A couple weeks ago, I spent some time breaking down my favorite panel from Uncanny X-Men #25, and why it’s both a great Cyclops character beat* and a great illustration (ha!) of how visual storytelling can and should work.
Right now, Uncanny is a semimonthly series, which means it’s alternating between two artists, Chris Bachalo and Kris Anka. That kind of switching off can be risky business: making it work takes a very carefully matched pair of artists, and which commonalities matter most in a given series isn’t always obvious going in.
Bachalo and Anka overlap a lot superficially: they’re both stylish and angular, with clean line art and similar enough visual language to keep the transitions from being too jarring. More significantly, though–and critical to this series in particular–they’re both exceptionally good at conveying emotion through body language.
That’s particularly important here because Uncanny X-Men is currently in large part a book about Cyclops’s personal reckoning with the death of Charles Xavier–the mentor and surrogate father Cyclops killed while possessed by the Phoenix Force. That means it’s a story driven largely by emotional beats–something to which Cyclops is singularly poorly suited on fronts both visual and canonical.
Cyclops is kind of a block of wood. He’s uptight and very guarded–dude’s mantra is “I’m fine,” growled through gritted teeth. There’s nothing fluid about his body language–he’s all stiffness and angles, even in combat but especially in conversation. If you want to make Cyclops emotionally expressive and stay true to the character, you don’t get to use expository dialogue, and you definitely don’t get to use exaggerated expressions. You’re pretty much limited to subtle details.
Now, as it happens, superhero comics have a standard visual shorthand for exactly that scenario. The catch? It usually involves subtle variation in the way you draw their–you guessed it–eyes.
Not really an option here.
That’s where Anka and Bachalo–particularly Anka–come in. Kris Anka isn’t someone I go to when I’m thinking of artists who are masters of facial expressions. He doesn’t have the expressive fluidity of, say, Sara Pichelli or Russell Dauterman, nor the explosive intensity of Bill Sienkiewicz. Anka is all about lines and angles, stylized and sometimes even a little rigid. With Pichelli, you look to eyes and hands; with Dauterman, mouths. With Anka, the emotional beats are all about exaggerated or broken angles: clenched jawlines, sagging shoulders, stances knocked slightly off-kilter. Kris Anka can do a lot with body language.
So: In Uncanny X-Men #26, Cyclops starts out front and center, all false front and righteous indignation:
In fact, Cyclops only talks on one page of <em>Uncanny X-Men</em> #26. After the panel above, he says one more word. And then, over the rest of the issue, he just crumbles.
*You may have noted that a lot of the more craft-specific posts here have focused on portrayals of Cyclops. There are a couple reasons for that. Cyclops is one of my favorite X-Men characters, but he’s also one it’s really easy to handle poorly, and how well he’s done is–at least for me–a pretty good bar for the general quality of any given series in which he’s part of the main cast. And when Cyclops is done right, he tends to become a locus of interesting visual storytelling, because you’re taking a character who’s by definition not visually demonstrative and dropping them into a static visual medium that’s generally all about exaggerated expression.