Edit: This post may not be up to the snuff of my recent writing on this blog as it is an inventory post. I wrote this back in July and never posted it. The piece was originally intended for PopMatters, but they suck and blew me off. So, here it is. Better writing will continue next week as I bunker down and create.
Still, it’s not terrible. An interesting point is made, and I feel it’s worth the time. Please only excuse some of its construction.
Hell, though, you may think it’s right on par with everything I do. If so, fuck you.
In comics, color tends to be the major indicator of tone. It can’t help but be. Above pure style or detail or simplicity, it’s the piece of comic art that makes the first impression. Why? The human eye is naturally attracted to color, or more specifically light. Our eyes respond to light. That’s their job; they take in light, process it, send messages to our brains, and our brains sketch out the world we see. Light holds no specific color, though. It’s just light. What builds our perception of color are the wavelengths possessed by the light our eyes process. When our brains decode the wavelengths though, it is believed that we make judgments of our world based on our perceptions of color. Want a healthy snack? The bright green of celery may be a good indicator. Safe place to live? The neighborhood with the bright, red rose buds and the white picket fences probably appears secure.
If this belief be true, which I feel it is, then we are constantly reading tones in our everyday lives. It makes sense that a violent splash of red gives a comic book a sense of danger. For reason why we respond to specific colors in specific ways, I’m not sure, but there is this great essay from writer Matt Seneca on the subject (seriously, read it).
So what’s the case for black and white comic books? They certainly exist, and they certainly contain stories with emotion and idea. How do they communicate their tone? Maybe simple subject matter has something to do with it – see The Walking Dead – but I have a feeling that in the absence of color art line art carries a little more weight.
For a random example, take Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1. A comic book that uses a lot of cross-hatching and small lines to create a feeling of grit and urbanness while populated by lines making animal shapes to build a sense of parody.
Even with color, line can still dictate tone. Sam Kieth uses many angular lines to convey the edge his work his after while Frank Quitely’s line gives off a vibe of fun energy with its round, almost wafting quality.
This next example may not be as “glamorous” as the few previous, but I’ve recently read a collection of short strips from Jack Staff artist Paul Grist that is to blame for the thought I’m typing here. While Grist collaborated with writer Phil Elliott in the early years of their careers, the men produced a handful of comic strips for magazines such as Taboo and Escape. Recently, these early strips were collected into a mini comic collection by Slave Labor Graphics which is titled Absent Friends. I, believe or not, obtained my copy via Erik Larsen’s garage or at least an associate of his who obtained this Larsen-garage treasure and then sent it to me. Yeah, sorry, I had to name drop. Anyway, these tales explore the usual ideas with stories of friendship, career, and sex, but they do so without coming off as just another “auto-bio, young man’s view of the world” comic. Even though they do cross the usual thoughts of indie comics, these strips do so very well by simple fact of their craft. Elliott writes a story that never spells it all out. His scripts are tight and fast paced. You never really get it all on the first read through, but you still get enough to entice you back for more. The second reading is when narrative details pop; a quality I’ve never really seen in short, vignette comics. There is actually something quite short story, or even Hemingway about them.
I’m here to talk about Grist’s work, though. As you recall, this post did start out with thoughts of visuals and tone, and I feel the work in Absent Friends really is a nice example of tone through line work. Grist is well-known for his charismatic, dynamic style because of his comic Jack Staff, but Absent Friends carries more of a rigidness. It’s not bad rigidness, like Alex Ross or recent Scott Kolins would present, just rigidness in the sense that this is a young artist, as of yet, without a particular style, and in the context of Grist’s current work it’s comparatively stiff next to Jack Staff. Grist understands mechanics and can tell a story, but he just lacks a flamboyant style that comic readers are accustomed to.
The rigidness is one of the techniques that convey tone, though. As described, these are stories about relationships, lost friends, and struggling artists, so the stiff, more serious aesthetic of his line actually works well to communicate the point that most of these stories are not to be laughed at but rather thought about. The line art is very blunt in it’s nature. This work well for these comic strips because writer Phil Elliott, while not spelling everything out, is sort of blunt in his storytelling, or at least the nature of his narrative is very visceral. It’s not visceral in a violent sense, but the stories do present their events in a very forward fashion. The approach could be described as “Look, this happens. Now, it’s over. Move on. Think about it when you’re done reading.” The sort of up front, no flare about it artwork Grist creates reflects this tone very well and furthers its transmission.
Grist also gives attention to his backgrounds for the cause of tone. Absent Friends isn’t one-hundred percent serious. There are a few, I guess you’d call them, “gag strips” or humorous takes on relationships throughout the collection. They’re intermingled, and the collection transitions through an array of emotions. Grist helps separate these stories by taking advantage of or destroying open space. Stories that exist to be taken a bit seriously usually contain panels with cluttered backgrounds. Grist uses devices such as rain, snow, simple cross-hatches, or a wide array of dispersed objects to tighten up the panel. That tight, almost claustrophobic feel contains the reader into a certain emotional mindset. The humor strips are the opposite. Grist leaves a lot of white space in the backgrounds, lettering and sound effects appear enthusiastic, and even character’s heads are a little more round and cartoonish. The humor stories, because of the environment Grist puts them in, look very dynamic.
This is an early work from Elliott and Grist, but in some ways it feels like years and years of experience were on hand when they made the stories within Absent Friends. These comics are well crafted, and while printed in black and white, Grist makes use of the line art to sell the heart of these stories. More importantly, Absent Friends made me consider the role of line art. I tend to think it’s job is simply style and obviously building shapes, but there is more to it, especially when you read a comic book that takes advantage of it. Color will always be the dominate messenger of tone, certainly, but I think next time I read a comic I’ll study the line and see if it too is sending a message.