Walt Simonson

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

For all my indie comic navel-gazing, I still love a well-told superhero story: if someone (and it’s usually just a single someone, not a team) can take their time to tell me about hope, power, responsibility, and morality writ large without resorting to a physical fight or a fist-clenching theater of self-destruction, I’m there. And hey, that’s Walt Simonson.

Coming out of a studio that he shared with Howard Chaykin and Frank Miller, Simonson seems somehow free of the bombast that accompanies the other two. He seems to revel in a tale well-told; he pulls the trigger on plots instead of holding mysteries and plot twists over readers’ heads.

Compared to most mainstream American superhero books, Simonson’s work is almost strangely seamless. He doesn’t seem like an artist who’s trying to write or a writer who’s learning to draw; he’s a storyteller, and the pacing of the art, placement of the dialogue (often with cohort John Workman), and structure of the plot are all inextricable from each other. For an example of this, see Orion‘s 5 x 5 mythic structure (somewhat hindered by the way it’s printed in the omnibus) and Thor‘s self-contained meandering as a hero learns of himself.

And I’ll forever be impressed by his bold (in superhero comics) adoption of shapes and vectors, realism be damned. If the Image Comics founders had stolen Simonson’s storytelling chops along with his “lots of lines” approach, the ’90s would’ve been a lot different.* His work stealthily prepared my brain for more abstract work, such as Margot Ferrick’s Sec (see below).


Walt Simonson, from Orion #8.


From Margot Ferrick’s Sec.

* No offense meant to the Image founders. Thanks to Sarah Horrocks, I’m a fervent Rob Liefeld apologist.

Alien: The Illustrated Story

Writer: Archie Goodwin
Penciller: Walt Simonson
Genre: sci-fi horror
Context: originally published in 1979 by Heavy Metal; reprinted by Titan in 2012 in a regular version and a crazy big artist’s edition

I almost never buy adaptations. I’m not sure who does. It’s my suspicion that they’re probably all purchased by well-meaning relatives and significant others to give as presents. Every once in a while, there will be an adaptation that interests me purely because of who’s involved. Al Williamson drawing Star Wars and Blade Runner? Bill Sienkiewicz drawing Dune (and you can read it all for free online)?

These things are akin to the Incredible Hulk being the new drummer of my favorite band, and even if they aren’t books I come back to over and over, they’re things I like to look at and I’m glad that, at some point, someone thought it was an awesome idea.

However, I will never be able to bring myself to give a damn about a Halo comic that seems to only exist because there are people out there (I assume) who will buy (or be given by their relative) anything with the Halo logo on it… unless Bill Sienkiewicz draws it.

Anyway, the comic here is Alien, which is a movie I don’t think I’ve ever watched all the way through. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every scene in it. I’ve just never watched them all in order in one go. So why bother with the comic?

Goodwin and Simonson. Goodwin is my favorite comic writer from, say, before 1985, and Simonson, still in his early years here and showing lots of influence from his studio-mate Howard Chaykin, is definitely one of my favorite artists ever. Together (and with letterer John Workman), they accomplish a sense of pacing and scale that transcended the comics around it at the time and still stands above most genre comics today.

Someone (Mike Mignola? Mark Waid?) has said that making scary comics is very, very difficult. There’s no way to jump out and startle readers in a way that approaches movies, and it takes a very talented artist to replicate a novel’s ability to have the reader take a hand in creating the horrors. Everything sits there, visible the second the page is turned. Mignola’s answer to the problem is a sort of compositional ambiance where the horrific aspects of the atmosphere stretch slowly across a whole book, expanding slowly across a page like slow, ragged breaths.

Simonson’s technique in Alien is much more staccato. He breaks the horror into sequences of images where very little time passes between each, almost like film on a reel. The effect it has on a reader is to slow them down: instead of one image of an alien eating someone, there’s a whole row of panels, and each one has to be “read,” strobing the event across the page.

The only complaint I have is that there are a few pages full of sci-fi jargon, specifically when the engine of their ship is messing up as the crew descends onto the planet/asteroid thing where they find the alien. I understand that the jargon helps make the world feel real, but comics have a harder time dealing with this specific situation. In a movie, the dialogue can be delivered quickly, surrounded by explosions and jarring. In a novel, exposition can be done outside of dialogue, or the dialogue can be condensed into exposition. “He was screaming something about the engine’s malfunction,” versus “‘The B-12 is taking a hit in it’s lateral blah blah blah.'” In comics, especially older comics, it’s much harder to indicate to a reader that a piece of dialogue is not important to the plot or character. It sits there on the page in the same size as the “more important” dialogue; to shrink it down might indicate a whisper or a mumble.

Some modern comics have found interesting ways around this. Matt Fraction/Gabrial Ba/Fabio Moon’s Casanova will occasionally have bracketed phrases in word balloons (something like [macho posturing]) or even blank balloons, indicating that someone is talking, but maybe the words aren’t as important as the actions. Other comics (and I can’t think of a specific example right now) will have sentences running past the boundaries of the balloon, so the balloon serves as a window into what their saying, becoming an indicator of context without trying to relay all of the content.

And maybe Goodwin wanted to do something like this but it was too radical for 1979. I don’t know. If my only complaint about a book is that there were a few pages where there was a bit too much dialogue, it’s still a good comic.

I was going to go on a rant about modern superhero comics using full-page splashes to artificially confer importance to an action or event and compare it to how Simonson only uses them for actual physical scale and manages to confer importance/drama with pacing, color, and so on, but I’m not sure I have it in me. Instead, here is an awesome two-page spread from Alien. Do yourself a favor and click it and view it at full size.