Saturday, February 27, 2010

Casper, Formalism, and the 'Great' Search Party

For a revised and expanded version of the piece that was here,
please see The Comics Journal.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Teaching Comics: Describing Style

Recently in my American Writers class we read three comics: "Hazel Eyes" by Adrian Tomine, "Near Miss" by David Mazzucchelli, and "Island of Silk and Ectoplasm" by Matthew Thurber (all from Ivan Brunetti’s Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, Vol. 2). In the hour and 15 minute class period, we discussed many aspects of these comics, but our particular focus was on “style.”


I find that the best way to begin to talk about something as amorphous as style is to talk about small samples of at least three artists/texts at once. It’s easier to see the traits inherent to one object when you compare it to two others; similarities and differences stand out more clearly. I selected these comics because I wanted stories that were generally analogous (all are representational, narrative comics), but were different stylistically, without being radically dissimilar.

Tomine:

Mazzucchelli:

Thurber:
I wanted students to look at questions of "basic visual style" within a panel, not at style as related to things like dialogue, the pacing of the plot, page layout, the recurrence of certain images, etc . . .

To start, I had the students review each story (which they had read prior to class) and then look at one or two panels from each that featured a main character, side by side with panels from the other stories. I asked them, "On the most basic visual level, what non-thematic elements do they have in common, and how could we describe them?"

I’m sure that many lists of terms could result from this question. We generated a lot of ideas and agreed upon the following as important, forming a list that’s far from exhaustive. (It actually helps discussion to have a somewhat narrow set to focus upon.) And then I asked for "descriptive ranges" for each:

Line: smooth to rough; loose to tight; thin to thick
Texture and pattern: (what kinds?); sparse to dense, loose to organized
Panel density: sparse to dense (amount of empty space relative to filled space)
Light and shadow: use of black and white (or colored) areas
POV – “camera” angles: close-ups to long shots; below the focal point to above it

Because these narrative comics involve many human figures, we came up with some specific terms/ideas for the figure drawing aspect of the style:

Line: smooth to rough; loose to tight; thin to thick
Gestures, face and body: compare with “reality” -- realistic to exaggerated
Body proportions: within the figure and when compared with “reality” -- realistic to exaggerated
Density of character detail: in particular we looked at the number and kinds of lines used to draw the faces

In our discussion of the three artists, we most often returned to these ideas:

Line: smooth to rough; loose to tight; thin to thick
Texture and pattern: (what kinds?); sparse to dense, loose to organized
Panel density: sparse to dense (amount of empty space relative to filled space)
Gestures, face and body: compare with “reality” -- realistic to exaggerated
Body proportions: within the figure and when compared with “reality” -- realistic to exaggerated
Density of character detail: in particular we looked at the number and kinds of lines used to draw the faces

When students used terms like "realistic," "life-like," "exaggerated," or "cartoony," I asked them, “In what ways?” or “Where and how?” And we tried to distinguish, as much as possible, between descriptive and impressionistic terms (though ones like “rugged,” which one student used to describe Mazzucchelli's line, seemed to fit in both categories.)

Before we could be sure that our descriptions were accurate and helpful, we looked at other panels by the same artist to determine if we were oversimplifying things. Style is hard to pin down . . .

Part of the purpose of class session was to come up with terms we could use when reading style in comics throughout the semester, and to realize that words like “realistic” can be useful -- but we should ask “realistic in what specific ways?,” given that a figure can be realistic in its proportions but be drawn in a gesture that seems cartoony. Or the body might appear realistic, but some aspect of the face (perhaps, the eyes) appear more cartoony.

All of this led us into a productive conversation in which we were able to talk about the relationship between stylistic and thematic issues within each comic. Most of us are confident when discussing themes, so when talking about style we often strayed into thematic concerns; part of my job was to keep us focused on style for the first part of the class and then open it up to the relationship between theme and style for the remainder. It’s not as if the two are really distinct within a text, but it’s helpful to treat them temporarily as if they are. It gives students a greater appreciation of an artist’s scope and method if you do, I think.


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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.

A.
B.
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E.
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.}

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Cartoon Ecology

It can be "entertaining and enlightening" to look at similar words/objects/scenes as drawn by different artists. The following pairs of images are from "Benny Beaver," which appeared in Casper, The Friendly Ghost #1 [1949], and "Ecology Beaver," which appeared in Comic Art #9, by Tim Hensley [2007].

Opening Panel:


Gnawing:


Holding a book:


On his dam:

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