Let’s look at the Black Snow webcomic written by Alex Siquig with art by Michael Balistreri. It’s almost totally done in black and white line, though there are places where pontilism and detailed penwork appear. Because it lacks color or a certain amount of technical sophistication, some might not give this comic a second look. That may be a mistake.
Black Snow about a second tier superhero group and their adventures in Detroit. The famous supers save the day and act condescendingly toward our hero Black Snow, his sidekick Lightning Lad, the Anti Nazi and Elephant Boy. It’s a little bit camp, a little gritty and filled with a lot of character. At its heart, it is a true superhero story.
One place where the comic shines is the clearness of the action. The artist has experience with film and I assume that is why the action reads very much like a storyboard to me, which has its pros and cons. This approach helps the story flow smoothly and gives the big scenes pop but holds back some of the storytelling in the middle. The artist speaks to this in one of his blog posts about being more eager with the start and end of each section but that’s a very common thing I’ve heard from many artists. Most of us want to draw the big action scenes but it’s real work to draw the talking heads and landscapes. Something that helps (and which I think ought to be the standard for most online comics) is how the strips are displayed one above the other in an easy to read fashion.
Likewise, much can be lost because we’re in a hurry to get to the good parts. The story is advanced at a reasonable pace and care has been taken to make sure it is understandable. What’s more is that there are deeper themes emerging than what you see on the surface. History is hinted at or revealed and there is a depth in what is going on that the art disguises.
Another place where we can learn from Black Snow is in the character design. While some are reminiscent of characters from the big two, they are all individuals with their own speech patterns and behaviors. I especially liked the villains Kannibal Karl and Six Shot and I can even appreciate the Jester. Black Snow, whom I enjoy, is like a Kurt Russel sort of character except he can’t control his own powers. Surprisingly, the Anti Nazi is the most heroic and likable one of them all – the name and subject matter inclined me away on my first impression. Interestingly, I want to like Elephant Boy more but while he is capable of being quite the hero, he’s always sleeping. I’m sure there’s a story yet untold there – some quick research shows that elephants sleep only for brief periods over the night so it’s not an elephant theme. In any case, there are a tremendous number of characters for so few issues.
As artists, we can be very critical of the techniques we see in a piece of artwork. And while these are very important skills to constantly improve on, we have to be able to look beyond them too. Black Snow is created by two old friends who are just getting started and it has some entertaining potential. The artist didn’t even like comics as a kid, so he really deserves some credit for having some good instincts about making readable comics. While there is development yet to be made, the writing has a decent depth which required that I look past my initial impressions to recognize.
What Did I Learn?
Something that comics can do that moving images can’t is to compress a series of events down to a much smaller set of images and in less time. This is something I am currently struggling to make progress on, so perhaps taking a storyboard approach will help me to better visualize how my own work should flow. Maybe I can also take a character concept that I dislike and create someone I do like from it. Finally, there are cusps that we sometimes hit as creators where we hope to see more results than we actually get. It is a monument to our character if we push ourselves to do the work required to succeed. Take a look at the Black Snow comic and see if it hits you the same way it did me.
UPDATE: The Black Snow website has been updated and refurbished and the comic art has since improved. You can now read the adventures of Lone Wolf as he tries to get a movie career going at I’m Famous.