Understated Techniques in Amazing Comics Part 2
Travis Hedge Coke
Following hot on the heels of last week’s Understated Techniques, this time we’ll tackle five comics and one or two oft-unaddressed techniques the makers applied fantastically. Understated Techniques in action!
1. Charley’s War
Joe Colquhoun drew Charley’s War at the end of his life and a lifetime of making comics. And, Pat Mills is comics (Mills didn’t write all of Charley’s War, but he did write most of it, and the best). Charley’s War isn’t talked about in Bronze Age discussions, but that is probably for the best, since pinning it to an era or even a school of comics is too limiting for what Charley’s War is. Not was, but still is.
Colquhuon’s use of density makes his pages pop. Density of line, of detail, of angles, and of objects in relation to one another. Too often a novice artist will try to balance everything uniformly, but while there are fantastic pages with the six-panel grid, wonderful shots of everyone staring heroically into the same space somewhere right of the page, there is more energy and depth in making things conflict and getting the eye moving against its own trajectory as the audience looks over the image.
By positioning the airships at an angle to the hatching that represents clouds and sky, but not using the outline of the ships break up the hatching lines, Colquhoun pushes them forward in the fictive space. Along with the arc of the airships as they spread from one another, that contrast with the hatching also gives them a sense of advancing motion.
In this second example, pay attention to how each panel employs hatching and line differentiation, or spot blacks, to different ends. It’s the hatching and detail lines that give shape and depth, and most significantly, produce a sense of light sources, rather than the outlines which, honestly, disappear for me into the blacks and hatching. The exaggerated solid shadows of one panel are a technique not reapplied in another panel, while the motion lines of the bicycling panel are excellently lain across the diamonds of the street, the heavy blacks of uniforms allow the delicate lines of the contour maps to seem flat and doubly drawn where they sit on the walls.
2. Nancy Drew
I am fascinated with Sho Murase’s art in the Nancy Drew comics published by PaperCutz. The writing is fun, too, usually, but it’s the art that I find most inviting, exciting, and heartwarming. Murase, with assistance by Carlos Jose Guzman, crafts a look that owes a lot to animation, to children’s book illustration, and tons of Scooby-Doo. Everything is rendered in a two-tone world of highlights and shadows, and shadows don’t represent the direction of light as much as they enhance the contours of objects and people. Everything is geared towards making images more dramatic and at the same time safer and more easily read by the eye at a glance. This is the sort of purification and safety that John Romita brought to Amazing Spider-Man and Meiji Matsumoto used in Galaxy Express 999, but roughened or simplified to a stronger degree and I think that actually draws us in easier.
Silhouettes become incredibly crisp and solid, but the outline of a character, too, is both identifiable and intriguingly articulated. It’s a smart version of the fumetti photo-comics or those that cropped shots from a cartoon into panels, in that it isn’t simply copying a visual from another medium but charging new images with that easily-received energy by using another medium’s sensibilities.
3. Mississippi River
Color emphasis is nothing new in comics, but there are simple duotone comics such as Le Jardin du Thé and color-coded extravaganzas like The Multiversity, but Mississippi River, a comic done by Moebius and Jean Michel Charlier while taking a break from their Blueberry series, utilizes a full range of color while emphasizing the unusual choice of red and yellow to dominate their narrative and its atmosphere with a tone both unlike other comics and quite unlike any other Western, either.
Blues, purples, and greens show up in Mississippi River to highlight how big the reds and yellows are, and just how yellow a page can get until your head swims with it. It becomes its world and after awhile you don’t hardly notice how unreal it is.
Read straight through the comic’s sixty pages and jump over to someone else’s more traditional comic and everything will seem bled out and sedate. Your brain has been knocked into another realm without notice.
4. The Question
The efforts of Dennis O’Neil, Denys Cowan, and Tatjana Wood came together on The Question to emphasize a sense of real and serious place like no other comic does. Akira does it almost or as well, but in totally different ways, and DC’s hype machine may want you to believe that all Batman or Superman comics do, but no. The Question was the stuff of dreams, magic, and truth when it came to place and position.
This is accomplished in a few different ways.
Hub City, where the comic primarily takes place, is made up of walls and heights and the ground. That may sound simple, but I mean it really gave you those things in every scene. You knew what was above a character’s head, and you knew how far they were from the wall, and what they stood on or stood the risk of running into. Grass is real in The Question. Pavement is solid and follows the rules of pavement. People have to live in the buildings of Hub City, and people have to live on its streets, too, atop its park benches and in its sticky, damp alleyways. This is not accomplished purely through visuals or text, color or characterization, but a jackhammering combination of all these things.
Whether it’s a woman making the effort not to make eye contact with us as we read, or the Question facing us through a chainlink fence, we are as rooted in the scene as the character we look at. And, so, when the woman turns further away and insults the space we occupy, we feel that rejection. We aren’t her, we’re with her. Nor, are we the Question when he scales that fence, at the bottom left of the page, as he now scales an “up” that is, to us, moving down and left, towards us, outside the page. We are studying them not in association but by relation.
5. Bitch Planet
Here’s the thing that appeals to me about Bitch Planet more than anything else, and nowhere so strongly as the third issue: Bitch Planet makes me cheer with a triumphant surge of justness. Not law. Not right. Not even justice. Justness. That sense of a good, true thing that wins not by accomplishment or victory but by existing. Justness is why Superman is best as an idea, untouchable as an idea no matter how many boring or misogynistic stories he’s crammed into. Justness is why we discount the implausible ethics of Wuthering Heights, or Jesse Custer putting men on the hard end of a hanging rope. How we scale the insurmountable dangers of catch and release serial narratives and fairytales where everything is stacked against the heroes.
Alive or dead, Snow White is cooler than the Queen, and prettier, too.
Penny Rolle is cooler and harder and looks better being cooler and harder than anybody you want to put her against for measure.
That's the shit that’ll make you cheer. And, Kelly Sue DeConnick and guest penciler, Robert Wilson IV work it for all they can. They want that cheer and they do everything to tease it out of us, to encourage its growth and eagerness.
Is it ethically sound to cheer when Penny Rolle blows up and gets arrested? Not at all. But it makes sense. Which, if we’re being honest and all adults, is why we like Spider-Man, too. And, Homer Simpson. Charlie Brown. Joe Dredd. Captain America.
There are totally better ways to handle situations than superheroes do. But the way superheroes do feels good. On paper, in fiction, it feels good. And, in the end, she’s right. For the world she’s in, the situation and the sphere of influences and attacks, there is nothing wrong with her, and she doesn’t need fixing, and she won’t be broken.
To pull it back to Snow White, and I have no idea if that story was on anyone’s mind when they framed this issue as a woman being forced to look at something better than herself in a mirror for twenty pages, but how much cooler would Snow White be if, knowing the traditional drama, the Queen checked out the mirror and just went, “Hey. I look alright. I look pretty damn good and the hell with all these haters anyway”?
You know why Spider-Man works so well? Because not only does he fight supervillains, he fights a battle against yellow journalism that he is never going to win. And, even as he’ll never win it, he is always winning it, because we know. We, the audience, know. We’ve got J Jonah Jameson’s number. And, Spidey comics don’t hammer that home enough. Superhero comics, in general, don’t press that button so much any more. Too many non-superhero books are afraid to, because it is, after all, a pretty immature and direct button. It’s not civil. It’s not entirely flattering.
But, DeConnick and Wilson IV make sure we feel just how righteous it can be.