"Ghost of Dragon Canoe" (2004) from Kramers Ergot #5, page 2 panel 3. Drawn by Dan Zettwoch.
Like in any medium, there's a million little things crawling around in comic books that can't be done anywhere else. Speed lines, word balloons, impact starbusts, hell, the act of panel-to-panel construction itself -- not for any other storytelling medium, these, and they tend to look pretty funny in paintings too. Most artists just skate along the surface of comics' language, the degree of grace with which they do it separating the bad from the OK from the mediocre. But art in this form does best when a facility with the pure act of drawing (be it in minimal Schulz or grandiose McCay style) is crossbred with an equal skill for using comics to make comics. When form and function intertwine. The ones worth looking at pay attention to the panels themselves as much as what's in them, learn about what comics do better and what comics do best, and then set to turning it out.
Dan Zettwoch is one such artist. A member of the formally-obsessed USS Catastrophe crew, his work is rife with all the bells and whistles of the form turned inward on itself. The pages of a Zettwoch strip are like funhouses for the comics art nerd: panels set into other panels, double-page spread maps, diagrammatic breakdowns, directory arrows jutting from the word balloons, and very much et cetera. Like all good art must, though, it retains its clarity, the spotlight on formal processes never obscuring the stories but carrying them along. It helps that Zettwoch is a top class cartoonist, his fat ink line and caricatured faces surfacing a sure sense for color and shapes that gives each page the loose, barreling forward rush of a good football play. The artist's two sides -- cartoonist and crafts student, markmaker and mapmaker -- don't meet in every panel, but when they do, it's pretty intense.
Just take a look at the one above. The comics-only trope that most visibly occupies Zettwoch is the "cutaway view" panel, in which roofs, walls, surfaces of any kind are temporarily rendered invisible so the reader can peer into the setting of the action and get an architect's blueprint-view of what's going on inside. It's an old trick; Kirby used it to great effect, as did Steranko, and it shows up as a quick house tour in plenty of random Archie issues, too. Its past as a flashy '60s fad might be the reason it isn't used a lot today, but Zettwoch makes it part and parcel of his very modern comics and brings out the potential it's had all along. The cutaway, seen here at the height of its powers, is a more organic version of panel subdivision, throwing up borders between the sections of the object being opened up, and more borders between that object itself and the rest of the frame. The cutaway view has the power to make a whole page out of a panel, which is exactly what Zettwoch does here (with the help of some of his handy arrows), guiding the reader into the Red River Church of the Nazarene, on a tour through its innards, and then out.
It's an immense amount of detail packed into a single frame (about 4" by 4" at print size), and Zettwoch brings a full-page worth of layout to facilitate it, routing the minimal figures' snakelike path through the church in a tight loop to leave as much space open as possible for architectural details, similarly winding dialogue, those arrows. Not to mention the great uncalled-for panel content: the Red River Church's iconographic flaming-dove logo is inexplicable but it's an awesome drawing and adds a weirdly appropriate "seal" to the holy building's blueprint. The chorus of stained-glass chroma in the upper right takes you out of the characters' path just enough to get you to notice the relative size of the structures they're walking through -- panel and church, respectively. The balance of blacks, whites, and color on the page is perfectly considered, monochrome borders bleeding into a centered splash of hue, tying up the loads of information in a neatly-designed package, making all the linework and elements something breezy and bite-size. Zettwoch gets everything he possibly can out of his panels, and that's what makes his comics important -- but he also looks stylish as hell doing it, and that's what makes them good.