Marvel artists walk through the creation of kickass fight sequences in comics

Marvel artists walk through the creation of kickass fight sequences in comics

Six comics artists detail how to create dynamic action on a page

In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

It’s been a phenomenal year for superhero action at Marvel Comics, with the All-New Marvel Now! initiative introducing a crop of new titles that deliver high-impact, dynamic fight sequences. All-New Ghost Rider, Moon Knight, and Secret Avengers each take drastically different approaches when it comes to staging action, and The A.V. Club spoke with members of the books’ art teams: Tradd Moore, Val Staples, Declan Shalvey, Jordie Bellaire, Michael Walsh, and Matthew Wilson. They broke down the construction of a specific page of fisticuffs from their respective runs. Tracing the path of a page from script to layouts, inks, colors, and final art, these creators show how much thought goes into creating visceral fight scenes—an essential part of superhero comics’ DNA.

All-New Ghost Rider #3, page 18 (art by Tradd Moore and Val Staples)

The A.V. Club: Felipe Smith gives almost no direction in this script. Is that liberating or intimidating?

Tradd Moore: Totally liberating. I didn’t work from scripts until I was 21 or 22; working on the Luther Strode pitch late in college might have been the first time I ever worked from a traditional script, come to think of it. Until then all the storytelling I did would go straight from my head or a limited description onto the page. So yeah, working with minimal scripting is my natural habitat.

AVC: When given free rein to create an action sequence, where is the first place your mind goes?

TM: I visualize the action sequence in my head, not in panels, but in full motion. I then try to envision which parts of this scene I’ve choreographed in my mind will have the most impact, and how they can all fit together and flow naturally on a comic page.

AVC: This is a 17-panel page. Why the choice to pack so many panels in there?

TM: Paneling is how you control time as a comic artist. It’s how you build and release tension visually. To use a loose analogy: In comic art, paneling is a bit like film editing and cinematography rolled into one task.

I used a lot of panels here of varied sizes because I feel it gives the scene an undulating flow. I do that a lot with fight scenes. Speed up, slow down, rise, fall. It’s kind of mesmerizing to me. To make a comparison to metal: The small panels are like a frantic blast beat, while the bigger, clearer panels are like a heavy breakdown or head-banging riff. I imagine viewers’ eyes speeding up and slowing down, widening and narrowing, as they scan across the page. I think it’s the kind of page that warrants multiple, extended views.

All art forms have unique difficulties. In comics, you don’t have a particularly firm grasp on your reader’s reading pace. Each person will read a page a bit differently; each person will spend a different amount of time looking at panels or zipping by them. Comic readers can jump back and forth between panels and pages at their leisure, spending long or short moments wherever they choose. The flow of comic time is in their mind and at their fingertips. You have to be mindful of how you construct your panels and pages in order to direct a reader in certain ways and tell your story the way you want to, but, ultimately, it’s up to them how to consume the art and story. I love that about comics. That’s what I love about art in general: It requires and inspires creativity and imagination from both the creator and the consumer.

AVC: How did your work staging action on Luther Strode prepare you for working on Ghost Rider?

TM: Luther StrodeThe Legacy Of Luther Strode in particular—had a lot of intricate action staging with fight scenes lasting multiple issues and taking place in one environment for 20 or 40 consecutive pages at a time. It was mostly all hand-to-hand combat.

Ghost Rider gave me the opportunity to do something completely different. The car chases were something I hadn’t really done before, and it was one of my primary reasons for taking on the book. It was a fun and unique challenge. It requires very different storytelling techniques than hand-to-hand combat choreography, but it requires similar problem-solving and storytelling skills.

AVC: How did you learn to choreograph movement and exaggerate anatomy?

TM: Action choreography is one of my favorite parts of drawing comics. It’s something I’ve always focused on in my work, and each project I’ve worked on has built upon my knowledge and practice with it. I try to make action and movement as clear and easy to follow as possible, yet still dynamic. I take a lot of inspiration from martial arts movies, video games, dance, and athletic events. In all of those art forms, the most important part is that the character, performer, or athlete is doing something incredible and the viewer gets to witness their performance in complete clarity. The performance and performers are the star of the show, not the way it’s framed or edited. I want readers to see exactly what’s going on, because that’s what I like to see. If I’m watching a Jackie Chan movie, I want to see all the stunts, all the choreography, all the athleticism, you know? I’ve had an artist describe my storytelling as journalistic, and another artist describe it as “painfully obvious, but in a good way.” I agree with both!

