More Artistic Vocabulary, by Elayne Riggs
Well, I said I’d be back and, since there were a number of terms I didn’t recall until after last week’s column went live, I figured I’d take note of them this week while I still remember what more I wanted to say.
For instance, I can’t believe I neglected to talk about surface form versus underlying construction. I consider it one of the most important criteria for judging good comic book art. The more I learn about how visual storytelling is done, the pickier I find myself becoming when it comes to appreciating crafting level. Art doesn’t need to look polished to be of professional level (although my particular taste does lean more towards smooth and streamlined rather than blocky and rough). It just needs to show that the artist understands the rules about how things are logically built. It’s like any other creative endeavor — if you’re going to break the rules, you first need to prove you know what they are and are able to follow them.
I have to admit, not being an artist, that I’m not so sure about construction rules myself, certainly not enough to be able to articulate them for you the way my husband does for me. But I do know that one of the biggest mistakes many comic book readers make is confusing style with substance. When they judge a comic they’re usually looking at the final polish given to the work rather than judging what lies beneath that polish. And that’s understandable; if you don’t know how a piece of furniture is supposed to function in its environment, or even whether it’ll hold what it’s supposed to hold, you’re pretty much going to base your opinion of that furniture by how pretty it looks in the catalog or showroom.
Way too many comic books nowadays feature art that would never have appeared outside fanzines in the old days. And many artists get away with poor crafting not only because it’s now easier and cheaper to self-publish actual glossy, color comics (as opposed to mimeo’ed zines) but because the artists have learned how to cover up their lack of talent by applying a fresh coat of paint over the shoddy workmanship to fool catalog and showroom browsers. And because those browsers don’t know enough about how to kick the tires correctly (sorry for mixing metaphors but y’all know what I mean), they have to take the salesperson’s word for it that everything is running properly. Because, shiny!
A brief digression: One of the first art games I remember playing was “spot the lens flare,” looking through a comic done by a brand-new coloring studio where they put every effect under the sun into almost every page. Not only had they never gotten the “less is more” memo, but most of the effects were unnecessary and antithetical to storytelling. The same goes for fancy lettering; when it comes to production enhancements, anything that calls attention to itself rather than working to support the story is Doing It Wrong, and few and far between are the technicians who get it right. (Todd Klein, obviously, is one of them.)
In a nutshell, here’s how you tell if art is working correctly. Last time I mentioned how every line that exists in a comic book should be there for a reason. Form follows function. Do the figures and objects drawn in a comic have a logical function within that world? Do they work consistently from panel to panel? They should if the artist’s crafting level is professional enough. That doesn’t necessarily mean hyper-realism; “Bigfoot” and cartoony art has its own rules, as we all know from the Roger Rabbit movies (which broke a number of rules in places because it could, knowing as well as its audience did the underlying assumptions about cartoon art). Most of us don’t really want realism in escapist entertainment anyway; we want verisimilitude, believability. We want to be sucked into the world created by that art and have everything work correctly and logically. If the figures and objects couldn’t possibly work even in the parameters of the story, they’re just not drawn well, no matter how pretty they may look.
The demand for things to look pretty rather than being built to work is part of the reason we’re seeing so much substandard comic book art nowadays. Too many artists are trying to imitate other artists’ surface form rather than learn how to construct. It’s like trying to write a story based on mimicking or plagiarizing other writers instead of getting a feel for the rules of grammar and sentence construction and developing your own style from that. Sometimes mimicry works; it’s practically mandatory for parody or homages. But it’s still usually aping the surface rather than what lies beneath.
Occasionally I’ve seen critics pick up on some of this in minor ways. For instance, as many feminist comics bloggers have pointed out, in real life the female body has internal organs. Most women are unable to contort so that both breasts and both butt cheeks are simultaneously visible. Most women’s breasts are not individually bigger than their heads. This isn’t to say that such aberrations don’t exist, only that they’re aberrations, and to make them the norm in comics is to sink to the level of pornographers who find similarly distorted bodies to display for prurient interest. And as anyone who’s watched a typical porn movie will readily agree, none of that has anything to do with storytelling.
But nipplege and crotch shots are really another category of bad art. Their “sin” doesn’t always lie in bad underlying construction, but in pretending to be something they aren’t. I’m very much in agreement with Val D’Orazio when she says that comic publishers should apply truth in advertising and just call the T&A superhero subgenre what it is, instead of pretending their books exist primarily to tell stories. The images may be designed to titillate or offend or shock or, let’s be honest, sell books to horny (mostly) male fetishists, but it doesn’t necessary follow that they don’t obey their internal porn-logic. So anyone critiquing this kind of art doesn’t necessarily pick on the construction as much as the inappropriateness and lack of storytelling (or merely on how uncomfortable and excluded it makes them feel, which is usually my reaction to much good-girl art; it gets in the way of me trying to read the story, and often sabotages the writer’s efforts at telling his or her part of that story).
Still, good art and good visual storytelling ought to be as vociferously desired as good scripting and plotting. So it’s important to keep asking about and exploring what the artist has done to enhance or detract from those goals. What is the purpose of each line on the page? Does it define the form on which it appears, or does it obscure and confuse? Is it actually there for a reason, or primarily to be a shiny coat of paint distracting us from the fact that the art isn’t very solid? Does the artist know how to use negative space (I can’t believe how many artists still don’t get that “Kirby dots” define the negative space around energy, they’re not supposed to represent the energy itself), or do blank backgrounds exist because of laziness or deadline pressure? If the art is photo-referenced, does it take parallax into account? What defines "clean" art? Rendering? Streamlining? Feathering?
Oh no, more vocab terms! Guess that’ll have to wait for another revisit.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix‘s "two-fisted" news editor, although she finds it harder to type that way.