Sunday, September 06, 2009

Noel Sickles and Art of Sequential Art, Part 2

In part one we looked at one aspect of the remarkable work Noel Sickles in an essentially disposable medium. As I said then, this series isn't necessarily for the hardcore comics fan, but rather for anyone interested in creative work that's better than it has to be.

Noel Sickles had a long and distinguished career as a commercial artist. He only spent three of them as a comic strip artist - but his work on "Scorchy Smith" set the standard for many artists since.

One of the reasons has to do with his mastery of light and shadow, such as the panel at left. The scene takes place in the early afternoon somewhere in the southwest.

How bright is the sun? Bright enough to wash out some details. Sickles doesn't draw in the door panel, nor does he completely line out the undercarriage seam. And that sun's bright enough to cast some long, deep shadows! Note the shadow of the rear view mirror. Sickles also uses negative space effectively to depict the mirror by only showing its shadow. The line from the top of car door is interrupted by the mirror, but the object itself isn't outlined.

And speaking of negative space, look closely at the radiator. A single black blot would work, but Sickles uses it to also show the composition of the radiator. The irregular edging suggests grille composed of vertical rods (and of course the black shadows stop to outline the shape of the car horns).

The front bumper is also primarily depicted by negative space created by the shadows around it. And same with the wheels -- instead of an oval outline, they're shown where their white spaces intersect the black underside of fenders, and the shadow cast by the car itself.

Below is the original sequence the panel comes from (click on image to enlarge).

It's pretty dialogue-heavy, which tends to crowd the art a little. Even so, Sickles manages to keep things moving. In the top sequence, he places the caption at the bottom of the panel to break up the eye motion (otherwise the reader could hjust skim across the top of the comic and never really see the art). What prevents skimming on the bottom sequence? The placement of the word balloons. In the second panel Ann's response is underneath Scorchy's balloon, so the eye enters the next panel about three-quarters of the way up, leading straight to Scorchy's balloon -- but not before being lead past the courthouse and the car, setting the scene.

While there's a lot of virtuoso artistry going on here, you can also see where Sickles took a little time-saving shortcut. Four of the panels has Ann looking over her shoulder with the same light source -- Sickles essentially draws the same image four times.

But considering the pressures of producing a comic strip six days a week, 52 weeks a year, it's a small concession. And really -- considering the quality of the artwork, how many readers would actually notice?

- Ralph


  1. Its funny that you bring that panel up. I was just reading that the other night and being blown away by it.

  2. Agreed. Once Sickles made the strip his own, it really took off. I could probably do another four or five posts looking at different aspects, like his experiment with ziptone, or the fantastic aerial shots from the train chase sequence, and so on. Sickles is probably the greatest artist no one's heard of.