As for exaggerating anatomy, it’s my favorite way to express movement in a flat, two-dimensional, immobile image. It gives characters a natural flow because the drawn lines give flow to a viewer’s eyes. Often times if a person draws an immaculately detailed and correctly proportioned character it looks really static to me. My eyes don’t move across the character or the page. My eyes see the complete image and stop. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, mind you. There can be power, elegance, and wonder in static imagery, but it’s not the way I prefer to tell a story or represent living characters.

When you look at good gesture drawings, there’s so much life to them. They’re all bent, and loose, and abstract. That’s what I try to get across with my figures. I want readers to feel their movement and the impact of their actions.

AVC: Ghost Rider’s flames are an integral part of his design, how do they play into the composition of the action on this page?

TM: Anyone who has seen my work knows I love drawing fire, sparks, and all sorts of particle effects and debris all over the place, even when it makes no sense at all to do so. I suppose I can blame/thank Dragon Ball Z, fighting games, and Chris Bachalo for that idiosyncrasy. Ghost Rider gave me the opportunity to go crazy with that obsession of mine and have it make total sense. Eh, maybe not total sense, but more sense than it has before.

On Ghost Rider, I used fire and sparks to express and enhance character movement as well as create focal points of impact, which was a lot of fun. Their presence really amps up the excitement of the action scenes in the book, I feel. This page exemplifies all of that.

AVC: There’s so much speed and force in this page, how do you accentuate those qualities in your artwork?

TM: Ah, that’s hard. I wish I could express myself to readers more proficiently here. I know the kind of stuff I like to see; I know what seems cool and interesting in my head, and then I try my best to express it on the page. I don’t know that there’s any consistent rhyme or reason to it all. I love drawing figures and movement, so I spend my life drawing figures and movement. A strong gesture is the best way to express speed and force, in my opinion. I try to frame panels in a way that does justice to the figures within them, to the story and scene being expressed, and to the qualities of my own art that I like the best.

So I guess I just encourage artists to pursue drawing whatever it is you love to draw. Go in with all your heart and dedication. Tell whatever kinds of stories you love most. You’ll figure out your own unique voice along the way. You’ll discover your best qualities and learn how to accentuate them.

AVC: So much of this book is about speed. How do you accentuate the velocity of the artwork through your colors?

Val Staples: Sometimes a colorist can use blur effects in a program such as Adobe Photoshop to enhance movement. But I prefer to avoid those effects when possible and rely directly on the kinetic energy of the artist’s line art. I use focal points in color to pull the eye to various points in a panel or a page. This helps accentuate direction or speed. I also employ color holds [the conversion of black line art into colors] to further direct the eye as well as “lighten” up the weight of various actions or objects to add to their movement.

AVC: Tradd’s linework is incredibly detailed. How does that influence your approach as a colorist?

VS: Tradd’s line art is detailed, but it also has purpose. There’s a huge difference between simply cramming in detail and knowing how to use that detail to one’s advantage. Tradd is a master of the latter. His detail has purpose and also gives depth in the page. I merely read the information he has laid down and then use it to map colors that lend to what he intended.

AVC: Looking at this page from a distance, the fire is what immediately catches the eye. How do you adjust the rest of the color elements on the page so that the flames cut through so strongly?

VS: With Tradd’s line art, color holds are key to the success of the fire. They give it additional intensity that helps it pop off the page. Color holds can be a time-consuming process, but I think the end result speaks for itself, especially when it adds more life to the page. The rest of the colors then play off of the fire. A use of gradually cooling values radiating outward is the key with most of the panels on this particular page.

Moon Knight #2, page 16 (art by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire)

AVC: Warren Ellis provides a fairly detailed script here. How much easier does that make your job? And how much freedom are you given in the interpretation of the script?

Declan Shalvey: I’ve actually found Warren’s scripts pretty open at times; one of my favorite panel descriptions in this issue was “New York at night… No dialogue.” I went to town drawing that panel. Other times, it’s not that he’s detailed; it’s that he’s specific. I suspect that Warren thinks a lot about what’s going into each page and specifically plans all the beats. I appreciate the fact that he puts that much work into it, so I don’t fuck with that. He has such a great visual sense that it’s easy to follow what he writes anyway. Now and then I’ll be breaking down a script, and I’ll find something doesn’t work, or I think there’s a slightly more interesting way to do it, but I just run it by him first and it’s fine. The last thing I want is for him to see pages and think, “What the hell happened here?” He doesn’t waste my time, so I don’t want to waste his either.

AVC: When reading the script, what are the first things you start thinking about regarding how you’ll interpret it visually?

