An Artistic Vocabulary, by Elayne Riggs
For a few years in the ’90s, I wrote weekly comic book reviews which I published online in the Usenet rec.arts.comics groups and CompuServe’s Comics Forum. As I was one of only a handful of women reviewing comics at the time (I remember there was me, Johanna Draper and Denise Sudell online and of course Maggie Thompson in print), my "Pen-Elayne For Your Thoughts" reviews were noticed and commented on fairly frequently, both by other readers and by the professionals who worked on the books I discussed. (My review of a Legion annual prompted the book’s inker to email me, and a couple years later we were married.) It was a cool self-publishing gig which led to all sorts of goodies, from being "recognized" by name at conventions (especially helpful when working the Friends of Lulu booth) to being sent freebies and previews to drum up interest and get the comment threads going (about the actual story rather than the anticipation thereof).
I cherished my interactions with pros, particularly artists. Writing I understood. I’d been a writer for decades, I intrinsically got the process. But art — here was a foreign realm, one to which I could never hope to aspire. These folks created magic that I’d never hope to duplicate. I felt a driving need to at least familiarize myself with the hows and whys of graphic sequential storytelling. After all, I reasoned, if you take into account time spent in the actual creation of a comic book story, the art is far more than half of what goes into it. Every line on the page has a reason to be there, and I wanted to find out what it all meant.
In order to do so, I needed to cultivate an artistic vocabulary.
It amazes me how many comics reviewers grasp at excuses to not discuss art: it’s just background, they don’t have the right words to describe it (ignorance of 50%+ of what you’re reviewing is somehow okay?), it’s only important to a small circle of friends. This isn’t difficult to do, it’s more a matter of wanting to, of acknowledging that the art in a comic is every bit as important as (or more important than) the writing. It’s the first thing most non-fanatics notice, and even those who say they don’t notice it are affected by it on a visceral, sub-literate (and therefore almost subconscious) level. I acquired some of my vocabulary through reading books like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, but most of it I just picked up through conversation, and I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of lots of eloquent artists from Mark Crilley to Colleen Doran to Alan Davis, folks who knew how to articulate what they were doing and why.
And so I learned about how to tell if the art is telling a story by ignoring the word balloons and captions and seeing if I could still "read" the basic plot. And I learned to determine what bits were superfluous and even antithetical to storytelling, and to appreciate streamlining and panel flow, and how to "step back" and evaluate the composition of the page, and to notice where it led my eye from panel to panel, and what aspects the artists chose to emphasize.
And it gives me hope when critics like Lisa Fortuner take on the art on a specific cover as she did recently in discussing how artists can self-sabotage by making the wrong choices:
"Every part of a piece of art is important, because the artist is trying to set up an overall mood. Every line in the drawing needs to support that mood somehow. A piece of superhero art is supposed to evoke a sense of heroism, even when the character is flat on their face. You are supposed to look at it and be impressed with what knocked them down, and ready to see them stand up in the next panel. That’s what a cover image should be. Its supposed to make you want to pick up the book and look inside to see who they’re fighting and how they kick the bad guy’s ass after being thrown so badly.
"When an artist focuses too much on making the subject of the piece look sexy [and] put so much attention on bare flesh, they destroy that. If the viewer’s eye is first draw to a titillating image of a character’s butt and thigh, you’ve lost the chance to make them worried about anything other than sex. The viewer is not thinking about how the character got to be face-down on the ground, the viewer is focusing on the character’s butt. The viewer is not anticipating that this character will crawl to their feet and punch the bad guy in the face, the viewer is thinking about the possibility of even more exposed flesh. It’s not a matter of femininity or masculinity so much as sexualization period here."
I’ve lost count of how many confrontations I’ve had with artists about this subject. In fact, I’ve just had another conversation with Mike Netzer in my blog’s comment section about an upcoming project featuring a, shall we say, Not Safe For Work panel. The question of whether and when art sabotages both writing and story is one of endless fascination for me.
Cultivating an artistic vocabulary in turn led to paying attention to the details. Every time I hear a complaint that a character is being written incorrectly to a reader’s personal view of what’s canon (because a subjective rather than objective view is all one can really have in a shared universe constantly being created and re-created by different writers, editors, etc.), I wonder where all the bitching is about how a character is drawn. Critique of artistic detail in storytelling rarely goes beyond the Jessica Rabbit line "I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way." More often one hears versions of "well, it doesn’t matter if that character’s cape length keeps changing from panel to panel, it’s just artistic license." Oh? Then why isn’t it "writer’s license" when a character’s dialogue in a story doesn’t match the way that character "speaks" in the reader’s head? This double standard drives me batty — "tin ears" aren’t allowed at all, but "tin eyes," if you will, are routinely excused.
It’s the artist’s job to notice the details, particularly as he or she has to sit and draw those same details for hours on end. Let’s take an example from recent work. If you’ve been following DC Comics lately, you’re probably familiar with the character of Mr. Terrific, who’s being featured in both JSA and Checkmate. Quick now, without looking: On his jacket, which sleeve has the words "Fair Play" written on it? What orientation are the letters? Which way do they run, down or up the sleeve? I have looked at about four recent issues of JSA, Checkmate and other books, and the jacket lettering not only differs from book to book, but sometimes from page to page within the same book.
It’s the latter that drives me up the wall; just as I expect a character in a shared universe to be written slightly differently from writer to writer (to demand greater consistency is to ascribe greater autonomy and importance to a fictional construct than to the real people telling stories featuring that construct), I have no problem with variations in how that character is drawn from artist to artist. But within the same story, particularly within the pages of a single issue, I want both ends of the creative team to be cohesive from the first panel to the last.
The less critics notice and discuss a book’s art, the less incentive artists have to pay attention to what they’re doing, and produce good work. And comics reviewers don’t have to figure out new vocabulary for something like this. They can use the same words they employ when talking about writing — continuity and consistency.
I’ll doubtless revisit some of these ideas in greater depth in future columns. But if anything I’ve said influences the comics reviewers out there, I hope it’s this — hard-working professionals spend hours on end creating hundreds of panels of unique sequential art for you to look at. This art can enhance or detract from the writing in the story, but it is not extraneous to the story. A comic book story isn’t just the writing; it’s the writing plus the art. And ignoring half the story not only does a disservice to the aforementioned pros, but to your credibility as a reviewer. It behooves all comics reviewers, and all comics readers in general, to cultivate and nurture their own artistic vocabulary.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix‘s news editor, and is currently sporting multiple contusions on her knees and arm from a recent tumble. As her life is not a comic book, the bruises do not migrate to different body parts during the course of her day.