The Classic Artist Test

One way to test an incoming new artist’s storytelling skills is to offer a test plot or script — a few pages that a top professional artist has already done, so there’s a baseline of storytelling standards with which to compare results. This is not about style but, rather, storytelling strength — clarity, powerful action and movement, and body language/gesture/overall character performance. Often I’ll use a plot or script I’ve written and one of my artists has drawn, for the baseline.

This time, I decided to go back to classic John Buscema storytelling for the comparison. Why flash back to the ’60s? Strong storytelling never goes out of style, and such classic superstars as Jack Kirby, John Romita, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, and Will Eisner are among those whose every book can teach something useful. Yet, as the years wear on, fewer and fewer incoming artists are even familiar with their work.

Here’s a panel-by-panel plot I provided for a five-page test —

Panel one — Full-page splash.  Reed Richards is in pajama bottoms and slippers, in a bathroom, shaving.  A futuristic alarm (a Kirby Machine in foreground) goes off, catching his attention.  The Thing (Ben Grimm) peeks out of the shower, all sudsed up, also reacting to the alarm.  Title, credits, indicia go on this page.

Panel one — Reed and Ben run through the living room.  Ben wraps a towel around his waist; he still has suds on him.  Reed, now wearing a robe, wipes the shaving cream from his face with his towel.  Johnny Storm also hurries in.
Panel two — Reed throws open a door to a control room, as a cyclone of wind whips papers,indicating someone or something just exited a window.  
Panel three — Reed reaches for a control panel, seeing a piece of machinery has been stolen, ripped away.  A tense Johnny looks around, realizing someone went out the window with it.
Panel four — Outside the window now:  Johnny flames on, beginning the search, as Reed shouts orders after him.

Panel one — Full-page splash, in foreground, a concerned Silver Surfer enters a hospital room from the window, seeking to heal a patient.  Misunderstanding his intentions, a frantic doctor opens the door, as two cops enter with big special energy rifles.  A nurse hunches over, protecting the young woman in the hospital bed.

Panel one — Surfer gestures, reaching out toward the patient; nurse and cop warn him away.
Panel two — Surfer pleads with them to reason.
Panel three — Surfer casts a cosmic bolt toward the patient as the nurse reacts, fearing the worst.
Panel four — One of the cops blasts Surfer with his rifle.

Panel one — Surfer drops to his knees, smoke rising from him as the cops stand over him.
Panel two — Now pissed, Surfer gestures, energy flowing from his eyes.
Panel three — Surfer casts cosmic power from his hands — which pulls the rifles from the cops’ grasp, melting them.
Panel four — Surfer returns to the window, angered, ready to leave.  He points accusations at a cop and the nurse for assuming the worst.  He was only trying to help.

Here’s an example of what an artist turned in for PAGE 1 —

Compare with Buscema’s original —

Side-by-side without the title space —

Compare: John Buscema gives us a slight down shot.  A more tense, ready-for-action pose from Reed Richards; he’s whipping his head around, his face is covered in shaving cream, hot water is running in the sink, the alarm thingie is going off, Ben Grimm is crumpling the shower curtain, all the soap suds are coming up off him. Even Reed’s towel feels like it’s moving, as if he’s just thrown it over his shoulder.

For PAGE 2 —

The original —

Side-by-side —

I commented to the artist: In panel 1, you left out any indication this was the living room.  Ben’s towel is already around him, Reed Richards is looking scrawny and old, no sense of power here.  Johnny is almost lost in the back of the hallway.  In John Buscema’s version, Ben is in the middle of pulling the towel around himself.  The soap suds are still coming off him, indicating how fast he jumped out of the shower.  Reed has put on a robe; the material is moving, the robe’s belt is flying up behind him, the towel is whipping in the air as he wipes the shaving cream off his face, Johnny is leaping over furniture to race toward us. In that quickly-drawn first panel, there’s still AT LEAST seven levels of depth to the shot! Reed (level 1); the coffee table (level 2); Ben and Johnny (level 3); the sofa (level 4); base of the fireplace (level 5) the fireplace itself (level 6) opening to the bathroom they just came from (level 7).  So lots of depth to a simple shot.

Panel 2, you drew the action BETWEEN the panels.  Try never to do that unless the script calls for it.  Draw the MIDDLE of the action.  You’ve draw Reed already having opened the door, just standing there doing nothing.Buscema drew a dramatic down shot, Reed shoving open the door, hands up and open tensely, and the papers are whipping in one specific direction, indicating where the thief just exited.

