Discussing Style

Most of page 24 of Neaud's Journal (3).

I read a few posts about style in comics this week (a few weeks ago now), some from quite earlier in the year and some appearing after I started writing this post. All of which to one extent or another address the issue: How do we talk about “style” in comics?

On a broad sense, most writers about comics have some sort of shorthand they use to describe a comic’s style without having to go into too much detail. R Fiore took on this language in a post at The Comics Journal earlier this year. He mostly seems interested in replacing terms like “realist” and “cartoony” with his own terminology “literal” and “freestyle”. His plotting of some kind of continuum is reminiscent of McCloud’s pyramid in Understanding Comics (Chapter 2, p52-3 in my edition), though Fiore’s is a lot less complex (one assumes he didn’t spend a lot of time charting this out like McCloud did). McCloud gives his continuums names (“realistic,” “iconic,” “non-iconic,” “abstraction”) but does not offer much in the way of general descriptive terminology that doesn’t involve a direct reference to the style’s location on his chart (which is how he discusses the work in the rest of the chapter). I do think his two continuums are important to discussions of style, the realistic to iconic and the realistic to abstract, one might say. Though these categories really only address the style fidelity (or not) to representation in relation to what we see, to a kind of ideal viewing of the world, an invisible style of photography and film at its most conventional.

Fiore’s argument with “realist” seems to be based on the idea that many images in comics do not actual exist in reality. This is a rather limiting way to address the issue, and, I think, creates a needlessly confused terminology. If anything, I think “realist” is a term most people can hear and grasp rather easily. To me the descriptor “cartoony” is about caricature, exaggeration, and a certain plasticity that I associate with early Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons. Exaggerated proportions, exaggerated movement, exaggerated features combined with a simplicity of representation.

In a recent comment thread at Comics Comics, Frank Santoro made some style related comments, that offer another stylistic descriptor: mannerist.

What I’m saying is that there is a lack of “naturalness” in the alt/art comics tradition. Think Mazzucchelli’s Year One. Toth’s Bravo for Adventure. Jaime’s Locas. All are “natural” or “realistic” approaches. Frank Quitely is a “natural” approach. What I call mannerism is a style that shuns “realistic” proportions and reduces everything to symbols. Think Clowes’s Ghost World. Realistic but mannered. I looked on the shelves for “unaffected, natural drawing” in comics (think Edward Hopper’s drawings or even, again, Eddie Campbell) and I cannot find much. There’s Jaime. So between photo-realism and Gary Panter there is alot to chose from. Fine. But there isn’t much to choose from on the shelves because most comics artists draw in a highly affected style. Particularly alt/art cartoonists. In fact, I think that is beginning to describe alt/art comics: not realistic. How many alt/art cartoonists “tighten up” and draw “real people” without too much reference and keep all the proportions right? Not many by my count last week when I was at work.

In a later post he further discusses “naturalism” as style: “A clear, observational drawing style based on a study of life as it appears to the naked eye. Stylized, yes, but accurate to life in proportion and feel.”

It seems to me there are multiple factors at work in many of these issues. Fidelity to (a real or imagined) reality can take the form of rendering, details, proportion, shape, or color. I can draw a realistically proportioned figure that is all straight lines and ninety degree angles or I can draw the exaggerated proportions of a Schulz character but render it with realistic shading/tone. Another factor at work, when trying to describe style is how often it is not consistent across the work as as whole or even within the same image (McCloud addresses the issue in relation to figure/background in manga, while Parille (see below) notes variations even within the same figure). Can I say Tezuka’s Phoenix is realistic or naturalistic when he draws an almost photorealistically rendered mountain scene and places a character in the scene who is four heads tall and has a giant bulbous nose?

Style is so much more than just about representation in relation to reality (whether that be a real or imagined reality), which is something Ken Parille addresses in a post about an exercise he did with one of his classes. Parille had his class comparing and describing the “basic visual style” of three separate comics. By “basic visual style” he is excluded issues of theme, plot, words, pacing, page layout, etc. and concentrating on a single panel image, which is certainly a good place to start, though I think addressing issues of style in comics should extend to use of those other elements (particularly pacing and layouts).

He notes the areas focused on in his class’s discussion:

Line: smooth to rough; loose to tight; thin to thick
Texture and pattern: (what kinds?); sparse to dense, loose to organized
Panel density: sparse to dense (amount of empty space relative to filled space)
Gestures, face and body: compare with “reality” — realistic to exaggerated
Body proportions: within the figure and when compared with “reality” — realistic to exaggerated
Density of character detail: in particular we looked at the number and kinds of lines used to draw the faces

One could probably find dozens of more facets to describe in relation to style, any discussion or description is necessarily limited both for time/length and in relation to the works under discussion (we wouldn’t discuss color in relation to a black and white image, though we may discuss tone; we wouldn’t discuss body proportions in relation to a comic without bodies).

