Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days (2009), page 56 panel 1. Drawn by Al Columbia.
"Detail" is a double-edged sword in comics art. There is a thin line a pictorial storytelling medium medium must walk: not enough to the pictures and nothing is created, no illusion of life fed to the reader. But with too much detail in the panels the eye must slow to catch it all, and the work is in danger of being simply looked at rather than read. Then there are different kinds of detail: what separates the involving, lively motion captures of Frank Quitely, say, from the empty line matrices of Jim Lee? There's no objective way of qualifying "good" or "bad" detail -- that would be tantamount to declaring what is "good" and "bad" comics art, a bridge I refuse to cross -- however, let me offer a very subjective opinion on the difference between details that enhance a work and details that degrade one.
Since comics are a reading medium, it's got to be about the amount of information conveyed. All that matter is that the reader "believes" the pictures -- that is, that they're well-formed enough to foster the necessary illusion of reality. After that, it doesn't matter how much crosshatching you put on your Batman image; for all intents and purposes, it was Batman as soon as the cape and ears went onto the figure drawing. What does matter is how much can be easily read within the panel, how much each picture tells you before you move on to the next one. An Alex Ross picture may have a note-perfect rendering of the way the sun glints off human skin, but does it tell the reader anything more than one panel of Dennis the Menace? Usually not, and quite often much less, which is why I consider that kind of detail as often, laborious, unnecessary, and an impediment to the reading experience.
So we come, in our roundabout way, to Al Columbia and this panel. Look at it again if you like. Columbia is a master of "good" detail; his simplified, cartoony drawing style tells you much more about his characters and the world they inhabit than could be said with photorealistic art that simply approximates our world. His art uses the early-Disney drawing style with a sick irony, evoking menace with lines drawn from the vanished America of the Depression era. It's a style that plays on our fear of the past, of less enlightened times, of days when kids played in the streets with no one watching them, when health care was a bottle of bourbon and a bone saw or a back-alley clothes hanger, when the serial killers weren't nerds gone off their meds but brawny stranglers or licentious axemen. It's all here, all in the mutated bigfoot cartooning, the faded paper, the uninked pencil lines, the defiance of a piece of art left incomplete -- all the forgotten bad sides of an era we like to remember as a golden age spit back in our faces.
But beyond the evocative style of the panel, there is an utter wealth of information on display. Like in last week's Caniff panel, Columbia goes full-on animated with Sonny Blackfire's arm, taking us through a moment of hesitation, a rung doorbell, and then a picked lock. The rough pencils work especially well here: by displaying an uncertainty about which position to draw the arm in and roughing out five different options, Columbia communicates all five within one frame.
No less advanced is the lettering. We get this demonic half-man's whole backstory -- his continuity, more precisely -- with references to other characters and comics, his own history, and even a bit of his family origins, in a rough yet elegant near-diagram. (More world-building, this time with language: the modern-sounding "corporation" is crossed out in favor of the richer, antiquated "fortune". And Jesus -- "Snuff Comix" indeed!) The word balloon is icing on the cake: that starburst is used in comics to denote everything from drunkenness and wheezing through orgasms and death rattles. Columbia evokes them all by placing it in the mouth of an enigmatically leering man in no particular physical straits, forcing us to wonder what's going on in the mind of this Bloody Bloody Killer to cause it. Just like most of us can only guess at what's going on in Columbia's mind -- this panel is the work of an utterly unique talent operating at the top planes of his medium.
Your Monday Panel is an ongoing series examining the building blocks of comics -- individual panels.