Thursday, November 12, 2009

Black Metal Comics or If It Ain't Baroque, Don't Fix It!

As Geoff mentioned in his last post, we're moving to a more conversational format, where we'll be responding to each other's posts (and to your comments of course) as a dialogue rather than creating standalone essays. So, in that spirit, here are some loose responses to Geoff's thoughts about the centrality of drawing to comics:

(Quoting Geoff:) "it crosses my mind that our (I mean "our" as in comics-making people) reluctance to fully exploit appropriation, collage or other means of image-making may in part be the result of a deep commitment to drawing, rather than any distaste for alternatives."

Hmmm, yes, although I think that "deep commitment" might be another way of saying "heavily invested". Learning to draw comics is difficult and (super) time consuming, so it's no surprise that once people get good at it they tend to get a bit conservative about the whole undertaking - "I don't need photo reference like these kids today - I memorized the way every single thing in the world looks! From every angle!"

(Quoth Geoff:) "The more corporate comics trend to the de-personalized, mechanized look of digital photo-realism, the more I turn away." I sort of know what you mean about this, Geoff - I say "sort of" because I haven't actually read a "corporate comic" since 1980, except Watchmen (which I finally read a couple of months ago) and the first four Wednesday Comics. But I go to comics shops with my kids and I see a page spread or two (and the covers, of course) and I think "Yeesh, this shit is really baroque! Too much fussy detail everywhere! My eyes are bouncing off the page! Ouch!"

(Above: notice any resemblance? Some superhero thing or other and The Fall of Phaeton by Rubens)

But I honestly don't think it's "digital photo-realism" (or even photo reference per se) at fault here - nor the use of computers to color the comics into dense gaudy confections. I think the problem comes down to how we organize and read comics as stories (and by we, I guess I mean old codgers like Geoff and myself - my 9 year old son gobbles new corporate comics up like, well, "dense gaudy confections").

Comics, like music, and books, and paintings - any other art - make use of various kinds of "dynamic range" - typically via variations within the work between, say, dark areas and light areas, or action and dialogue. One way artists use these differences in the densities of parts of the work is to organize them structurally, to help readers grasp the entirety of the piece and keep them interested.

But sometimes - especially with a form that's specialized itself into a tiny niche for hardcore fans - that larger, structural "dynamic range" becomes unnecessary. The fans are so immersed in the particulars of the form that they don't need them. Instead we get dense, thick virtuoso barrages of technique. Think about the relationship between older "heavy metal" music and its newer sub-genre "black metal". Heavy metal employed structural dynamic range - verse/chorus/break, loud/quiet, even melody - but "black metal" just goes for an unremitting wall of metal noize.

This situation may be the result of historical trends (things always get more complicated, don't try to keep up with your kids you stupid nostalgic old fossils) or it could be cyclical (new technologies lead to enthusiastic abuses, which eventually correct themselves, like what happened with the use of fonts in "desktop publishing" in the 80's/90's) - but either way, it's created an over-ripe type of comics that could reasonably be called "digital mannerism".

Personally, I like structural dynamic range - I still want to be able to pull back and appreciate the overarching organization of a panel, or a page or a story, and "flat" color and simplified, "cartoony" drawings certainly lend themselves to that - but I think it's just as possible to do it with photo-realistic drawing (or photographs!) and digital color. I think it boils down to a certain discretion or restraint on the artist's part, and a willingness to work with the reader - to allow for the possibility they may need a little coaxing to come along on this particular trip, and a little breather here and there.

I've got more I want to say (about color in particular), but I'll hold off until next time and see what Geoff (and everyone else) have to say. In the meantime, here's a couple of examples of my all-time favorite photo-realist cartoonist, using every goddam speck of structural dynamic range. He's the Ozzy Osbourne of comics, ladies and gentlemen: Richard Fucking Corben!!!

(Above: Pages from Den)

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