a perspective

Well, i don't usually do this ( a word-heavy post i mean ), but as Melville had Ahab say, " I act under orders." If one reads a fair amount of comics criticism & comics reportage, one is bound at some point to encounter the issue of the artist's workload; comics really take a lot of time to draw. So much so that every once in a while we hear from this or that artist definitively taking leave of the medium; the hours put in simply do not match in any way the payment received. This is true of many art forms, of course; museums hardly paying the artist for retrospectives, publisher whittling away the advances for writers - it seems endemic to culture, almost, to undervalue production that way. But in comics, if you've read the interviews and talked with colleagues, you know that the combined jobs of writer, story-boarder, set-designer, costume designer, editor, cinematographer all being taken care of by one woman or man with a pencil, together can make for quite a Herculean task. If the script calls for '' the cavalry coming over the hill," that's easily prescribed. Now imagine having to draw every horse and rider, to render the mountainside accurately, the dust kicked up, the cavalry's costumes. Comics really do take a lot of time to draw.

Lately, though, i've been thinking whether this approach to comics perhaps comes from an intended service to the reader that instead ends up doing that same reader a disservice.
It is difficult, i know all too well, when you are telling a story, not to take the reader by the hand and gently guide them down the paths you've intended to show them; you want to be welcoming & accomodating. But consider: after the establishing shot of a scene - putting the characters in their surroundings- why would you want to keep drawing the backgrounds all the time? How necessary is that, really? It often, i think, makes for a claustrophobic page design & what's more, it feels like insecurity on the part of the artist.
"Look, this is where it takes place. Here, and here and this. See? '' Like a liar who overelaborates to makes his story more believable. Reading, in prose or in pictures, if anything is a contract between the imagination of the maker and the imagination of the reader. Anything that tries to leave the imagination out of the agreement is a patronizing gesture. It is a failure of trust. 

In many ways the predominant mode has been copied from cinema; but in cinema it is the default setting to always have the scenery there. It would be more trouble to remove the set after the establishing shot than to simply keep it. In comics, we may choose.
In fact, despite this mode's predominance, it has never been strictly the lingua franca of comics; there have always been other approaches. In manga, scenes often do away with backgrounds, keeping the focus refreshingly on the characters and their interactions, whether martial or emotional. One western comic-maker who took his cue from this is Frank Miller. Setting to one side ( the right side, alas ) his politics, the work he's done from the bizarre DK2 onwards takes even further the tendency exhibited in earlier work to compose tableaux of compact, posed encapsulations of action and emotion, more like kabuki theatre than film. Late style is compelling in many, if not most, artists, and the risks nonchalantly taken there often set an example of breaking the mold.

Other artists that have dispensed with the cinematic mode are the many Italian and Spanish contributors to the Warren magazines Creepy and Eerie, like Enric Sio, Dino Battaglia et al. These designed their pages in a poster-like way, with faces and figures framed by negative space, few panels per page and a flow instead of a rhythm to their storytelling. Of roughly that generation, too, was the inimitable Jeffrey catherine Jones, whose use of negative space remains unparallelled. From his work speaks a supreme trust in the reader's ability to project himself into the cartoon, to see a mountain in a few deft strokes delineating a rock, a forest in single well-articulated tree. 

Another example i'd like to take a look at here, is the work of Simon Moreton, of whose self-published zine Minor Leagues i recently read issue number 7. At more than 100 pages, packed with a density of reminescence and reference, this memoir/essay nevertheless feels like an airy ( note that this is an ancient spelling for 'eerie' and it has that, too: a haunted, ghostly quality ), a spacious, a wide-open read. Masterfully combining text, photography, drawing and negative space, it subtly makes the case for the primary signifier of comics being, not sequence, or drawing and text, but collage and juxtaposition. In detailing the impact of his father's recent passing, Moreton uses pictorial elements as punctuation, almost- and vice versa, simultaneously reprising the text's contents in poetically compact drawing and expanding upon the text's literal meaning by his open linework and deft placement of decayed photocopies ( or heavily contrasted scans resembling same ). Meditative, ruminative, and meandering while remaining firmly on-point as regards its central themes, Minor Leagues has an impeccable sense of place- but this is not on account of slavishly descriptive observational drawing. Yes, place-names & writing do a great deal of the grounding, but it is the entire visual design of the piece that provides the sense of landscape permeating the book, and the sense of the tenuousness of memory and reality. The fragile story being told here is one of emptinesses and interstices, told in the interstices and emptinesses of its own telling. And there is no medium better suited to this strategy than the tenuous and fragile medium of comics.

Recent Reading

"Time and space in complete fraternity for once had begun like entwined serpents their dual and diurnal suction at the breasts of life; but the moment had not yet come for those breasts to respond. That strange in-sinking, in-gulfing motion, as though something were being drawn downwards into the mouth of a dark planetary funnel where the spirals of the life-torrent curve inward with such smooth rapidity that the heart of the earth seems to have stopped breathing, struck Porius at that moment to be actually swallowing up the mystery of sound at its ultimate source."

- John Cowper Powys/ Porius ( 1951 )

"He does not miss her, since she seems so insistently present, in the yellow lichen wrapping in the bare beech branches, in the kestrel he once saw skimming the oaks, quivering its outspread tail. 
She signals to him in the high mares' tails overhead, in the turns of phrase she has borrowed and lent, in the curled scar on his cheeck; and by similar means he imagines he also signals to her: that their conversations go on, silently, in the downspin of a sycamore key."

-Sarah Perry/The Essex Serpent ( 2016)


Fragments of a new piece, from a script by the amazing Sloane Leong

when the moon is a cold chiseled dagger

What is winter for, if not for listening to Tom Waits’ Black Wings on repeat?