Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Few Ways to Think about Style in Wilson

When you open Daniel Clowes's Wilson, the end-papers suggest what becomes clear as you read further: there are as many Wilsons as there are cartooning styles in the comic.
Here’s are some of the ways you could “read” Clowes’s approach in his new graphic novel [spoiler-free commentary].

1. Each style represents/suggests how Wilson thinks/feels about himself in that scene.

2. Each style represents or evokes how the narrator feels towards Wilson on that page -- different styles can encode differing degrees of sympathy; an important part of the story is how the narrator feels about his protagonist.

3. Each style represents how other characters within the fictional world of a given scene (the notion of setting is necessarily unstable in a multi-style comic) would or might “see,” and perhaps, judge Wilson.

4. Each page represents specific traits of Wilson’s “physical-emotional portrait” that the author/narrator wants us to focus on in that scene.

5. Wilson is a moody guy -- so the styles evoke/play off of his differing moods in an intuitive way. As Mr. Ames from Clowes's Ice Haven might argue, “There is no translatable content contained within each style: it is simply an aesthetic mood, and therefore is beyond the ability of words to characterize it.” Perhaps the styles are not about anything -- rather they create a visual rhythm, a kind of plot that overlaps and diverges from the narrative plot.

6. It is as if Clowes has farmed out the pages of Wilson to a host of carefully selected “ghost” cartoonists, whose approaches are suited to the scene in the story they draw. Each style evokes the specific interests of a different narrator, who -- naturally -- would not describe Wilson and his world with the lines and cartooning language used by others -- just as, given the same plot, a group of writers would all produce something dissimilar.

7. Taken together, the shifting styles represent the inaccessibility of the real Wilson. As with the endpapers, which signature -- which face, which style -- is really his, or Clowes's?

8. Despite all of the styles, there's only one Wilson -- it’s the familiar paradox of identity: we are constantly shifting in our affect (our style of the moment), yet somehow stable in our “essence.”

9. The drawing styles are less significant than the shifting approaches to coloring: Wilson is a kind of “dramatic monologue” played out in a series of changing visual looks/moods defined largely by Clowes’s color palette on that page. You are supposed to ‘feel’ color and or style rather than ‘see’ and then translate them.

10. Many novels pretend that a person can be fully known and understood by another person -- such novels narrate the words, actions, thoughts, and feelings of a character with a great sense of certainty: “She thought this.” -- “She felt that.” -- "She was that." But thoughts and feelings are muddy and murky: who can ever fully know their own mind, let alone that of another? The styles of Wilson represent a refusal to participate in the lie of certainty and consistency -- in place of such assurance Wilson substitutes a series of beautifully executed styles that give us an honest, and therefore incomplete, portrait of a compelling character . . .

11. Mix and match any of the above: use whatever one seems appropiate for a given page and/or reject them all. here to read the rest of this post...

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"I Hate Superheroes": 1965-67

I recently bought a stack of ACG (American Comics Group) comics from the mid-1960s. I was surprised, though perhaps shouldn't have been, that, within the letters columns of a few titles, raged a long-running debate about the presence of -- and the merit of -- superheroes, especially in what many readers believed should be strictly mystery or supernatural titles. A few letter writers even expressed extreme hostility to such heroes (one signed his letter only "Costume Hater"). At the link above, Don Markstein says that

"reader demand [for superheroes] was incessant, and in 1965 he [Richard Hughes, ACG editor/writer] finally gave in. Adventures into the Unknown launched Nemesis and Forbidden Worlds launched Magicman. Hughes's lack of enthusiasm for the long-underwear guys was reflected in the readers' lack of interest in them."

If the letters I have read are any indication, while many readers wanted only horror or fantasy, many readers were deeply invested in "costume characters" and were happy to see them in ACG titles. And, at least in his public role as editor on the letters pages, Hughes often expressed enthusiasm for the "supernatural superhero" that appeared in his comics, which he might have created as a way to appease the demand of both camps of readers. As he notes in AIU 173 below, however, ACG decided, from that point on, to concentrate on supernatural and fantasy stories, not superheroes. [There is a history of ACG that perhaps answers questions about Hughes's personal beliefs.]

Although many letters do not deal with the issue of "costume heroes," I have scanned each column in full because there are other things of interest in them (especially fan and editorial discussions of ACG artists like Ogden Whitney, Chic Stone [and his work with Jack Kirby], Pete Constanza, and others). It's also interesting to read these fan letters because their approach to reading, criticism, and interpretation is often so different from mine -- the readers often focus on questions of science, consistency, believability, and adherence to genre and marketing conventions. [Click and on each image, then click again to enlarge.]

Adventures into the Unknown #162 (1965)

From Unknown Worlds #46 (1966):

Adventures into the Unknown #163 (1966):

Adventures into the Unknown #165 (1966):

Adventures into the Unknown #173 (1967): here to read the rest of this post...

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Children's Literature and Critical Trends

This recent collection from Palgrave includes an essay I wrote on Louisa May Alcott's Little Women that was first published in the academic journal Children's Literature. here to read the rest of this post...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Stanley's Shading

Like nearly everyone, I enjoy John Stanley’s cartooning in Thirteen Going on Eighteen -- the looseness of his characters, their constant sense of motion, their expressive faces . . . But there’s one thing that doesn’t always work for me:
his approach to shading.

Sometimes, I’m not sure how to interpret the hatching. While it often serves a typical function of either representing shadows, reflections in glass, or the texture of a surface, at other times it’s not clear how the shading is supposed to “read”:

It's confusing to me when the shading appears at opposite angles in the same panel, as in the second above; it might imply two light sources, but I doubt that's what Stanley intends . . .

It's a little excessive at times and so is at odds with his otherwise successfully minimalist approach.

The shading below may be intended to amplify the characters’ excitement, and therefore to express two functions simultaneously (shading and emotion lines). But the lines almost overwhelm the figures:

I’m not sure what’s being communicated in the upper right-hand corner of the first panel:

It occasionally appears as if Stanley uses hatching to fill spaces that don't need to be filled. Or the shading outlines the characters in a way that distracts us from their facial expressions . . .

Here’s an attractive page that avoids these issues by using objects on the walls or in the room (where hatching might have been used to fill space) and a feathered-edge circular lighting effect in panels 4 and 5:

His shading is more minimalistic, and I think more effective, in the ½ page strips:

There's a real clarity in the above two examples that keeps attention focused on the characters and gags.

These are minor complaints about a minor aspect of Stanley's work, and the heart of his skill lies more in his writing and figures than in the background details of the cartooned environments. here to read the rest of this post...

Thursday, April 1, 2010

No Background
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