Saturday, March 01, 2014

THE LOST VOCABULARY OF VISUAL STORYTELLING, day 2


Yesterday I suggested that contemporary comic art, for all of its new found legitimacy, often works with a more simplified set of visual tools.  So I'm spending a few days talking about what has been gained and what has been lost in this evolution, using some of Leonard Starr's drawings from the 1960s as examples. 

Today I'd like to offer a few examples of how Starr staged complex drawings.  Here is a scene involving the dynamics between three main characters who are rehearsing for a play:


Oh yeah, and here is a fourth guy, who has no name and is just a low level functionary:


Why in the world would Starr squeeze an unnecessary fourth character into the backgrounds of those cramped panels,  along with all that dialogue? 

It turns out that this anonymous character performs a very important function: he informs the reader, better than words might accomplish in this limited space, of what is going on.  The handsome star of the show is an abusive bully, and the role of this fourth character is just to stand around and cringe  and furrow his brow,  so readers understand who is behaving unreasonably:





In this way he performs the same function as a Greek chorus:  he has no individual identity in the play, but he provides a running commentary for the audience.

Most comic artists today would balk at trying to insert four speaking characters into such a small space.  Without the right storytelling skills It would be too dense and unmanageable.  But Starr manages to do it employing a tool kit of visual techniques that are largely unemployed today.

____________________________________

As long as we're looking at these pictures  I would like to add one postscript:

These drawings were published in a newspaper at a size approximately two inches tall.


The printing technology at the time was  nowhere close to what it is today, so much of the charm of the original drawings and the subtlety of the facial expressions was lost in translation.   Yet, the anonymous fourth character is drawn with more precision and care than the main character in almost any "realistic" newspaper strip today.  I consider that a mark of bygone craftsmanship.





26 Comments:

Blogger Craven Lovelace said...

I am really enjoying this series. I so wish we'd see a return to the level of craftsmanship that used to be merely the baseline for commercial art.

3/01/2014 2:44 PM  
Blogger Larry MacDougall said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3/01/2014 6:36 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

David, i don't see a visual storytelling vocabulary being 'lost' but rather a vocabulary exploring new ways to tell stories.

Leonard Starr stages things in a very 'filmic' way; they're like shots composed for a non-existent camera. the characters always placed in 'realistic' space.

Chris Ware uses all kinds of graphic devices such as see-through walls, plans, diagrams, typography and the overall design of the page:

http://consequentialart.files.wordpress.com/2008/11/ware2.jpg

... the characters have the freedom to exist within the space of the page rather than just the realistic space of the frame.

for me 'graphic design' isn't a pejorative the way Kev uses it. i see no reason why a story might not be told more effectively using a simplified graphic language.
it's really down to the skill of the particular artist in question.

3/02/2014 9:56 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

David, the modern cartoonists you mention aren't the top sellers in the American comics field by a long shot.

You seem to be missing entirely that the majority of comics purchased in the US are still superhero and action comics. Comics which still focus on draftsmanship -- perhaps not to the degree you would prescribe, but far more than the cartoonist/writers you list.

For 2013, Marvel and DC together still control ~75% of the dollar share of comics and graphic novels sold in the US. The majority of the other sales are also from action comics publishing companies -- Image, Dark Horse, IDW, Dynamite, etc. The top 10 graphic novels sold from 2013 were all action -- Saga, The Walking Dead, Hawkeye, Batman, etc.

If you want to know why these handful of slightly-popular cartoonists can still sell, it's simple, they write well, and the fact they can't draw worth a damn just underlines how well they write, and clearly divides them from the superhero bullshit extravaganza.

The question shouldn't be why can't these handful of great writers also draw, the question is why won't the big $$$ studios hire anyone who can write.

3/02/2014 1:14 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

And that's only talking about the American market, if we want to look globally, we will have to include Manga which outsell American comics astronomically.

Take "One Piece" for example, which sold 18,151,599 units in 2013. Compared with Saga Volume 1, which sold only 120,000 units in 2013.

As far as Chris Ware and the like are concerned, all I can say is, they seem irrelevant.

3/02/2014 1:28 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

"The question shouldn't be why can't these handful of great writers also draw, the question is why won't the big $$$ studios hire anyone who can write."

'V For Vendetta ', 'Watchmen', 'The Dark Knight Returns' were attempts to do exactly that in the mid-late 80s.

3/02/2014 1:46 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Lawrence says-- "'V For Vendetta ', 'Watchmen', 'The Dark Knight Returns' were attempts to do exactly that in the mid-late 80s."

Sort of... They took excellent writers, but those writers were still writing pop garbage. Compared to Spiegelman or Eisner they're not writing comics as literature.


