In this week’s Leaving Proof: We consider the “less is more” approach to comics art and introduce a couple of planned comics projects.
A recurring theme during the Fan Expo Vancouver sketch duels and my discussions with a number of the guest artists at the Expo is the question of whether or not a focus on rendering illustration detail detracts from an artist’s ability to tell a story using visuals alone. Kaare Andrews (Iron Fist: The Living Weapon, Spider-Man: Reign), Mark Bagley (Ultimate Spider-Man, Hulk), Philip Tan (Spawn: Godslayer, The Outsiders), and Eisner Award-winning cover artist Dave Johnson (100 Bullets, Punisher MAX) all expressed—to varying degrees and with certain qualifications—the contention that a focus on illustration detail and an emphasis on visual storytelling are mutually exclusive. That is, one takes away from the other.
This isn’t a new issue, of course. John Buscema, for instance, made no secret of the fact that he despised the noodling that Alfredo Alcala and Ernie Chan would do over his pencils as the inkers on Marvel’s The Savage Sword of Conan, as he preferred a sparer, understated approach to linework. (It is quite ironic, then, that the Buscema/Alcala and Buscema/Chan issues are some of the most revered by fans, although as editor Roy Thomas once noted, what worked commercially wasn’t always what worked artistically.)
Viewed a certain way, this could be seen as the opposition between the “cartooning” approach to comics art and the approach derived from an aesthetic with roots in the florid inks and rigid draftsmanship that typified early 20th century magazine illustrations.
I much prefer the “less is more” philosophy of comics art myself, although describing it as “less is more”—as if there were a direct inverse relationship between rendering detail and effective visual storytelling—is somewhat reductive and fails to capture the nuances of the comics art process as well as the science of visual attention, perception, and information processing. Rather, I think of it in terms of generating efficiencies from limited resources, both at the artist’s end and at the reader’s end.
An artist only has so many hours and so much mental and physical energy to expend on illustrating a comic book, so it is only natural that past a certain point, time and effort spent on embellishing will take away from time and effort that could be devoted to creating more robust layouts, and vice versa.
The reader, too, operates with limited resources with regards to his or her ability to process comics art if we’re to accept (and we really should) the LC4MP theory of the cognitive processing of media and the established theories from the cognitive sciences that state that (a) attention is a limited-capacity system and (b) changes in the size of an area being visually attended to have concomitant trade-offs in the efficiency with which a viewer can do feature integration and visual identification. Put simply, when a comics page has too many illustrated details, it can overwhelm the reader and end up looking cluttered, unfocused, and inscrutable.
All this said, what constitutes “too much detail” is probably variable among many readers, and as with many things, it is less about absolutes than it is about striking a balance and leaving room for the vagaries of individual execution—no one in his right mind would claim that a superlative, detail-oriented illustrator like Moebius is guilty of ineffective visual storytelling, for instance.
Introducing a couple of planned comics projects
“Those who can’t do, teach,” goes the old chestnut. And those of us who have no formal forum for teaching? I guess we have to settle for writing on the Internet.
I love reading comics. I love reading about comics. And as those among you who have been joining me here on Leaving Proof every week or so for the past few years already know, I also love writing about comics and sharing my enthusiasm for the art form with others. These past several months, however, I’ve been getting the itch to do something more.
Like a lot of kids who grew up reading comics, my older brother and I spent many an afternoon crafting our own illustrated adventures. In some ways, reading and creating comics was a way for us to connect with each other in a way that we didn’t really do on a social level. Don’t get me wrong—we were, and continue to be, very close. But we are also decidedly different in terms of our non-comics interests, social inclinations, and temperament, and this distinction, I think, was especially pronounced during our younger years, when I wasn’t really that much fun to be around, to be perfectly honest. I alternated between being cranky and extremely shy as a kid (and occasionally still do as an adult).
Our amateur comics collaborations didn’t survive the transition to adolescence, although I still remember some of the characters we created for our office paper productions. There were the Ninjoids, a team of ninja androids (obviously). There was a superhero team that could probably best be described as X-Men-meets-The Terminator. It was all a mish-mash of the various entertainments we enjoyed at the time. Reading comics was fun, but making them was just as satisfying, if not more so.
But as artist Philip Tan pointed out in a recent interview, there comes a point in every bedroom comics creator’s life when he or she has to ask the question: “Can I make comics that other people will actually want to read?” I just couldn’t see myself answering in the affirmative. I don’t know if my older brother felt the same way. He had undeniably real artistic talent going for him—at the age of 14, he had already been recognized on the national stage as a student press editorial cartoonist of note—but even then, I think he was already leaning towards different artistic pursuits.
With all modesty, I’d like to think that I have a fairly good grasp of the nuts and bolts of making decently readable comics between almost three decades of reading comics of various kinds, my informal studies of storyboarding and the visual storytelling theories of Will Eisner, Scott McCloud, and other artist-academics, and some formal education in the cognitive sciences that, I think, contributes to my appreciation and understanding of effective comics storytelling.
However, as I found out several years ago when I was approached on an online forum and asked to design characters and eventually illustrate an independent comic (a request I was ultimately unable to deliver), there is a wide, wide gulf between “knowing what to do” and “actually being able to do it.” I’d like to think that I’ve made some gains in closing that gap since then.
Unlike me, my older brother Adrian went on to have an actual career in the art industry. There’s even a good chance some of you reading this article have already encountered his handiwork in a cartoon or a video game here and there, although at a certain level in the industry, animation and character design is relatively anonymous, mercenary labor. A few years ago, circumstances were such that my older brother and I became, for all intents and purposes, neighbors. It was a development I welcomed: I was 16 years old the last time we even lived in the same city for any length of time. It was during one of my weekly visits to his home that we started talking about doing comics again, like we used to do when we were children. It’s a creative exercise for the both of us more than anything else, but it also serves as a unique way to strengthen familial ties that may have been strained across distance, weakened by the passage of time, and mitigated by circumstances. Even if we never end up creating something worth publishing, I am already happy with this fledgling creative endeavor. Everything else is just gravy.
So what, exactly, are we working on? One of the projects we’re developing is something we’re calling The Last Devil, a comic featuring 19th century soldier-of-fortune Vincente Macanaya in a fictional, pulp-inflected story about his later years. While it features an actual historical figure as its lead, it is by no means intended as a historical comic even as the plot and setting are tied, after a fashion, to real world events. Genre-wise, it’s really more of “weird history” comic along the lines of, say, Yaeko Ninagawa’s manga adaptation of Sho Aikawa’s Ghost Slayers Ayashi or Mike Mignola’s The Amazing Screw-On Head. Check out some of the test images we’ve been playing with during the ongoing character design process:
Another project we’re working on is the spaghetti western-inspired The Ballad of Tarnation, which we can see potentially turning into an animated short instead of a comic.
Just like when we were kids, these comics projects feature a conflation of all the things we enjoy, in comic book format, although the key difference this time around is that we hope to share these projects with others, although how we’ll do so, we’re not sure yet.
If you’re interested in following our (incremental) progress on these projects, as well random bits of fan art, check out our new Tumblr, unwiltingbros.tumblr.com (it’s so new, it barely has any posts in it!).