We rather take it for granted that Sal Buscema was a superb storyteller, but what exactly does that mean? Why was it that his art, even when little more than sparse layouts turned out by necessity at speed, was adored by many of the writers who collaborated with him? We share general points about the qualities of the younger Buscema’s pencils: that they were clear, and energetic, and purposeful, and a joy for scripters to work with. But what does that mean in practise?
I’ve been looking for aspects of Buscema’s storytelling that might help further explain the appeal of his work to co-creators and readers alike in The Defenders #3, since it was next on my list to discuss at Them Darned Superpeople. The one technique I’d like to look at in this post is SB’s use of three successive panels to play out a short scene as a sequence of (1) a threatening status quo, (2) a conflict, and (3) a new, and typically temporary, status quo. In short, and this may have been just one of the reasons why SB’s art so appealed to writers, Buscema constantly shows the reader exactly what the state of play at a specofic moment, develops it with the depiction of a conflict, and then illustrates the result of that strife. In such a way is a story paced out in a series of short scenes offering threat, suspence and conflict, and resolution. For a writer, and in particular one using the Marvel Method, this must have been a godsend, since it freed them from the need to explain events in great detail. Instead, it allowed them to focus on anything and everything on the page beyond the immediate demands of the plot, from character development to foreshadowing and all points in-between and all-around.
Take the sequence of three panels marked (1) above. In the first, we’re shown the monstrous Nameless One, confident in his power and clearly out to obliterate The Defenders. In the second, something is obviously going wrong for him. In the third, we see the reason why, as Namor explodes out of his interior, having earlier been swallowed, although, obviously not consumed.
It’s such an unobtrusive technique that it isn’t even noticeable if the reader isn’t looking for it. But it’s immensely effective, and particularly since Buscema is so strong at identifying the simplest and most clear depictions for each stage.
I’m not suggesting that it’s anything other than one of many, many storytelling options in Buscema’s armoury. But in Four Against The Gods, he did use it in a whole series of different layouts. Consider the page above, in which the three panel development from situation through conflict to new situation is used twice, broken by a central row of two frames. At the head of the page, we’re shown (1) The Defenders plunging without means of escape into a Maelstrom, (2) The Hulk striking the tear in space/time first, and (3) The Hulk is now serving as a plug of sorts to ensure he and his colleagues don’t disappear from the dimension they’re in. In the last row of the page, we see Namor play out something of an opposite sequence of events. Rather than being carried into the mystical whirlpool, he is (1) shown trying to desperately haul himself out of it, while (2). In the second panel, being shown the costs of his effort with the strong suggestion is that he’s succeeding in breaking free, before (3) he reaches the stable, safe point that is the Surfer’s board.
In each of these sequences of three panels, Buscema begins with a dynamic establishing shot, follows it with a frame full of character-revealing struggle, and ends on an imaginative, less-typical frame, varying the camera angle to finish on a sense of surprise and achievement. As such, he isn’t just ensuring events are clear. He’s also introducing drama and, as a closing note, novelty, driving the story on and introducing unexpected visuals even within his most familiar narrative tricks. (You can see the same in the triple panel sequence above where Namor is show erupting from one of The Nameless One’s heads.)
Finally, let’s look a two pages printed side-by-side, to show how Buscema’s three-panel convention is used in such a way to maintain variety and emphasis. On the left hand side, the page is constructed from two three-frame sequences, each working as we might now expect. And it’s telling that Buscema injects a considerable degree of productive variety in order to best tell the story while avoiding pages that feel one-and-the-same. In the first row of the first side, for example, the camera angle flips between the first and second panel, creating a sense of vertiginousness and speed that sets up the last frame while emphasising Namor’s struggle to direct the board.
On the second page, the three-panel sequence appears in the middle row, in which we’re shown (1) Namor’s dehydration as a consequence of his efforts, (2) Strange’s attempts to aid his colleague, and (3) the triple results of that assistance, in that Namor is restored, Strange contines his attempts to make a human connection with his occasional colleagues, and, irony of ironies, The Hulk is made jealous. It’s a sharp if subtle moment on the part of Buscema and Englehart, in that it keeps alive the inter-personal conflicts that might otherwise disappear from the story at this moment of partial triumph.
I’m not suggesting that this one technique is in any way the “secret” to Buscema’s success as a storyteller, in this period or any other. Rather, I’m just discussing how Sal Buscema used it in a variety of ways in this one particular issue to fill its pages with scenes that promoted clarity and drama while allowing his writer collaborators a solid narrative base to work with. Nor am I insisting that all of the artist’s choices were equally successful. The frame that contains The Hulk expressing his alienation from Namor and Stephen Strange, for example, appears cobbled together at speed, awkward in construction and lacking in any pleasurable measure of character or action beyond Englehart’s words. But then, storytelling in The Marvel Method was/is a matter of teamwork, and in those moments when one partner might (very) briefly slip beneath their characteristic quality of work, another was, in the best situations, there to ensure that the ball is picked up and run with. As indeed happened in that single frame, when Englehart’s script provided the panel with a fascination that the art struggled to. (If I discuss that single example, it isn’t to damn Sal Buscema’s work on the issue in any way, but rather to show how rarely his storytelling fell to the standard of “merely adequate” while trying to avoid sounding as if this post was intended as hagiography.)
The more I study Sal Buscema’s storytelling, the more amazed I am at his command of his craft. A master, undeniably, at work, day in, day out, for decade after decade. I don’t believe the lessons that can be learned from his work are in any way irrelevant today.