Anyway, so let's step back from this western-centric circlejerk, pardon my french, and take a gander at the works of the reigning king of comics (at least in terms of readership and sales), Eiichiro Oda, the mad man behind One Piece:
one


two


three


four

five

The tone of conversation changes drastically. So, its certainly fair to discuss comics now versus then, but we need to do it honestly, and if we're going to be honest about it, the world leader isn't an American, and it's definitely not Mr.Ware or any of those sorts of writers turned cartoonists -- the Japanese have always been, and to this day remain, the culture of the cartoon.

3/02/2014 2:01 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

Richard: "Sort of... They took excellent writers, but those writers were still writing pop garbage. Compared to Spiegelman or Eisner they're not writing comics as literature."

you've answered your own question. the main comics market - adolescents males - want action superhero 'pop garbage'. they don't want to read about relationships or the human condition.
the 'comics as serious literature' market will always be a much smaller one.

3/02/2014 2:14 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

>>>the main comics market - adolescents males - want action superhero 'pop garbage'. they don't want to read about relationships or the human condition.
the 'comics as serious literature' market will always be a much smaller one.

I guess the second question is, then, is there some way to convince these artists and writers to try their hand at something more serious, without the market already being open.

Not the same, but I'm starting up a nonprofit that I'll be debuting at SPXPO this year, to create educational comics for American schools, so I'm definitely on the side of wanting to open up American comics to a greater and more diverse readership.

3/02/2014 2:35 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

Hi David
  Even in the  early sixties people seemed willing to believe in simple clear narratives.  But now the clear simple ideas of what our roles are and what is of value has become suspect. Who today would believe the advertising copy of the 1950's and early 1960's?     Narratives themselves have become suspect. Would the theatrical gestures of a board way play be of any help to a Samuel Beckett play?  Worrying about buying a phone answering machine(the Chris Ware  panel you included) seems silly and inane when you get right down to it.  Such a trivial decision produces so much anxiety in the character that he becomes a modern day Hamlet to buy or not to buy.  It almost demands a drawing of excessive blandness,  to match the blandness and inanity of the situation.  There is very little that is beautiful in such a life so why would the drawing reflect a different point of view. 

The horrors and randomness of Nazism does it demand theatrics? Or does Maus hit the right note with his drawing

The Starr drawing reflects a conviction in the story itself, as if the ego of the star actor is of some real significance.  Will the play go on or not? The suspense of what will happen next is what keeps the story alive. It reflects values that have yet to be question.  Like Monty Python making fun of the organ music that was such a part of old time radio.

3/02/2014 2:57 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

Richard: "I guess the second question is, then, is there some way to convince these artists and writers to try their hand at something more serious, without the market already being open"

i think the artists who are more suited to action and the artists who are more suited to 'serious' content naturally find their own place without needing any convincing.

Richard: "If you want to know why these handful of slightly-popular cartoonists can still sell, it's simple, they write well, and the fact they can't draw worth a damn just underlines how well they write..."

i disagree that Ware's ability is purely down to good writing and that he 'can't draw worth a damn'; in the Acme Novelty Library book i linked to in the previous post there's a 14 page strip that is wordless (the middle aged 'superhero'). the story is told entirely visually. the drawings are simple, but - good visual storytelling doesn't by default require detailed imagery. in many cases, overly detailed, realistic imagery simply slows the 'flow' of the visual ideas.

3/02/2014 3:47 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

David,
Thank you for placing the Starr center stage and in the spotlight. I'm not a comic book guy, but you have made his brilliance quite apparent. His sound drawing and cinematic aesthetic genius elevated his work to the status of visual ART, and that's where the disconnect with comparisons arises. Personally I have no tolerance for those who learn to make a few squiggly lines (or their admirers) and then deem themselves worthy to sit in the judgment seat upon the whole of art.

3/02/2014 3:48 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

Tom: "The horrors and randomness of Nazism does it demand theatrics? Or does Maus hit the right note with his drawing"

exactly. Maus drawn by Starr would have been a disaster. it would look like a 1940s/50s war action comic; all contorted faces and melodramatics.
style has to serve with content until they become inseparable. i don't understand why many seem not to get this simple fact.

3/02/2014 4:06 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

The issue with Maus is that there are mice involved, and cats, and that means cartooning is the order of the day. But the subject demands seriousness... so I'm agreeing that Maus is appropriately illustrated.

But great illustrators can bring a heck of lot to a story. The idea that they wouldn't be sensitive to the subject matter of the Holocaust is just wrong headed. A great illustrator could bring layers into it that Speigelman couldn't dream of, let alone execute.

