Once More With Feeling: Reassessing How We Evaluate Comic Art
The real magic of the comic book medium is in the interplay and harmony of words and pictures and how their dance allows for a unique storytelling experience. When critiquing comic book art, the real aspect to put underneath the microscope is how effective it is in telling its story via that aforementioned marriage of images and language. There’s plenty to consider of course, such as the flow of panels and their layouts, the angles and perspectives, the balance and weight of the pages, the stylistic choices that inform the tone and themes, etc. It’s that latter bit that gets tricky and while very few of us who look to examine those elements have the proper training and wealth of experience to fully comprehend the finer nuances of tangents or composition or mass or form, we all still process the art on some sort of subjective emotional level. Speaking strictly from a fan perspective, and not a critic’s, I often wonder if we spend enough time asking what comic book art makes us feel and, more importantly, why it makes us feel that way.
In college I was a Theatre Arts major (which is why I swim through my millions like so much Scrooge McDuck today) and specifically, I studied theatrical design. By far the most fun parts were the early stages, long before the actual nitty gritty technical skills needed to be employed; those nascent brainstorms of trying to capture all there is to a story in purely visual terms. Clearly, comic books and live theatre are two distinctly different artistic beasts, but there is some overlap in those swirling imaginative explorations in my mind. Director Julie Taymor (yes, of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark infamy, but shush) once did a production of The Tempest where she went to the costume designer with one line of dialogue that she decided would inform their portrayal of Caliban (no, not the Marvel character). The line was:
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king. And here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ th’ island.
Here she took hold of the idea of being stymied in rock to a literal, but still very playfully figurative, conclusion that looked like this:
And that’s kinda cool, right? It’s the visual manifestation of several really loaded ideas about that character and it works because it’s justified by the story text in how it matches the concepts and themes. It looks like a Man in the Iron Mask type of imprisonment formed by the natural landscape; it’s distressing and borderline horrifying both on its own and as an empathic experience. Essentially it’s about crafting a visual language for the story, as comics need to do, and it’s expressed through a style that reinforces the themes. It might not work if that rock-head was an expressionistic block style or a less disturbing Dora the Explorer roundness, despite it still being a rock-head.
Okay, so what about comics though? Well, Scott McCloud touches on this quite a bit in his quintessential Understanding Comics, but no where more so than here:
A simple line can convey the full spectrum of human emotion with such minor changes in its appearance. Rage, despair, jubilee, apathy; all can be interpreted via a single stroke and there’s something to be said for that type of magic as well. Obviously, no two people will process an image or images in precisely the same way because that’s a personal experience, but to whatever the varying degrees there may be it’s not unrealistic to imagine handing someone a copy of Arkham Asylum and hear them describe the art as “manic” or even “angry.” Do comic book artists approach their craft the same way as Julie Taymor did above, by drawing from a specific element of the script to help shape their portrayals? I couldn’t say for sure and I’m not sure that’s important from a fan perspective either, but it’s certainly something worth considering before writing off a certain style for being too this or too that with little regard to how it relates to the essences of the story itself.
In design class, we often used “image cards” which were nothing more than 4×3 index cards with random clippings of magazine images glued to them. Trust me, I questioned if my tuition was being spent wisely when first presented with this too. However, they proved invaluable to the idea of interpreting emotion through a static image. A random piece of a dress or a cologne bottle or a modern high-rise could justifiably be “hope” or “entrapment.” Many times I tried to reverse engineer this by looking at comic books, specifically the covers of Dave McKean. If a script, when stripped down to its raw essence, seemed to truly be about the concept of “wonder” then something like this would immediately strike a chord:
But it isn’t enough to simply understand that the literal depiction is representative of the concept, it’s about breaking down all the individual elements of that image and exploring why the feelings evoked come through so strongly. It’s the wispy nature of the lines, the balance of the grounded giving way to the vastness, the softness birthed from the tangled wood; all of its parts contribute to the feeling. Maybe you don’t see or interpret that the same way, that’s totally valid, but for me the disparate parts and how they’re applied justify the intended tone of the whole piece. Perhaps to you that’s an image of pure horror what with its tangled tendrils of limbs and darkness, and you’re not wrong either. Look beyond the literal sleeping figure and break down the artistic elements (not necessarily the technical artistic elements, mind you) into pieces that you think reinforce that initial gut feeling.
There is a wide range of styles to be found in comic book art and each does more than simply adhere to particular artists’ preferences. In fact, their preferences and intent really have little to do with how you feel about the end product anyway. Do you get pumped by the energy of Sean Murphy or Daniel Warren Johnson or James Harren? Cool, me too. Why? What are you interpreting as that energy? They have an abundance of speed lines, are definitely influenced by the feathery nature of manga, and know how to play with perspective to create motion in single panels, for starters. Like the playful and humorous tone of Bryan Lee O’Malley or Erica Henderson or Lissa Treiman? Rad, so do I. There’s lots of round buoyancy to their lines with clean applications and clear expressions that inject lightheartedness into the story.
Once again, comic book art should always be considered for its ability to tell a story, but let’s face it, we always react strongly to the style employed in that first static image that graces our eyes. Far too often I feel as though I hear people complain about a book because they don’t like the art and while that’s perfectly valid, it’s very rare that I hear justifications beyond “they look too squishy” or “the proportions are weirdly exaggerated” or “the faces seem off.” Those things may be true, on a personal level, but I would implore you to dig deeper before writing any artist and their respective style off for simply “not clicking” with you. Why are the figures “squishy” and how does that perhaps play with what the story is about? Or what does it tell you about the world these figures exist in? Or even still, what exactly is it that you think makes them “squishy” or “blocky” or (ughh) “cartoony” to begin with? The thickness of the lines? The amount of lines? The weight of the shading? The coloring? If the art on a dark and grim story really hits home those notions of terror, think about what it’s doing specifically that makes it really stand out. Ditto for those freewheeling superhero adventures of semi-realistic muscled behemoths in capes and for those freewheeling comedies that tell you a book is funny before you even move beyond the first panel. Whatever the feeling, at least try to assess why and what about the art is making you feel that way. You just might find you’ll look at it differently as a result.