Sans Genre VII
I just did a writeup of this two-panel Hal Foster sequence. Go read it if you want, then come back.
There are a few ideas in there about color and music that I wanted to explore further. First, there's this. Paraphrased:
I like to think of panel sequencing in comics as having more to do with music than the literary or the visual arts. It’s easy enough to see layout as rhythm, with each panel break a beat and each tier of panels a measure. But something that gets a lot less consideration than rhythm (even though it’s at least as important) is harmony in comics, the interactions of each panel with the last and the next. Beat, by comparison, is easy. Anybody can keep steady time by clapping their hands, just as anyone can take a ruler and draw a panel grid. But it takes a real skill and inspiration to compose within that rhythm, to drop notes or panels that create something greater than the sum of the parts when they sit next to one another. To create harmony.
Even when the notion of reading this sequence is put aside for appreciation of it as pure visual, as two pictures placed next to one another, their interplay is wonderfully harmonic. Foster creates a smooth interplay between the images by placing their horizon lines on a nearly exact level with one another. The base background color — a mild sea-green — is also the same from one panel to the next, like a single tone underpinning the gorgeous contrast between the interval of blue to orange in the sky.
The basic point of the article is to say that one of the most beautiful things a comics artist can do (as well as one of his or her most difficult tasks) is to create images that not only make story sense in sequence, but that actually mesh well as pictures, that look pleasant and create a pleasant effect when considered together. Drawing one good panel after another is like playing an instrument and hitting completely random chords with beautiful intonation: it's admirable, but something is still missing. The problem of inter-panel harmony is something I've been thinking a lot about lately, prompted by moving all my comics to a scroller site and working long hours on another project in the same format. In printed comics, the page is the unit. It's how the reader first perceives each section of the comic they look at, and most pages are drawn with that in mind. From Winsor McCay to Jim Steranko to JH Williams on down, great comics artists who work with print as the end goal of their art have created pages that work together as single compositions, the panels within them referring back to or forming a fractional part of the whole.
With the coming wave of webcomics, though, everything's different. When I was making pages that were only designed to be uploaded to this site, looking like this where the reader sees the total page before reading anything, inter-panel harmony didn't matter as much as the overall composition of the page to me. What hits first typically hits hardest, after all. But with the new wave of webcomics, the idea of the "page" is becoming more an more irrelevant -- what matters is the scroll, and how it shows the comics to readers. The unit is the computer screen, which is horizontally oriented, like a tier of panels, not a full page of them. Foster's sequence above would fill a browser window perfectly. The harmony created between images, rather than by pages drawn on full sheets of paper, may be in the process of becoming more important than ever before.
So how do you create harmony between two images? It's easy enough to do with line and form -- symmetrical or similar shapes will do the trick pretty well. Notice, for example, how the Foster sequence is oriented on a perfect diagonal -- the ships' masts and riggings direct they eye along a line perfectly parallel to that formed by the king's arm and the break between the end of the first caption box and the beginning of the second. Below is a more explicit example of harmonious shape in comics, from CF's Powr Mastrs 3. They aren't constant from panel to panel -- that's a drone, the accretion of one element. Rather, they complement each other, like say, a four-note lick in a guitar solo does.
Where it gets a lot trickier is creating harmony with color, as Foster does so brilliantly in his sequence. It has a basis in the shapes of his forms -- the horizon line of both panels is almost exactly the same, which allows them a wonderful ease of interaction -- but the inspiration that powers the sky's transition from blue to orange above the constant green sea, that's poetic. A deviation from realism that makes the sequence just sing out. How do you get that? What should an artist have in mind to construct those kind of color intervals, that kind of harmony? It would be folly to reach for one definitive answer, but here's what I came up with.
We're going to be returning to this image a lot, so you should probably open a new tab on it. As most readers have probably not heard, I spend a good chunk of my non-comics time making music. I've also got synesthesia, which is a weird thing where sense impressions cause your brain to produce other, unrelated sense impressions. There are all different kinds based on which senses trigger which other ones -- I don't know what my kind is called, but I have different colors assigned to letters and numbers in my head and, relevant to the topic at hand, see colors when I hear music. Because of this, it's really easy for me to conceptualize color as music. It's made even easier by the fact that the western musical scale is based around seven root notes, A to G, and the color wheel is typically drawn as being based around six or seven dominant colors, the three primaries and the three secondaries. (The seventh color is usually "indigo", which is halfway between blue and purple. But given that comics weren't able to print either indigo or purple satisfactorily for most of their history, and that I don't really think indigo and blue create very different impressions on the page, I've subbed in pink as the seventh color -- because it's used more often, because it has more of an impact, and because I think its effect is usually pretty distinct from that of red or purple.) Now this is where we get into musical theory just a little bit, but if you don't know anything about the subject, it's all good. Here is an easy to use online keyboard with the notes clearly marked so you can "play along" with what I'm talking about.