DS: As I read a script, sometimes images will pop out at you. First thing I do is, above each page, write down how many panels are in that page. That way, as I read, I can pick up on the more important points more easily and pace them in my head. As I concentrate on each page separately, I decide exactly what panel is the ‘focus’ of the page; the most important element in that page. Sometimes a page has more than one focus panel. It can be two or three, but with action scenes in particular, you need to find that one focus shot, the moment to hook in the reader. Everything else in the page is part of a sequence that builds up to it, or breaks down after it. The key, though, is finding those moments and making the sequence work as a page.

AVC: What are the main things you’re trying to convey when laying out a fight sequence?

DS: I think impact is what I’m trying to sell most. I hate it when you read a fight scene and it just doesn’t connect; figures fly around the page, but there’s no tension, no release. With this page, I had decided that last punch was the focus, as was the panel with the bullet being split. Therefore, the first two panels (which in theory could have been big action-y panels) are given less real estate on the page and made into smaller, less significant action beats.

To me, the important thing was what happens next: Moon Knight’s crazy line, the sniper about to fire, Moon Knight launching toward the sniper as he fires, etc. All those moments are given the same amount of space, they are a certain part of a sequence. The bullet split is a very important moment, but I thought it best to show restraint here and have it be a small, quiet moment (which is why it’s the shortest panel on the page), but given the same width, to prolong the tension. Then bam: Moon Knight knocks the sniper through the table. Establish the confrontation, heighten the tension, heighten it more, even more, then release.

AVC: Why do you work predominantly with widescreen layouts?

DS: It’s an effort on my part to control the pace of the story in a very deliberate way. More importantly, it helps me control the direction the reader follows. When working with widescreen panels I can lead the reader in a left-to-right motion through the page —which is how we all read—and build the storytelling to accommodate that. I can control the order one reads the lettering by composing it within the story flow. It gives me more opportunity to play with more negative space too, and the height of the panels can affect the tone of the story in different ways. I find it the most direct and accessible way to tell a story, while also leaving room for artistic approaches I enjoy. It doesn’t work in every page, but I like to use it where I can.

AVC: The contrast of light and dark is a big part of Moon Knight’s visual impact. How does that tie in to how you depict an action sequence?

DS: Well, this issue was a little different as it debuted my redesign for Moon Knight’s superhero costume. It actually has black and white areas, which I thought would help him look more dynamic than the Mr. Knight persona. Frankly, he needed to, considering the type of action he’d be engaged with as a superhero as opposed to a street-level vigilante.

Contrast was a big part of the book. White versus black. Graywash texture versus black/white balance, linework versus wash rendering, color versus non-color, etc. All is used to create the effect I’m going for. Again, I try and figure out a lot of that in the layouts; mainly the black/white balance. The gray-wash used in this series added a new challenge, as I didn’t want a technique to obscure storytelling. It’s all part of the tool belt an artist uses to create a page. I also had the advantage of close contact with the colorist, Jordie Bellaire, as we share a studio space, and I can rely on her to use color as a storytelling device, which only enhances what I do on the page.

AVC: There are no sound effects in Warren’s script, but you create the impression of sound by showing how the fight impacts the surroundings. How much of a role does the environment play in the staging?

DS: It’s interesting you pick up on that, as no one has brought it up before. I’ve never discussed this with Warren, but I actually hate sound effects. I see some people use them, and use them really well, but for me, I want someone to feel the sounds, rather than read them. When someone is punched, I want the reader to hear it in their mind, rather than read it on the page. So, when I noticed that Warren didn’t have any sound effects in the issues, I was quite excited. I thought it would be something I’d only ever get to try in personal work, but as it turned out, Warren gave me the opportunity to try it.

I feel it ties into that idea of impact. If the reader really feels it, they don’t need to read it, so I try and really sell that moment of impact. You can do it by breaking panel borders—which I’m not really a fan of—by staging the panels in a certain way, by controlling the eye. Breaking the objects around certainly helps, too, which I definitely did in this page. In the end, I just make my best attempt at it. I feel like it’s working for me, but it’s really down to the reader.

AVC: I love that last panel of the gutter bleeding into Moon Knight’s cape, an effect that you use a few times on the series. What is the reasoning for that visual choice?

DS: Well, I made the choice to try and use white as a graphic device. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to play with that device, considering one iconic thing about Moon Knight is the white of his costume. I realized that I had a rare opportunity to do something a little different and kept it in mind. Normally, I make these more design-based decisions in the layout stage, which, as you can see from looking at the layouts, I did. As I was working on the page, however, I realized that the moment had become very boxed in, which detracted from the action a little. It contained it. I decided to break open the panel borders except for where MK’s cape comes in from top, to enhance that impact I was looking for, and also emphasize the white/design approach. It definitely clicked, and was a great example of how a gut decision can really make a page sometimes.

