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Since the elections are just weeks away I couldn’t help think of comic art and its obvious similarities to political cartoons.

One could easily write a large volume covering the vast history of cartoons in American politics. In this blog, I’ll spare you all the details. But suffice to say it’s a fascinating art form that has spanned the length of our republic—from the first hours of the War of Independence to the current presidential race. Some cartoons have catered to the darker biases of the American citizenry while many more have simply brought good-natured entertainment to the public.

Here are several books worth checking out that beautifully illustrate this rich tapestry of American expression:

 

American Political Cartoons, 1754-2010: The Evolution of a National Identity by Steven Hess and Sandy Northrop

The Best Political Cartoons of the Year, 2010 Edition, Edited by Daryl Cagle and Brian Fairrington

The New Yorker Book of Political Cartoons, Edited by Robert Mankoff

Herblock: The Life and Works of the Great Political Cartoonist by Herbert Block, Edited by Harry L. Katz, Introduction by Haynes Johnson

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Since Graphic Universe is based in New York City, much less on the 72ndfloor of the Empire State Building, I couldn’t help look outside and think about the city’s name and its relationship to the world of comic books. After all, New York is not just the automatic choice for a generic backdrop in all those comics through the decades, but the city often takes on a unique character all its own.

And now Graphic Universe has gotten into the mix. Our final and arguably best Twisted Journeys installment, Hero City, puts New York City front and center. What’s more, the book’s superheroes and villains whose names like Greenwich, Waverly, and Tweed make full use of well-known New York landmarks while action and mayhem erupts throughout the city.

Famously known in comic books as “Gotham City” and “Metropolis” (and probably a couple more I don’t know of) the first inklings of alternate names of New York City came on the scene well before comics themselves. In fact, “Gotham” was a name New Yorkers started calling their beloved city in the early 1800s when writer Washington Irving lampooned the city in one of his essays, borrowing the name from a small town in Nottingham, England called Gotham. DC Comic’s Batman series first mentions Gotham City in early 1940. “Metropolis”, home of Superman, on the other hand beats Batman by a few months initially appearing in late 1939. But the early days of the Superman comic books found several cities vying for the Man of Steel’s hometown identity including Cleveland (co-creator Jerry Siegel’s hometown) and Toronto (co-creator Joe Shuster’s first choice). Of course, the word metropolis means any large, busy, and densely populated city. The famous German filmmaker Fritz Lang immortalized the name “Metropolis” in his seminal 1927 science fiction film.

No doubt the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens helped spur the imaginations of early comic book creators’ concepts of superheroes adventures in the “city of tomorrow”, namely New York.

Jeremy Hsu writes in an article for LiveScience website (link) that “The original Human Torch came from Timely Comics, a forerunner to today’s entertainment behemoth Marvel Comics. He became one of Timely’s first big characters along with Namor the Sub-Mariner…The Sub-Mariner arose from the mind of writer Bill Everett, who was scrambling at the time to come up with an answer to Superman’s sensational debut in 1938. Like many other comic book writers, Everett called New York City his home and likely attended the World’s Fair.”

Marvel’s Spider-Man also finds itself doing business squarely in New York City. But, in this case, New York is New York and no need for a name change here. Though, it’s refreshing to note that young Peter Parker resides in a house in Forest Hills, Queens—a regular neighborhood in New York’s outer borough, rather than some fancy loft in the heart of Manhattan.

And the list continues. Comic book artist Frank Miller, who’s spent many years grinding away in Hell’s Kitchen, credits his daily experiences in this storied Manhattan neighborhood as fodder for writing works like Daredevil: Born Again.

Numerous recent comic books have made New York home base too. From Jason Little’s 2002 Shutterbug Follies about Bee, a photo lab technician, who takes it upon herself to solve strange and mysterious events in the city to Peter Kuper’s Stop Forgetting to Remember, a semi-autobiographical tale that prominently features the city.

They say New York is the city that never sleeps. This is certainly true when it comes to comics as well. And the non-stop four days of the humongous New York Comic Con reinforces that thought. All of this ensures New York City’s (Gotham City, Metropolis, etc.) continued reign as the comic book capital of the world.

I received some positive feedback on my Design Lessons at Comic Book Camp post, so I though I’d share another lesson from comics camp. Today’s lesson is about one of the most valuable, yet underutilized tools in the cartoonist’s metaphorical  toolbox: page composition. No amount of impressive draftsmanship can hide poor page architecture.

Let’s break the comic page down into basic elements, and label each part, and learn how they work. This will also sound very basic, don’t be fooled! even master cartoonist must keep these basic concepts in mind when crafting a page.

For an example of effective page composition, I offer this page from one of my favorite short comics, “Flies on the Ceiling” by Jaime Hernandez.

The first thing we need to consider when building a page of comics is page flow, or how we read comics. In this culture, we read them left to right and top to bottom. Cartoonists always need to keep this knowledge at the front of their brain. It will affect how every panel is drawn.

As a general rule, we always want to “go with the flow”. We want to design our pages to lead the reader’s eye in the direction it wants to go. You’ll notice that in each panel our protagonist, Izzie, is pointed in the direction of page flow. This is not an accident, Jaime Hernandez designed these panels to lead your eyes. I like to say that panel design sends secret messages to your brain telling it “look here”.

If panel composition goes against page flow, it can jar the reading experience. And sometimes you want that–perhaps you want to stop the reader in their tracks. This is a good time to break the “go with the flow” rule.

Next, let’s look at the most basic element of the comics page: the panel.  If we compare comics to prose, I like to think of a panel as a sentence.

A horizontal row of panels is called a tier. I like to think of the tier as a paragraph.  Like a paragraph, it is a unifying element. The start a new paragraph is the start of new idea, it signals change. A new tier is also great opportunity to signal change. You’ll notice that on this page the two major changes in time and location were made at a tier break (panel 4 and panel 7).

Through panel composition, the cartoonist can control the pacing of their story. Consider this sequence from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics:

What happens when he alters this story slightly, like this?

There are two extra beats before the guy responds “I guess”. Panel repetition is a simple way to stretch time.

“Flies on The Ceiling” is an interesting specimen, because Jaime is using a perfect grid. Every panel is exactly the same size, as in the above McCloud example. What happens if we play with panel size? How does that sequence compare to this one?

Time is stretched, but in a different way.  The meaning is for us, the reader, to determine. I interpret it as a pregnant pause–there is something going on here beneath the surface. Playing with panel size is a good ways to give a certain moment significance. It’s sending another secret messages to the brain of your reader: “Look here”. A big panel equals a big moment.

There’s so much to consider when building a page of comics! How do you plan out the perfect design? When you build a house, you need a blueprint. In comics, we call those blueprint thumbnails.

Above are the thumbnails and finished art for Satchel Page: Striking Out Jim Crow by James Sturm and Rich Tommaso.  You’ll see that thumbnails are a rough preliminary sketch. It’s not about creating artwork,  it’s about recording information.

Creating a good page of comics, and then a good sequence of pages, is a bit like solving a puzzle. Thumbnails let you problem solve on paper before you commit to finished artwork. Don’t be to precious or careful about it, just scribble till you have a plan that works. You’re comics pages are sure to benefit from it.

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