Monday, October 27, 2008

Action Sequences the way they should be done: Comic Strips

Prior to the 1940s, newspaper comic strips were big. On Sundays, the average comic page had 8 pages of full-page comics (that is--one strip took up an entire page) and 8 pages of half-page strips. And the pages themselves were a bit bigger than what we usually see today as well.

On weekdays, the daily strips were printed larger as well

With that much room to work with, artists could add however much visual detail and dialogue they needed to tell exciting and involving stories. It was, consequently, the heyday of the adventure strip, combining complex plots, great characterizations and well-presented action scenes. A post from a few weeks ago about Terry and the Pirates showed the best example of an adventure strip from that era, but there were lots other.

Today, though, we'll look at another wonderful strip from the 1930s. Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy was created by Roy Crane in 1924. Originally, it was a humor strip, featuring the nerdy misadventures of a store clerk named Washington Tubbs III.

But the strip evolved as Wash made an effort to actually live a life of adventure. He went off on a search for lost treasure and ran afoul with some villianous sailors. Soon, his travels took him to obscure countries, where he often got involved in civil wars and court inrigues while inevitably falling in love with just about every pretty girl he met.

In 1929, Wash teamed up with two-fisted mercenary Captain Easy, who soon became the lead character in the strip.

Wash and Easy is a wonderful strip in many ways--its sense of fun and adventure, its humor, its likable protagonists--but for the sake of this post we will again unjustly ignore everything except how good Crane was at laying out a fight scene.

Take a look at this series of six daily strips. (Sorry I can't give you a bigger, better-quality image. I hope you can see this well enough to follow what I'll be talking about.)


Even taken out of context with the rest of the story, you can easily follow the flow of the action. Wash and Easy are fighting for a rebel force in a civil war against a tyrant, battling government troops aboard a small ship. While Easy mans a machine gun (and then a cannon) in a desperate last stand against a superior force, Wash gets mixed up in his own side battle below deck.

It's a great sequence, allowing us to easily follow the action and understand what is happening as the battle progresses to the point where the entire ship is getting blown apart. Crane's cartoony visuual style meant he could really rack up the body count and still have it all seem like good fun, but he also makes sure the battle unfolds in a logical manner. Crane realized that a good action scene isn't just a series of panels showing us random chaos, but rather a series of panels that still maintain viability in telling an actual story. And this, in turn, makes the battle that much more exciting and involving.

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