This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on February 13, 2015.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the car chase emerged as a dynamic and powerful trope in cinema. Requiring no dialogue, they could tell a story relying only on the energy captured within the frame. Films like The French Connection and Bullitt featured scenes so thrilling that they are still discussed by fans and academics today. Even The Blues Brothers featured one of the most exciting chase sequences in movie history amidst its raucous comedy. The combination of power, speed, and danger make the car chase a signature of modern visual storytelling. Yet it has become a truism it is almost impossible to convey the excitement of a car chase in comics. Despite their visual nature and ability to cut between any imaginable perspective, the car chase has not been utilized often or well in comics.
The primary challenge of adopting something that works so well in film to comics is the loss of motion. Although both mediums rely on images to tell a story, comics can only provide static images, whereas film can utilize the motion of both its subjects and the presentation itself as the camera moves. The momentum created by capturing this motion is incredible and allows for even badly shot car chases to relate the excitement of massive vehicles charging forward at 40, 70, or more than 100 miles per hour. A comic has to relate that sense of momentum without being able to actually show it, which may be why there are so few car chases in comics.
That trend is beginning to change though. Justin Jordan and Matteo Scalera’s Dead Body Road was published last year and collected by Image Comics in June. It featured some of the most thrilling comics action of 2014. Scalera crafted the comic to pack a lot of visually visceral sequences, including a twenty-page long car chase in #4.
The most notable thing about Dead Body Road #4 is that all but 2 of its 20 pages are parts to two-page spreads. Read as individual pages, most comics are held vertically, this issue is almost entirely horizontal encouraging readers focus to move from left-to-right rather than from top-to-bottom. This shift creates an important change in pacing. Western readers are used to a reading experience, both in prose and comics, that encourages them to move down the page. Forcing their attention to follow along a longer page spread creates a small increase in the motion necessary required to read. Although the change is small, the internal effect of the shift is much greater than its physical contribution, surprising readers conditioned to read in only one direction.
The horizontal panels also focus on action, rather than the juxtaposition of static panels. Wider panels allow for a broader range of motion to be captured and for the motion of a single action to be better captured. It makes the difference between someone being punch and that same person being punched from the left of the panel to the right. This shift helps show what direction cars, bullets, and bodies are moving.
The action also drives a horizontal reading of the comic. Gunfire, falling bodies, and accelerating cars all pull the readers attention to the left or right side of the panel, but never up or down. In addition to helping emphasize the comics pacing, it also helps to emphasize the impact or surprise of certain moments. On pages 8 and 9, Orson shoots Quint in the gut. The gunshot is shown in a panel that is dark on the left, but a bright yellow on the right that has further attention drawn to it with the bold onomatopoeia “BANG”. This emphasis on the right side of the panel drives attention to its immediate connection, Quint’s face which is equally shocked and pained. The connection between the gunfire and Quint’s reaction are inextricable. In the following two panels, the opposite effect is created when a biker fires his gun while facing the left side of the panel. This leftward momentum draws attention away from the following panel when Rachel is surprised by the gunfire. The dissociating created by directing the action in the opposite direction of the story allows for the reader to be surprised as well. Scalera finds ways to make the horizontal framing best capture other story beats, in addition to drawing out the excitement of a car chase.
Scalera’s rough, thin line work also helps to exaggerate the motion of the chase, specifically through motion lines. In the bottom row of pages 8 and 9, there are three distinctive sets of motion lines. The first panel leaves horizontal lines scattered about to emphasize a biker’s acceleration. In the following panel they spiral out from a gunshot to fill the rest of the panel. In the third and final panel, they streak diagonally, parallel to the force of Rachel’s leg and cutting a perpendicular angle to the gas pedal. This not only creates a sense of momentum for her leg, but pushes that momentum into the pedal. Each of these panels focuses on the central action drawing attention to it, while providing a sense of how it is affecting the world around it. All of these lines are thin, only widening towards their center if at all. They appear like scalpel cuts across the art, exaggerating the art beneath. The end result of all of these purposeful measures, from the horizontal spreads to the motion lines, is a car chase that is genuinely exciting.
Frank Miller is a strong influence here. In his seminal Daredevil run published between 1979 and 1983, Miller developed a method of structuring action using both page layouts and implied motion that made superhero action feel fresh and exciting. Action sequences in Daredevil often relied upon long horizontal panels that drove action across the page and allowed readers to simply read from top-to-bottom with no difficult transitions. The actions of his characters moved in the same direction the reader’s eye should be following as well. This provided a sense of implied momentum, where both the actions of the page and the action of reading reinforced one another for a fast reading experience during fast paced scenes. Scalera opts to use two-page spreads, but his panels utilize a wide horizontal layout and reinforcing actions in the same way Miller’s did.
Scalera isn’t the only artist currently working to better adapt car chases to the comics medium either. In All-New Ghost Rider #1-5 Tradd Moore utilized an eastern influenced style with lots of inked motion lines to create thrilling car chases on the streets of Los Angeles. He is applying additional tools as well, like the use of a GPS in panels, to help track action and convey motion in static images. In four issues thus far, it has resulted in some thrilling sequences that make the comic stand out as being truly unique in a market flooded with superhero comics.
The result of Scalera and Moore’s work is that it’s an exciting time to be reading comics. The excitement of motion that was best captured by film is now being translated into a medium with no limits besides the human imagination. Fiery ghost cars, train jumping vans, and packs of mercenary bikers roam the page at incredible speed to thrill and delight readers. Watching artists like Scalera adapt these stories to effectively convey the visceral nature of a car chase is a wonder in and of itself, pushing the medium to do new things. It serves as a reminder that comics have so much room to grow and today’s readers have a front row seat to the most exciting, game changing work in decades.
It’s an exciting time to be reading comics.