The fact that illustration has been banned from serious books by the twerp mandarins of intellectual life has prevented the experiment from being run. However we can see a few glimpses of what could be in George Pratt's enemy ace Graphic novel and in the resonant pictures by many illustrators who saw combat first hand.

Not sure if I use "Graphic Design" pejoratively. I do, however, think it is a distinct thing which has its limits, just as strict realism or pure cartooning has its limits.

3/02/2014 5:48 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3/02/2014 6:08 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

Kev,
Pratt is a fine painter but his work perfectly illustrates how more can be too much in comics. the 'weight' of a painted image slows the pace and makes for a very jumpy frame to frame read. same problem occurs with Kent Williams and Ashley Wood.
also, word balloons coming from the mouths of paintings just looks wrong. very difficult, near impossible to make painted characters look as if they're actually saying the lines of dialogue in a word balloon.

3/02/2014 6:19 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

>>>i disagree that Ware's ability is purely down to good writing and that he 'can't draw worth a damn'; in the Acme Novelty Library book i linked to in the previous post there's a 14 page strip that is wordless (the middle aged 'superhero'). the story is told entirely visually. the drawings are simple, but - good visual storytelling doesn't by default require detailed imagery. in many cases, overly detailed, realistic imagery simply slows the 'flow' of the visual ideas.

I must admit that I've avoided Ware enough that I'm not sure I can in all fairness speak about his work, but I can say that follow-able visual storytelling is not the same as complete or complex visual storytelling. Like kev said "A great illustrator could bring layers into it that Speigelman couldn't dream of, let alone execute." Basically any children's animation will, if taken frame by frame, be follow-able, but what makes a great comic storyteller is their ability to tell complex actions, both in the frame, and between them. Pratt's Corto Maltese doesn't have easily follow-able visual storytelling, but the storytelling is sweeping, and subtle -- its of a different calibre.

3/02/2014 6:28 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I should be clear, since I mentioned a second Pratt, I'm talking about Hugo not George.

3/02/2014 6:29 PM  
Blogger Chris James said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3/02/2014 7:34 PM  
Blogger Chris James said...

I have to agree with Richard. The game is being played at a high level elsewhere, notably Japan and France, and it's been that way for a couple of decades. Artists like Jean Giraud and Katsuhiro Otomo (talk about cinematic!) are/were not only more technically proficient than the other contemporary artists being discussed, they are/were stylistically fresh, visionary,
modern and exciting compared to the staid and dated Golden Age work.

Giraud was also incredibly diverse in a way not many comic artists have been, having worn the hats of realism, minimalism, cartoon, modernism; constantly on the cutting edge.

I have to admit that I'm not fond of that Starr work, outside of my respect for the lack of the storytelling gimmicks you see in contemporary American comics. The draftsmanship is competent realism, but nothing more. For me it lacks for style and visual interest, but then I've never been a fan of that 'golden age look' that you see in American comics during this time, outside of Frazetta, who lent a sculptural quality to it that made it pop off the page. "Old timey" isn't a sophisticated criticism, as it has little to do with period, but that's the first thing that comes to mind. I was looking at a lot of McCay recently, which predates all of this, and I was blown away by how hip it felt. Guy could come onto the scene today and he would still look ahead of the curve. What skill and vision!

But don't take this as a condemnation of Starr's work in total. He had chops, but the brush
technique common to that period* and the bland subject matter of this article's examples don't do anything for me.

*Brush inking is a funny thing. It can make one look like a virtuoso or a codger. When I say "old timey," the manner of brush work has a significant hand in that. There is something sterile, a little too Pleasantville about bold/thick, clean tapered lines and crisp black spotting. I much prefer the fine line feathering of Wrightson, Jones, and Frazetta, or the more ragged, angular, imperfect strokes of certain Japanese artists.

3/02/2014 7:40 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Pratt is a fine painter but his work perfectly illustrates how more can be too much in comics. the 'weight' of a painted image slows the pace and makes for a very jumpy frame to frame read. same problem occurs with Kent Williams and Ashley Wood.
also, word balloons coming from the mouths of paintings just looks wrong. very difficult, near impossible to make painted characters look as if they're actually saying the lines of dialogue in a word balloon.


There are ways and ways. If a good enough artist comes along who also finds these issues you raise to be problematic, he/she might very well turn on the creative juices and arrive at perfectly satisfactory solutions.

3/02/2014 11:25 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Craven Lovelace-- Thanks so much for writing, I appreciate it.

Laurence John-- I thoroughly agree that a story might be told more effectively using a simplified graphic language. I only wish that some of the artists using a simplified approach today would appreciate that orchestrating a picture with multiple images might sometimes be a more effective way to tell other stories.

