Monday, August 07, 2006

A Scarf in Chris Bachalo’s Steampunk

Frank Quitely most often composes simple clean images; your eye is immediately drawn to the most important thing in the panel (Superman’s chest or Lex Luthor’s desk or whatever); only after apprehending the main part of the image does your eye go roving to the details (in JLA: Earth 2, on a world in which evil always wins, Green Lantern saves a dog from a beating and a few panels later, if you look closely, the dog is run over by a bus).

Chris Bachalo, also one of my favourite artists, goes violently in the other direction, often giving the reader a chaos that must be carefully examined before its content can be understood; using a lot of beautiful monotone colour doesn’t help any either. Many people find this maddening, but I think it is a lot of fun (plus Bachalo has great designs and draws cute girls like no man’s business). To help us find characters in the mess he puts them in he gives them simple distinguishing characteristics; in Steampunk, Laslo has a union jack scarf. In one amazing fight scene, 24 panels over a two page spread, Bachalo shows Laslo’s battle prowess – his ability to move fast and hit every target – by drawing him leaping across the panel grid to strike his targets. Alan Moore uses stuff like this to make meta-textual comments as an analogue to visionary experience: characters walk above the panel page because they know they are in a comic book and are using its "cosmic" rules to accomplish something. Bachalo uses a character jumping above the page to make a great fight scene, which I think is better, if only because it is less pretentious and less common. To follow Laslo we follow the path of his scarf, which is not drawn as a realistic item of clothing but appears as an icon. (Click the image for a larger version).

There are two schools of thought on communicating chaos – or dissonance or trash – to the audience: do you make your own presentation chaotic (dissonant or trashy) or do you make it clean (harmonious or polished) and get the effect you are after in other ways? The fights in Kill Bill, for example, are chaotic for the characters involved, but are filmed with perfect clarity; Batman Begins went the other direction, communicating chaos by making the fights impossible for the audience to see (as it must have been impossible for the thugs Batman was beating on to know what was happening). In this scene Bachalo gets it both ways (as he can in the comics medium): he gives us a chaotic presentation to show chaos, but we can sort through it given time; what Laslo is doing is initially disorienting, but we can follow the path of his iconic scarf and figure it out easily.


Marc Caputo said...

I've not read Bachalo's "Steampunk", but your comment about Quitely brings to mind a point I've been trying to make about his All-Star Superman. Look at issue # 3, when Superman is looking at himself in the "Mirror of Truth"; he's holding Clark's glasses, but the mirror image shows NO glasses. Two panels down, he slumps, but the mirror shows NO slumping. I know these things were (probably) in Morrison's script, but Quitely "hides" them well.

Geoff Klock said...

Marc: Quitely is a class act, and he often adds little details like the ones you mention. I always do a second read of a quitely book just to look for the little things I missed.

And very few people read Steampunk -- which is why it didn't make it, I imagine. But it is the best work of one of the best artists in the industry, and a pretty good story to boot. It is also more bang for your buck than any comic book, including Watchmen, just in terms of how long it will take you to read it (since you have to spend a few minutes decrypting almost every page).

Scott said...

I have to revisit Steampunk and possibly The Witching Hour. Bachalo is one of the truly visual artists. It's not easy to read his stuff but, nine times out of ten, it's rewarding.

When it comes to layout and page design, I think he's the closest descendant to old Chaykin or Simonson. These are artists that I think you need to learn to read.

Geoff Klock said...

Scott: well said.

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