Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Dark Knight Art
This week I've been rereading Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns. Ooh, bold choice, I know right? It's definitely one of the most over talked about comics there is -- not that it isn't worthy of a ton of praise, but if the comic can't get up and turn on the air conditioning while I'm reading it, there's just no way it deserves that much. That being said, I think Dark Knight is fairly under talked about in one respect. It's the same problem I have with the critical reactions that the book's opposite number Watchmen has gotten: I've seen a million evaluations of what Miller did with the (shudder) superhero archetype or the (bigger shudder, sarcastic voice) "Batman mythos", and plenty more about the book's capturing the anxieties of the Reagan-era zeitgeist. But it's a comic book, guys. You know what comic books have? Drawings. And despite the fact that Dark Knight is full to the utter bursting point with great ones, people persist in ignoring them in favor of a story that for all its strength has become the single most played out in comics.
Dark Knight's got so many ideas about form and its use for effect on every page that to go through and pick out all the instances of innovation or virtuosity would be at least a couple days solid of blogging. Seriously -- this is a weird criterion for quality, but as a cartoonist when you bang out a really killer page or sequence you tend to laugh diabolically to yourself when you look at it, and there's something on almost every page of Dark Knight, especially at the beginning, where I thought to myself "he must have been laughing his ass off when he finished drawing that". Instead of highlighting every single one, I thought I'd try and boil it down to a few general truisms about the unique visual language employed by Miller, inker Klaus Janson, and colorist Lynn Varley to make their book such a success. Here are a couple notes on why Dark Knight is so wonderful to look at.
(Real fast first, though, there's one thing I just have to say about the book's story content: nobody's ever going to accuse Frank Miller of being a subtle writer, but for all his bombast he presents a much more convincing picture of a superhero in the (then-) modern media landscape than Alan Moore was able to in Watchmen. Miller spends a massive amount of page space detailing the minutiae of a media firestorm with alternately hilarious and chilling caricatures of TV news and talk shows -- Moore shows some newspapers blowing down the street. Newspapers, yo? Did those things ever actually exist? And while Miller's script is bound and determined to examine the social consequences of masked vigilantism in the urban environment on both a macro and micro level, Moore pretty much dodges the issue, setting his big super-action blowup at the South Pole, where there isn't any society for it to directly affect. The fact that Miller is able to pull off the much more difficult feat of dealing with superheroes as they are and America as it is gives Dark Knight an extra layer of interest that isn't present in Watchmen. Anyway.)
Miller Mk. I. The big Frank Miller work that preceded Dark Knight was Ronin, Miller's trans-national trip through influence. That book crossed the Will Eisner/Gil Kane/Jim Steranko style Miller perfected in his long run on Daredevil with the inflections of European cartoonists like Moebius and Jacques Tardi, and manga artists like Katsuhiro Otomo and Goseki Kojima. The "fusion" style seen in Ronin is a fresh enough blend to basically count as its own unique way of making comics (and it certainly was at the time). But in Dark Knight Miller finally transcends influence. He'd learned all the lessons he was going to from the masters of American genre comics -- hence Ronin's internationalism -- and mixed in the snap of action manga pacing, the remote views and detail-for effect of Heavy Metal-era Eurocomics.
Check out the cityscape panel above, which I'm 99 percent sure is self-inked: nobody else in comics but Frank Miller has drawn like that, before or since. There's the thick ink lines on the gargoyle at left and the heat waves going across the page, and then the blaring din of thinner ones in the background, fading from depictive realism into random shapes the further back and to the right they go. This is detail oriented drawing like Moebius does, but it isn't detail that the eye can really "read into". It's so densely packed, the lines go in so many different directions, and there's so little bold color spotting over it that it's more like a wall of noise than a drawing with any real depth. A blistering assault. Which is exactly what Miller's book conceptualizes the big city as. Miller as noise cartoonist: I always tell people that the artist most similar to Miller is Gary Panter (and vice versa). You can really see it here.
What's especially interesting is that Miller pretty much completely discarded this thin-lined, detail oriented style in his more recent work for a much bolder, louder look that's almost wholly dependent on thick brush lines and massive areas of black. Almost a complete turnaround from what's on display in that city panel. There aren't a whole lot of artists in comics history who've forged one style so bold, let alone two of them. The only other ones that come to mind are Moebius and Robert Crumb. Rarefied company indeed.
Varley's painted color. For all that this is one of the first mainstream American comics to use painted color instead of machine tones, it's supremely understated in its color choices and technique. Varley's pale, washed out grays and ochres are probably the biggest reason that Miller's comic about tanks blowing up dudes with fangs and butcher knives at the city dump doesn't turn into a farce, a deathpunk version of the Adam West Batman TV show. The restraint in the hues keeps an element of control on the page even during Miller's darkest and most phantasmagorical moments. It's basically flat color throughout this comic -- no modeling of shapes, no drastic play with shadows and light that aren't already there in the line art. The one place Varley cuts loose on actually drawing with the color is with special effects, like that helicopter explosion above. And even in pyrotechnic moments like that one, it's the simplicity, the restraint and sense of minimalism that makes the pictures so memorable.
High impact lettering. I used to hate John Costanza's tilted, asymmetrical letters, especially on this book where the elegant, calligraphic Todd Klein subs in on a few balloons here and there. Now I can't get enough of it. If Varley's color is the constant element of restraint in Dark Knight, Costanza's lettering is a counterpointing constant amplification. His lettering, from the scrawled forms to the expressionistic streams of sound effects, really shouts. It's the perfect visualization for the words in Miller's larger than life, resolutely comic booky script.
