Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Edges and Edge Detection Part 3: The Funny Pages

Well, it's been a while since we talked about lines and edges. The first two posts are here and here. But the discussion was not yet complete. Let's turn now to an incredibly rich resource for consideration of line and edges: comic books.

There are a few reasons the comics are such a fantastic resource. The obvious reason is that they generally consist of line drawings. So a distinct typology of styles has emerged, within which individual variations provide further material for thought. The less-obvious reason is this: when you look at a single picture, you can look at it for a while, and then you go away and look at something else. Sure, you can stick around for a long time, but usually you won't - although my friend Shawn apparently once spent a couple days with his jaw on the floor in front of Las Meninas, a thoroughly understandable response:

But that's an unusual case. Generally, you don't spend that long looking at a painting or a single drawing. But when you read a comic book, you have to spend a longer time with the visual idiom of the artist who did the drawings. And that lets you test the effect of their visual idiom on your brain - is it satisfying? Does it annoy? Only when serious time and energy demands are made on your attention can these qualities of experience emerge. And in turn, analyzing these qualities of experience can help to tell you how you understand line and edge.

By my lights, there is a broad divide in comic book drawings, between consistent-line-weight artists and variable-line-weight artists. On the consistent-line-weight side of the room we have Dave Gibbons, who drew Watchmen:

We also have the mighty Jean-Giraud Moebius:

I'm sorry, I can't resist - here's some more Moebius. You can't eat just one...

And increasingly over the course of his career, we have Jaime Hernandez:

I could include others - Adrian Tomine, Fran├žois Schuiten, Milo Manara - but as you know by now, I am nothing if not obsessed with brevity.

These artists do vary their line weight sometimes, but it is always a considered process, a conscious and willed alteration of their natural inclination to use an unvarying line weight throughout their work. It does not emerge organically, but as an outcome of choice. Contrast them with such artists as Jaime's brother Gilbert:

If you haven't read the Hernandez Brothers (Love and Rockets), I cannot recommend them highly enough, by the way. Here's a little more Gilbert:
As you can see, his line weight is fluid - it varies throughout his images, spontaneously and intuitively reflecting the emphasis he sees at any given time. The same is true of R. Crumb's drawing, although within a narrower range:

More Crumb:

(An aside - those of you familiar with Crumb will know that he always crowds the hell out of his compositions. I see this overgrown horror vacui as a variant of the graphomaniac impulse which claimed his brother Charles:
But enough about that.)

Beyond other artists, however, we have the interesting case of Frank Miller. Miller is a strong follower of the expressionistic line. Sometimes he goes so far with it that he approaches the woodcut:

Other times he remains tighter, although still using wide line-weight variation within a single image:
Here's another panel from the same epic comic, The Dark Knight Returns, so you can get more of an idea of what I mean:
Because Miller's line is so organic and emotional, you can also tell when he just does not give a damn - particularly in DK2, the rather catastrophic sequel which, I assume, he was argued into doing by means of dumpsters full of cash:

Again, in a single panel, it's tough to get the feeling of it, but if you read the whole comic, you form a powerful impression of not trying hard.

Now, we've established that there exist in the comics two broad veins of line aesthetics: the line of unvarying weight, and the line of varying weight.

This in itself is interesting. But as I mentioned before, a topic of real utility to the artist is studying the brain's response to sustained exposure to each type of line. For my part, I have the following experience:

I find it incredibly irritating to read a long stretch of Watchmen. The writing is very good, and on first glance, the art is just delightful - so crisp, so clean, so clear. When I first read it, I was struck by the counter-intuitive experience of being frustrated with its look after enjoying it so much at first. To a lesser extent, this is true of the other uniform-line-weight artists I have mentioned, particularly Moebius, the other purist apart from Gibbons. No matter what narrative topic these artists treat, there is something airless to their drawings after a while, something without vitality.

On the other hand, the most visually comfortable experience I have ever had reading a comic book was Dark Knight Returns. There is a wild variation in line weight throughout the book, and yet on the whole, it seems to poise within a nearly perfect balance of control and chaos, clarity and occlusion. No other book of Miller's comes close - he rarely shows the discipline to keep his line as controlled as he does in Dark Knight - check Sin City or DK2 or even Ronin.

However, this comfort that I describe distinctly fails to apply to the other expressionists I have mentioned here. I find it really, really difficult to look at Crumb for any length of time. I find it easier to look at Jaime's thin-line drawings than Gilbert's variable-line drawings over the course of a story.

What gives?

Here's my theory. My theory is this. When the brain reduces the world to perceived line, it gives lines variable weights over the entire visual field. I'm sure Margaret Livingstone and her neuroscience cabal will, at some point, figure out a way to actually reproduce this line-reduced visual field.

