Thursday, October 30, 2008

Action sequences the way they should be done: Comic Books

For the first 115 issues or so--while it was being written by Roy Thomas--Marvel Comics' Conan the Barbarian series was consistently excellent. Thomas' scripts were action-oriented but still literate sword-and-sorcery tales with excellent plots and characterizations. Thomas weaved adaptations of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories together with original tales to create a self-consistent biography for the big barbarian.

And, of course, Thomas' writing was backed up by great artwork. Barry Winsor-Smith was the original artist for the first 20-odd issues. Then John Buscema stepped in, working regularly with Thomas on the book for nearly 100 issues.

Buscema's strengths as artist and storyteller are innumerable, but we will (as usual) concentrate on his ability to present us with great fight scenes. Conan fought a gazillion or so warriors, animals, monsters and warlocks. And Buscema gave us a really cool and always exciting fight scene each and every time.

You'd think it'd get old before too many issues of the comic went by--how many different ways are there, after all, to stage the action when Conan beheads or eviserates yet another villain? But Buscema was never repetative. Every fight scene has some element of originality to it, whether it was Conan's opponent(s), the setting or the way the action was choreographed. Usually, it was a combination of these elements.

Conan the Barbrian #53 (August 1975) provides us with a solid example of Buscema's skill. Here, Conan goes up against "The Brothers of the Blade," three guys who have had different parts of their anatomy replaced with weapons.

Helped by Thomas' descriptive captions, the battle unfolds in a logical manner over a total of seven pages. Thorough it all, we understand what's going on and where the various characters are in relation to one another. Buscema shifts his "camera" around freely from panel to panel, but does so without ever loosing track of the flow of the aciton.

And it is, by golly, a wonderful fight. I know I'm sounding like a broken record during this series of posts, but it's gotta be said again: A properly choreographed action sequence should make sense to its audience. It's more exciting and satisfying that way.

I picked Buscema's Conan stuff almost at random to demonstrate this. But find a reprint of Spider Man #4 (Spidey vs. Sandman in a running tussle through a high school--art by Steve Ditko) for another example of great fight choreography. Or Fantastic Four #25 (Hulk vs. Thing through the streets, subways and harbors of New York City--art by Jack Kirby) for still another. In each of these cases, the artists turn these battles into a story within the main story, making the comic book as a whole that much more satisfying.

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