The nature of visual literary arts

Landon Erp's picture
Submitted by Landon Erp on Sun, 2006-06-04 20:01

This is from my entries in a back and forth I had several months ago on RoR. Discussing the nature of static art (painting, sculpture) and literary visual art (comics, film). After seeing some of the entries on the "Blade Runner thread" I was tempted to add my thoughts.

Painting tends to be about essentials, but it's more the essentials of a specific moment in time. Like when you think back on your first kiss or something like that, how you remember what you were wearing, what color the walls were, how you were standing, what the expression on her (or his don't want to leave anyone out) face looked like just before etc. Specifically, just everything that would hit you about a particular moment. It's the essentials of everything that moment was, but enough to bring it all back and completely re-create the moment over and over again.

Whereas comics are about essentials pared down as far as possible. To this end comics work on the idea of the visuals as narration. Artist's use blends of several colors (possibly even avoiding the central color you would associate with an object) to render the color of a singular object in a certain light. This is the perfect approach for fine art/illustration. But if that approach in rendering an apple was taken in a comic, literary significance is given to that apple by the artist, meaning this apple is very important to the story, and you should spend lots of time noticing it because it's very detailed and those details catch your eye.

There are artists who take the approach of giving everything a large degree of detail and sometimes it works like in the case of Alex Ross. His art gives you the feel of being a spectator in a world where all kinds of amazing things are going on but you're not really capable of effecting anything about it (except maybe running for cover to save your life). But you're just so overwhelmed with detail you spend a long amount of time on a page where very quick things are happening... It's kind of like how things seem to slow down at times of stress (like in a car wreck). But Ross understands this.

Artists of the standard school of comic art know the importance of essentials. By keeping it very simple as black and white, either or: your mind assimilates the story information in a more controlled manner. By drawing a quick shot of your central character walking/running against either a blank background or flowing lines you realize he is moving towards a goal (or away from a fear) and it gives you insight to his value judgments (he doesn't care about what's going on around him). This is a standard employment of this tool. Another is your central character interacting with a single prop and/or background element against either an all black or all white background gives you insight as to the importance of that object to the character and again how the world around him has ceased to matter to him.

Conversely, imagine you see a character walking into a large panel with several trees, a swing set, a few lampposts, some children playing, lovers kissing on a bench and your central character sitting alone on another bench reading a thick book. Think about how long it would take for all of that information to imprint itself on your memory if you were in that scene in that particular park. How much of a long relaxed stay in that area it would take for all this information to register in your mind in this manner.

Probably the biggest difference between static fine art and comics is the fact that comics use amount of detail as a specific narrative tool. You have to make more choices about what is and isn't essential in any given scene in relation to your plot.
In painting you're saying with a single image "this is what life is to me."

In a comic you're saying in effect "the sum total of everything in this narrative is what life is to me. From its darkest lows to it's brightest heights, everything."

In a sentence, they are two completely different languages.

The language of self contained art and visual literary narrative

Many of the great original silent films had a strong expressionist element to their overall design, which lent itself to deeper abstraction applied to the stories. Like how in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari each piece of set dressing lends itself to the overall impression of fear which the film's premise demands. After Metropolis films demanded a more literalistic set dressing which has strong points and down sides.

The literalistic set dressing of modern films lends itself to the idea of actually experiencing an event happening before your eyes... this leads to deeper immersion but it also allows for too much potential distraction. When a story takes place within a room, every element in the room is reproduced on the screen. If a director uses this to an advantage it can have great effect. This would entail only using set dressing that directly forwards the premise. But on the off chance that you choose a plant, piece or art, piece of furniture, or photo that might draw someone's attention away from what your prime focus is... you take the chance of diverting the viewer's attention away from where you want it. A truly good director would always be aware of this but that breed is getting rarer as time passes.

Selective and even abstract set dressing has the down side that it pulls itself away from literal interpretation and it requires a bit more thought on the part of the viewer. But since it operates on a more abstract level it lends itself to selectivity. Every piece has to fit the concept, and every piece leads the viewer exactly where it he supposed to be, and pulls him deeper into the premise.