I've assigned a musical note to each of the colors on the color wheel above. This is somewhat random, based on the peculiarities of what each tone makes me "see" and the color each letter "is" to me, but I think it works pretty logically. A, the "first" note, is red, the boldest and strongest of the colors. E, the note/chord that more guitar oriented songs are rooted in than any other, is blue, the most commonly occurring color in nature and hence the "root" color for the greatest amount of comics scenes. That makes C the third primary color, yellow. All together they form a basic piano chord shape, as well as the most basic expression of the full color spectrum. Move the chord up by removing the low A and playing a high G, and you have the another basic chord (the beginning of the C scale, which is typically the first thing piano players learn), and the basic range of the spectrum once again. The last thing I want to do is to suggest that these particular color-note combinations are set in stone, or even "better" than any other ones people could come up with. This works for me, but I suspect everyone might have a slightly different version of the color scale that works better for them. The main thing is to relate color to sound, to ground color theory in the solid basis of musical intervals, where it's quite easy to construct strategies based on how one wants an overall piece to "sound" or affect the reader.
Everything else I'm going to talk about is written on the color wheel image, but I thought I'd explain it a little further. There are all different ways to construct pleasing color combinations in comics. But musical theory provides a useful way into the at times overwhelming world of color, a few basic rules to use as a springboard into more advanced experimentation.
Blue to pink is E to G. That's a legendary interval in rock and roll especially. I feel like this quote's been attributed to a million different people, but I remember it coming from Pete Doherty: "All you need to play rock music is E to G and a cool haircut." (That's Pete Doherty the Libertines guitarist, though there also just happens to be a comics colorist by the same name. Shivers up and down my spine, people.) E to G is "I Wanna Be Your Dog", it's "Whole Lotta Love", it's every dumb, shuddering, indelible riff you've ever heard. Comics wise, blue to pink is first and foremost Frank Santoro's Cold Heat (above), which is like the most rock and roll comic ever created. Musically, the E to G interval is a third. Other thirds are A to C (red to yellow) and D to F (green to purple). There's a dynamic range in all of these color combinations -- they aren't harsh or overpowering, one color tempers the other -- but together they still create a single atmosphere, a logical progression rather than a striking juxtaposition.
For that, we have to go to fourths. Guitars are tuned in intervals of fourths, but this is also a pretty common dramatic interval in symphonic music. It's a little dissonant, but has a strange harmony to it as well. Foster's blue and orange skies aren't strictly a fourth because it goes E to B rather than the other way around -- but it creates the impression of one since the eye goes right to that flat orange and the blue in the first panel is covered up by words. It's a smoky, portentious color interval that ratchets up the moment into something grand and meaningful. And while we're speaking of dissonance, the color wheel I drew doesn't incorporate sharps or flats. These are the "in-between" notes, the black keys on the piano. So that's in-between colors like turquoise, vermilion, chartreuse, indigo. When you use all those together they harmonize with one another just like red and yellow and blue, but add in the "major" note of a primary color and you have a dissonance, two colors too close together to create a pleasing contrast but too far apart to blend into one another. Gary Panter uses these a lot in his work, as does Jon Vermilyea. Visual dissonance is a noise-comics thing, just like tonal dissonance is a noise music thing.
One-color comics (such as Darwyn Cooke's Parker, above) are like drones. The color is a single, steady tone for the sound of the piece, the blacks and whites, to come to the fore and be defined against. In the one-color context especially (though I think this generally holds true for full-color comics as well), the black and white linework is like recording quality. The "messier" it gets, the more black on the page, the grimier and lower-fidelity the sound. Lots of black is like a punk record, while lots of open white (or color-only) space is like clean recording, a Beatles album maybe. When Cooke floods a panel with blackness, it's like hitting the distortion all of a sudden: impact, instant grit.
The final interval that I see used a lot in comics is the fifth, which means red and blue a good ninety percent of the time, just as the blues scales that employ fifths quite often have A to E as a significant part of their makeup. Like blues, fifths don't really have too much dynamic range -- transpose the "key" and you get weird combinations like green to red or pink to green -- but the groove of red to blue is pretty much unbeatable as far as carrying longer sequences goes.
I'm not sure how much use anyone can really get out of these scattered notes, or how much the harmonies color makes me feel will be relatable for anyone else. If anything, though, I'd hope that the musical analogy is something that gets transposed to comics with more frequency. The constant comparisons of the medium to literature and visual art, while wonderful, hold it back. Comics can engage with anything, and color especially is the kind of pure, content-free appeal to the senses that artistic use of sound also creates. It would be nice to hear a good color passage described as Wagnerian or Beatlesque rather than pop-art or Deco every once in a while, and nicer still if comics colorists began directly addressing musical ideas in their work. The above are only my rules, my ways of making the analogy make sense. I'd hope that everyone will write their own. Brendan McCarthy, one of the most interesting colorists working in the medium (above), has stated that the digital in comics color works like the electronic in music, and while I think that analysis has a lot to recommend it what really excites me is the fact that he's reaching beyond traditional parameters for his inspiration. More people should be doing that.