of visual information bit by bit encourages the reader to absorb them, and their importance. Instead this page just has three thin panels, then one larger panel that does all the revealing. To steal film terminology, there's no motion to the camera here. It's all very static. The result is that the first three panels don't feel like they're serving a purpose. They're just filling space waiting for actual visual information to be revealed.

The following splash page, rather unfortunately, completely changes the angle we're viewing the scene from. Which kinda undermines the whole 'panning back' concept doesn't it? This just makes the first page even more pointless.

The splash page, meanwhile is cramped, and incredibly static. It's literally just a shot of a bunch of characters standing and sitting around. This... isn't a very dramatic way to start a story.

Now compare this to the Archie openning panels. Very quickly we're right into the meat of the story. With only a single caption we're sold on the idea of caveman Jughead. We immediately know from the framing that caveman Archie and caveman Reggie are together, while Jughead is a loner -- and the caption solidifies this concept.

More importantly, notice how the page is arranged to make you read everything in perfect order. There is empty space in that first panel, but it's there for one reason -- to give you a place to begin 'reading' the art. Here, take a look at the difference:

I've put on some arrows to show you the line of motion through each of the panels on these pages. Notice how the Archie panels carry you through in exactly the right direction to encourage you to read both the art and the text. Meanwhile over on Transformers page one you have a bunch of images that carry you directly downwards, away from the text. This is made worse by the vertical lines in the background which emphasise this downwards movement AND cut you off from the text!

If it then becomes a chore to actually READ the text is this any wonder? Moving on...

Okay, so now we have three talking pages. (You may have noticed I've skipped page 3 of the TF story, I'll get back to that.) All the pages are pretty much entirely just characters chatting at each other. The only essential action going on is characters chatting. Notice the immediate difference between the two pages? That's right, on the Archie page you have the characters actually doing dynamic things as they talk, while on the Transformers page characters are just standing (or sitting) around.

Seriously, the dinosaur attack on that Archie page is completely supplemental action -- totally in line with the setting and the story, but having nothing to do with the actual discussion going on. The fact that this action doesn't interfere at all with the story just makes it all the more impressive and fun.

Meanwhile back with the Transformers, it's clear that Cahill has realised that this scene needs visual movement and excitement to drive the action forwards -- he keeps changing the angle of his panels, and moving the directional focus. But the characters themselves, and the environment around them are completely static.

This could be fine if his characters were interesting to look at. If they were expressive and dynmaic in their own right. Let's take another look at some isolated panels:

 So here we have three characters standing around, and each one of them expresses so much of their character just in the WAY they're standing. Reggie's stance is lightly agressive, with his hands on his hips, and his upper body angled towards Jughead. In the middle there Jughead stands casually, almost lazilly, leaning on his club. Meanwhile Archie is also leaning in towards Jughead, but there's no aggression in it -- he's leaning ON something, giving him a more casual stance, which is accentuated by his bent leg.

 Over on the Transformers page we have two characters in relationship to each other and... well... there's nothing there. Spike's pose doesn't reflect anything about his character, and Prowl's pose... well... At best Prowl's pose suggests someone who is sitting lazilly. At worst one could say it looks cramped, like the artist isn't sure how to do this sort of sitting pose with a complex character model like a Transformer.

Okay, okay, maybe this panel isn't a fair comparison, what about a better drawn one?

Here we have a slightly better stance for Spike, with his hands on his hips, a slightly more aggressive stance. Prowl on the other hand is kinda lost, staring off blankly at the TV screen, without anything in his pose that tells you anything about him as a character. Even Spike's stance lacks the visual conviction of the seemingly more simplistic art by Samm Schwartz for the Archie story.

 So let's backtrack a moment and take a look at the third page. This page doesn't really have a strong analogue with the Archie story so let's look at it in isolation knowing what we already know. Actually, this a fairly good page. Here, check out the way Cahill has guided us through the page:

The first three panels guide us through the action really well. The only problem with this page is that the fourth panel is asking us to read it in the wrong direction -- which makes the switch of perspective in the panel that follows kinda confusing. The reader could easily be forgiven for wondering if  the Hot Spot in the final panel is just a miscoloured Streetwise. Even if the reader isn't confused, one has to wonder where Streetwise disappeared to in that panel. Simply putting the guy in the wheelchair closer to Hot Spot in the previous panel could fix the problem of the disappearing Streetwise.

(For those who don't know Transformers that well -- Hot Spot is the blue guy, Streetwise is the grey guy.)

Anyway, let's move on and take a look at a couple more Archie pages and another Transformers page.

Okay, let's talk about colouring and panel borders for a second, shall we? And heck, let's talk about lettering too. All of these things are important to make a comic interesting and easy to read. 

Man, that Transformers page is grey. In fact all the pages there are grey. All the background elements -- in fact all the elements that aren't Transformers or viewscreens are grey. Why is that? This is a very odd choice. Grey is a very drab and boring colour. Take a look on the other hand at the colours used in the backgrounds of the Archie pages. You have grey rocks, sure, but they're one element of many -- green plants, brown dirt, blue skies. In fact in some panels the background colours become completely abstract, with bright oranges and greens.

This contrast of colours as the pages go on make things less drab, more easy to read. So, why doesn't the Transformers stuff have that? Why is everything so grey? It's certainly not to contrast against the characters. Prowl, Jazz, Streetwise, and even the humans themselves are all tonally identical to the background, they're certainly not standing out from the grey.

