Reading the Lines: Jack Davis and How Complexity Looks Simple
Travis Hedge Coke
A comic is made up of signs, visual and textual. Signs break down, primarily, into three categories - icons, symbols, and indices - and all three of those have a plentitude of crossover and double-duty.
An icon is a thing that looks like what it stands in for. Most comics art is outline art, and the outlines are one-to-one representations of a woman, a fish, a rocking chair, mountain, or planet with a face floating in front of another outline representing Thor, God of Thunder.
Symbols, on the other hand, are representations that are visual signals (or auditory, but not so much in comics, then), that really exist, then, inside our minds. They’re a kind of noun-action process. “Spider-Man” is a symbol, and so is “spider-sense,” but the wavy lines that we perceive as a visualization of his non-visual (or at least, non-radiant) spider-sense? Not a symbol, but an index.
An index — How many of you are getting a narrator voice in your head? — is a stimulus or representation of a sensory feature, which correlates with and implies a second thing. An index relies on the correlation being statistically common. Wavy lines are not a symbol of spider-sense, because they cannot be removed from Spider-Man’s head and still be statistically likely to mean spider-sense. Wavy lines radiating from Spidey’s hand or his buttocks would imply radically different things. The same lines, haloing a monk or a Christmas tree would not likely be spider-sense or whatever they meant around Spidey-bum.
Text signs can be broken down into universally agreed upon base elements, which for the English language are our basic alphabet and typographical symbols. A, z, m, #, @, *, ! and so forth are our base. However, visual signs cannot be so concretely broken down, and the breakdown we may choose is likely not to be considered universal. The drawing of a head may be broken down into mouth, nose, eyes, and the eye may be broken down into parts illustrates or one continual line, or even where the line was begun. But, the line that makes up the lower lid of an eye, without context, is not the lower lid of an eye except, at most, in the case of intent of the artist.
We can break it down to the smallest whole image, but wtf is a “whole image”? What’s the smallest whole image of spidey-sense? Of hair?
There is a large percentage of the public who feel that more detail is always better art, or indicative of a more quality artist. And, most of us believe we see more detail and specificity reproduced in art than we do. On a simple level, we believe in some way that we have seen a face in art, when we have only seen lines or colors or specks and dots. More deceptively, we often miscalculate how much detail has gone into hair, even when there is quite a lot of detail work in the drawing of hair. Inexperienced artists often try to delineate far too many specific strands or locks, to almost trace out each individual hair, the way many inexperienced writers will write each successive step of an action, presenting their character walking, step by step, across the room to open a door and go outside and close it again and get into their car. An experienced writer just puts them in the car. An experienced artist can imply a lot, make our brains fill in all sorts of blanks.
This is the recently departed Jack Davis’ Jack Davis Meets the Mets from the seventh issue of Help vol 2, dated Oct 1963.
The top four (borderless) panels are meant to be read successively, clearly. Beyond that, do you read left to right? Left, then top/middle right, bottom right? Do you spiral the page like some mutant Fibonacci constant? There is no prescribed reading path. The remaining four panels are, narratively and contextually isolated incidents probably intended to be taken one at a time, on their own terms. I doubt they were even necessarily drawn as a single page; it’s probably a paste up job from the assorted gag strips and single-panel cartoons.
The hatching behind the icons of baseball players, in the strip up top is nonspecific, but from it we can infer motion and we can infer a contextual sense of space. There is no detail to the space, but clearly one must exist, as we have depth, distinguishing differentiation between the dark made by the hatching and the white space left framing the figures.
Similarly, in the tier below, dark is used to push figures to the foreground, while background figures, such as the ticket-taker, are made up largely of white space.
And, while the text of the captions is definitely text, with its own symbols and indices, the text above the turnstile, GATE 2, is an icon and an index. It is a visual representation of a sign that has text on it, but most significantly, it implies to the reader that this is the entry gate for a baseball game because of visual and narrative context.
Perspective is eyeballed. It is not perfect. A layperson or an inexperienced artist may have trouble with this, but perfect perspective is rarely a bonus in actual art. It is generally better that the art seems right or true, than to be measure for measure replicated.
The faces and limbs are not anatomically perfect. Characters are caricatured while seeming, also, pure and true people. Cheeks are cartoonishly distended. A face is shown in in time lapse slices with motion-lines indicated the arc of his head's swing.
It seems, at a glance, to be simple, direct artwork, but there are layers of iconography and implications at play to make it seem simple and act directly.
You probably don’t even have to know a lick about baseball to make sense of any one of the comics on the page, or all of them, together. The indices here are clear, they’re strong. The linework that make up the icons is deft, the icons themselves are both universal and idiosyncratic. These aren’t generic ballplayer, over and over, or generic guy in place. They’re specific people, but they are specific people who reinforce the basic job-person or type they represent.
Nothing on this page requires a specialist knowledge or particular training beyond basic literacy. Maybe, classically, not even that. Child or adult, in 1963 or now, in 2017, everything is identifiable and clear to us almost at a glance. Nothing looks challenging or feels out of place, but the deeper you look, the more effort went into this. The more it feels like Davis was actively conscious of precisely what he was committing.