While this approach no longer works well in film, it is quite effective for both comics and stage plays. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that one of comics' biggest innovators (Will Eisner) had a father who had a background in set design for the stage. It also comes down to the fact that, both of these mediums tend to be more essential based. If it doesn't directly forward the premise, you're not going to build it onto the stage or draw it.

The iconography in comics is kind of a double edged sword. In comic strips/straight drama it already draws on a large amount of shared human experience. So in that context something like Garfield, Dilbert, or on the level of deeper narrative Strangers in Paradise or Hepcats requires that people be able to place themselves in the story as easily as possible, it's important as many people as possible should be able to see themselves as Charlie Brown, (or Lucy or Schroeder) as Dilbert (or Dogbert or Wally), as Francine (or David or Katchoo). It is common experience brought to the lowest common denominator and exaggerated to the point of abstraction.

But you tend to notice that the artwork in adventure (super-hero, sci-fi, fantasy) comics tends to be far more realistic. I think this has to do with the fact that you're introducing a premise that takes a greater degree of abstraction to find something which can be applied to your life and consciousness. Superman needs to be seen as a real person that you could (and should) bump into on the street (or at the very least someone who you could believe would be on the cover of Newsweek or Time). Brian Michael Bendis had some interesting thoughts on this in reference to his work on Daredevil. I'm paraphrasing but it was to the effect of

"I'm asking you to make a pretty big leap initially. I'm asking you to believe this guy got hit in the eyes by radioactive waste... DIDN'T DIE, and to top that off even though he was blinded, he can now do things that most Olympic athletes can't. That's a lot to ask out of someone right off the bat. Since the audience paid their part of their bargain (they're still reading aren't they?) I owe it to them to keep the rest of it as believable and relevant to life as I possibly can."

That may sound like a plea to naturalism, in Bendis' case it might even have been (I can't speak for him). But I take it as recognizing the bond which art must have to reality and the reader's consciousness to be valid.

Ironically another book Bendis writes points out an exception to this rule. His comic "Powers" is the story of a few officers on the "Powers" division of a city's police force (i.e. the division of the police that deal with the legal wrangling of super-heroes and villains). It is written very realistically (as realistically as can be) and thus employs a cartoony style in the art. It's kind of like a special bond between the creators and readers. Since the key points are done so well it works on a more relatable level than most comics in this genre.


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Interesting stuff. Kind of

Landon Erp's picture

Interesting stuff. Kind of reminds me of Dali.

This actually came from a discussion about the movie "Batman Begins."

I'm a developing cartoonist myself so I was discussing the different theoretical aspects of doing say a comic book and a painting, or a play or a movie.

A lot of it's just stuff that I'd integrated from my study of Rand's "Romantic Manifesto" and "the Art of Fiction" cartoonist Will Eisner's "Comics and Sequential Art" and "Graphic Storytelling" and Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics"

I think it's a great thing when people really start to understand the strengths and limitations of different media and just use that knowledge to just push everything to the next level.

Like for the project I'm working on now I'm kind of refining a narrative device that I first saw in Alan Moore's "Watchmen." Each chapter/issue ended with a couple pages of something that was mentioned in the story... A few pages from a super-hero's autobiography, a hardcore right wing newsletter, a philosophical essay on the effect of superhumans in international armed conflicts, an encyclepedia entry on Owls (written by the secret identity of the "Nite Owl")... In my story it's elements like a front page of a Weekly World news type paper, a strip club flyer, a religious pamphlet, an autopsy report a letter from one of the characters to her mother etc.

I find it kind of interesting how in the elastic understanding you feel when reading a comic you can insert things like that and it will just amplify the experience but it would never work in a movie or a novel (as a gimmick at a stage play it might though, but that's another post).

But it just seems like there's so much fertile teritory in the arts to be explored that sometimes it frustrates me that it isn't more eagerly explored. A flimmaker who just films in the area where he happens to live and doesn't even clear the set of accidental props. People who try excessivly hard to work sound or motion into the narratice of a comic. Painters who choose subjects that don't in and of themselves sum up their total sense of life. Too much to list but glad that you liked it Victor.


Inking is sexy.

Landon,This is a very

Victor Pross's picture


This is a very interesting post...esp. to me, being a visual artist cum inspired writer.

Have you ever heard of Eric White? Take a look at this guy's stuff.

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