Tuesday, July 03, 2007

On comic art and artists: Visual prose and poetry

My visual comic book sensibilities seem to be very realist, I think - or at least highly conventional. My favorite story tellers - that is, the pencillers and penciller/inkers - are distinctly linear and clearly organized in their style.

For instance, John Cassaday's style is very romantic - high contrast and deep shadows (or negative space) that draw your eye to the character in the foreground (who is often almost bursting from the panel), and he sometimes duplicates panels (either literally or in a visual approximation) to indicate beats in a way that lends his work a certain rhythmic and cinematic quality. Though still an undeniably linear (or at least not unlinear) rhythm.

Note below, for instance, the absence of a distracting background in the first panel and the way that the indistinct light source make's the villainous Ord's face look hard and dangerous. The jump from first to second panel seems dramatic, but it's anticipated by the previous page (where Ord is running through a hallway while he knocks soldiers aside) and so the inference is an easy one. It also makes it clear that Cassaday considers the actual run to be of little dramatic consequence. He wants us to see Ord's eyes, and then the fantastical escape itself, which seems to be frozen in time, or at least in very slow motion. The two panels at the bottom have a kind of visual repetition insofar as Cassaday very deliberately wants us to know how Ord escapes - we can't intuit his finding a ship and stealing it as easily as we can his jumping out a window, so he walks us through it very deliberately.

Frank Quitely may seem like a curious pairing with Cassaday - insofar as his overly detailed line-work sometimes borders on the absurd or grotesque, and his absence of Cassaday-like attention to light sources heightens our awareness that this is, in fact, a cartoon - but their organization is still deceivingly simple, as he likewise employs obvious focal points, tight and accessible visual arrangements, and clear narrative panel progressions.

The first page of All-Star Superman is an exaggerated example - this is Quitely at his most self-consciously mythic and grand - but I think it does well to speak to how overwhelming and lush his visuals can be, while at the same time there is never any doubt as to where and how our eyes should be moving through them. We might return later to see if we missed something, but those subsequent peeks never significantly alter the path of the story.

Which is just to bring me to Chris Bachalo, whose work, while resembling Quitely's in its detail and Cassaday's in his fondness for light and dark, is playing an entirely different ballgame. I like Bachalo's character design work, but I'm often left confused and anxious about his layouts and panels. Unlike the other two artists, Bachalo often balks at convention and doesn't lend his pictures any clear focal point. There is often no negative space (or the opposite - an overabundance of it) and so you might find yourself at first examining the most inconsequential bit of overly detailed debris in the foreground - simply because that's where your eye has been trained to go. Bachalo's stuff is often without rhythm, and so seems to resist linearity: you're caught in the panel, trying to figure your way out, and so time seems to freeze in an uncomfortable way. (Though, I suppose, this is more true of people who are less familiar with his work than others.)

In this two page spread, Bachalo takes it a step further by providing us with more than one narrative option for moving our eyes through the panels, each in contradiction to the other. One is distinctly linear - and the small panels and grid-arrangement make it much easier for us to read in this way - while the other jumps between the visual organization in an entirely different pattern, opening up a totally different experience. From a narrative standpoint, the scene almost has to play twice - we read it one way and then go back to read it the other - and attempting to marry the two never produces a wholly coherent result. We have to decide how we'll read the comic before we can even worry about, well, reading it.

This is not to say that I think that Bachalo's a worse or better artist, but to say that the vocabulary and rules he's playing with are themselves entirely different. I'm not as fond of Bachalo because I think that he often pushes too hard to be less accessible and experimental at the cost of the larger story's (that is, the visuals and text) ostensible goal, but it's clear that his approach deserves attention. If I were to be reductive (and, sure, I'm feeling that way), I'd propose that Cassaday and Quitely's pencils are prosaic, whereas Bachalo's is poetic. And while the latter is admirable, I also have to wonder if it can ever be as fully realized as the former in a 22 page booklet with its unavoidable physical limitations. Or, rather, maybe I feel like I'm still waiting to see such a thing to happen.

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