I thought Parille’s exercise would be helpful for my own writing and reading, so I’m going to attempt to describe the style of three comics I’ve read recently (or am reading now). All three are French language autobiographical bandes dessinées, which gives them a certain similarity, but each are stylistically different. The three works I will address are: Faire Semblant C’est Mentir [Pretending is Lying] by Dominique Goblet (L’Association, 2008), Journal (3) by Fabrice Neaud (Ego Comme X, 2002; Expanded edition 2010), and 1h25 by Judith Forest (Cinquieme Couche, 2009). (I’ll note all are excellent works and well worth seeking out and reading.)

I’m going to take a single page (or portion of a page) from each book as a representative example. I’ve tried to select panels that include both figures and backgrounds. I should note that Goblet’s and Forest’s books both, to differing extents, use variable styles through their course, while Neaud is much more consistent. For this reason I’ll start with this panel from Neaud’s book.

Most of page 24 of Neaud's Journal (3).

The first thing we note about Neaud’s art is the realism. His figures have realistic proportions; his faces lack the exaggerated features or the extreme iconic abstraction of so much comic art. They look like actual people (and they are, the figure in the lighter coat is Neaud himself). Similarly, the buildings, cars, and other objects in the background are realistically sized and share the figures appearance of being representationally close to an existing reality.

The amount of detail in the characters and backgrounds is variable from one object to the next. The foreground face in panel one shows more detail than the background face in the same panel, but both share what we might call a contour line representation of the features. The objects in the background are primarily outline and texture or pattern, maintaining a simplicity that is appropriate to the importance and size of the objects.

Neaud’s lines are variable but consistent. That is, he uses lines of varying weight, but each line does not change weight (or only very little). He’s either using a number of very stiff pen nibs (so the line weight does not vary) or possibly (though it seems less likely) some kind of technical pens. A variety of line weights are found throughout the image, from the thick lines at the back of Neaud’s coat in the first panel or on canopy of the foremost car in the third panel, to the very thin hatching lines on the face of the foremost figure in panel one or the clouds in panel three.

The lines are precise without being stiff or ruled. Even in the textures, patterns, and tonal hatching Neaud’s rarely becomes overly stiff or creates too flat a surface. The tonal hatching on the face in panel one, the jacket in panel two, or the figures’ shadows on the ground in panel two shifts angles in a way that models the shapes (face, jacket) or adds texture to the tone (ground). The flat patterning found in panel three (the background building, the area in the foreground behind the car) serves primarily as a compositional element, filling in spaces that don’t require detail and creating an illusion of depth of space. The less flat patterning/texture of the stones on the buildings show a looser use of line work.

Dense blacks are spread across the panels, with larger areas serving as compositional foci (the black jacket) or visual direction (note the movement of blacks in panel three from the largest area at the upper left (where we read the first caption) through the smaller but denser areas around it to the car (the second largest black area) which leads into the second caption. The panel ends with the horizontal black area under the foliage which leads off the page.

In general, Neaud uses tone inconsistently. He is not modeling every figure with hatching, nor is he adding texture or pattern to all the spaces. These elements are all applied as necessary to add a sense of realism (this is autobiography after all, and one that is very much about “telling all” in some sense) without overpowering the images.

Compositionally, the panels are filled without being overly crowded. The third panel has a lot of content in it, but it does not read as too busy or crowded. Throughout the book, more often than not, Neaud fills his panels, including background elements behind his characters to keep the scene set, so to speak.

In the end, Neaud’s realistic but simplified rendering of his images, using variable amounts of tonal, modelling, and texture inconsistently, allows for panels that hover between a photorealistic level of detail and a more iconic simplicity. This keeps the sense of reality and the feeling that the images are drawn from life but without bogging down the images in an excessive amounts of line, tone, or detail.

Forest's 1h25, page 173.

Judith Forest’s images are also clearly drawn from life, but have a very different style than Neaud’s. Like Neaud’s images, Forest’s use realistic proportions for the figures and background and she also eschews exaggeration of features. Unlike, Neaud, Forest’s images are less concrete and precise, attributable to a few stylistic factors.

This page (and many in her book) are drawn in pencil, which gives a line of fairly consistent weight but of less consistent density (or tone). The lines are looser, less precise than Neaud, Forest’s images look like sketches more than a “finished” drawing. Lines overlap and overshoot the limits of the object they represent.

Forest uses varying levels of detail in her images. Often, the faces are blank or reduced to just a few features, such as the figure in the first image. The backgrounds have details on the level of shape and outline, but mostly eschew tone, texture, or any kind of modeling. The level of detail despite its sparseness in these areas still retains the sense of being drawn from life, the small details that are often overlooked in fictional recreations. This sense gives the book an immediacy, an intimacy, and a grounding in reality appropriate to a book that is so diaristic.

These two panels feature fuller backgrounds, but many images in the book are less full, showing just a figure (part of a figure) or just a figure and part of the background (a figure at a table, a figure on a bed). In this respect the panels are more or less full, a shifting between the two.

