When I was in art school in the 1980s there were very few texts on how to tell stories in comics. My instructors were focused on drilling us in the absolute basics of drawing, but I was obsessed with figuring out how comics storytelling worked, how laying one picture next to another, next to another could yield a story.
I'd read everything I could get my hands on—critical essays, interviews, how-to books, but it was still a long way from coming together for me. The book that seemed best suited to give me the tools I needed was Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art. I bought it and read it over and over, but in those days I didn't have the vocabulary or the experience to apply what he wrote to my own work. I picked up some handy tricks and some surface mannerisms, but I just wasn't knowledgeable enough to grasp what he had to say about the fundamentals of storytelling.
Still, I knew that he was an important guy to study, and I figured if the textbook wasn't working for me, I'd go to his published stories. I took several of his Spirit stories and reverse-engineered them as best I could. Essentially, this involved doing a really close reading, analyzing every panel of the story, trying to suss out why Eisner (or the artists in his studio) might have made one choice rather than another, and writing it all down in excruciating detail.
For this (and let's be fair, many other reasons) my classmates thought I was completely out of my mind. And while I hoped this kind of practice would help develop my instincts as a storyteller, I assumed that this was an exercise for students rather than someone who actually makes comics professionally. But recently, I saw that Matt Fraction has been doing this, and I thought it might be a worthwhile exercise to revisit, so here we are. Let's try “My Name is Powder” A Spirit story from 1948. My scans here are from The Will Eisner Spirit Color Album published by Kitchen Sink in 1982. (All art is © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.; click on the images to see them larger on your screen.)
This story is seven pages long, and the first page is a splash page—a single image that also acts here as a cover, attracting the reader's eye, setting the tone, and establishing a symbol that carries throughout the story. The next six pages are densely paneled and laid out on a pretty strict grid of three rows per page, three, four, or five panels per row. Sixty panels total, plus the splash. That's not a lot of space to introduce characters and tell a story with a beginning middle and end, so Eisner will need to get readers up to speed very quickly. Some of the lessons here are going to focus on techniques for efficient storytelling. There's no room for lingering. Every panel is going to have to advance the story.
The splash gives us Powder, a film noir spider-woman in a sexy pose. Her arms are up displaying her body, but she has a jaded, unimpressed expression that communicates power rather than availability. The spider-woman metaphor is made explicit by juxtaposing her with an enormous spider web. The Spirit, the ostensible hero of the book, is at the center of the web, but he doesn't seem helpless or trapped. He's hanging there, looking serious and capable like the web is just the first of a row of monkey bars, and the web itself is designed to function like a spotlight, drawing attention to our hero, even though he's much smaller on our page than the villainess. And it's important to draw that attention because even though he's the name on the title, The Spirit only appears in seventeen of the sixty panels left in the story.
On page 2, the first row of panels belongs to Powder. Panel one transitions us from the symbolic imagery of the splash to the actual narrative. Powder is holding roughly the same pose she had before, but now it seems more like a she's stretching after having been cooped up for a long time. That makes sense because she's being let out of a prison cell by a big, sturdy female prison guard. They're shot full figure from a distance, and the symbolic spider web is now framed so that it could be a real one, very close to the camera. Eisner doesn't give us the entire cell block; our “establishing shot” is just the bars and opening of Powder's cell is being let out of.
In panel 2, Powder belts the guard right in the face. Powder's gesture is quick and violent; the guard is falling completely off balance. Panel 3, the guard is completely helpless, ineffectually trying to protect herself, laid out mostly horizontal across the bottom of the panel, while Powder is upright, bent into all sorts of angry diagonals, barely held back by a male guard struggling to pull her off.
So in one row of three panels, the pictures tell us that Powder was just let out of prison, that she's impulsively violent, starting trouble without provocation, and that she's dangerous and very hard to control.
The second row on page 2 brings us to a new setting, a reform school. There's a big caption in panel 4 that reinforces one of the story's themes and sets up a compare and contrast between Powder and her victim, who we're about to meet as he's released from reform school. There's no building anyone could draw in the one square inch that's left that would clearly communicate “reform school,” so this fact is established at the very bottom of panel 4 with a sign: “Central City Reform School.” Job done.
Panel 5 brings us inside where two people descend a staircase: an short, white-haired catholic priest with a paternal grip on the arm of a much younger guy, maybe 16 years old. The priest's gesture and expression is open and solicitous, and it looks like he's sincerely trying to do what he can for Bleak, the younger guy. Bleak is hunched over with his hands in his pockets, avoiding eye contact. He's getting released from custody just like Powder, but instead of starting trouble he's withdrawing into himself. He's a guy who doesn't want any help from the priest.
Panels 6 and 7 introduce The Spirit and establish his willingness to help Bleak, and then Panels 8 and 9, the first two panels in the bottom row of the page, set up an important motif in the story.
In panel 8, The Spirit has put his gloved hand out for Bleak to shake, an offer of aid and friendship. Bleak still has his hands in his pockets and looks up at the big hero with loathing and distrust. The priest is beaming with his arms around both of them. The set up is that despite Bleak's reluctant body language, we, like the priest, expect Bleak to take The Spirit's hand, accept the offer, and presumably move on to a better life. But in the next panel, Bleak keeps his hands in his pocket, turns his head away, and with an insouciant expression spits a big gob right on the floor of the priest's office. Help? Rejected. Whatever Bleak's gonna do, he's gonna do alone.
There are three more occasions in the story where Bleak is offered desirable things. On page three, he meets Powder who asks him to grab a bag of loot. He refuses by walking away from her and spits on the sidewalk. Wealth? Rejected. Later, on page 5, after she has forcibly dragged him to her apartment and tried to make him complicit in an attempted murder, she moves in to seduce him. He refuses by turning his head and spitting. Sex? Rejected.
The action of the story moves forward—she's tried to frame him for the attempted murder, but he's escaped her trap and now he has her helpless, with her pistol in his hand- he racks the slide to chamber a round … then he turns away to spit, and he drops the gun at The Spirit's feet. Revenge? Rejected.
At the end of the story, Bleak puts his hand out for The Spirit to shake. This happens on the first two panels of the bottom row of the last page, the same position on the page as when Bleak rebuffed The Spirit's offer on page two. But no spit this time. They shake hands, and for the first time in the story, Bleak has a hopeful expression. He looks The Spirit in the eye and enjoys his first moment of real human connection. There's a bit of dialogue, but the pictures alone are enough to sell us on Bleak's redemption.
I could break down the rest of the story this way—as I said, I can go through every panel in excruciating detail—but the technique should be clear from what I've shown. As a student, I found this sort of exercise really helpful. As a working pro, it turns out that it's still totally worth doing.
Steve Lieber’s Dilletante appears the second week of each month on Toucan!
The week of March 6 was “Will Eisner Week,” but we like to think every week is Will Eisner Week. Celebrate by reading a graphic novel!