No, the grey is simply a really uncreative choice. Doesn't Prowl mention at one point that their base is Omega Supreme? But wait... Go look at this link:

 So yes, Omega Supreme has grey, that's true. But he also has bright yellows, reds, oranges, and heck even cream-white style colours. So where are all these colours? Wait... wait... there's a strip of yellow there on the wall, isn't there? I guess that's... a little bit of creativity.

Wait, we were going to talk about panel borders too, weren't we? Well let's do. Notice how the gutter space -- the space between panels -- on the Archie page is white. On the Transformers page it's black. This choice makes a big difference, and it's an aesthetic one. Black gutterspace gives the images inside less space, making the panels appear smaller. White gutterspace makes the panels appear larger.

Black gutterspace does have another restriction. See those panels in the Archie story where the take away the borders and open up the panels? You can't do that with black gutterspace. With black gutterspace you have to let the image bleed to the edge of the page, or at best to the edge of the next panel -- in which case how can you tell the difference?

Black gutterspace vs. white gutterspace is entirely an aesthetic choice, so this part isn't really a criticism of the Transformers (or the Archie) pages. So how about we get back to things Transformers is doing out and out wrong? Scripting! Lettering! Let's get on with it!


Notice the difference, almost immediately? That's right, the Transformers text is these big, ugly, difficult to read chunks. The very SHAPE and SIZE of the words makes them less aesthetically appealing. The Archie speech bubbles break up the text into smaller bites. Even with the larger pieces of text, the letterist has created bubble shapes that pretend to divide the text up, making it easier to read again. Take a look at panel 3 for an example of this.

The Transformers text uses a smaller font, it doesn't break up the bubbles into smaller bites, and frankly the characters ramble, using non-essential words all the time. Not that there isn't SPACE to divide up the speech. There's craploads of dead space in all these panels just screaming for text to fill it up. There's also plenty of text there to do it. Just divide it up a bit, man. It's not that hard.

Oh yeah, and make your script a little bit more brief, a little brisker.

All right, we're almost at the end here. We've got one Archie page left and one Transformers page left. Let's see if the Transformers page rallies and becomes interesting...

 Man. Wow.

I should probably point out at this point that the Archie story (as printed in The Best of Archie Comics) is creditted only to Samm Schwartz -- so he wrote and drew the story. This means that he clearly had the freedom to create little visual episodes that have nothing to do with the main script like Jughead randomly cracking apart a stick, or inventing stickball (or even chasing the dinosaur).

While Brendan Cahill should have this same sort of freedom, the fact is that he was working with a script, written by another artist named Mike Costa. So that boring final page there? That's partly due to the collaboration process.

What it's not due to is it being a talky scene. Just because the characters are only talking doesn't mean it should look boring. Since the 1940s Archie comics have consistently produced interesting, engaging art based around scripts that are almost entirely talking. Why then are super hero and giant robot comics so bad at that sort of thing?

I have no idea, honestly. Maybe the creators just need to read more Samm Schwartz books?

--Andrew S.


  1. While I dont think its entirely fair to compare these two comics, I think most of your criticisms are spot on. With Transformers, and many other recent comics, highly detailed rendering seems to be their big focus, rather than clean story telling.

  2. Why wouldn't it be fair to compare these two comics? Because we should hold IDW to different standards to Archie comics? Because it's robots, not people?

    They're both comics, I think the comparison is perfectly fair! :)

    The only way it's UNFAIR is that we're comparing a veteran artist to a relative newcomer.
    --Andrew S.

  3. I think its unfair because of the length of the stories. Transformers 25 was the end of a long police procedural type story. Police procedurals usually have people tensely analysing data or looking for small facial cues of suspects.

    They were going for a level of gritty "realism".

    The Archie story was about cavemen and meant to be very silly and short.

    NOW... overall, you are right. There could have been a lot more visual interest in the transformers story. And in that regard, I've got no qualms about what you said.

  4. Cahill could easily have made the backgrounds pop more by adding background characters doing other things...even telling a little side story in the process. Just because the main story involves a limited number of characters doesn't mean everyone else left Omega Supreme to get tacos.

  5. Most of the other transformers DID leave the planet in this story, but that does not give Cahill a pass either.

  6. Other humans, then. They're even easy to fit into the backgrounds, being small and squishy. ;)

  7. I think the basic principles of art are the same, no matter what kind of story you're trying to tell. Yes, things like pacing are different depending on differences in story. But that's not really what I was talking about here. I was talking about the basic artistic principles involved.

    I also disagree with DVD about putting in background action to spice up the pages. That sort of thing is only interesting if the foreground action is interesting too.

    Look at the Jughead story -- look at how all the actions that aren't important to the STORY are still actions being taken by the MAIN CHARACTER. Giving the characters in the FOREGROUND, the Bumblebees and Jazzes, something interesting to do is the important part.

    Cahill even seems to realise this and his characters are doing some acting in there -- look at Bumblebee writing on his iPad. But combined with the bad text, drab colours, inactive scripting of events and the reuse of panels and layouts (Which I didn't mention in my article) the whole thing comes off as boring.

    I think Cahill has potential, but there's definitely some work to be done on the basics here.
    --Andrew S.

  8. A side note, but I think this is yet another Frank Doyle script. (The "Best of Archie" collection assigns credits where possible, but somewhat haphazardly.) Schwartz was however free to add his own stuff to the scripts, and stuff like the dinosaur may well be his own contribution.