Reading Art

This article was originally published at The Nerd Cave on February 21, 2014.

There has been an ongoing conversation amongst some prominent comics creators and critics about the diminishing role of artists in the comics industry. Sean Murphy, one of the most distinctive and popular artists in modern comics, wrote a piece about how artists can establish themselves and manage their expectations. David Harper of Multiversity wrote a great article encouraging readers to pay as much attention to the artists that craft their favorite comics as the writers.

I initially wanted to throw in my two cents, but I would essentially just be agreeing with David Harper and he already wrote an article better than what I could have hoped to produce. Of course art is just as valuable as writing in comics. It’s a visual medium that conveys a story through a series of static pictures. You can have a comic without words, but not without art. It just seems so obvious to me, but that doesn’t mean it should be obvious to everyone else.

I don’t want to rant about the importance of art for one or two thousand words. I don’t think anyone wants to read that. An appreciation of art is absolutely intrinsic to appreciating comics, but you can’t create love and appreciation for art by shouting about it. You can help others love and appreciate art by sharing it.

This is my attempt to lead by example.

All-Star Superman is one of my favorite comics ever. It is my favorite superhero comic. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely are two of the most talented living creators in the field, and they have an excellent collaborative relationship established on titles like New X-Men and We3. It’s unsurprising that their work on All-Star Superman produced so many excellent pages, including one that I consistently return to: All-Star Superman #10, page 12, drawn by Frank Quitely and inked and colored by Jamie Grant.

Here’s the page without any of Morrison’s words, only the pencils of Frank Quitely and inks and colors of Jamie Grant.

AllStarSupermanNoText

The first panel presents the image of Regan, a young girl, standing on a rooftop prepared to end her life. Quitely emphasizes the danger and fear present in the scenario. Three skyscrapers are featured in the establishing shot. The two behind Regan fill the entire panel, revealing no upper limit. Vertical lines streak the two largest towers, pulling the reader’s eyes down the length of the page. Regan’s cell phone can also be seen dropping from her outstretched hand. It serves to betray her intent as well as force the reader to consider the drop. All of this is designed to induce a sense of vertigo in the reader. The entire panel runs the length of the page running into the bleed, further emphasizing that vertigo.

Jamie Grant’s colors emphasize Regan’s presence in the frame. She is a singular spot of warm color amongst the pallid blues and greys of Metropolis. Her deep black and purple clothing draws the reader’s eye directly to her, before it can explore her terrifying surroundings. Quitely has set her in the top third of the panel for this reason, so it will be read from top to bottom; moving the reader’s eye in a falling motion. The contrast in color isolates Regan emotionally as well as visually. She is the only warm object in a sea of cold colors. She looks just as she feels, entirely alone. In this way the first panel sets up the rest of the page, clearly establishing Regan’s emotional state and the precipitous nature of her situation.

The second panel is a close up of Regan, providing some insight into her character after establishing her situation. Quitely’s line work really shines in this panel. Although Regan’s hair, clothing, and accessories are very detailed, her face is comprised of relatively few lines. Her eyes, nose and lips are all drawn together in a grimace, portraying fear as she considers her next step. Small lines along the top of her chin and outstretched from the bridge of her nose affect the squinting of her features without leaving her face overwrought. This is important because Regan is supposed to be both young and vulnerable. Despite all of her various piercings and accessories, her face is still innocent. Grant does excellent work in inking this panel. He is left to darken her squinted eyes, maintain the thin lines that make up Regan’s facial features, and create the tear tracks on her cheeks. The final effect is one that humanizes Regan, presenting a young person who is frightened and alone. The power of this close up generates empathy from the reader.

In panels three and four, Superman appears and speaks the only lines of dialogue on the page. Quitely begins with another close up of Regan, emphasizing her shock at having Superman appear behind her. It is equally shocking to the reader. The background has drastically changed. Before there were only cold colors, but now that space is filled with rich primary hues. The close up results in only Superman’s emblem being revealed. He is as much a symbolic figure as a real person to Regan when they first meet. The concept of Superman is so large that it engulfs her head. His humanity is only revealed in the following panel where Quitely shows both figures from the waist up.

Superman and Regan contrast one another in size, color, and body language in panel four. Regan is small, colored in blacks and purples, and pulling into herself with arms crossed. Superman by comparison is massive, covered in primary colors, and extending his right arm. Everything that has marked Regan’s emotional state, Superman counters. In this way he reflects the anti-thesis of fear and loneliness. He is made to be ever open and hopeful.

The contrast in size and colors also belie the nature of Superman in this panel. His size and boldness could be used to affect an imposing figure, but is instead made to be comforting. Superman’s chest and shoulders are large, but rounded. In fact, the only sharp line on his body is that of his strong chin. Everything else is shaped in soft circular or elliptical lines. Once more, minimal line work portrays a detailed facial expression. Superman’s raised eyebrows, slightly ajar mouth, and tilted head affect an air of concern and patience.  This reveals the effect of Superman upon Regan. He is a kind person who genuinely cares about her life. That’s obvious just from the look on his face.

In panel five, Quitely expands the frame once more to encompass the entirety of the scene. It serves to reflect all of the changes from the initial panel. Whereas Regan stood alone before, she is now accompanied by Superman. The contrast of bright colors against a cold background draws the reader’s eyes once more, but without the sense of isolation. Regan’s dark hues and Superman’s primary attire are pulled together creating a sense of togetherness. She is also faced away from the edge, reflecting her decision to not jump. The panel itself also removes the sense of vertigo and isolation. It is a square that places Regan at its center. It does not run into the bleed, but places itself firmly between the page’s gutters. Regan was uneven in the first panel, set at the top of the panel, but has now been drawn into safefy at the center.

Together those five panels of artwork tell the complete story of a young woman who decides not to commit suicide due to the genuine kindness of a stranger. The amount of information conveyed in each panel is incredible and it’s impossible to think that it would have been as effective if someone besides Quitely and Grant had crafted it. It is not just their style, but their choices of composition, blocking, color, size and so much more that make the art effective.

Screen Shot 2014-02-20 at 7.41.14 PM

When you add the words of Grant Morrison, lettered by Travis Lanham, you have something truly transcendent. One line of dialogue encapsulates the entirety of Superman’s presence on this page and where he derives his power throughout All-Star Superman.

“You’re much stronger than you think you are.”

With eight words, Morrison makes clear that Superman is powerful because he believes in us. Without the art, those words don’t carry as much weight. Without those words, the page does not communicate all of its ideas. It’s only through their combination that this page is completed. And it is perfect comics.

So take some time and think about the art in your comics. What are some of your favorite pages of comic art? What compositions and layouts struck an emotional chord with you? What details have stuck with you through the years?

Let’s talk about art.

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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