Strip Panel Naked: Breaking the Mold In ‘Death Be Damned’
Striking imagery in any visual medium can only really come about when taken in isolation. You could have a comic that is full of stunning pages, image after image of the most gorgeously rendered scenes ever, and it can lose context in book form. By overloading incredible imagery, it becomes commonplace, and you have to work even harder to sell a visual that you might need to be particularly stunning. If you could take a single image out of said book and present it in isolation, that beauty would flood back to it.
You can achieve this effect pretty easily in comics when you restrict your style to a set look and feel, and then bring in small changes when necessary to create a massive change to the images. For an example, check out the new book Death be Damned, by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, Andrew Miller, Hannah Christenson, Juan Useche, and Colin Bell.
When you read the opening half of the story, you're given a very restrained book, visually. The palette is all oranges and yellows, and even the blood red is very muted (which sits at odds with another Western comic I discussed and its use of red blood here). It's a palette typical of this genre of story, and it allows us to fall into an understanding of what the book will be; a gritty revenge story typical of this look and feel.
The other strong visual through-line is that every image is in a panel. There's no imagery that ever goes to the bleed in the entire book (with one exception), and so it all sits constrained by that border of white around every single page. There's nothing particularly unusual about that either; not enough to make a comment about itself, until you reach the middle pages.
Which is the super thoughtful thing about this double-page splash. It sits across the actual middle pages in the comic, which means the sheet of paper these two pages are printed on is all one piece; there's no awkward fold in the middle, it runs like a wraparound cover, but in the middle of the book. That's perfect; because the team eliminates any possibility of distraction or awkwardness, the focus is explicitly on this double page splash.
I went over the visual rules the book established, and you can see how this splash breaks every one of them. The palette shifts; while the orange and yellow is still there, it's been overrun by this very blue-heavy color choice by Useche, which dominates the page entirely. Colin Bell changes his lettering from balloons to free-form over the imagery, Christenson runs everything to the bleed. If anything is contained here, it's by itself, using the branch-like structures to wrap up the imagery. We also get that Gianni De Luca-esque repeated imagery to show movement; a very different style to the more grounded take we get on movement through repeated panels earlier in the book.
It's a striking page, not because of it's design intrinsically, but because of everything that came before it. It pops because nothing else we've been presented with looks even remotely like this page; it stands apart as the defining visual of the book, and rightly so, because of what the page means to the story. This is the turning point in us understanding the premise and knowing where this book is going, and it shifts the tone and landscape completely.
It's fitting that this spread is represented the way it is, but that has no power unless the creators are aware enough to tone down everything that comes before it. Its beauty, fittingly, comes from the sacrifices the previous pages made. Sometimes in comics, less really is more.
In Strip Panel Naked, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou looks at elements of the art of visual storytelling on the comics page.