Green Lantern #171 (1983), page 4 panel 4. Drawn by Alex Toth.
Cartooning is a white-knuckle walk down a tightrope with no end. The point of departure is illustrative drawing -- the presentation of images from life, as observed in life. Plenty of artists never make it out of that realm, and as far as comics go there's no reason why that has to be a problem. From Hal Foster to Jim Steranko, this medium has seen some fine realist artwork. But the realists ignore a fundamental challenge of the comics form: the creation of true picture-writing. Making the visuals simple and iconic enough that they carry instant meaning for the reader, with no contemplation required and no illustrative details slowing down the story. This hieroglyphic ideal is one of the more frequently stated goals of comics, I'd imagine because it separates the form from its two closest cousins, prose and illustration. Pictures that tell stories without words put comics outside the realm of the literary; and images used to inform rather than immerse fall beyond the illustrative.
But for all the hypothetical advantages of this "ideal" mode of comics, there's an aspect of the medium it fails to consider: the sheer beauty of illustrative artwork. Charles Schulz and Jules Feiffer, to name the two artists who've perhaps gotten closest to a pure-iconographic realm of comics, read better, more smoothly, than pretty much any illustrative artist you care to name. However, I personally have always found something to be missing from the experience of their work as compared to that of Alex Toth, a devoted minimalist who nonetheless took pains to keep an inoculation level of illustrative information in his panels. All three of these artists searched relentlessly to strip excess pieces from their staging, excess lines from their rendering, excess detail from their shaping of forms. But where Feiffer typically dropped his backgrounds altogether, where Schulz indicated setting with sections of rigid fence post or bits of scrubby grass, and where both essentially drew everything with the same lineweight, Toth (along with the rest of his ilk, Mignola, Crane, Yokoyama) put just enough illustrative variation into devices like line and camera angles to give his version of iconographic minimalism the added verve of pretty pictures, of the visual world's beauty.
There's a reason for that, and it exposes another question about the pure-abstract, picture-writing mode of comics. Schulz and Feiffer's works (and those of R.O. Blechman and Ernie Bushmiller and, at times, Chris Ware) are comics of the mind, whether they be emotionally-based wanderings or dialectic ideas or even simple sight gags. But Toth drew action comics -- comics of the body, of landscapes, of things that wouldn't make sense if we couldn't see them. This was his reason for shying away from the final pare-downs that the great strip cartoonists made: without the scraps of illustrative-comics grammar Toth employed, the environmental richness and kinetic cutting and hyperbolic figurework and variated lines, the material he drew simply wouldn't have worked.
What's interesting is how close he got. How far down the tightrope of pure cartoon he went without ever making it all the way. I chose this panel because it reminds me of one of the most emblematic Charles Schulz images: Charlie Brown and Linus' tiny figures against the big searchlights of the tree-farm in "A Charlie Brown Christmas". Here Toth gets at the same stillness and dislocation, the alien feeling, dwarfing his sillhouetted, minimal figures in an unforgiving environment of basic shapes that just barely yield to imparting information. A few pen marks code for windows, and deftly spotted blacks pin down a decisive light source; but take a moment, and notice the mix of added and subtracted elements that make those marks and blacks so successful. The windows on the buildings not only taper in a perfect line with the perspective, they're ever so slightly weighted with it too, getting lighter and lighter the further into the background they fade. The spotted blacks break up into periodic sketchiness (like the scuffle of marker-line behind the buildings on the right) or dissolve with a sprinkle of dots instead of a clean cut. The lines of the walls and the banks of sand are craggy, rougher than the smooth shapes of the figures. Suddenly texture is very much a part of the picture: rough sand and adobe crag, drawing the eye a little further in, making the reader feel the heat a little stronger. The subtle variations of lineweight do much for the panel's deep perspective, too, with the thick, strong marks on the dunes in the foreground fading into thin trails the further back they go.
It's important to note that most of these devices -- the big black dots on the sand, the tangled lines at the top of the hill, the fat hatchmarks bearing down from the sky -- are not, nor are they meant to be, illustrative drawing. They're codes, the same codes that Schulz and Bushmiller used more sparingly, to different ends. We know the real world isn't made up of these blacks and marks, but this panel still looks like how we see things, whereas anything further into minimal design would be a bridge too far. What’s illustrative is how much of this environment Toth sees, the amount of visual information packed into the panel borders, the panoramic shape of the frame itself. Toth gets to his place of realness, of beauty, by piling it on, adding subtraction to subtraction to abstraction until his minimal world holds as much as the real. As much shadow, as much light, as much texture, as much scope. It's just arranged more subtly, seen more poetically, changed into something both familiar and strikingly different. It's art, to make it simple.