A long time ago a friend of mine showed me a photocopy of a collection of comic book style panels called “Wally Wood’s 22 panels that always work!”. Supposedly put together by the legendary Wood, they showed 22 different panel designs that could be used at almost any time within a comic book story to help give a boring “talking heads” part of a script some visual interest. I thought it was pretty smart. For years I’d been looking for a copy of it. In the last week it’s been getting a lot of circulation on the Internet on cartoon and comic blogs and forums, thanks to some high res scans of it available, including HERE at Joel Johnson’s website. Here’s a small version:
It turns out this was actually put together after Wood’s death by one of his former assisitants, Larry Hama, but the concepts are all Wood’s.
This has sparked some surprising controversy as to whether Wood’s little diagram of panel ideas were truly helpful or a hack’s guide in disguise. You can see some of the comments brought up in the post about it on “Drawn!”, an excellent blog about cartooning and illustration. Mark Evanier also discusses it on his terrific blog.
Personally I don’t see what the controversy is about. Wood’s “22 Panels” are simply one artists observations of storytelling conventions and standards that have been used since they started making comic books and even telling stories with pictures on cave walls. Film makers use similar camera shots and angles all the time, but nobody seems to think a director using a ‘close up’ for the ten millionth time in film is being a hack. Using a standard storytelling trick to bridge panels with more specific design approaches to your particular subject matter is perfectly acceptable. Guys like Kirby, Eisner, Foster… you name it… had their conventions and used them all the time. Were they hacks? Hardly. Wood himself was famous for putting inordinate amounts of time into even trivial panels, and Larry Hama said that Wood put these together as a reminder to himself to stop “noodling” and be more productive with his art, according to Joel Johnson in a conversation with Hama you can read in the link to the image above.
I think some artists today don’t understand what it was like back in the 60’s and 70’s with comics and illustration (not that I can remember either, I was born in 1966- I’ve just heard tales from the artists of that era). There was no thought past the ‘end product’ in many cases. The art was considered disposable. Commercial artists used Dr. Martin dyes and other non-archival materials to do their work, knowing full well the art would fade and be ruined in a short time. The reproduction was all that mattered. There was no after market for originals, and to many artists the art was just a job. They didn’t take is so seriously. Remember many of them had to bang out 2 or 3 issues a month to make a decent living, and did. They didn’t have time to pour their souls into every line. Even today there needs to be a balance between production and art. Deadlines are as important as doing really good work… a client or comic book publisher has little use for an artist who’s work is brilliant but can’t finish a job to save their lives. A successful comic artist needs to go good work in good time, not excellent work way too late, or lousy work really, really fast. Those last two approaches will get a few jobs but ultimately result in failure. Wood’s “22 Panels” are about helping to be that first kind of artist. I don’t think he meant them to be a study in how to assemble complete comic story, but just something to give you ideas when it’s one of those brain numbing script parts that feature a 2 page conversation about nothing exciting.
As for Wood, some have pointed out he has a shadow of his former greatness by the end of his career, for many reasons not the least of which was he was nearly blind by the end. I loved his early work with EC and MAD, and think he was a true genius of comic art. The story of his failing physical and mental health and suicide is one of the most tragic in all of the comic book industry.
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