Secret Lives of Comic Book Panels

I’m so thankful for the day that someone had the idea to combine blogging and comics. For instance, for the past several months I’ve been really enjoying 4CP, a tumblelog-style site that examines vintage comic books — or parts of them — with a curatorial eye. Each post is a detail from a decades-old comic book panel, shown in a kind of extreme focus that reveals the beauty of the ink lines, the textures of the paper and of course the distinctive color halftone screens that are the hallmark of cheap four-color printing.

The images are cropped with great artfulness, and manage to find moments of quiet and restfulness within a style of artwork that has always been about frantic motion, kinetic energy and physical action. Some of the pieces look downright still, as if they were somehow captured from the hidden moments that occur between panels. Even better: clicking on the images reveals high-resolution versions of many of them, where you get an even closer look at the fine details of the substrate and the effect becomes even more immersive.

Looking Closer

4CP is a production from a blogger who goes by Half-Man Half-Static and who bills himself (or herself) as “a curator of lost items.” Whomever Half-Man Half Static is, they’ve built an impressive little network of truly excellent comics- and pop-culture-themed, Posterous-powered blogs which you can see here.

Included among these is the slightly more famous and equally superb Comic Book Cartography. Like 4CP, Comic Book Cartography also mines historical comic books for curious gems, specifically incidents of outlandishly implausible information design perpetrated by comics writers and artists from a bygone age. Many of the treasures unearthed on Comic Book Cartography are truly remarkable artifacts of vague, Atomic-age, scientific daydreaming refracted through a naive, pop cultural lens.

Looking at examples like the one above, a cut-away diagram of The Fantastic Four’s futuristic corporate headquarters, I defy anyone to argue that our current fascination with information graphics doesn’t originate, at least in part, from the kinds of schematic graphics like this that old comics routinely dealt in.

In a slightly different vein, I’m a devoted reader of the blog Comically Vintage, which hilariously de-contextualizes full panels from, again, decades-old comic books in order to highlight their absurdity. There’s a slight bias towards the over-the-top histrionics of romance comics from the 1950s and 60s, but super-heroes, war-torn soldiers, creatures of horror and cowboys are well represented too. Perhaps most predominantly, the bloggers have great fun with the questionably unintentional but unmistakable undercurrent of homosexuality that runs through pretty much every genre of comics, ever.

Comically Vintage is a joint operation from four bloggers billing themselves as “paleocomicologists,” and in many ways they’re exemplary content creators in the tumblelog-style: their posts are fast and furiously paced, sometimes coming at the rate of ten or twenty per day. None of the core content is original but the bloggers add just enough value in their brief, sardonic captions to make it entertaining. And, naturally and unfortunately for this style of blogging, I have no idea who the people behind it really are. (Not coincidentally, Comically Vintage is published on the Tumblr platform.)

Nevertheless, I’m a fan — of all of these blogs. They’re so fascinating to me because they continue to demonstrate that comics reward closer examination from all angles, whether it’s through the quiet inspection of their finer details, identifying common visual tropes, or gentle ridicule. They also make a statement about the value of comics: in and of themselves they don’t form a complete and definitive argument for the validity of the comics form, but they make worthwhile contributions to the idea of their general acceptability. Through the quick insights into the subtext of these old panels that they provide, these blogs nudge us all towards the inevitable future in which we as a society finally accept comics as a great art form of the last century.

  1. Ha! I don’t try to hide; I just look at every endeavor as my client or a brand I’m tending – something that will fail or fly on its own terms.

    Thanks for causing me to discover your blog. Wonderful.

  2. Nice overview. Something that always strikes me when I look at these pristine close ups or enlargements of old comics panels is how much better they have aged than the pop art co-opting work that Lichtenstein did of them. The way the original panels are presented is not unlike butterflies pinned on velvet, beautiful and organic, present but ghostly, whereas the obviousness of the Lichtenstein – though of course still important in the pop art lexicon for reasons of its own – just look dead on the page.

  3. Greetings Mr Vinh, this is the Comically Vintage Attachж of Cultural Affairs for the Real World.

    Your kind comments are greatly appreciated.
    Some of us have followed your work at The New York Times and your Subtraction blog with great interest, so the admiration is mutual.

    It’s a very flattering and extremely encouraging review, we expect not to disappoint; you have our promise we will continue to provide all the ridiculous comics of the past you’d expect from us in the future.

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