Rozz Tox #3 (1972), panel 1. Drawn by Gary Panter.
One of my favorite things about comics is how marginal a medium it's been for most of its history. There've been bright flashes of popular interest, some leading to creative booms (the early newspaper strip days) and others to lean times (the speculator era), but for the most part comics as a mass medium has been more idea than reality. Certainly for the past half-century the form's come nowhere close to TV, movies, music, or even books in terms of popular currency -- though that does appear to be changing. There's less money in comics, fewer corporate interests nosing around, a smaller community of followers, and most importantly a relatively paltry amount of genuinely revolutionary, world-beating creators. As a fan, I tend to enjoy this fact. There's a special feeling to being able to trace certain tropes or outlooks through lines of creators and knowing they were the only ones using them, or having a fairly large amount of the most popular stuff be the actual good stuff because it's tough to throw a lot of money at a failure in this industry and lowest-common-denominator public tastes don't really enter into it as much as they do in other places. I would have had to go to film school for as much movie history as I have comics, major in literature to know as much about pictureless books. But comics history is small and somewhat self-contained, enough so that I could pick up vast swaths of it working eight-hour shifts in a back issue archive for a couple years.
However, that small history is one of comics' biggest problems too. Where film or music or any of the other media the average dude on the street sometimes spends his money on have volumes and volumes of marginalia that can go toe to toe with the canon and come out even (if not on top), comics can't really boast the same thing. It goes back to the fact that this isn't conceived as art for the masses, that as a medium comics are just now starting to emerge from the "special interest" category. What that means is that for a long time the medium's been stuck with special interest creators, artists who aren't here to move forward but to do the same thing again. Most artists don't come to this medium because they just wanna make art and happen across it. Those types pick up electric guitars or paintbrushes. Comics people come from comics, and sometimes they can't see the forest for the trees.
Which brings me to my point, that of the rectangle. Take a quick look back through the archives of this li'l column, and notice that every single picture I've talked about is based strictly within four sides, stiff borders, the panel as it's been conceptualized from the beginning to here. Not that the rectangle doesn't work, not that it can't be beautiful and even individual, but still: Toth, Yokoyama, Ware? We're talking about some artists whose obsession with shapes informed entire careers! And still the pictures run until they're cut off by those borders, ever-present, non-negotiable. Comics literally has trouble thinking outside the box.
Which is why this panel by Gary Panter is so refreshing. It's presented here as reprinted in PictureBox's massive 2008 Panter monograph, the same book that quotes its artist on the attractions and pitfalls of "escaping that rectangle". Coming from a comics perspective, there's almost as much to the thought as the product of it: God, to even know that you're imprisoned! But Panter's "shaped" panels are more than dry formal exercise -- they expand with his drawings, let the artwork inside them carry itself out to its full potential.
Just look at this example. It's got a real blueprint, cutaway-view quality to it, even though it's a fairly typical panoramic establishing shot. You get the sense that everything in the scene is on display, that the entirety of, um, Ronald McDonald and Frank the Plant's apartment is being laid bare for your eyes, not just a panel-shaped sliver. It's all down to the joyously unconventional borders: the arch upward at top left that makes the ceiling a tangible part of the picture (check out a random comic; not a common occurence) while forcing perspective into a drawing that uses none of the typical lineweights or shading to connote it. The panel's top and bottom borders work perfectly with the established perspective as we read left to right across it, with the top border peeling down to indicate the far wall and the bottom line expanding out towards you to place you directly inside the room. Notice the two intersecting corners drawn in the upper right: the top one functions as the back corner of the room itself (which our peripheral vision isn't quite wide enough to see), while the lower one, the one that continues down into the outline of the rest of the frame, is the very corner of our vision itself. Panter's discarding of the rectangle is not showmanship; it's a calculated move that gives more reality to the picture and to the viewer's experience of it.
Yep, I said it: reality. Probably not the first word that comes to most comic fans' minds when the name Gary Panter is mentioned. This panel is a pretty good example of why (distorted forms, primitivist drawing, a strong sense of the strange), but also of why that shouldn't necessarily be so. Panter's trademark "ratty line" is on full display here, knots and tangles stretched across the frame from end to end. They haven't found the craftsman yet who's insane enough to cut his floorboards in those punk rock zigzags! But the ratty line is anything but tossed off, anything but amateurish. Notice just how tightly regimented the modulations of it are, just how harmoniously its lightning-bolt trails waver back and forth. There's an intense rhythm to it, one that's backed up by Panter's assertion that he laid out his later book Jimbo in Purgatory in such a way as to produce a "pulsing effect". Combine this tidbit with Panter's occasional career as a lightshow projectionist and the ratty line rationale springs into focus. If we're placed inside this panel, those quavers and snags are the movement of the light itself in through the window, pulsing past us, and the movement of our eyeballs as we take it all in. The focus and detail concentrates around Ronald McDonald as we consider him in his solitary abode, blurring out into big, vague white shapes in the periphery that we aren't really paying attention to.
This is realism for sure, just a whole different kind than we're used to in a medium full of Alex Rosses and Jim Lees. Just as the Impressionists set out spaces that felt more alive than the clarity of the previous generation's high-focus painting, just as there's more of life and movement in one bigfoot R. Crumb panel than a 22-page photoreferenced pamphlet, there's more reality to Panter's drawing than most rectangles could possibly hold. It sounds ridiculously simple to say that expanding the panels expands the medium, but in Panter's hands it's true for all that.