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John Buscema

This week I thought we could look at a two-page spread from a comic book drawn by John Buscema. The comic is Magik #2 from 1984. It was written by Chris Claremont, drawn by John Buscema with inks by Tom Palmer. Here's the cover:

John Buscema



Here's page one. The splash page. It sets up the following two-page spread that I will attempt to dissect. The character Illyana Rasputin is six years old. There she is on the upper right part of the page. The other female character  on the page is Kitty Pryde - or some alternate world version of Kitty Pryde. Kitty is protecting Illyana from a demon. That's basically all we need to know to follow the action in order to dissect the following two page spread.

John Buscema


Here is the two-page spread (below). The demon knocks Kitty to the ground. Then the demon chases Illyana. Kitty recovers and distracts the demon so that Illyana can escape. But then Illyana falls into Kitty's "circles of light" and goes down the rabbit hole.

John Buscema


The "correct" way to read this two-page spread, of course, follows the traditional left-to-right zigzag down the left-hand side of the spread and up to the right and back down. Like this:

John Buscema


These two pages are interesting to me because, I think, they can be understood visually by reading them "incorrectly"--by beginning in the top left and then going across the center dividing line of the center. Follow the blue lines:

John Buscema


Look at the spread again and try reading it visually. Read it across the spread. Follow the blue line path from the above diagram:

John Buscema


It is my opinion that, visually, the spread can be read both ways. Personally, I think that it still makes sense even if you read the text blocks and the word balloons "incorrectly." But try and just look at the sequencing of the images. John Buscema is able to make the spread read in one sweeping motion. I think this is a remarkable example of thinking about how the two pages will "hang together" in the eye of the reader.


Lets take each "tier" at a time. The following is the traditional or correct reading, tier by tier. Page one, tier one:

John Buscema


Page one, tier two:

John Buscema


Page one, tier three:

John Buscema


Page two, tier one:

John Buscema


Page two, tier two:

John Buscema


Page two, tier three:

John Buscema


Here's the full spread again:

John Buscema


Here is the order of the "incorrect" or "across the spread" reading. This is page one, tier one:



If we go across the spread then we read page two's tier one:



Then page one's tier two:



Then page two's tier two:



Back across the spread to page one's tier three:

John Buscema


Then finally page two's tier three:

John Buscema


Here's the full spread again. Buscema does an excellent job of maintaining a particular scale for the figures that encourages the across the spread reading. Look at how the figures on the top tier of both pages is similar. Kitty is basically drawn at the same scale, particularly in the panels that border the center. And the demon is drawn more or less the same scale in the top tier on both pages as well.

John Buscema


The reading pathways again:

John Buscema


What I find most fascinating is the center of the spread. The scale of the figures, like I said, encourages an across the spread reading. But there is also the use of the borderless panels with no background color. This, I think, also pushes me across the spread.

John Buscema


Buscema does a very subtle yet deliberate "hold" and "zoom in" on Illyana that also anchors the entire spread. I think this zoom is the main progression that makes an across the spread reading work. The progression of the dialogue is, of course, fractured or incorrect yet visually it makes sense. It's beautiful.

John Buscema


Here's the full spread one last time:

John Buscema



I wrote about reading pathways previously on this site. Please check it out here.


Over and out. Thanks.

24 Responses to John Buscema

  1. Derik Badman says:

    Another thing about the spread: the first tier is all Kitty (4 panels), the second tier is all Illyana (4 panels), and then the third tier is split 2 and 2. It helps with the visual reading across the spread but also keeps them visually separate. Each is always isolated from the other in multiple ways.

    (Also, that is some crazy costume Kitty has on.)

  2. Frank Santoro says:

    Good eye!

  3. Darfus says:

    great work from Buscema. this was part of the 1st wave of X-men mini series which would eventually bloat out to most of marvel’s line. it’s worth noting that after years of Dave Sim parodying Marvel in Cerebus, this is the comic when Marvel decided to clumsily return the favor and created a Cerebus Parody character named S’ym. It’s a dumb joke, but kind of wish that had just made that character a grey Zip-A-Tone instead of purple.

  4. Frank Santoro says:

    Thanks for pointing that out! I totally missed that – or didn’t get it – while rereading this series recently.

  5. Iestyn Pettigrew says:

    This was around the time that he was doing the Wolveroach character. Marvel eventually told him to stop and he told them to cease using S’ym.

  6. Cole Johnson says:

    There’s also the strong, almost octagonal block of magenta that ties the two pages together.

  7. mateor says:

    My understanding was that Sim found S’ym somewhat amusing, in an All’s Fair kinda way. I have certainly seen Sim admit those WolverRoach covers went beyond fair use.

    Been enjoying the columns Frank. I was hoping you wouldn’t get run off when it got all tough guy in here last week.

  8. mateor says:

    I am surprised you liked that color scheme.

