Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Alberto Breccia Part 1: Mort Cinder

Breccia Introduction
Breccia Part 2: El Eternauta to Lovecraft
Breccia Part 3: Perramus
Breccia Conclusion

All illustrations in this section taken from Mort Cinder by Hector Oesterheld and Alberto Breccia

Appearing in Mysterix magazine from 1962 to 1964, Mort Cinder was written by Hector Oesterheld , who had already collaborated with Breccia on a series called Sherlock Time in 1958. It is the tale of a London antiquarian, Ezra Winston, who is befriended by a mysterious immortal, Mort Cinder. Breccia based the look of Winston on himself: Mort Cinder is supposedly based on his assistant and friend, Horacio Lalia.

The strip is drawn using a method called chiaroscuro - the drawings are made out of blocks of solid black and white with the minimum of outlines. Breccia also starts using texture (note the dabbed ink on Ezra Winston’s scarf in the panel above). Because it’s so high-contrast, chiaroscuro is by definition dramatic and is good for creating a mysterious or spooky atmosphere; Mort Cinder is a mystery series with supernatural elements, and the art style is most at home with the episodes that veer towards the horror genre.
Applying chiaroscuro technique to the human face and figure is relatively straightforward; applying it to complex subjects such as architecture and street scenes is what separates the men from the boys, as in the following:

This panel is just stunning - there’s not an outline to be seen. He’s drawing the whole thing with a brush, too. Something to note - although this drawing is strongly figurative (“realistic”), it’s also quite impressionistic - that is, Breccia’s more concerned with mood and atmosphere than showing every last detail. We can see important stuff - the sign “Ezra Winston, Antiquary” is visible - but we can’t make out exactly what’s in the windows of the shop, or the exact form of the front door (though, charmingly, Breccia has included the detail of an early-morning “pinta*” on the front step).

*though in decline, the British tradition of doorstep delivery of milk in pint bottles continues to this day.

Another street scene from Mort Cinder, and one that I think is more significant in terms of Breccia’s later development. Since the whole idea of using chiaroscuro is to produce dramatic, high contrast drawings, the idea is to avoid adding anything in the way of cross-hatching or shading to blend the whites and blacks. But look at the far right of the panel; Breccia’s adding texture to the shadow areas, breaking up the blacks with dabbed brush strokes to suggest bricks. Note also the trees at the far end of the lane, made using negative space - that is, he’s drawing the gaps between the branches, leaving the white of the paper to represent the branches themselves.
Though this doesn’t look like much in itself, I think it’s an early sign of the prevailing trend in Breccia’s later work - a move towards expressionism - that is, a way of drawing in which the marks of the drawing themselves become an important feature of the drawing.

That explanation’s a bit clumsy, I know; you can see better what I mean in the following examples:

This is possibly one of the most famous panels from Mort Cinder - where Ezra Winston, terrified by something he’s encountered in a graveyard, flees down an avenue of trees. But look at the difference between this and the previous panels - this isn’t an attempt by Breccia to draw real trees. He doesn’t try to render bark or leaves or shading- instead, he’s found a beautiful way of laying down ink that suggests not only the silhouettes of trees, but an atmosphere of menace too. The drawing itself has become the star of the show, without detracting from the storytelling.
That last point is very important - because, to paraphrase E. M. Forster, "comics, oh dearie me yes, comics are about telling stories." The images in comics have to convey information - action, character, atmosphere, situation - to help carry the story along, otherwise there's no point to them. The more expressionistic your drawing style, the more risk that the content of the drawings will be lost. For the rest of his career, Breccia would walk a tightrope, pushing the boundaries of style and technique, without abandoning storytelling. That’s very difficult to do, and it's one of the reasons I rate him so very highly.

Finally, this is the clearest example; an even more expressionist night landscape from the same story. Here Breccia’s starting to really use texture for the first time, playing the grittiness of a menacing, textured sky against the bold white silhouettes of the trees. It’s as “out there” as Mort Cinder was to get, but in later projects Breccia would build on this new way of working - and then some.

Breccia Introduction
Breccia Part 2: El Eternauta to Lovecraft
Breccia Part 3: Perramus
Breccia Conclusion

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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