Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Comic Analysis: Optimus Prime. Kei Zama: The Power of Panel Layout

- Leigh Gregurke

Optimus Prime (2016) Art by Kei Zama, Written by John Barber , Colours by Josh Burcham , letters by Tom B. Long, edited by Carlos Guzman. Published by IDW.

I don't think I have ever been as excited to see an artist take on interior sequential duties on a book as I was when Kei Zama was announced on IDW's Optimus Prime. I was not deterred by yet another Prime focused book nor did it bother me that John Barber, whose arching political narratives I thought wouldn't sit well with Zama's brutal and aggressive line work, would be the writer. I was excited to see what one of the most talented and engaging young artists would create with a style so distinct and physical. Zama's artistic bandolier is brimming with tools ranging from the dynamic anchoring straight lines of Senior, the aggression and scowl of Yanniger, texturing and rendering in excess reminiscent of 90's McFarlane on Spider-man and the brutal stark contrast and compositional balance of Mike McMahon.

So the book is amazing right? 

It's.....okay. There are times it doesn't read well visually and feels cluttered and confusing... and there are times it is excellent, genuinely excellent.

Is it possible I had expectations set too high? I did, no doubt. The transition from pin up style work; larger more expressive pieces to interiors is tough, especially I imagine the switch from bigger scale traditional tools to the challenge of fitting more information into smaller spaces in sequential work. Perhaps made even more difficult on a book paced with new character entrances, large ensembles, bountiful levels of speech and a fast paced narrative occurring in two time spaces. It is a super dense story. The art has some issues, there are pages that flow awkwardly or don't read clearly.

When it is good though, it is really good.

Zama deploys some of those tools mentioned to work within the tight spaces of the page, to create tension and demonstrate space or a lack thereof. I want to break down two of my favourite pages from issue two. The interrogation of Jetfire by Prowl, two pages, one room. 

Zama delivers two very traditional 9 panel layouts that stand out and add some formality and control in contrast to the chaos of the rest of the issue. The panel designs offer a direct relation of the controlled space, tight, rigid and barred.

Here the situation is intimate, two characters. The angles that we the viewer are given shift and rotate, the camera shows us the room and the interaction but it is not arbitrary, it reflects the movement of Prowl, stalking, circling, closing in... pacing. We feel Jetfire being trapped by not only Prowl but the space of the room and even the panel borders themselves. The third panel gives us the scope of the room from a birds eye creating a clever establishing shot that hints at a theme of surveillance and control, it shows us the track that Prowl patrols, circular around his mark. Rather than dropping the establishing shot first it lets us examine the situation and character relationship before revealing the battleground it takes place on.

Let's examine that page flow a bit deeper.....

The picture above, desaturated for ease of viewing has been marked with some of the key flow indicators. Beginning at the top left our eye follows the eye-lines of the two characters giving us a clear indicator of who controls the power in the situation, it starts us moving, Prowls eye-line as the controller is established as a direction point following through in the next panel and then again as we see him looking down over Jetfire and then again at him re-directing us to the bottom left panel. The motion here is sped-up masterfully and the use of speed lines show a switch in action, we are immediately pushed up following those directional ques again with the punch, our motion stops and the viewer feels the impact.

The second page uses the nine panels natural rhythm to change pace yet again. Notice how Prowl's extended hand appears on the last panel of the top section, then our eye moves slowly, recognizing a pause to Jetfire returning the gesture. By separating the two panels across sections it gives the reader a moment of pause, hinting at hesitation, consideration and thought. It may seem like a lot to read into the selection of two panels placements but consider how they would read if they existed next to each other, it would increase the pace of the two movements considerably.

Finally I wanted to touch the usage of visual cues to give the viewer an understanding of the space the characters inhabit. The blue dots in the image above highlight a series of background elements that occur on a number of panels. By including consistent details and in this instance very linear shapes that assist in page flow the viewer always a concrete idea of where the action takes place. While it seems like an obvious element to include, many sequential works struggle with it and don't read visually for it. Not native to comics this is something that can be seen in the film works of John McTiernan (Predator/Die Hard). A reason his action work is so timeless is the attention to detail in setting scenes and creating a map for the viewer to understand the relationship between the characters and their environments.

Zama's work on IDW's Optimus Prime has the flaws you might expect a new artist brings, it also has some craft years ahead of her experience in the industry. It delivers that raw and direct style those like myself have grown to love but as the series continues evidence is emerging of a great understanding of visual language and storytelling.

Kei Zama is an artist I am excited to watch grow; get on board now and be part of something exciting, support new and emerging artists that will shape the industry for years to come.

Read books, keep it #Refined

Follow Leigh on Twitter @ambushthem

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