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Splashy Saturday

I’ve been reading a lot of older comics lately, and as I’ve been wallowing in all this Bronze Age goodness, it struck me that comic books as we know them today have gradually phased out something that I used to really get a kick out of.

Most of the time in modern superhero comics, there’s not really a true title page; there’s usually some kind of a typeset recap page with a graphic instead, or sometimes the title and creator info is on the inside front cover.

And occasionally, there’s a two-page introductory sequence or something that leads to a big splash panel.

But the pace is different. Even with a big action opening, there’s the assumption that you, the reader, are already invested enough to just sit down and read it; today an intro page, even with a splash panel, tends to be a little opaque to the uninitiated. Like this one, from X-Men

Or here’s another modern example, from Black Bat #3. All the creator info’s set in type on the inside cover, so the story just starts in the middle of the action and there’s no splash page or title page as such anywhere at all.

I’m not saying these examples are bad… just noting the change in approach.

But with everyone trying to be so cinematic in their approach to page layouts, it feels to me like we’ve maybe lost something that was part of the fun; something that was unique to comic books themselves, especially the superhero/adventure kind of title. I don’t know if there’s really a name for it. I guess you could call it the ‘situational splash page.’

Back in the old newsstand days, you see, comics had to depend on impulse buyers who’d pick up a book and flip through it out of curiosity. And so the splash page was part of the marketing plan– you had to get a lot more information up front, you had to introduce everyone and set up a basic situation and ideally you’d have some kind of a hook to make readers want more. There was a real art to it. A lot of the time, especially when I was a kid just getting into comics– that is, in the late sixties, early seventies– seeing the splash page often persuaded me to buy the book.

So just for fun, this week I thought I’d show you a few of my favorites. I tried to pick typical examples that weren’t too familiar or famous, but they all had that What the hell? I gotta KNOW! sales hook.

Old-school DC books, especially, liked to showcase a strange situation or pose a riddle. Here’s a typical example, from SUPERBOY:

That one pulls out all the stops– it shows our hero in an unusual situation AND in jeopardy, the text poses a question, the title suggests weirdness in the offing. If you were a ten-year-old kid who liked Superboy– and I was– this was an easy sell.

Here’s another I bought off the stands way back when; this was only a backup story in FLASH #223, but it was this splash that sold me the book.

Jim Aparo was always good at setting up a great action splash. Here’s a classic from BRAVE AND THE BOLD.

The DC war and horror books of the 1970s, especially, were brilliant at creating intriguing, visually-arresting splash pages. Check out this one from WEIRD WAR TALES #17:

The war and horror books didn’t have the character loyalty that superheroes had, so they had to work harder; especially since the anthology books usually ran several stories in each issue, and thus had to boil a lot of setup down very quickly and plant that hook hard. Here’s an example of that from FORBIDDEN TALES OF DARK MANSION.

The greatest splash pages DC had in the early 1970s, in terms of closing the sale with a kid, usually came from Jack Kirby and more often then not, they were from KAMANDI. Those splash pages were just vibrating with the promise of awesome. Like this one–

My favorite thing about KAMANDI, then and now, was always that you didn’t need a lot of background. Look at that picture– the only backstory you are ever given is the caption at the top, and you can see just from Kamandi’s posture that by the time you turn the page, shit is gonna get real.

Here’s another.

Of course he’ll come out shooting. It’s all Kamandi DOES for crying out loud.

Marvel had a slightly different approach than DC, but they were just as good at constructing an intriguing splash page back in those days. Here’s MONSTER OF FRANKENSTEIN #2, which was my introduction to both Mary Shelley’s creation and also to the magnificent work of artist Mike Ploog.

A splash page technique you used to see a lot at Marvel was the hero thinking about what a mess things were (and in so doing, providing a handy recap.) Like Daredevil, here…

Or Peter Parker, having a suicidally-depressed brood that also neatly sums up his entire supporting cast.

Sometimes it’s the bad guy having a think, like this pissed-off wizard from CONAN THE BARBARIAN…

Or the villainous Monocle, here, plotting the demise of the Fantastic Four on this remarkably subdued Jack Kirby page.

But just as often Marvel comics would start in the middle of a big action scene– just because. “No time to explain, pilgrim!”

