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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

A description of an image is an unexecuted idea, and visual art produced primarily from the verbal descriptions of ideas is comparatively limited. Even the most visually adept, artistically attentive scripter cannot describe in words what an artist discovers and achieves through the drawing process.

Why does "Watchmen" use the 9-panel grid? - Literature Stack Exchange

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, the most acclaimed graphic novel of the 20th century, is an illustrated script drawn in the semi-naturalistic style of the superhero art codified by Marvel and DC during the 1970s. The additional color art of John Higgins, while innovative for the mainstream genre and time period, is so limited by the production necessities of color separation boards that most viewers outside of comics would probably consider it unaesthetic. A black and white Watchmen might be a superior work of art.


Watchmen drawn in a less derivative style would likely be superior too (unless you argue that Gibbons’ largely standardized style produces visual commentary on the genre that parallels the story’s deconstruction of superhero norms). But in literary terms—which is the way in which the novel has been read and appreciated—all rendered versions would be equal. Watchmen, in other words, is a great novel, but as a work of visual art, it is unremarkable.

The Nearness of You” Is Comics At Their Best – And It's Free Right ...

Comics writer Kurt Busiek rightfully considers his story “The Nearness of You” possibly “the best piece I’ve ever written,” and while in literary terms it deserves praise as “the best to appear in [Busiek’s series] Astro City” (Gertler 2002: 106), it is visually less effective because of penciller Brent Anderson’s necessary adherence to Busiek’s script. The comic’s opening page captions are striking for their use of non-visual sensations and out-of-scene details:

“She has a low, throaty laugh, and a capped tooth from a bicycle accident when she was eight years old.

“Her shampoo makes her hair smell likes apples and wildflowers.”

But Busiek’s visual description “THE BACKGROUND IS MISTY, INDISTINCT” is an idea not an image and it prompts Anderson toward the literal indistinctness of a white background and a visually generic swirl of mist. Busiek describes “MIKE” as only “A YOUNG MAN IN HIS LATE TWENTIES,” a name and age range that Anderson adorns with short, non-descript hair and a generic tuxedo.

When Busiek describes him later wearing “BOXERS AND A T-SHIRT,” Anderson draws a white t-shirt and boxers with no pattern or other distinguishing characteristics. Busiek labels Mike’s BEDROOM but offers no details, and so Anderson gives it rectangular furniture that suggests Platonic ideals more than physical objects with individual histories of manufacturing and use by specific people in specific circumstances. The scripted MIKE is “GLUM,” an idea translated into the same pose twice, his head slumped into his open palm as he stares down. Busiek’s visual descriptions also produce redundant images, as when the captioned words “and then she’s gone” accompany an image of Mike suddenly alone as his arms sweep the dissipating swirl of mist, an accurate rendering of the scripted instructions: “SUDDENLY, SHE’S GONE, AND HE’S PANICKY, GRASPING AT NOTHING” (109).

The Nearness of You | Warwick Johnson

Anderson in short draws what he’s told to draw, making additions to the extent required to form the impression of physical reality. That reality, however, reproduces the visual vagueness of written language. It is derived from ideas rather than things. This is why Ivan Brunetti warns that when “form and content diverge, only a specter remains, and nothing solid can be built,” and so images must “organically evolve” rather than be “imposed by an external force” (2011: 6).

Compare “The Nearness of You” to a similar moment from David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp.

Like MIKE, the main character, Asterios, sits in his underwear on the edge of a bed while staring off, haunted by the memory of a lost lover. Asterios is rendered more cartoonishly than MIKE—no human skull could ever produce a head of that shape—yet the odd specificity of his pose, the way he’s examining a blister on the sole of his upturned foot that he’s holding in both hands, creates a more grounded reality. The furnishing—the pineapple-shaped bedposts, the zigzag-patterned comforter, the claw-footed dresser, the ornate base of the lamp set inexplicably on the floor, let alone all of the individual candles and decorations—these all create a sense of a specific reality, even though Mazzucchelli renders each in minimal detail.

A prose writer works in prose, literally thinks on paper, producing specific words in an order that she revises, subtracting old worlds, substituting in new words, adding new sentences, repeatedly, until arriving at a finished product: the set of final words in the final order. Through that process, she discovers, tests, throws out, adds, and refines thousands of details about her characters and the world they inhabit and the events they experience. The story still may be conceptual—it happens in her and her readers’ heads—but those concepts are shaped by and evolved through specific words. It all happens on paper.

Comics should happen on paper too. But the paper of comics is not the kind that rolls into a typewriter. A comics script is not a necessary stage in the process of writing a comic. It’s often a creative detour, a side road that adds miles to the speedometer but through the wrong terrain. Instead of a script, Ivan Brunetti recommends writing “a text summary” but only to “get them out of your system,” since your “story will begin to change the second you put pencil to paper,” a point Chris Ware further stresses:

“letting stories grow at their own momentum was a more natural and sympathetic way of working than carpentering them out of ideas and plans. And the images suggested the stories, not the other way around. I believe that allowing one’s drawings to suggest the direction of a story is comics’ single greatest formal advantage.” (Brunetti 2011: 66)

The continuing development of the comics form requires further steps in such visual writing, allowing image to not only guide story but to determine it.

Busiek is the author of “The Nearness of You” and Anderson is, to quote Brian Michael Bendis, his “art monkey”—which does not describe Anderson’s skill, only his industry’s creative process. Its emphasis on visual storytelling over visual aesthetics also means that, as Pascal Lefévre observes, “a lot of artists use stereotypical icons (like the Statue of Liberty for New York or the pyramids for Egypt) because such famous buildings or monuments can be easily recognized” (2009: 357).

Could Busiek’s script be rendered as a non-stereotypical work of art? Anderson would need to explore and articulate his own visual dialect, one that did not rely so fully on the customs of superhero comics art specifically and icons generally—something the commercial publishing needs of Astro City likely prohibited. He would also have to leave the role of assistant to become a co-writer by developing a visual universe rich with his own imaginings. Where did Mike buy that tux? Was it a rental? Was it his first choice? His fifth? Did he splurge? Did he go for a cheaper one and regret it later—or does he prefer off-brands? Are the shoulders a little too tight, the pant legs a little too long? How old are those boxers anyway? How did he rip the bottom seam of the t-shirt? Or is that crease from the package he pulled it out of yesterday? Was that dent in the bottom bookcase shelf there when he bought it second-hand at Goodwill or did he do that himself while following the Ikea assembly directions?

Those answers could come in part form real-world props—an actual bookcase and an actual tuxedo, ones the artist positions by hand, though a composite of internet images might suffice if the Google search unearths more than catalogues and advertisements. Generic images produce generic worlds. While readers and scripters might visualize surprisingly little, a comics artist must visualize a universe as palpable and specific as her own world and then render it in expressive lines as equally rich. That richness will emerge not from ideas, but from physical marks on a physical page.

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