Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sequential Art Primer

Three articles by Shanth Suresh Enjeti from his "Tell Forward" blog.

Sequential Art Primer Part 1: The Three Pillars of 'Sequential Art' 

and the Essential Masters

Sequential Art

‘Sequential art’ is a visual storytelling form that has long been a part of human civilization. In the last century, it has been a versatile means for the telling of stories and artistic exploration. Recently, the decline of the American ‘comic’ in culture has been the subject of a lot of debate in the creative community, “industry”, and among the dwindling audience of readers.

Most of the theories, for the decrease in the size of the audience tend to overemphasize the obstacles the form faces when competing against more modern forms of storytelling and neglect the fact that the 'sequential art' storyteller has never, in the history of mankind, had a more direct line to the audience of the world. The task of showcasing one's work, promoting it, and making it available for order directly to the public has never been easier. In addition, ‘sequential art's’ unique ability to go anywhere and say anything has only been hindered in the past by a combination of manufacturing cost, regulation, and distribution monopolies that are eroding before our very eyes.

It may be that it has been far too long since the audience in the United States has been reminded of the vitality ‘sequential art’ is capable of. It is equally possible that the young creators of today's 'sequential art' have been divorced from the form's history, which is as rich as any other form of art. By studying this history, these creators may find inspiration in the work of a kindred spirit not only from another country but from another era as well.

The aim of this post is to offer a starting point for future storytellers and makers of 'sequential art' to begin their exploration.

There are three forms of modern ‘sequential art’ that constitute its pillars: ‘comics’, ‘manga’, and ‘bande dessinée’. These three forms are the most significant stylistic variations in ‘sequential art,’ and have evolved as the result of diverging regional tastes, innovation, and distinct cultural perspectives.

Storytellers of the modern era have been cross pollinating these approaches for many years now, and while that is encouraging in what it affirms about global society, it has also led to stylistic artifacts being adopted and used with little or no understanding of where they originated. The ‘comic’ has been greatly diminished by its inability to meet the needs of the modern audience and reconnect with its rich history and let go conventions that are the artifacts of a bygone zeitgeist.

Below is an introduction to artists whom I would offer as the most essential to study from each of the three pillars of 'sequential art.'


‘Comics’ is the name of the art form that was established in the United States with the ‘comic strip,’ and popularized the combining of the word balloon with sequential pictures in the early 20th century. ‘Comics’ began in newspapers and these ‘comic strips’ were eventually collected in ‘comic books.’ By the 1930’s, ‘comic books’ of original material began to appear. Eventually these books were published in albums called ‘graphic novels,’ and just as with ‘comic books,’ original graphic novels of long format stories are now created. Modern day sequential art produced in the United States lacks diversity of subject matter and is geared toward a small audience that is more a ‘subculture’ than ‘culture’ as a whole. Most of the prominent characters that were created in ‘comics’ are not closely associated in the public’s mind with the creators who created them, with the exception of a handful of ‘comic strip’ characters.

While it is difficult to hold up any one artist as being the most essential to study in a given art form, I would offer Winsor McCay as the first true master of modern ‘sequential art’ and ‘comics.’ Winsor McCay made his name using an entire page of a newspaper as his canvas and creating “Little Nemo in Slumberland” in the early 1900’s. With these weekly full-color installments, he created the first major benchmark to measure all future works against. After a century, his imagination, craftsmanship, and innovative storytelling devices make him essential reading in the study of ‘comics.’


Bande Dessinée

‘Bande dessinée' is the term applied to European sequential art (originally it referred to Franco-Belgium work specifically), and is distinctive for its high production value, larger ‘tabloid’ format, high panel-per-page quantity, an average page count of around 48 pages, and a longer turnaround time between issues. The origin of the form is very similar to that of ‘comics’ and the term ‘bande dessiné’ literally means ‘drawn strip’ as a result of this shared history. The art form addresses a large percentage of the audience in Europe, and it is regarded as an art form and artists are closely associated with the characters they create. While successful characters from titles that are no longer being continued due to the retirement or death of the creator are still being merchandised, much like fiction writer/creators, the idea of continuing a prominent character’s story without the creator is frowned upon by the audience.

In ‘bande dessinée,’ Belgium’s Georges Remi, known by his pen name Hergé, created a body of work that still resonates today in the form of his 24 volumes of “Les Adventures de Tintin.” Hergé was similar in the way he spoke to the audience of his day by evolving his art’s visual clarity and creating a style that became known as ‘ligne claire’ (clean line), while doing meticulous research of locations to transport the audience.
Below is the elegant title image from “Tintin au Tibet” which showcases the production value and craftsmanship seen in ‘bande dessinée,’ as well as one of the most memorable pages in the entire series of “Les Adventures de Tintin” from the same volume.


Japanese ‘sequential art,’ called ‘manga,’ is diverse in subject matter. The books tend to be black and white, unlike ‘bandes dessinées’ and ‘comics’ and are produced in small scale and thick volumes, sometimes with the creator/artist of the book having multiple assistants. Like ‘bandes dessinées’ the creators of particular characters are equally integral to those characters in the public’s mind. Manga books are fully integrated into Japanese culture, and are unique to the other two art forms in the way they are written and illustrated to be read from the right to the left. Historically, Manga were more innovative in their use of dynamic page layouts and in the depiction of all things kinetic.
Manga’s most important artist is by far the easiest to proclaim, because he stands utterly undisputed. Osamu Tezuka, created a cast of characters and body of work that rivals the entire catalogue of corporate institutions in the United States that have spent decades acquiring characters and works from hundreds of artists. Tezuka innovated a style, a visual language, and produced more ‘sequential art’ than Winsor McCay and Hergé combined.

Of the artists mentioned above, Winsor McCay is the only artist that does not have a museum dedicated to his life and work in his home country, in spite of the fact that he also played an equally crucial role in the creation of modern animation.

Exterior MUSÉE HERGÉ in Belgium


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