“We’ll catch you up as we go!”

“Confused? So are our heroes! But soon it will all be clear, frantic one!”

And so on. Big fast and loud. Screw the DC puzzle thing…. it’s time to friggin HIT people, True Believer!

I could go on and on. But I imagine if you’ve got this far, you’ve thought of a bunch of your own. Feel free to post links to them down below in the comments…

…and I’ll see you next week.

10 Comments

I really wanted to focus on Ditko’s Dr. Strange. The splash pages were totally crucial since the doctor rarely got the cover. That being said, I couldn’t find any good images for my favorites, so this Spider-Man will have to suffice. Hell, it does more than suffice, it captures the entirety of the Spider-Man universe all in one picture.

In a classic Ditko split with a half Spidey/ half Peter Parker, we get both sides of the coin at once. On the Parker side, we have an ailing Aunt May, a stern JJJ, a loving Betty, and mocking students. On the Spider-Man side, we get a hectoring Jonah, a disgusted Betty, a torn public, and shooting thugs. Above it all looms Electro, menacing Peter/Spider-Man with metaphoric bolts of energy. This splash page tells more story than an entire issue of a modern comic. Pure genius.

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-XVtNxhHnuos/UCV0q8dTw8I/AAAAAAAArjU/tWzUIryCldI/s1600/SPIDERMAN%2B009_003.jpg

Didn’t those Kamandis (and most Kirby comics at the time) usually open on an extra-wide double splash on pages 2 and 3? That was the real beauty shot, not everyone did those.

Yeah, they don’t make the first pages like they used to. They don’t make covers like they used to either. I assume it’s for the same reason as the splash pages. People don’t buy comics on impulse anymore so it’s not like they need that dynamic story-telling right at the front.

I love the way Aparo, who did his own lettering, aligns the dialog balloons with the characters’ horizon line while leaving the captions aligned with the readers’.

Cei-U, I noticed that aspect of the Aparo page as well. That guy was truly one of the masters.
And mrclam, that Spidey page by Ditko is indeed brilliant.
Personally, whenever striking splash pages are mentioned, I pretty much always think of this one, from X-men #125. Otherwise, that entire run when Byrne and Austin were doing the art had a bunch of similarly fantastic splash pages.

It’s interesting (though probably unrelated) that the decline in splash pages has coincided with the phasing out of longer TV show credits. I love those old ‘I can’t help thinking about everything that happened last issue’ ones but even better are the ones that start with some insane situation and flash back from there. I don’t know why they don’t do that anymore, it’s basically action storytelling 101.

And I miss the titles of individual chapters (issues).

I don’t know that splash pages are declining (though I could be wrong) as much as they’re being used for different purposes. Now they’re used for “dramatic” moments throughout the book — in other words, to pad thinned out issues. Think of all the pages in Infinity which had two or at most three panels of ships flying off into action. These panels were actually rather static but took up a lot of space since Hickman intended to accomplish relatively little in any one issue.

Although comic books are supposed to look more “cinematic” now, a better analogue would be television shows where storylines are dilated over a number of episodes in a season. Splash pages aren’t designed to draw you in, or even to display spectacular action, as much as take up space. They will try to find “dramatic” moments for splash pages, but not always succeed (see: Fraction’s first Fantastic Four issue which features a splash of Richards standing in the dark by himself).

[...] you ever buy any of these? Come on, own up. Or do you secretly wish comics would splash out more? You’re among friends [...]

@ Gavin:

Mainly because things are being written for the trade collections is why we don’t have that kind of storytelling anymore, why covers aren’t eye catching and more uniform to a story arc (because they don’t REALLY want to get your attention mid story when the retailer’s likely already sold out of the recent back issues as they order to sell out and not have backstock), etc. It’s a different mentality, to be sure.

The way to counter it is not to buy mainstream comics and support underground commix and online POD books where you can, where they have more of the ‘old school’ flair still, but even in that arena we’re losing some of it, as the old guard talents are fading away and the next generation who isn’t submerged in that era of content skews towards the more current trends.

Maybe Hatcher needs to start teaching that approach of story pacing to his students more so that it can be brought back. ;-)

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