Panel three, you have two skinny, emaciated heroes just standing there.  Johnny’s looking at the floor or something.  Reed is just looking.  Buscema drew a concerned-faced Reed reaching toward the wires.  Johnny, hand balled into a fist as he’s ready to bust into action, is looking around, but he’s leaning forward — he’s moving into action.

Panel four, although you drew a nice shot of Johnny flying out toward us, this is the FIRST time in the story we see Johnny flying.  Buscema understands that, so he makes sure we see Johnny in full figure, flaming on, speed trail indicating his movement.  He also TILTS the building to make the angle more dramatic, clearly showing the city backdrop.

For PAGE 3 —

The original —

Flipping the artist’s image for easier comparison side-by-side —

My comments to the artist: You drew just the Surfer’s head peeking in.  You have the cops already in the room, pointing their weapons.  How did they know Surfer was going to be there at that very moment?  In your version, we cannot clearly see the doctor opening the door to let the cops race in.  Her body blocks the door and movement of opening the door. You turned the nurse AWAY from the action, rather than seeing and reacting to the action. And you drew another straight-on angle, with no sense of movement/urgency.

Analyze what Buscema drew:  He didn’t just draw the Surfer’s head.  There’s enough of the Surfer in foreground, an expressive hand raised.  He’s facing the woman and the cops, which yours was NOT.  Clearly the doctor is yanking open the door, the cops are racing in with their weapons.  The nurse sees what’s happening and shields the patient with her own body. The angle of the room is tilted TOWARD the Surfer, adding to the sense of drama/movement.


Compared to —

Side-by-side —

My notes:  Panel one, You decided to focus on the Surfer, even though his gesturing is the only important element about him in this panel.  Most of the panel is about the cop and the nurse, warning the Surfer away.  But the way you staged it, much of the cop and nurse and patient are CUT OUT of the scene.  In Buscema’s layout, the gesture is the focus, BUT we see the cop with his weapon and stern expression.  We see the nurse, leaning in forward to warn him away.  We see one arm holding her patient, protectively, and her other hand out, expressive.

Panel two, you chose a closeup, nothing else. Buscema chose a 3/4 full body shot, using expressive hands to emphasize that he is pleading with them to be reasonable.

Panel three, I’m not 100% clear what’s going on in yours.  In Buscema’s, it’s totally clear that Surfer unleashes his cosmic power to help the patient, as the nurse reacts, her expressive hand visible.

Panel four, I don’t understand why you drew the figures posed so incredibly bored.  We can’t even see how the Surfer’s reacting to being shot by the blast. In Buscema’s, we see the reaction of the nurse, and the second cop, while the first cop dramatically whips around his weapon, firing at the Surfer, who is hit with the blast.  Look at his wide stance and flailing arms. This kind of panel is great for assembling multiple actions is one shot.  The wider the panel, the more time has passed.  The narrower the panel, the shorter the amount of time.  This schematic type of panel allows us to see Nurse reaction/cop reaction/other cop wide-stances, whipping weapon int position/firing/impact blast  from the firing/surfer’s reaction at being hit — ALL in one panel.  Strong, clear, powerful storytelling.

Then PAGE 5 —

With —

Side-by-side —

My analysis: I notice that you love centering things in the middle of your panel.  Buscema does only occasionally; he’d rather try for a more dramatic composition.  Panel 1, you draw a down shot on a skinny Surfer who is looking down, away from them, not engaged.  Buscema drew a more powerful Surfer, head turned up to look at and speak to them, an expressive fist balled up even as he pushes himself up with his other arm.

Panel two, your Surfer seems to be firing beams from his eyes, which is not exactly what was described.  In Buscema’s version, Surfer is summoning up power.  We can see his expression of anger.  His hands are majorly expressive, as well, as if summoning a spell.

Panel three, you give us a back shot on Surfer and a really NOT dramatic panel.  Buscema gave us the clear power blasts from Surfer’s hands, the melting-in-mid-air weapons, the two cops’ shocked reactions even as they jerk back in fear.

Panel four, you draw the Surfer just looking back over his shoulder to say something.  Compare with: Buscema draws a cop and nurse reacting to the Surfer’s threat, the Surfer has leapt to the window sill, pointing angrily, the window open and the drapes whipping in the wind.

Understand that Buscema is drawing each page here in about 2 and a half hours.  So he’s not spending a lot of time analyzing the script, he’s just laying it down as clearly and dramatically as he can. 

Remember, this analysis for you is NOT about your finished style.  It’s only about the thinking behind your layouts. I figure you’ve never taken the time to study classic storytelling, so you’re re-inventing the wheel in your own mind.  As such, you’re not learning what can/should be done.

I hope this helps.


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