Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Noel Sickles and the Art of Sequential Art - Epilogue

Back in September I did a series of posts on the art of Noel Sickles. I did have one final post on the subject, though. In light of the new trend of newspapers dropping comics altogether, it might be worth while to look at what's been lost.

Current newspaper comics are much smaller than they were in the 1930's and 1940's. And smaller space means smaller panels, which means less detail in the drawings. it also means fewer panels, which decreases the pacing of the story. It also limits the area for word balloons, which means shorter, simpler dialog.

In other words, Noel Sickles' artwork would be impossible to print in a modern newspaper's comics section.

Take a close look at the panel below. It sets the scene for the action sequence to follow. Notice how Sickles lays everything out. There's the train, waiting on the siding, puffing smoke and ready to roll. You can see the trainmen in conversation next to the telegraph pole, and down near the corner, Scorchy and Spike furtively moving towards them. The scene is gray, as it takes place at night, but judicious placement of black shadows through everything in relief, and give you a sense of depth.

If you had to fit it into a standard panel size today, it would look like mud.

(click on image to enlarge)

In the story, Scorchy and his pals are embroiled in a Central American civil war. They've hijacked a train to escape rebel bombers, and are currently holed up in a tunnel. Notice in the two sequences below, how Sickles tells his story.

There's his signature use of dramatic lighting, especially on the faces. But look carefully at the three panels with long shots. They're all consistent. The telegraph station, although shown from three different angles, is clearly the same structure. The switch is in the same relative position, and there are two telegraph poles (no more, no less) between it and the building.

Many artists wouldn't sweat such details. After all, this was meant to be read once and forgotten. Getting the details approximately right would serve -- but not for Sickles. And that careful attention makes the sequence more believable, and more engaging.

Finally, look at the smoke coming out of the locomotive in the last panel. It puffs out in a realistic fashion consistent with the movement of the engine. Motion in a static panel.

(click on image to enlarge)

To many, comics are superfluous -- which is why they continue to be treated so shabbily by newspaper editors.

And that's too bad. Noel Sickles and the golden age of adventure comics might be a thing of the past. But there are plenty of talented artists and writers who can tell engaging stories through comics given a chance. I wish they had it.

- Ralph


  1. I agree! I love his stuff and that book is indispensable! Keep you eyes out for the IDW Life of Alex Toth book who was probably Noel Sickles greatest student.

  2. Can't wait!

    I think my first encounter with Toth's work was "Space Angel." The animation creeped me out, but the artwork was first-rate.

    You can see the influence of Sickles in Toth, but he was decidedly a talent in his own right.

  3. Oh yes! He was but he was also a huge huge fan of Sickles and really studied his less is more approach for cartooning/illustrating.

  4. It really shows on a lot of Toth's work. And maybe that's why he was so effective designing cartoon characters for HB>