Comics are a visual medium – but most comics still rely heavily on narration and dialogue. Once in a while, though, a series, a single issue, or even one great scene in a comic will forgo text, or keep it at a minimum, to tell a gorgeous story with just images. Here are 10 pieces of comic art that don’t need words to convey a story.
10. Lobster Johnson: Caput Mortuum
Hellboy’s favourite pulp hero Lobster Johnson (who, in a typically Hellboy-ish twist, turns out to be a real hero, rather than just a fictional character) has had plenty of stories to tell, but the 2012 one-shot Caput Mortuum is the closet evocation of the 1930’s adventure serial ideal that Lobster personifies.
The brief story is about Lobster Johnson’s prevention of a chemical attack on New York by German terrorists, and is largely dialogue based – and, in true pulp style, it’s typically cheesy. When Lobster Johnson battles his way onto a Zeppelin occupied by the Germans, Tonci Zonjic art and Dave Stewart’s blocky, heavily shadowed colouring add up to a gorgeous action sequence that wouldn’t look out of place in a silent black and white serial.
9. The Batman Adventures: The Little Red Book
Batman: The Animated Series’ classic opening sequence is fondly remembered for its silent, noir-inspired visual storytelling – and its accompanying comic book spinoff, The Batman Adventures, wasn’t afraid to dip into similar waters, too.
The Little Red Book features Batman infiltrating the mansion of a mobster to get hold of a book that could incriminate some of Gotham’s seediest criminals – the action is punctuated by nothing but the sound of gunfire as the Dark Knight glides his way around in absolute silence, taking out the goons one by one. Artist Mike Parobeck captures the aesthetic of the cartoon perfectly, and it’s a stunning sequence to boot.
8. Tangled Web: Severance Package
This standalone story in the Spider-Man anthology series told the tale of an employee of Wilson Fisk who is killed for failing to stop Spider-Man from foiling one of the Kingpin’s illicit activities. Eduardo Risso’s spectacularly moody art follows Tom Cochrane as he receives a call from Fisk asking him to meet up, knowing full well that he’s about to be killed for his failure – but the silent part comes not in Cochrane’s death, but his goodbye to his family.
Greg Rucka’s dialogue is kept to a minimum throughout, but near the beginning of the comic where Cochrane puts down the phone and gets ready leave his house, and his wife and children for the last time, we’re treated to a wonderfully evocative silent page as the mobster dresses himself and tucks his children in for one final time. It’s haunting and emotional, without saying a single word.
7. Moon Knight #5
Anyone who’s been reading the current Moon Knight series understands why this issue is here. The absolute highlight of Warren Ellis’ brief time on the series, the comic deals with Moon Knight entering a criminal-filled apartment block to rescue a young girl being held hostage – and sees Moon Knight completely destroy an army of thugs in the process.
An homage to the glorious “one-shot” fight scenes of The Raid or Tom Yung Goong, Declan Shalvey’s brilliant art relentlessly follows Moon Knight as he slices and punches his way through criminals, in a sequence that’s as visceral as it is oddly cathartic to read. Hands down, one of the best action sequences in a comic in recent memory.
6. Fuan No Tane
Masaaki Nakayama’s horror anthology manga Fuan No Tane tells a series of creepy stories that use art and minimalist storytelling – each story is at most 3 or 4 pages long – to scare the living bejesus out of you.
Even in the stories that do have text, it’s kept at an absolute minimum, letting the art take over to tell some wonderfully minimalist and yet totally spooky horror stories about the strange creatures that hide just out of sight, or mysterious horrors lurking in the shadow. Short, sharp and scary storytelling.
5. Age of Reptiles
Ricardo Delgado’s long running series features no dialogue at all – unsurprising, as the protagonists are ancient dinosaurs, living their lives in the Mesozoic era. And yet, Age of Reptiles’ incredible art can tell all sorts of great stories.
Tales of vengeance, tales of loss, even a simple story about the decaying body of a dinosaur, the series is almost like watching a muted nature documentary – it’s just that the animals in front of the lens are creatures from millions of years ago.
4. G.I Joe #21
The story behind G.I. Joe: Silent Interlude is an interesting one – running behind schedule and left to both pencil and write the issue himself, legendary G.I. Joe writer Larry Hama decided to act upon a plan he’d had for the series for a while but never got round to: telling a complete story without the aid of any text.
A rarity at the time, the issue, which saw Snake Eyes infiltrate Cobra Castle to rescue fellow Joe Scarlett and fight Cobra’s own ninja Storm Shadow, was an instant hit. Essentially an extended action sequence that sees Snake Eyes tussle with the Red Ninjas and Storm Shadow as Scarlett breaks free of her captors, its stark art tells a brilliant short story – while hinting at a deeper background between the two ninjas.
3. Batman #431
It might be cheating a little to have Batman in here twice, but Batman #431 is a must to mention. As Batman finds himself going up against the equally skilled League of Assassins as he attempts to stop them assassinating a target – a moment which gives way to a spectacular 8-page sequence where Batman squares off against a band of Ninjas who trained under the same master that first trained Bruce Wayne.
Punctuated by nothing but the sound effects of battle, Jim Aparo’s art has an amazing sense of speed and flow to it, highlighting Batman’s fantastic martial skills and showing off just what a masterful fighter he is. Never has a frying pan been so deadly.
2. Shaolin Cowboy #1-#4
The first four issues of Geof Darrow’s irregular series Shaolin Cowboy are basically an extended action sequence, where the titular Shaolin slices through hundreds of zombies with a stick that has chainsaws attached on either end. It’s completely ridiculous – and 100% amazing, despite the fact that it makes zero sense.
And that’s kind of the point: Shaolin Cowboy’s evocative art is left to convey the beats of action in a ruthlessly efficient manner, even across an entire comic book. Using not just the art but the actual panels themselves, Darrow weaves an incredible action sequence that somehow manages to feel breathless and like it’s happening in slow motion all at the same time, the hyper detail of his pencil work letting you see every nook and cranny of this outlandish, yet totally badass fight sequence.
1. Hawkeye #11
Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye is sadly finished, but it leaves behind one of the most unique and thoroughly excellent solo stories in recent comics history – and it’s told from the perspective of a partially blind dog. It’s brilliant, and a little bit ludricrous, and is just one of the many reasons why Hawkeye was such a fantastic comic.
Pizza Dog In: Pizza Is My Business sees Clint Barton’s canine pal discover a dead body on the roof of Clint and Kate Bishop’s apartment complex and attempt to track down what happened, without Pizza Dog (a.k.a. Lucky, but largely defined by his love of Pizza) being able to get help from either of the Hawkeyes. Aja’s already fantastically minimalist art is pushed to its limit, deftly portraying Lucky’s thought processes and connections to people as well as telling a captivating story.
The incorporation of Lucky’s colour blindness is a fantastic stroke of genius by colorist Matt Hollingsworth, as is the brief moments of actual dialogue: characters can talk around Lucky, but as we’re reading from his perspective, we can only parse certain words that he understands, like “Up” or “Food”. Inventive visual storytelling in a mainstream comic doesn’t get any better than this.