Comics and graphic novels have gained respectability over the past few decades. They now receive cultural awards and attract audiences that were once unthinkable. But even as their stature has grown, they seem to have lost some of the drawing ability that comics once enjoyed.
The ability to achieve a likeness, to convey subtle body language or facial expressions, to stage complex scenes, or employ similar tools of visual communication seem largely missing from many of the most prestigious comics and graphic novels today. Superstar comic artists such as Speigelman, Ware, Panter, Brown, Beaton, Trudeau, Bechdel and many others simply don't speak that visual language. Perhaps it's because they have different aspirations for their art. Perhaps it's because they don't draw well enough to employ the vocabulary. Perhaps those two reasons are related.
I can think of no better example to demonstrate the lost language than Leonard Starr's intelligent and graceful strip, On Stage
(1957 - 1979). Every day for the next few days I am going to focus on a different aspect of Mr. Starr's visual storytelling. Today I would like to show how he uses the language of hands.
Starr writes like a dream, but note what his hands adds to his text:
|Hands wiping away a mock tear alter the tone of the words.|
|This gesture of the kiss off adds a visual punctuation mark to the text. |
|Two hands clasping the phone tells us something about the speaker's state of mind|
|A dismissive and controlling wave|
Starr's hands provide a separate stream of information, parallel to the text, which enhances the expressive quality of the picture. Sometimes they run in contrast to the text, as in the following drawing where the hands alert the viewer that the character is faking his sincere speech:
But you are not likely to see these kinds of tools employed in today's esteemed graphic novels. Many of today's artists can draw hands performing basic functions such as holding a coffee cup or throwing a punch, but have lost the ability to use the language of hands in this more sophisticated manner, to enhance the expressiveness of the drawing.
For example, contrast Starr's drawing where rubbing fingers together denotes a rogue...
...with this drawing from The Best American Comics 2010
where rubbing fingers together even to squish a bug requires an explanatory narrative:
|Here, the words bail out the drawing rather than the drawing enhancing the words|
Or, note how Starr employed the following hand gesture to convey that the girl is young and flighty:
...while in the next drawing (honored by the Smithsonian Institution in its 2004 Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Stories)
the hand either conveys that the man is picking his nose, or scratching his cheek, or perhaps thinking, or perhaps something else.
This disparity in powers of observation and technical skill, and in the ability to orchestrate multiple levels of information in a single drawing, is hardly uncommon. The drawings in today's most esteemed comics have generally become simpler, rougher and less informative.
|Pulitzer prize winning Maus|
|Chris Ware depicts a hand to help convey emotion using his "abbreviated visual words." Ware's drawing is mediocre, but in fairness he seems more interested in the ornate architecture and design of his "symbolic typography"|
There are many reasons, some of them better than others, for the simplification of comic drawings and the de-emphasis on technical skill. Even Starr simplified his drawings in later years to meet a changed market. Simplicity is a great virtue in drawing, but simple-mindedness is not. We see some of each in today's award winning comics, but we should endeavor not to confuse the two. That's why I'll be spending a few days musing about what we have gained and what we have lost as a result of this migration in comic drawing styles.