Nogegon (1990), page 26 panel 3. Francois Schuiten.
There's no agreement to be found on the question of detail in comics art. Sound arguments can be made both ways -- add too much and it bogs down story and design, but eschew it and the story stops feeling real. I'm of the opinion that there's enough good comics art out there to testify in favor of any approach at all, that the real answer to the question of detail is "whatever works". That said, though, I do tend to favor the minimal over the maximal when I'm classifying what's "good comics art", probably just because more prominent American cartoonists have spent their careers on paths of subtraction rather than addition. Still, there's always that precarious balance between lots and little, and some have gone farther down the path than they should have. (You ever see Wally Wood's last couple of comics?)
Detail has its place, is what I'm getting at. The illusion of life, whatever kind of life it may be, is paramount in comics storytelling, and detail done right makes the pictures richer, fuller, more tangible. Of course there are about a million different kinds of detail to go into, from fancy subdivision to ratty line to process color, but today I want to look at straightup illustrative detail, the accretion of representative elements inside a single frame. This is a tough act to pull off, and can really only work at all in specific contexts: panorama, long pauses, moments of silence or atmospherics. Hence my preference for more broadly cartooned action and talking-head comics. Whether or not it's intentional, detail adds tone a scene, and unless it's the right tone being added on purpose it almost always goes wrong.
The above is how it goes right. Francois Schuiten comics are not much like anything published in America, one look at the James Gurney-meets-Moebius picture above can tell you that. In fact, they're pretty much how this picture is: big, slow, contemplative, oddly free of time or genre. Schuiten's art incorporates a vast amount of detail, architectural and environmental, but it very rarely feels cramped or overworked, glowing modestly with a muchness that immerses rather than repels. Notice how much of the image carries itself on color rather than line, the slow wave from yellow to purple and photo-perfect lighting saying so much that isn't put down in black and white. There's a massive, airy openness to this picture, denying the spotted blacks that don't actually exist in real life for the panoply of slightly different tones that do. (An airy openness, I might add, that dovetails quite nicely with the picture's subject matter.) Too, the hand painted (watercolored, I believe) hues accomplish more in the way of texture than the flats or spangles of mechanically-applied colors can: there's absolutely no rendering lines at all in this panel, and that's because the dimensionality of it is so richly created by the paints that there's simply no need. And even here the print process is as helpful as ever, fading the too-sharp focus of the meticulous line art and deep hues into the vaguer blur of real life seen through bright sunlight.
"Abstraction" is usually a term that's only applied to hardcore-minimalist comics, certainly nothing realer than, say, Ditko, but look at how skillfully Schuiten turns the brick and mortar of his concrete-skyscraper backdrop into an almost non-representative repeating motif, the suggestive shapes of objects glimpsed through the windows toward the bottom quickly giving way to simple, repeating shapes in robust interaction with each other. (It's pretty damn similar to this, which is saying something.) This is a massively surrealist picture, the depth implied by the figures floating in front of it preventing the building from quite getting to full abstraction while pointing up the strange dreaminess of it all. And yet even those high-contrast figures themselves fade into near-abstraction when you blur your eyes a little, a congregation of dark marks swimming upstream against a sunlit mosaic. The camera angle, which goes right for the soft spot in our heads with a wickedly vertiginous, gravity-free view into things, provides a final, crowning touch of dislocation.
This is detailed comics art that serves a purpose about as far from what we're used to as it gets, drawing you into a world that only blurs and disintegrates the further you go. It needs every exact line and perfectly placed bit of color to work; from such an unfamiliar viewpoint we'd be lost without this total awareness of where everything is. But at the same time, that unfamiliar viewpoint makes us a bit unsure of things as they stand still and float past at equal speeds. It's the kind of picture you can't look at too long, or maybe can't stop considering. There's detail here, perhaps even a distracting amount, but every bit of it is real information that gives the picture something more. A world both real and impossible -- something comics can do so beautifully.