Sunday, March 04, 2007

On Reflection

Why is this my favourite panel from Stickleback? Read on to find out...
Stickleback © 2007 Rebellion/2000AD
Created by Ian Edginton & Me

Comics is an unsteady business; there are any number of obstacles to getting a project published, so much so that I only half-joke that I'll only believe a project is going to happen once it's finished, published and paid for.

Under those conditions, Stickleback: Mother London is pretty much* "real, " and I think I can look back and feel that it's gone okay. I took a big risk with Stickleback; the previous "black & white & grey" technique I’d used on Leviathan had gone down very well with 2000AD readers , but aside from the fact that I felt I'd done all I wanted to with it, a number of other artists were now using the technique in 2000AD; the look was no longer strongly distinctive. Nevertheless, there was no guarantee that the readers would take to something new and different.

*due to Rebellion's payment cycles, I don't expect to be paid for part 9 for another week or so. Such is freelance life.

Second, a change of look means a change of method. I'd been doing the Leviathan technique for four years, and had it down so pat that I churn pages out like sausage links from a machine. Due to all sorts of stuff happening in my life, I ended up starting Stickleback two weeks behind, using an untested technique that was radically different from anything I'd done before. I had no idea if this faux-Brecchia collage technique would be quicker or slower than my old methods; luckily it turned out to be slightly quicker, but things could just have easily gone the other way, and then, boy, would it have been Rigellian hotshots all round...

The obvious difference with the Stickleback stuff is the inclusion of the wild and wacky surface textures, but for me, the really big change was in the way I thought about the drawing. Most of my professional work before Stickleback belongs to what I'd call a representational tradition in comics; that is, artists who try and include detail in their drawings, to create a sense of a complete world within their work.

Simple but telling; Hergé re-drew key background details
The Black Island to create a more accurate sense of place.
(Image pinched from

The classic example is Hergé, author of Tintin; though his drawing style was cartoony and simplified, he was famous for his use of background detail to create a sense of place - indeed, he went back and re-drew some of his earlier stories once he had the time and resources to research them more thoroughly. Other artist who I'd place in this category (and who have influenced me considerably) are Jack Kirby, Mike McMahon, Mœbius, Geof Darrow, Dave Gibbons, Don Heck, Enki Bilal and Kev O'Neil. With the best of their work these artists give you a sense of looking in through the window of the panel border to a complete world; you get the feeling you could peer in around the edge of the drawing and there's be more stuff to see.

From Elektra:Assassin written by Frank Miller, art by Bill Sienkiewicz
© 1987 Marvel Entertainment, Inc

Contrast this with work from the expressionist tradition of comic art; exemplified in the last twenty years or so in the English-speaking world by Bill Sienkiewicz. Expressionist comics tend to focus on the human face and figure, while backgrounds are simplified, often becoming mere smears and whorls of paint. Spacial relationships are unimportant; for example, in the panels above we have no idea where the two characters are in the room, or even where they stand relative to each other. Mood and atmosphere, however, are very important; dramatic lighting plays a key role (contrast the Sienkiewicz page above with the Hergé panels; the latter contain much more background detail but no shading at all.) The actual surface of the drawing or painting itself is also a big part of the experience; the expressionist artist wants you to notice that the painting is a painting, and appreciate it as such.

In one way, Bill Sienkiewicz differs quite profoundly from the other comics expressionists who came after; prior to his reinvention as an innovator, he'd spent years at the coal-face at Marvel, pencilling monthly superhero comic books. This experience gave him a terrific grounding in the mechanics of comics storytelling, and it shows; however wild his work may appear on the surface, mixing painting, collage, photo-reference and pure cartooning, he always makes sure the story is served. Indeed, I believe Sienkiewicz's greatest innovations have been in his incredibly imaginative and lateral storytelling solutions, a subject that deserves an article of its own.

Many of the artists who followed on from Sienkiewicz* came from outside comics, and they tended to be weaker visual storytellers. Their working methods tended to be similar. They produced fully-painted comics in which the figures were based closely on photographic reference or life drawing, with minimal backgrounds, and gaps in the visual storytelling being carried by dialogue and captions; if done well, the 'realistic' appearance of the photo-referenced figures was compelling enough to carry the reader through the story. In this category I'd put Jon J. Muth, Kent Williams and the earliest works of Dave McKean (Black Orchid in particular, also Arkham Asylum).

*I don't suggest that these artists were directly inspired by Sienkiewicz, but I believe his success gave them a market within the comics industry.

Possibly because it is very difficult to do and expensive to reproduce (and also because artists who can paint that well can make much better money in other fields), this expressionist painted style has never become the norm; these days, the only comic artist I can think of who still works on regular series in this way is Simon Davis at 2000AD (Sinister Dexter) and The Megazine (Black Siddha). A number of other artists followed Dave McKean's ground-breaking move into digital production; Mark Harrison and Clint Langley spring to mind.

For me, starting out in the late 1980's, all this was very exciting and new, but after some dabbling with paint I realised my strengths lay elsewhere; ironically, it was after going to a lecture by Dave McKean that I decided to go boldly down the representational path. The decision must have been right: the strip I was working on at that time ended up becoming the first episode of Timulo, my first regular professional series (for Deadline magazine).

And so I followed a pretty straight path from Timulo through to Scarlet Traces: The Great Game. I always had a hankering to try something a little different though, especially after a stint colouring advertising storyboards in 2002-3 brought me to the stinging realization that I really am not a painter. Put simply, I'm fine putting colour under ink drawings with the solid blacks already established; without the outlines and spot blacks as an anchor, I can't work out how or where to place the dark tones in a painting, and the result is always a bland mess.

