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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Roughly speaking, style isn’t what you draw but how you draw it. It’s the idiosyncratic quality that distinguishes a drawing from a replica. Roland Barthes calls a photograph “a mechanical analogue of reality” because it translates reality with the least transformation; but every reproduction, including photography, contains “a supplementary message, in addition to the analogical content itself (scene, object, landscape), which is what is commonly called the style of the reproduction,” something that even photorealism contains since “there is no drawing, no matter how exact, whose very exactitude is not turned into a style” (1977: 17, 18).

Photorealism is relatively rare in comics (Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean are occasional exceptions), but even photo comics (including Dave Crossley’s black and white “Christopher’s Punctured Romance” in HELP! in 1965 or the recent A Softer World webcomics of Emily Horne and Joey Comeau, as well as the entire genre of Italian fumetti) support W. J. T. Mitchell’s claim that not even “photographs have a special causal and structural relationship with the reality that they represent” (1994: 282).

Though photos are not “real,” they do feel more realistic than drawings. Transforming reality into a set of lines is itself a stylistic distortion, and those lines may be thick or thin, dark or light, short or long, angular or rounded, straight or squiggling, curved or jagged, continuous or broken, consistent or variable. The choice of line controls the overall image which defines the overall story world.

Leigh Ann has drawn twenty-four panels with different styles of lines:

Since everything in the world of a comic book is composed of lines and every line is an expressive line, every object has an expressive quality that an artist can manipulate. Douglas Wolk calls a comics artist’s line:

“an interpolation, something the cartoonist adds to his or her idea of the shape of bodies in space. In a cartoon, every object’s form is subject to interpretive distortion … A consistent, aestheticized distortion, combined with the line that establishes that distortion, adds up to an artist’s visual style . . .” (2007: 123)

While lines can be described independently of their subject matter, they also control how a viewer experiences that subject. A character composed of short, thick, jagged lines would be different from the same character if composed of long, thin, curving lines. Those details are another window into his character. They create impressions about his emotional state. Is he calm or agitated? An artist might ask that question in advance and then choose a style to capture it. Or she might simply start sketching and, noticing the agitated feel of her short, thick, jagged lines, decide how upset the character must be—and how much he is trying to repress it given the contrastingly calm shape of his posture. These choices may feel more like discoveries than inventions, but they can only happen if the story is developed visually.

The lines that compose a character also have overall shapes that are understood to be the actual shapes of the character’s body. If the style is naturalistic, those shapes will fall within the range of human beings. Many comic images are well outside them. If, for instance, the head is more than a seventh or eighth of his height or is more rounded than a human skull, then he will appear less naturalistic and more cartoonish. If his head is a third or more of his height and perfectly round, he will be extremely cartoonish, probably resembling Charlie Brown or a character from South Park more than an actual person. A naturalistic character will also include more lines to create the illusions of shadows and depths through cross-hatching. In 99 Ways to Tell a Story, Matt Madden illustrates differences in line quantity by drawing the same one-page scene in “Silhouette,” “Minimalist,” “Maximalist” and even “No Line” styles, all with the same objects using the same contours but varying the number of internal lines (2005: 176-183).

Cartoons tend to be composed of fewer lines, with less internal shading to indicate musculature or the complexities of fabric folds in clothing. They’re “flat.” A naturalistically drawn character might produce an expectation that his internal world is similarly complex, that he has the same psychological depth as a three-dimensional person. A cartoon character is more ambiguous. His emotions may seem simpler. When creating stories through images, external qualities and internal qualities are the same qualities.

“Cartoon” originally referred to a cardboard-like paper used for preliminary sketches. When England’s Punch magazine published a series of “cartoons” lampooning Parliament’s planned murals in 1843, the word became associated with both satire and a specific drawing style: simplified and exaggerated. A cartoon has fewer details than a naturalistic drawing, and those details—the contours of the lines—are distorted. Naturalism requires more lines—more depth-creating crosshatching, for example—and the contours of those lines align more closely to their subject matter. Images that combine those two categories are harder to classify. An exaggerated but detailed image isn’t naturalistic, but it might not connote “cartoon” to a viewer either, and image made of very few but observationally accurate lines might strike some viewers as a cartoon and others as naturalistic.

Leigh Ann has drawn our student Henry nine times:

The top row is realistic in the sense that the line shapes of the image match the photograph they’re based on. But as you move left to right, each image changes in terms of detail. The first is heavily cross-hatched; the second uses value blocks of uniformly rendered black; and the third includes only contour line. The second row follows the same progression, but the figure is distorted. Leigh Ann exaggerated Henry’s feet, hands, and head. She could exaggerate different features instead, and to any of a range of possible levels. She could also alter the shapes themselves, making the head rounder, the feet squarer, the hands longer, etc. Simplification—meaning the reduction—of details can vary more too, with different areas of an image, foreground and background for instance, contrasting. As far as style, the top left image is the most naturalistic, and the bottom right is the most cartoonish.

Few outside of comics would call the reduction and alteration of details “cartooning,” but Picasso’s eleven-lithograph Bull series demonstrates the same two qualities. Though his final minimally detailed and maximally distorted image is not a cartoon in the sense of a shared set of drawing norms, it is expressed in a set of instantly recognizable visual norms. It is a Picasso bull. It is drawn in a Picasso style. Neil Cohn analyzes style as sets of customs or “dialects.” The “‘mainstream’ style of American Visual Language [that] appears most prevalently in superhero comics” he terms “‘Kirbyan,’ in honor of the historical influence of Jack ‘King’ Kirby in defining the style.” (2013: 139). He names the “Barksian” dialect after Scrooge McDuck artist Carl Barks. Manga and underground comix have their own dialects too, making individual works dependent on a language-like system of generic symbols. A face drawn in a Manga style resembles other drawings of Manga-style faces more than it resembles any actual face. This affects a viewer’s understanding of the character and situation at yet another level. A manga character creates a very different impression and set of expectations than a character drawn in the style of Robert Crumb. Both styles tell viewers what kind of world they’re entering, and so what norms are in play.

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