So when you look at a drawing of uniform line-weight, it is unnatural. If you look at something drawn in this idiom for any length of time, it will produce fatigue, because your brain is looking for something that isn't there - the same way that looking at a computer monitor for a long time produces fatigue, because your brain is seeking image resolution that doesn't exist. It is difficult to become conscious of this fatigue directly, because a well-drawn single-weight line drawing has everything in the right place, as Gibbons and Moebius have everything in the right place. So your conscious marker for cognitive legitimacy is met. But your unconscious need for variability of line weight goes hungry.

The only chance you have of experiencing a "natural" - that is, cognitively accurate - line drawing is if the line drawing has variable weight. However, not all variable-weight line drawings are equal. Why not? Because the cognitive process has a set of rules for the weight it assigns to each line segment it uses in reducing the visual field to information.

What are the rules? I have no fucking clue. I will tell you this - in life drawing class, they nag you a lot to make the lines thicker where weight is resting on the edge (say, the underside line of the butt of someone sitting). So there's an idea - mass and line weight go together. I personally have always tended to ignore this rule, and I suspect that the real rules are much more complex.

My contention, then, is that once in a blue moon, a Frank Miller intuitively grasps something very like the brain's own native set of line-weight rules and produces a sustained passage, such as Dark Knight Returns, in which he matches those rules and produces a comic that is visually effortless to read. Well, visually effortless for me, anyway. Let's not forget that brains are different from one another.

On the other hand, a Crumb or a Gilbert is deploying a set of line-weight rules that goes contrary to the brain's (my brain's) sense of where line weight should go. And this produces a different sensation than the no-variation-line fatigue. It produces a kind of recoil, a sense not of the unnaturally affectless, but the anti-naturally perverse.

(Another aside: my comments on the interaction of line with the brain are not meant to be taken as "Miller good/Gibbon bad." Good and bad do not depend on conformity with certain cognitive properties of the human mind.)

So what's the point of all this? The point is that this thinking about line in comics gives us a wide-ranging insight into the qualities of line that help to define our work as artists. Do we want to produce the subliminal effects of the uniform line weight, the naturally variable line weight, or the unnaturally variable line weight? Before art is an art, art is a craft. And any good craftsman will tell you - know your tools and master your tools. So when we try to understand what line means, we are trying to master one of the main tools of art.

More soon - or more likely, not so soon.


  1. Love WATCHMEN - except for the colorist. The palette of secondary colors (slavishly stuck to in the weak film adaptation) was an inspired decision ... if only the execution didn't look like the artist performed his work over a drunken weekend.

  2. Pengo - Wow, I really didn't mind the colors at all! Now I have to go back and think it over again. When you say color, I immediately think of the reflections in the puddle when Rorshach goes out the window. I actually liked the movie more than the book! Why? Sure, it was an insane mess, but to me, it took flight with inspiration, a very rare thing. It seemed to me a kind of crazy monument to the book, a completely obsessive love letter to it. And this was more fascinating than the book itself. It had, for me, a similar zigzag quality to "The Man Who Fell To Earth," a kind of gravity-defying lunacy that, for some reason, never looked down after walking off the edge of the cliff, and therefore never fell.

  3. Now you made me need to resume my commitment to finally see THAT movie.

    The colors themselves are great. There are just some places where they weren't, well, colored very well.

  4. Oh, man, you're going to love that movie. Nicolas Roeg at his very best. And, oddly, it's extremely faithful to the book. The alien in the book is very light, in part because he has hollow bones. Whom but Bowie could you cast?

    I need to go back to Watchmen and take a look at the actual per-se coloring. So weird - it never bothered me at all before. I mean, not just the loony palette, but the coloring itself.

  5. It's interesting how you describe your relation to Moebius: 'No matter what narrative topic these artists treat, there is something airless to their drawings after a while, something without vitality.'

    I would agree, but I think Moebius deserves props for select a subject matter (often bleak futuristic landscapes) that would suit his style of art. Within this perview (which is admittedly not my thing) I think he does pretty well.

  6. I would also like to point out that uniform-weight lines also play well in comic art when there is a certain disbelief we are expected to suspend for the sake of the story. It's part of the idiom. Like when Xaime portrays Maggie with pointed teeth when she gets angry.

    In such instances, I am not demanding verisilimitude. Study the art in Box Office Poison by Alex Robinson, a perfect example of comic art. The head shapes of all the characters are absurdly disproportional. But it works because they represent characters and their character traits, not what they would actually look like in real life.

    I guess this is why I never have a problem with uniformly weighted lines in comic books.

  7. wow! thanks, i felt like that little piece on lines revived my brain. got the wheels turning again. and very interesting, i'll be thinking back to what you've said. and its true how so often i'll look at a piece of art and have a sense of it being "annoying" to me, though not always taking the time to discern why.

    cool blog, i'll be checking back!