Starr has put four characters in a single panel with complex expressions. Chris Ware puts one character in four identical panels in a row, with no expression. There is a role for both, but in my mind there is no question which is more difficult to draw. I don't see anyone in the comic strips today who can do this, and darn few artists in graphic novels either. The question is, do they eschew this approach because they found something more appropriate for today's stories, or because they just can't do ti?

3/03/2014 8:35 AM  
Anonymous MORAN said...

David thanks for this close look at Starr. I always heard he was one of the great comics artists but now he is one of my favorites.

3/04/2014 1:02 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Richard-- I defer to you on whether the modern cartoonists I've mentioned are anywhere near the top sellers. The thing that intrigues me is that these cartoonists seem to be the most highly honored artists in the eyes of establishment critics. It irks me that the art establishment turned up its nose at quality comics-- the NY Times wouldn't soil itself by running political cartoons, let alone a comic strip. But now that they have finally recognized that comics can be legitimate art, they have chosen an odd assortment of artists to laud. I agree that their superstars mostly "write well" (although the writing tends to focus on misery, absurdity and human inadequacy). But I think the art portion of these works is often second rate. I think that might not be the case if the critics cared about the art side of the equation and understood something about its language.

I am pleased to hear (from you and other commenters) that comic artists outside the US have not succumbed to this trend.

Tom-- Your analysis of the literary differences sounds right to me. One could argue that such a distinction stems from a difference in the state of the underlying culture in the 1950s and now. In an era of expansion and unquestioned values, there is an appealing confidence to the art, a "conviction in the story itself" which supports idealized figures-- bold, handsome men and beautiful women, overcoming dangers. In an era of self-doubt, these "modern-day Hamlets" are "sicklied over with the pale cast of thought." Skinny, neurotic outcasts incapable of healthy, robust relationships are the new heroes (Ware, Brown, Crumb, etc.) We are no longer living in ancient Athens where idealized beauty was worshiped.

We can have a separate discussion about which cultural perspective is more admirable. There are strengths and weaknesses on both sides. One reason I tend to emphasize artists here who celebrate idealized beauty (Fuchs, Starr and others of their era) is that I think many people lack the experience to appreciate that the cringing self-awareness of Chris Ware is not a higher level of consciousness, superior to dumb, idealized characters-- it's just a more fashionable attitude for now.

Laurence John-- As you'd expect, I don't agree with your characterization of the dichotomy as one between "artists who are more suited to action and the artists who are more suited to 'serious' content." I have listened to talks by Starr (who I assume represents the "action" side of the equation) and by Chester Brown and Chris Ware (who I assume qualify as "serious" content). My own personal assessment is that notwithstanding his action strip, Starr was five times more literate and cultured, and his characters and dialogue created for pure entertainment were nevertheless a far more fulfilling and wholesome lens through which to view reality. Does that make them "serious"?

We are, however, 100 percent in accord on your point about detail. "good visual storytelling doesn't by default require detailed imagery. in many cases, overly detailed, realistic imagery simply slows the 'flow' of the visual ideas."

I have not read the 17 page story in Acme but on your recommendation I will certainly seek it out.

3/04/2014 8:10 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara and Laurence John-- I agree there is a natural dissonance between painted panels and word balloons, if only because the former tends to be 3D and the latter tends to be 2D. However, Pratt (George) has done some excellent pen and ink drawings and would I think have done a fine job with Maus. (Somewhere in this jumble of comments I have offered a dozen other possible artists for the role).

But I don't want to lose sight of the point that almost any competent illustrator could have drawn the illustrations for Maus or Jimmy Corrigan, precisely the way that Spiegelman or Ware did. Show them the character design and the technical execution would be a piece of cake. What they could NOT do is write the excruciating texts (and in Ware's case, conceptualize the design). Those require unique and powerful talents for which Spiegelman and Ware are properly applauded.

3/04/2014 8:22 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Chris James-- I agree with you that Jean Giraud is terrific, and I like a number of the other continental artists such as Loisel, although I don't know as much about them as I should.

As for your critique about inking, it's interesting that some people prefer the sparse, simple line of Ware and other contemporaries to Starr's line, which they feel is too detailed and overworked. Now you write that you think Starr's line is too clean and "Pleasantville" and that you prefer the "fine line feathering of Wrightson, Jones and Frazetta." I guess one man's ceiling is another man's floor. Personally, I might like any of the three depending on the time of day. However, I think it would be unrealistic to expect a comic strip reproduced in the newspaper to have "fine line feathering." Frazetta pretty much gave that up for his brief-lived strip.

As for Japanese artists, I think it's almost impossible to top the masters (such as Hokusai or Eisen), but someone is going to have to explain the virtues of manga to me.

3/05/2014 5:47 AM  

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