How to Make Action Move, Part Two: Examples by T Campbell

Let’s start with my own work. I’m no judge of whether it’s the best out there, but it seems well-received enough, and I know it better than anyone else’s because I know what I was thinking.

In my Fans story "Otaku," Rumy the cartoonist tries four different art styles to capture a moment in the life of Rumy the warrior. The moment is a three-way fight between Rumy, her sensei, and her brother. Brother believes sensei is abusive, sensei finds brother’s concerns a nuisance, and Rumy sees that the different sides of her upbringing – teacher and family – will never be reconciled. This moment laid real drama underneath screwball misunderstanding. Fans often played with tone, and this style exercise acknowledged the scene’s serious, comical, and melodramatic elements. It was true to Rumy, an aspiring, Western-influenced cartoonist trying to find her voice. Finally, it mimicked two well-known action experts, so it didn’t skimp on the thrills.

I feel these pages do drop the ball in one respect: setting. This was a Japanese city scene, but the first three pages take most of their iconography (and trash can design) from American 1940s New York. This may fit the Langridge and Jack-Kirby-like styles, but it doesn’t suit George Perez at all. Perez is obsessive in his use of realistic backgrounds; the counterfeit strip uses none. Considering how important Japan is to this particular story, the omission is glaring—but doesn’t overcome the pages’ other virtues:

The Landgridge Page
The Kirby Page
The Perez Page
The Sienkiewicz Page

Over in Rip and Teri’s "The Number ‘I,’" we have another battle in Japan, and I’m pleased to report this one uses its settings better. The setup is complicated. Rip, once America’s greatest secret agent, attacks the home of 12-Tron, a corrupt religious leader who has ordered his death. But his replacement, XI, lies in wait to bring him in. XI has delivered Teri, the love of Rip’s life, to 12-Tron as a bargaining chip. And 12-Tron has begun to lose the cool self-assurance that’s a requirement for his job.

The tone of this fight varies little. Rip and Teri mixes spy action with romance, and in this scene the action dominates.

Rip blasts into 12-Tron’s temple using fire, smoke, gunfire and disguise, but XI engages him, drawing first blood. Meanwhile, 12-Tron hides with his concubines and the captive Teri, who through constant, determined effort is chewing through her ropes. When 12-Tron turns to the intercom to announce his hostage, Teri seizes the moment.

Settings: The two spies fight in a smoke-filled temple, now empty, an ideal place for two people whose skills set them apart from most of humanity. Teri attacks 12-Tron in his splendid bedchamber, surrounded by the objects most precious to him. Those objects turn against him now, from the lamp with which Teri batters him to the concubines, whose faces harden as he fails to protect them.

Characters: The two battles are nearly equal. Rip and XI, both at the top of their game, use weapons and advanced fighting arts in a close contest. Teri is no great fighter. 12-Tron is strong enough to carry her away while running. But what her attacks lack in skill they make up in fury, and 12-Tron’s courage has already deserted him.

The choreography and visual variety are mostly better seen than discussed:

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It’s my best action scene to date, but I still worried over certain risks. (I still worry now, to be honest. I think if you stop worrying, that’s when you’re in trouble.) The climax demands Rip pick up a gun with his right hand after XI has shot through his right wrist. That’s pain suppression and muscle coordination that humans rarely achieve. Readers are probably willing to suspend disbelief that far (world’s greatest, and all that). But it was a challenge to decide just how superhuman Rip could be before the series lost its reality.

Teri’s scene was a greater concern because it verged on cliché. How many times have you seen this before? Hero and Villain struggle, Love Interest finds blunt instrument, Love Interest clocks Villain on the Noggin. On the other hand, Teri has almost no combat experience. She couldn’t exactly use the Vulcan neck-pinch. Those very movie clichés would be her only source of inspiration.

A few novel elements save the scene, at least for me. (At least, I think so.) Teri’s struggle has only a little impact on Rip’s. She mostly acts to save herself. And the real point of the scene comes through in its final frame. The three concubines could probably stop Teri, but they are too absorbed in 12-Tron’s humiliation. Teri’s attack only knocks him out, but in a sense it destroys him.

Speaking of action scenes in a Japanese setting reminds me of Megatokyo. Megatokyo is not really an "action comic." Its leisurely pace of production doesn’t get the adrenaline pumping. Even in large doses (which is how it reads best), its most important emotion is angst, not fight or flight. Yet Fred Gallagher’s later work contains some of the most well-used action in webcomics.

The strip throws Largo, a leet-speaking, delusional gob of testosterone, and Piro, a self-flagellating, romance-craving wallflower, into a Tokyo that fuses real Japanese culture with the imagined icons of its movies, cartoons, and video games. Battlefields are everywhere in this "MegaTokyo," from the video arcade to the rooftops to fan mobs.

When Largo and his female rival Tohya duel in the video game Super Moe-Moe Ball, Gallagher renders them as simplified icons in spheres and plots their video-game strategy with military precision. Soon after, Gallagher executes a sprawling battle involving Largo, an android, a giant robot, a giant turtle monster, and an assassin wearing a paper bag. It all turns out to be a sort of job interview for Largo, which makes it a wacky counterpoint to Piro’s first halfway successful talk with a girl he likes.

In more recent strips, Piro and Largo have become just a bit more like one another. Largo develops feelings for women, apparently for the first time, and spends his considerable energy defending a voice actress from her own fame (as best shown in a brief, wry bit). Piro tries the same thing and gets a broken nose for his trouble… and the shame sticks with him more than usual. Subsequent scenes show Piro taking halting steps toward assertiveness. He begins to recognize the problems he causes himself, and half-seriously threatens Largo rather than simply letting Largo embarrass him.

These two trends come together with force in the "Cave of Evil" sequence. Largo, reeling from rejection, has drunk himself stupid(er) in a nightclub. Tohya seems intent on seducing him, but her motives are unclear and her manner is unsettling. Just when Tohya seems in complete control of the situation, Piro steps in and shoves the two apart. He subjects Tohya to a brief tirade which reduces her to tears and trudges off, Largo in tow. Underscoring the moment’s action-scene undertone, Largo mumbles a paraphrase from old Westerns: "She got me, pard’ner… she got me…"

Action is relative. Insults are part of Largo’s daily routine. But for Piro the moment is decisive. For the first time, he has stood up to an aggressor with words and deeds. His intervention is an act of transformation.

If this argument blurs the lines a bit between what is action and what isn’t, then go ahead and let those lines blur. Action is a part of life. It grows more or less intense, but never stops while our hearts still beat.

And it’s a part of life that webcartoonists have yet to master. For all the energy in webcomics, we haven’t yet produced a Jack Kirby, a George Perez, a Frank Miller, or a John Woo. If you would master action, look past the examples of your peers, look past the examples of your supposed superiors. Take a self-defense class. Read The Art of War or other books on strategy. Bone up on weapons technology. Study anatomy and pressure points. Remember basic physics.

The best is yet to come. The best could come from you.

Know that.

Act on it.

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