The green tone (a little too bright in these scans, and, for what it’s worth, put in by Cecilia Dos Santos not Forest) simultaneously works to add light, focus, and to help differentiate objects/backgrounds/characters. Here we see the light aspect on the figure in the first image, while the use of a large swath of the green in the same image also emphasizes the light in the window. In the second image, the color adds some visual variety and compositional movement.

Not as obvious in these scans is the texture of both both the pencil and the green (made to look rough and pencil-like around the edges), which gives a softness to the images, most obvious in the cases where Forest switches to a thin black ink line. Dense blacks are almost never used, the closet to such being cases where the pencil line is used to scribble a denser, darker area.

As a whole, Forest’s sketchy pencilled realism grounds her work in reality and emphasizes not only her gaze on events but also her participatory observation through drawing (her obsessive drawing comes up a number times in her narration). The style of the images makes 1h25 feel less constructed than Journals (3) but also less intense, less full.

Goblet's Faire Semblant C'est Mentir, unpaginated.

Goblet’s style in Faire Semblant… is much more varied than either Neuad or Forest. One could say part of the style of Goblet’s book is her shifting styles from an abstracted, iconic style, that is more conventionally comic-like, through a sketchy realist style, to a painterly non-figurative abstraction that ends the book. She also shifts media throughout the book, pencil, ink, paint, collage, some kind of oil crayon (possibly?). The image above is chosen as an example of the most used style.

In general, Goblet’s figures are more simplified and exaggerated than either Forest’s or Neaud’s. They are proportionally off, having larger than real heads and limbs or torsos that are either shortened or elongated (most obvious in the eighth panel where Goblet’s arms are short and her torso is long). They are rendered primarily in outline with the occasional tonal shading. Faces are simplified and exaggerated (Goblet’s large eyes). Yet, even in the distortion, the figures maintain a level of realness to their poses, the way Goblet leans over, hands on her knees in the first panel, the way the man leans towards her in comfort in the second panel.

The backgrounds are consistent with the style of the figures, primarily outlines, though perhaps less exaggerated in size and proportion. As a whole the images have less of a documentary reality to them than Forest or Neaud, they read as made-up or at least not drawn from observation or photo reference (which isn’t to say they couldn’t have been drawn that way).

Goblet’s line is less precise than Neaud’s, tighter than Forest’s. Her lines are simultaneously soft and hard, curved and straight, as if in the drawing process she stopped and started as the pencil moved. Note the line of the older man’s arm in panel two. It is a curve made up of shorter not quite straight lines. The line of Goblet’s back in panel eight is sharper, more angular, while the line of her shoulders and neck in panel five is all curves.

Similar to Forest’s line, Goblet’s pencilled line varies more in tone than width, though Goblet gets a greater tonal variation from her pencil. This is perhaps most obvious in panel seven where there is great difference between the outline of the book, the “dring” lettering, and the fabric pattern. She also makes much use of the pencil for tone, to help create depth and composition, through both tonal shadows and flat tone as color. Note the variation between the coat in panel three, the shadows in panel eight, and the dark window(?) in the last panel. Patterning is also made use of quite frequently, in this page we can see it in the sky in panel three and the bedspread in panels four through seven.

The panels throughout Faire Semblant… are very full. She makes heavy use of tone (this page is actually, rather lighter than most), patterns, line, and text to fill her panels. Backgrounds are present or the panel is filled in with a tone appopriate to the scene (a number of dark/night scenes). The panels are crowded and dense, and rarely feel open and airy (until the very end, a thematic choice that would be worth examining in a more detailed examination of the book as a whole).

It is a disservice to Goblet’s work to just discuss this one page, as the stylistic and media shifts the book goes through are stunning, but this page felt most relevant in comparison with the previous two examples, as an example of a less realistic but still naturalistic style.

In discussing these works at this level, I can’t help noticing all the other elements of style I could discuss. Just in the context of these examples there is lettering, use of text, placement of text, panel borders, use of sound effects, use of emanata (or, in these examples, absence of same). On a more global level of these three works, I could example page layouts, decoupage, stylistic shifts, the use of non-reality based imagery (visuals used for expressive or thematic effect rather than a literal representation of reality (for instance, there’s a wonderful scene in Faire Semblant…, where the ghost of Goblet’s boyfriend’s ex-lover follows them around a grocery story)), and more depending on the work. (Suggestions? Ideas?)

In the end, this discussion of style does little to aid in a generalized description. I’d consider all three works “realist” to some degree and more or less naturalist. Goblet’s is clearly the least naturalist of the three, more what Santoro would call mannerist. But Neaud and Forest’s realism, their naturalism even, is not so very similar that using any one (or two) words feels right as a way to discuss both. There is so much more going on, and the more you look the more you see of their difference, and, moreso–something I was unable to avoid even in this attempt to just be descriptive of style–the more you can see thematic connections between the stylistic choices and the narrative.

I hope to write more on this subject in the future, or at least to pay better attention to these issues as a write about specific works. The works I chose here were rather limited in scope, so they don’t cover all the possibilities for what one could discuss even at this level of specificity (for instance, color gets a pretty short shrift).