RED TIDE: A New Format—Interview with Jim Steranko
The basic premise of Red Tide follows a Manhattan detective who has to find a murderer in seventy-two hours. And to make readers aware of his diminishing deadline, the story is riddled with time-related symbols and icons. For example, there are numerous clocks throughout the book and considerable dialogue about time—and what's left of it. Even the format—the same configuration on every page—psychologically suggests a finite unit of seventy-two hours—the duration of the story—divided into precise increments of time. On a subconscious level, the ubiquitous format forces readers to feel the passage of time, ticking off like seconds on a clock, like the beat of a metronome. It's been suggested that the format is limiting and restrictive. My theory is that it's not panel size and shape that makes a story compelling; it's what's in the panels. I concur, however, that the format is an experiment, and time will tell if it's something worthwhile in the evolution of narrative art.
My artistic goal was to make Red Tide resonate in readers' minds with the great detective films they'd seen. I tried to generate the same ambience and atmosphere by incorporating similar icons: urban settings, neon motifs, deco architecture, period automobiles, rainswept streets, claustrophobic offices, exotic nightclubs, reflective glassware, vintage telephones, and, of course, venetian blinds—all visualized in deep shadows and high-contrast imagery. I was looking for the feel and style of The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past, and The Killers, for example, and hoped to achieve it by mirroring the compositions, the textures, and the visual themes that made those films so memorable.
I coined the term visual novel and began experimenting with format designs that were not associated with comicbooks.
Ultimately, I divided the page into horizontal thirds, the top two units providing a perfect square image area with which to work. A square is very easy for viewers to perceive and accept. For example, if I drew a square on the screen behind me, you'd easily recognize that all sides are exactly the same and you'd be comfortable with it. However, if I drew one side shorter, creating a trapezoid, you'd perceive the odd, inconsistent length, which would create a kind of visual discomfort. Or, if I changed the square into a rectangle, with a proportional length of say three and a half to five, it would be difficult to assess because your eye doesn't easily assimilate a three-and-a-half-to-five proportion, certainly not as it does with one to one. That's the way the cognitive process works. So, using the easily-perceived three-part division, I ascribed the bottom third for text. Then, I split the unit in half vertically, making two columns.
I deliberately declined the use of balloons and captions which define the comicbook format. Red Tide is not a comicbook. Comics are defined by three elements: a pamphlet format in color, sequential images with holding lines, and word balloons. I eliminated panel lines, balloons, and captions, and opted for type-set text, rather than handlettering, to conform to the traditional definition of a novel. The images were treated as separate illustrations, strongly related by character and theme, but without the devices of comicbook continuity. Instead, I developed what I call a rhythmic eyeline that visually united each successive panel.
It's true that there are aspects of Red Tide that I'm not particularly pleased with. I had to complete the project in two and a half months while editing, designing, and publishing Mediascene, in addition to other projects. The book was a major effort because I wrote the story, painted the cover, designed the logo and format, drew the interiors, and colored it in a relatively short, intense period of time.
It's no secret that I'm inspired by many artists: Kirby, Williamson, Robbins, Wood, many others. But I tried to bypass those influences in Red Tide, instead, making an effort to produce a photographic style of art that would make the ambience more believable, more convincing. I tried to distance Red Tide from S.H.I.E.L.D. because the Marvel style essentially overpowers the story with the art. All Red Tide interiors are reproduced from the pencil art. It is not inked. I also wanted to stay clear of comicbook feathering. By using only pencil, I created hard and soft-edged effects that I hoped would have a somewhat realistic quality—a cinematic, noirish quality—never achieved previously in the narrative art form.
As reported by Martin Greim from NewCon, 1976.