Saturday, February 6, 2010

Frozen Morisi

In a nice essay on cartooning published in The Walrus, Seth discusses the "frozen" nature of images within the comics panel :

"There is something very lovely about the stillness of a comic book page. That austere stacked grid of boxes. The little people trapped in time. Its frozen and silent nature acting almost as a counterpoint to the raucous vulgarity of the modern aesthetic. Of course, the drawings aren’t really frozen. When we look at them, we immediately invest them with life. That little ink world pops into life as our eyes move across the drawings. I actually find it very difficult to look at a cartoon and hold on to the stillness. The essence of the cartoon language carries a kind of animation with it. This is true even with a single drawing, but it is especially evident when one panel is placed next to another. That juxtaposition creates a tension that implies motion and time. This illusion is one of the medium’s primary charms."

I agree that it's "difficult . . . to hold onto the stillness," and many artists (especially those working in action-oriented genres) don't seem to want us to linger too long, as this might threaten the story's sense of continuity or our immersion in it.

For me, part of the peculiar genius of Pete Morisi is the strange way that his drawings capture and hold stillness -- the feeling of frozen-ness -- in a way that almost seems intended to disrupt our desire to move from panel to panel. It's hard to talk about the effect that an artist's images have on us in anything other than abstract ways, but many of his panels feel almost sculptural, and so work against the animation that Seth rightly sees a key feature of narrative comics. His characters often appear like drawings of a sculpture of a person, rather than a 'direct' representation. (Many of his horror comics feature sculptures -- usually of people -- in backgrounds and margins of panels.)

This sense of stillness can be found throughout Morisi's comics (I talked about it in his horror comics around two years ago), but his Westerns are my favorite in this way. Try as I might, I can't "invest them with life." Yet this doesn't impede my enjoyment of these comics; in fact, it does the opposite.


Even his odd decision to split the panel in two and put the dialogue in a faux gutter instead of a balloon (which he does elsewhere) de-emphasizes the action and diminishes the urgency of the dialogue because it's not directly connected to the speaker, as it would be in a balloon.

"Don't move," then, seems to be Morisi's imperative to his characters.

{Images are from late 1950s Lash LaRue Westerns, published by Charlton.}