How to Make Action Move, Part One by T Campbell

My muscles tensed. A cold sweat broke over my brow. The next few minutes would be do or die.

"So long story short," said Joey Manley, "You want to edit this thing?"

Since I started editing Graphic Smash, and even before, I’ve seen a lot of action, from "widescreen" superhero epics to old-fashioned 1930s-ish serials to Matrixesque cyberpunk to melees between talking rats and wombats. I’ve seen a lot of great action.

And honestly—I’ve seen a lot of bad action. Cartoonists sometimes rush into things, when that should be the action star’s job. So let’s puzzle this out a bit. What makes good action pulse and throb?

A good fight (or chase, or life-and-death struggle) can’t just come out of nowhere because you’re afraid the audience is getting bored. It has to be in line with the whole comic. Consider tone. Is the fight going to be funny, droll, horrifying, or exciting? What about setting? Is it in an alley? In the Danger Room? Underwater? Exotic locales are not required for a good fight (as we’ll see), but everything happens somewhere, and your fight will be more real if you remember where.

And then, remember who. The makers of Spider-Man 2 understood that Spidey’s fighting style differs from Batman’s. Super-powered or not, who people are affects how they fight. Your characters might be defensive, precise, uninhibited, or enraged. They might know tae kwan do, streetfighting, kickboxing or, um, Bruce Lee movies. Or they might have guns. What kind of guns?

Designing characters in Fans meant asking myself how each character would fight. Rumy was the easiest: true to her magical-girl influence, she was a total kung-fu badass, high leaps compensating for short stature. Will was the most muscular and temperamental, and fought like it—jumping in with overwhelming strength but small skill. Shanna, once a useless hysteric, later trained as a markswoman.

Choreography puts the elements together. Comics are at a serious disadvantage to film when it comes to portraying movement, because they do not, in fact, move. (I know: duh.) Comics have plenty of other advantages, but when it comes to action, cartoonists, like Rumy, come up short at first and must jump twice as high to compensate.

Comics choreography breaks into two parts: moment and transition. Many in-frame tricks suggest movement, from the obvious (after-images in one frame) to the subtle (windswept hair).

Whether you go from action to action or jump scenes, every frame should propel the story forward. Don’t try to mimic movies shot-by-shot: reading is more active than watching. The reader is more engaged and thus harder to confuse than in film—but confusion is possible.

In the first draft, only your best instincts can decide what’s confusing, but fortunately, confusion is the easiest response to detect in a reader. Show it to your friends. Watch for "that look." You know the one—it says "is this too smart, or am I too dumb, or is it dumb for making me feel dumb?"

You need visual variety: varying camera angles, camera distances, numbers of elements in the panel, and overall visual effects. Having a big action scene take place behind two bored video game players, while the camera remains fixed behind the video game screen, has, ahem, been done.

Visual variety, too, needs to find that fine balance between excitement and clarity. If two characters face one another and the camera has them in profile, then suddenly rotates 180 degrees to get them from the other side, the reader often becomes confused: have they switched places?

To a certain degree, you need length. Some great action scenes are short in and of themselves, but almost all of them require some sort of buildup, either during the scene or before it. Getting the blood pumping takes time. Strips like RPG World occasionally resort to "super-sized" episodes, taking twenty or thirty panels to capture a fight instead of the usual six or eight (or less).

You can get away with primitive art for some comical or conversational scenes, but you absolutely cannot "wing" action sequences. Car chases become meaningless if you can’t handle perspective or communicate speed. In Dilbert, Alice’s "fist of death" is often discussed but almost never seen, because Adams’ style just can’t convey the force and skill of Alice’s punch. The best he can do is to show comical aftereffects like a body half-in and half-out of a hole in the wall. If you don’t have certain visual skills, get them, team up with someone who does, or don’t do action comics.

Finally, be mindful of the many, many action clichés. If it reminds you of more than one movie or TV show, it’s at least traditional. If it’s traditional, predictable, and doesn’t make much sense, it’s cliché. How many groups of ninjas insist on attacking a single hero one at a time? How many of them announce the name of their attack first? How many superheroes try to make casual conversation of twenty words or more per frame while punching someone’s face in? Think yourself into the characters as they fight, and let them steer you away from these easy storytelling crutches.

So much for principles. In Part 2, we’ll go to practice.

T Campbell is a writer of multiple webcomics and the editor of the subscription webcomic site, Graphic Smash.

One Comment

  1. OK, I’ll be looking forward to part 2, here. Adam and I have been in the middle of writing/drawing a lengthy fight scene for the last month at It’s a lot of fun, but it ain’t easy. We’ve taken a stream of conscious approach, the moves tend to flow better for us that way. I’ve come to realize it takes practice. Keep trying different things and eventually you’ll find conventions you like, and you know what works and what does it.

    Biggest lesson I’ve learned – dont forget the holsters unless you want your characters stuck holding the guns for the entire scene.

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