Sixteen dummy. I see everybody talk about the "Watchmen grid". For those who don't know or don't notice, pretty much every last page of Watchmen is pinned to a nine panel grid, with very little variation. It's relentless. There's a similar thing going on in Dark Knight, though I've never seen anyone notice it: every page of this comic uses a sixteen panel grid as a template. The difference between Dark Knight and Watchmen's layouts is just about the best argument for auteur comics over writer-artist collaborations that you can find on the superhero racks. In Watchmen, Alan Moore imposes the nine-grid simply by not being the one who's drawing it. It's less negotiable, more fixed and stiff. Dave Gibbons gets more out of that layout than anybody has since, but it's still claustrophobic and cramped at times: the compositions demand room that isn't there because it's not in the script, or the balloons predominate the small panels to such a degree that it's difficult to tell whether there's even any necessary information contained in the pictures. Miller, on the other hand, is wildly variable with his page structure, proceeding from the sixteen panel grid rather than using it as every page's end point. It's rare to see a Dark Knight page that uses a strict 4 by 4 layout, but every single one (with the exception of three or four single-panel pages) uses it as an internal logic. A few spreads:
That first one is pretty standard -- the big moments get a whole tier, the dramatic pauses take up two panels, and the nuts-and-bolts story building moments whip by in regimental rhythm. Even the larger panels, though, are mostly still "on the grid", composed according to its rhythm. A two-panel-wide frame will have one piece of information on the right side and one on the left. The bisector isn't drawn, but it's still there. The second spread is a bit further out, but even on that splash page the three panels running down the side take up exactly 3/16ths of the space on the page, same as they would if the rest of it was filled in with a grid. The page across from that one has the exact same horizontal center point bisecting it between panels three and four as all the rest do, even though all of its panels go widescreen. The bottom half of the page is two four-panel-wide tiers sliced in two: the top half is the same thing, with the bottom of the first tier and the top of the second one fused together into one big moment of impact. Miller never deviates from the axis the sixteen-grid provides, he just finds endless variations to spin off of it.
It's the most perfectly symmetrical layout a comics page can use effectively, four across by four down. That's the beat of pretty much any modern pop song you care to name -- and I mean any pop song, rock, hip hop, electronic, r and b, metal... it's all four by four. I think a big part of the reason the modern pop audience responded and continues to respond so favorably to Dark Knight is because whether they realize it or not, Miller is using the comics form to speak a language everyone is already primed to accept and be entertained by. It's music, immediate and gratifying, and Miller rips solo after devastating solo on top of a beat so simple and insistent that it can hold him up no matter how far afield he goes on top of it.
The other big advantage of the sixteen-grid is just how ridiculously dense it is. There is a ton of information of just about every page of Dark Knight, so much so that it tells its story in half the pages Watchmen does. There's a significant arc, a beginning, middle, and end happening on almost every individual page of this comic. Nothing's elliptical, nothing demands you turn the page because the action gets cut off right in the middle. Rather, it's all a build, crescendos leading into greater crescendos.
TV eye. The way Miller drew the newscasters and various other personalities in the many, many screen shots that provide Dark Knight with a modernized Greek chorus is another thing that used to bug me. Way more often than not you can't actually see their eyes. It's just blank horizontal lines, black slits beneath their eyebrows. What the hell, Frank?
This time I think I got it, though: the eyes, maybe even more so in comics than real life, are our way of accessing character and emotion, the giveaway to what a character's really thinking, outside the balloons. The TV talking heads' lack of eyes is a highly effective way of implying the wavery, humming appearance of a TV screen, the electronic interference between the viewer's eyes and the image on the glass. And then, more obviously, it's the easiest way for Miller to point to the soullessness and vacuity of his brain-dead commentators. When a real character with an actual part to play in the story -- Two Face, or Commissioner Gordon -- comes on the screen, their irises and pupils pop out just as plain. When we shift back to the yapping anchors, the screen goes up once again. It's a nice little bit of visual grammar that I don't think anyone since has really picked up on and used.
Miller's poetic lines. The tiers on the sixteen-grids that don't have any variation to them reveal another advantage of that layout. Four panels long is about as dense as a tier can get before it just gets fragmented and elliptical. It's long enough for Miller to build up a rhythm within the tier itself, without having to force it into a dialogue with the rest of the page. The four-panel line has the same potential for accumulated power that a line of poetry with a larger amount of syllables does. It can play off itself, refer back to itself, function as a piece of music on its own. The above is one of the more famous examples of this -- a zoom in matched to a zoom out, the dominant visual device of red bars turned to different uses, an intelligent, evocative bit of juxtaposition -- all in one tier, a fourth of a page. Here's my favorite one, though:
It's poetry, pure and simple. Gun to target then target to gun. One end of the tightrope line connecting to the other end, meeting at the very center of the tier. A straight line running across the whole thing, barrel to rope to rope to barrel. The elegance of the two middle panels that function as a single unit and the right and left ones bookending it with rhyming compositions. There's so much internal rhythm and harmony in this single tier, more than most entire pages have. The density of Miller's art doesn't just mean it can carry more story than most comics -- it can do more of what comics do best, relating pictures to one another beneath a single, overriding concern.
People never talk about this stuff. They should.