Thursday, July 29, 2004

Pedantic? Me? 

There's a discussion going on over at the Bendis Board about draftsmanship. taking a break from the Con Report, I added my two cents. I thought people here might like to read what I had to say.
This isn't really a discussion you can have until you lay down some definitions. Good draftsmanship is all about the ability to communicate the maximum amount of useful information through minimal means. A good draftsman is able to tell you everything you need to know about a subject, (something that may or may not include his or her opinions about the subject,) and do so in a way that satisfies one's taste for both tension and harmony.

Let's say it's a drawing of a person. A drawing can convey information about the person's height, weight, build, age, health, how the person is standing or moving, what sort of clothing the person is wearing: how appropriate is it for them, how worn or well-cared for the fabric is, what the person is feeling at that moment, what is the person trying to communicate to others, what the atmospheric conditions are, what sort of surface is the person standing on and on and on. The draftsman may want to provoke a certain reaction: He thought this was funny, you might, too. He saw a person suffering and wants you to feel what he felt.

As for the means, a draftsman has a few tools to work with. Lines are the primary tool in comics. Curved, straight, bold, tentative, changing in weight, rigid and precise - lines can vary tremendously. There are also shapes, and flat and graded tones, and patterns, and textures. These can be used to define three-dimensional form or just for their own beauty or impact. There's some disagreement over whether color can be an aspect of draftsmanship.

So a drawing can tell you quite a lot, and by a variety of techniques. It's the job of a draftsman to whittle down the content and the means to what is worth knowing. Impact in drawing can be sort of like telling a joke. If you start off with "two guys go into a ballpark," you aren't going to make the joke any funnier by going through the lineup, naming every player's batting average. Likewise a drawing of an impatient kid waiting for his mom won't be any sharper if it also draws attention the fine textural differences between the fabric of his cotton jeans and his polyester jacket. Or it can be like acting, knowing when to underplay a moment and when to shout at the top of your lungs.

The pictures and the pages also need to be designed well. Design is enormously subjective, and hard to talk about without waving your arms like a mime. It's about how you arrange your marks on the paper and where you place the forms they represent.

Once you've evaluated all of this, you need to look at what is most important in comics: storytelling. A comics page doesn't just exhist for it's own beauty. It's there to communicate a story, and that means eliminating excess information and arranging what's left so it's clear and interesting. The reader may only look at your panel for a second or two before moving on, and it's your job to make sure that he gets what he needs in those two seconds.

So in deciding who are the best draftsmen in comics, you have to look at what they needed to communicate in their stories and how simply and effectively they did it. Charles Schulz never needed to show human musculature at work, but he found a great set of tools to explore the internal worlds of nervousness and fantasy and sel-doubt we all live in, and he was able to make it funny, too. Joe Kubert's stuff is rarely funny, but he isn't trying to make you laugh. His job is to take readers to a world where weather-beaten heroes engage in brutal physical struggle against tough opposition. Jaime Hernandez's stories tend to eye traditional heroism warily. In his world, powerful guys who look for conflict are people to avoid, and storybook heroism is viewed with ironic detachment. He's far more interested in close observation of his characters behavior and how they react to the changing circumstances of their lives, His draftmanship has to be judged on how well and how appealingly it evokes that world and how believable its characters and settings are to us as readers.

There's a start. When you talk about someone's draftsmanship in comics, make sure to talk about their goals as a storyteller first. Sorry for going on so long.

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