  9. Charles Bukowski says:

    You make an interesting observation but I wonder if it was just luck? It would be interesting to know what the artist actually intended and how many of his spreads hold up to this visual reading approach.

  10. Frank Santoro says:

    I doubt it was just luck. But you might be right haha. The thing to remember is that this is the spread directly after the splash which is never broken up by ads. So Buscema knew these two pages would be shown together.

  11. Iestyn Pettigrew says:

    I think it’s also interesting that these two pages form a story with a beginning middle and end. There is something to these pages being straight after the splash page. If you think about flipping through a comic, the splash page is the first one you’ll look at. If the premise laid out there draws you in, then you’ll look at the first two pages to see if how the story is told will be interesting. Those first 2 pages give you the hook to pick up and but or go.

  12. Rob Goodin says:

    I actually have a problem with it for the very reason you find it interesting. When I looked at that spread the first thing that popped in my head was, “How do I read this” which is something I never want a reader to think when reading my comics. It takes me out of the story. I can imagine a case where the cartoonist deliberately wants something like that to be confusing. It might work with a particular story that is playing with that kind of formalism, but I don’t think that’s the case here.

    Enjoyed your interview on Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, btw. It’s great to listen to cartoonists talk.

  13. Frank Santoro says:

    That’s cool that you don’t dig it. I can see how this spread would / could be “wrong” for some makers.

  14. Jeet Heer says:

    Yeah, I had the same reaction as Rob Goodin: that two page spread looked all wrong to my eyes, very confusing to navigate through. But I have to say, this post convinced me that there’s more formalist cleverness in John Buscema than I credited him with. This is Santoro-style criticism at its best.

  15. Greg Fontaine says:

    You’re writing this essay on the website of a magazine that famously referred to commercial artists like Buscema as hacks, and they were referred to as such because they hacked out their work as quickly as possible to get paid. You offer no compelling explanation for why you strongly believe a commercial artist like Buscema would put the effort into deliberately encouraging readers to read this humdrum superhero fight scene in an illogical order that doesn’t follow the meaning of the dialogue and plot of the story he’s been paid to tell. Nor do you explain why an educated adult would want to read this comic in the year 2013, or what such an adult would theoretically gain by reading the comic in the manner you suggest. This essay reads like a first draft of a first draft.

  16. Rob Goodin says:

    That said, I do really enjoy your writing about the mechanics of comics. Not enough is written about it and that is where the magic lies.

  17. Pallas says:

    The two page spread is a “How not to do a two page spread 101” sort of thing any comic artist would be warned not to do in any sort of basic sequential art class. Frank is incorrect as to whether its “obvious” to the reader how to read these pages.

    That it’s held up as anything other than an an amateurish screw-up here is most curious.

  18. patrick ford says:

    One thing to consider is this may have been done from a script. I’m not familiar with the writer or his working methods. Anyone know if he was sending Buscema a script?

  19. Frank Santoro says:

    Ok, thanks for the feedback.

  20. Briany Najar says:

    Yep, a curious spread.
    The “whole spread” view gives us 3 horizontal rhythms, and a kind of contrapuntal symmetry between the beats played by Kitty and Illyana.
    The zoomed in, panel-by-panel reading gives us the Kirbyesque motion cues to read it a page at a time.
    I wonder if the imaginary flow-lines associated with classic Marvel action-storytelling might be so up front in Buscema’s mind that he would underrate the influence of more general graphical relationships in guiding the readers’ looking.
    ie, He’s built this powerfully composed spread whose forces unite the piece across lines which are support-based, rather than subject-based, so to speak – but he’s convinced that the presence of these “tangents” should be backgrounded by certain heavily relied-on, even slightly fetishised, vernacular devices.

  21. Frank Santoro says:

    “I wonder if the imaginary flow-lines associated with classic Marvel action-storytelling might be so up front in Buscema’s mind that he would underrate the influence of more general graphical relationships in guiding the readers’ looking.”
    Yeah, I think about this a lot with Buscema. Although , for me, that is why I like his layouts so much. The seemingly effortless swing of it. The sweep of the page is what most interests me. The “all at once” reading thats possible whether it is deliberate or not – or has poor phrasing or grammar – just kind of fascinates me.

  22. Jon Holt says:

    There’s nothing wrong with mis-reading the pages, but it wasn’t that intuitive for me. Once I tried following your arrows, I met resistance. To me, the more interesting aspect of the layout is how Kitty and Magic are drawn in opposite ways.

    Kitty is drawn with one kind of diagonal, and Magic with the mirror (dream-mirror?) opposite.

    Kitty is consistently drawn as a diagonal from bottom left diagonal to top right; Magic has her head in the top left and feet in the bottom right. Perhaps this mirror effect is a result of the dream/alternate reality?

  23. ant says:

    Aw, I was expecting circles and lines drawn all over this one.
    Guess I’ll hafta revisit the Tintin and Uncle Scrooge analyses again…..
    Still, interesting and effective “mis-reading” of the spread, great observations.

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