From Perramus by Juan Sasturain & Alberto Breccia

Perversely, my inability to deal with painting sans black ink outlines made me determined to find some way of doing just that. After faffing around with all sorts of things, I realised that the painted collage work of Alberto Breccia might well hold the key. I've written elsewhere about how Breccia's technique was based on chiaroscuro ink drawing, and remains very graphic (hard-edged) despite being painted; this provided me with an idea of drawing hard-edged areas and then working into them with texture and (virtual) brush strokes later. I'm not sure if that last sentence will make sense to anyone but me, but the result is that I could paint without having to think like a painter.

The next question was what to do about the drawing; this painted technique did not allow me to add as much fiddly detail as simple line drawings (though the combination of texture and tone gives a similar visual density to the pages). This solved a problem I'd been worrying about for some years, namely that I was using detail to cover up other deficiencies in my work. I'd felt for some time that I needed to loosen up a bit and try to make my work more dynamic; this method would force me to do that.

Left: José Muñoz's New York from Alack Sinner
Right: Book cover by John Glashan

At the same time, I didn't want to completely throw over the sense of place that had existed in my work to date. Although pretty expressionist in approach, Breccia was not above adding significant background detail, so I knew it could be done. Also inspirational was the work of Breccia's one-time assistant José Muñoz, whose portrayal of New York in the Alack Sinner stories showed that a sense of place could be generated without recourse to conventional perspective. Finally, the work of cartoonist John Glashan (a favourite from childhood) showed how implied architectural detail could be built up using the loosest of drawing.

The Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Sophia
Architectural fun from Stickleback Part 6
Stickleback © 2007 Rebellion/2000AD
Created by Ian Edginton & Me

I first put these lessons to use in the views of London in Stickleback: Mother London part one. The success of those panels gave me confidence, so by the time I needed to draw the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Sophia in part six, I was pretty sure I knew what I was doing. But it was the crowd scenes in the orgy in part eight that convinced me I hadn't had to let anything of myself go in order to embrace this new method.

I'd also worried whether the painting and texture would overwhelm the drawing, particularly if it would make things like facial expressions harder to manage. In fact, the reverse seems to have been true; I think I've made the characters in Stickleback emote much more than characters in previous stories.
The tendency of the expressionist method to push the characters to the fore served the story well, too; there's a whole episode of Stickleback in which Bey and Chipps just sit in a pub talking, something which wouldn't have looked half as interesting drawn Leviathan-style.

The question now is, what next? Stickleback has been very well received, but I don't want to be a Breccia copyist for the rest of my career. I also don't want to rest on my laurels; if I repeat this style for the next twenty years it'd be just as stale as repeating anything else.
My thinking at the moment is that I don't want to throw over this style right now, especially as it's still bedding in. Simply by working away at another series, it'll continue to evolve into something that's more and more "me." Rather than worry about the surface finish, I think I want to work seriously on my drawing and page layouts in the next series.

That, of course, applies to any future series of Stickleback; in other work I can follow whatever style I wish. For the adaptation of Murders On The Rue Morgue I mentioned a while back, I've gone right back to basics, largely to reassure myself that I can still deliver the goods without all those fancy-schmanzy special effects (more on this later). Similarly, the Fables strip I did in January was just black & white line work (to be coloured by DC).


Compu73E said...

Bloody fascinating entry, Matt. Great insight into your dodgy mental sta.. errr, artistic development. For what it's worth, I think Stickleback is your most successful work yet, surpassing even your Hergesque 'War of the Worlds' adaptation, and the crazy dinofolk of Xtnct. And that's saying something.

Unknown said...

Many of the artists who followed on from Sienkiewicz* came from outside comics, and they tended to be weaker visual storytellers.

You know I had noticed that and I could never actually pin it down into words, but you're absolutely right.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting piece -- I'm not even into art like that.

Unknown said...

compu73e - thanks for the kind words... happily, my mental state's improved no end since I started getting enough sleep again :-)

john - glad to hear you say that - I was worried I might be being unfair. And to be strictly fair to Dave McKean, he did later embrace conventional storytelling in black & white, with backgrounds and everything.

Matthew - glad to be of service!

Postscript: today Nigel Kitching showed me some work by Ashley Wood, who's very much in the Sienkiewicz tradition. I was worried he might scupper my theory but no, obligingly he too omits backgrounds for the most part. Cheers, Ashley ;-)

Anonymous said...

Sorry slightly off topic but I read today that a Tintin film is in the works again and slated for release in 2 years time. Apart from the 2 early 60s live action ones the closest thing to a Tintin film I have seen is The Life Aquatic with Steve Zisou. For some reason the whole film reminded me of the early to mid period Tintin albums. The ones that still had a bit of naivety in the drawing and a somewhat fantastical conception of technology.

Unknown said...

Mikal: Never seen The Life Aquatic, though I always meant to...

Further to my original rant, A new Sinister Dexter started in this week's 2000AD, in which Simon Davis does two of the most detailed backgrounds I've seen from him in a long while...

Anonymous said...


I've been reading your blog - fascinating stuff. I also read the stuff about Breccia, which has encouraged me to try to find some of his stuff. It is amazing that he kept experimenting right up to the end. I'd be interested to see what you would write on some other artists, or techniques, since you obviously have an artist's eye for technique and a clear manner of explaining. I have always thought you could get several essays out of examining David Mazzuchelli's development in the 1980s, where he goes from Gene Colan to Milton Caniff and then Alex Toth in the space of about 10 comics. Incredible. I was never a big fan of painted art, probably because, as you say, storytelling often seems to suffer along the way. I also love the way black and white, the simplest of contrasts can create any scene, character or atmosphere in the hands of a master. Speaking of the chiarascuro school, have you read any stuff by Comes? A french friend lent me one of his albums and I found it very interesting.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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