AVC: Declan mentioned how important color is as a storytelling tool for you. What is the story you’re trying to convey on this page?

Jordie Bellaire: This page in particular doesn’t have a lot of story in terms of color, but the entire issue tells a story with color. We start off with lots of different colors for victims of this assassin that Moon Knight is fighting on this page. This guy is washed out and hidden in darkness as the scene progresses, and Moon Knight continues to beat the hell out of him. I think it was important that Moon Knight was the light to the assassin’s obvious darkness. In the final scene of this issue, an elevator door opens and the assassin sees someone he doesn’t expect, and I loved coloring that page because the light from the elevator falls on his face and we’ve kept him cold and shadowed—suddenly he’s a deer in headlights, he’s exposed, he’s caught. That sort of finale is only effective because of this perpetual use of darkness.

AVC: Contrast is such a huge part of this title, how do you work with Declan to emphasize the contrast in his artwork?

JB: Dec and I had a lot of conversations about black gutters, white gutters, and white Moon Knight. White Moon Knight was the trickiest thing since all the white gutters made him less intimidating. He blended into the page, which is what Dec wanted, but I think I remember telling Declan that Moon Knight can either own the page or own the scene, and usually it was more fitting for him to own the scene. That’s where the traditional art looks different from the digital art because I threw a lot of black in places just to push the intensity of a scene. We did that a lot in this issue! I think this is where I went to town on that idea.

AVC: Because the page is predominantly grayscale, little pops of colors like the manila folders on a desk or the orange blast from the gun really stand out. What role do those smaller color details have in the larger color story of a page?

JB: Well I love that little stuff. I often mention something Howard Pyle said, and I’m doing a horrible job summarizing his eloquence: “You’ll find a color you love and you’ll feel tempted to use it more than once… but leave it alone and let it be.”

I think that’s just great. Filmmakers do it and great painters do it. It’s that fleck of orange in the human eye, the hot pink in the sky during a sunset, the fluorescent green lamp hovering over a dark and empty parking lot. I love that stuff. You can use certain colors to push the mood of a scene or give it a certain strange uniqueness that drags someone deeper into the world.

Secret Avengers #3, pages 16-17 (art by Michael Walsh and Matthew Wilson)

AVC: Ales Kot provides a detailed script but gives you considerable room for interpretation. How does that benefit you as a visual storyteller?

Michael Walsh: When the script is a little bit loose, I feel more comfortable experimenting with layouts. This leads to more innovative fight scenes, like the one on display here. Usually when the script is tighter I find myself working in a more regimented way, sticking to a nine-panel grid variation. Both forms of collaboration can be successful but I feel that certain projects benefit from the loose approach. Secret Avengers is such a crazy, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants book that experimenting with structure and storytelling really works.

Since Ales—for the most part—doesn’t note panels in his script, it usually takes me a little longer to layout because I have the freedom to compress actions into one panel or, on the flip side, decompress into multiple panels. I have a lot of freedom to balance the flow of time on the page.

AVC: You worked with Ales on the first issue of Zero. How has the collaboration process between you two changed since then?

Walsh: There is more trust. And some shorthand. The scripts are often pretty personal, Ales is writing specifically for me. This script features a little pat on the butt at the beginning, pretty much a “go get ’em, buddy.” I don’t remember anything like that in our earlier collaborations. I think Ales is more aware of my strengths now and also when I fall into habits, so he really pushes me to try new things. Zero was our one-night stand, Secret Avengers is a long-term loving relationship.

AVC: What inspired the choice to have the cliff fight silhouetted across the spread?

Walsh: Honestly, I think I was running out of space. There is a lot of information packed into the script, and I remember initially having difficulty trying to hit every beat. Sometimes unique layouts come from trying to solve a problem. I also wanted to save a tighter shot for the big punch that knocks Widow on her butt. By keeping some distance here I was able to make the big punch later more dramatic.

I also needed to show, in very little space, that there was sufficient time between Coulson popping the two goons, to when he slams into Lady Bullseye with the Jeep. Time moves slower when the shot is pulled back.

The fight between Lady Bullseye and Black Widow needed to show some serious back and forth, and I remember envisioning those samurai films where there is a silhouetted sword fight behind a screen. It was also a good way to establish the proximity of the two fighters to the cliff. Leaving it black and white helped separate the emotional beats and let the reader relax a bit. I wanted it to feel a bit like a choreographed dance, a nice counter to the shots in the head and cracks in the face, which are more brutal.

AVC: Why the switch from right-angle rectangles at the top of the page to panels slanted diagonally on the bottom?

Walsh: The slanted panels were used to create a distance from Spider-Woman. These are happening on two separate wavelengths, and I wanted a different atmosphere in the fighting and the talking in the bottom half of the page. It also helped lead the eye around, and keeps the reader a bit uncomfortable.

AVC: There’s a lot of nuanced character acting in addition to the fighting in this spread. How do you make sure those emotions read clearly in the middle of the action?

Walsh: Moving the camera in and playing with cropping helps to give focus to different aspects of the page. I play a lot of the emotions pretty straight while the action gets twisted and distorted, so the contrast helps the reader along.

All that said, I think a lot of the clarity here is owed to coloring genius Matt Wilson. He keeps the same palette throughout the page, but panels feel so drastically different because of the way he shifts the background color and lighting. For example, the series of panels where Widow looks back, gets punched and then is on the ground smirking. The two emotional beats are broken up by some really graphic yellows and reds. These are the same colors used in the gunshot panel so we already associate them with dramatic action. This makes the emotional panels feel more real and poignant. Matt is too good.

AVC: In Zero #1, the action was brutal and grisly, but Secret Avengers has a concept that allows for more spectacular visuals. How do you balance fanciful superhero action with more realistic, traumatizing violence in this book?

Walsh: It really varies from scene to scene. For the most part, the action is grounded and visceral while the concepts are surreal and cerebral. The fighting between Lady Bullseye and Black Widow gets more brutal issue-to-issue as their conflict gets more personal, so we play with that a bit from this issue moving forward. That said, there is a time and place for both and we do get to see both in this comic. The action is never really as grisly as it was in Zero #1, no lips being bitten off or arms and bodies being blown away, but we do get to push the boundaries on a Marvel U book which is pretty exciting. The balance comes from a bunch of spy and street-level superheroes being put into fantastic situations that only get more surreal as the book moves forward. The balance changes under the reader’s nose. It’s kind of one of the themes of the book and you’ll see the balance tip.

AVC: Because there aren’t specific color directions in the script, how closely do you collaborate with Ales and Michael on coloring decisions?

Matthew Wilson: I saw Ales at Thought Bubble last year, just before I started coloring his issues of Secret Avengers. We talked about the feel that he wanted from the colors for the series. So overall I take my cues from our early discussions. Lots of bright colors, a lot of energy to the colors, that kind of thing. On top of that Michael will send me a few specific notes each issue. This book always seems to go quickly for me, and I’ll often get on a roll and do a bunch of pages at once. So most times I will send the team all 20 pages, and that’s the first they’ll see of the colors. Then we’ll have some back and forth if there’s any changes they want to see. The nice thing about this project is that we all seemed to “click” as a creative team really early.

AVC: Michael describes Secret Avengers as a “fly by the seat of your pants” book, and it’s definitely one of the more unpredictable and exhilarating superhero comics out there. How do those qualities influence your coloring choices?

Wilson: One time I was turning in colors for this book, and in the email to everyone that works on the book, I told them this book is like the stream-of-consciousness writing version of coloring for me. It just flows out of me without much effort. With the talks Ales and I had early on, reading the script, and any notes from Michael kind of stored in the back of my head, I really let loose when it comes time to color an issue of this book. It sounds bad, but I try to think less on this book than most others, at least on my first pass. I think there’s a lot of energy in the stories, and clearly a lot of energy and looseness in Michael’s inks, and I try to match that with my coloring. Both in color choices and my looser rendering. After I’ve frantically colored my quota of Secret Avengers pages for the day, I’ll go back and add details or fix mistakes. But first pass I try to not over-think the pages and work completely on instinct. The process of coloring Secret Avengers definitely has a different feel than my other books.

AVC: Michael specifically thanks you for making the more subtle character beats read on this page. How do you use color to reflect emotion while heightening the impact of a fight scene?

Wilson: That’s the great thing about making comics: It’s a collaborative medium. If everyone’s working together, we’re all bringing something to the storytelling. There’s a lot going on in this spread with its 12 panels. There’s a lot of action happening, and it’s my job to make it as clear and exciting as possible. In panel one and the second to last panel with Lady Bullseye, I change the background colors to hint at the action coming in the next panels and also relay the character’s change in their state of mind. In the gunshot panel and the punch panel, I intensified the colors of the entire panel to help sell the impact of the moment. I often think about the coloring of these kinds of pages like music. There’s a tempo to how you read comic pages, and I’ll change the colors from panel to panel if I want to slow down or speed up that tempo. I’m mostly speeding things up here because it’s a fast-paced fight scene. There are a few pauses, like Jessica talking to a bomb, or Lady Bullseye with the sword raised, and in those panels I keep the colors “normal,” so to speak.