I’m a big believer in the subtle (often unconscious) value of art as a communication form. With good art, nothing is truly random. Everything in the panel, every line, every color, adds to the overall message received by the reader. You can even step back and find layers of commentary on the story as a whole in a single panel. In this weekly feature I’ll try to at least touch on some of the tricks and intricacies found in a single, well-drawn panel of art. I can’t promise the whole thousand words, though.
Emerald Knights (Green Lantern, Vol 3, #100-106) is one of my all-time favorite superhero stories. It was written during the decade while Kyle Rayner was the sole Green Lantern, most of the extended extraterrestrial supporting cast was depowered or dead, and former franchise lynchpin Hal Jordan, by way of a hasty psychotic breakdown, was serving as Time-Travelling Company Crossover Villain Parallax. (I swear I was expecting him to show up in Infinite Crisis, say “It was me all along, still time-travelling from the first time I tried to rewrite reality!” and then fight his future self.) The story itself was about Kyle getting sent to the past, fighting alongside Rookie Hal, and then, accidentally, taking him back to the future. Awkwardness ensues.
In the above panel (drawn by Jeff Johnson), Kyle has the unenviable task of explaining to the time displaced Hal exactly what happened to cause his mental breakdown and what he turned into afterwards. He does this in four pages, each one a beautiful splash panel that shows a montage of the Death of Superman or an event that resulted from it with a small inset panel of Hal and Kyle silhouetted. I don’t remember the details of the large panel that showed the events, because my eye was always drawn to the inset in the lower right hand corner.
It’s the silhouette. I love the silhouette. Without perspective or color, we get a good clear look at the character’s posture and body language. The importance of body language is sometimes overlooked when judging an artist, but it serves just as well as facial characteristics, hair, clothing and even body size to differentiate the character. More than any other physical trait, body language can be used to characterize the featured personalities.
Look at Hal, to the right. His natural stance is solid and tall, a proud heroic posture. Shoulders are upright and slightly back, he seems to be inhaling. Feet shoulder-width apart, hands gently behind his back as if in the “Parade Rest” military marching stance. His jaw is set, not quite parallel to the ground but slightly inclined as he looks towards Kyle. His nose and brow are slightly rounded, soft. He’s hearing a solemn story, but is braced for it, dignified.
Kyle’s natural stance is relaxed and casual, an open social posture. His feet are slightly closer together than shoulder width apart, his one arm hangs loosely to the side while the other gestures towards Hal in an explanatory, sympathetic manner. His head is slightly tilted, chin tucked in, he’s leaning forward and you can get the hint of his ear. His posture is situated towards the other person, notice where his knees point and the slightly lower shoulder with the outstretched arm, even a lock of hair is pointed towards Hal. His weight is on the leg closer to the other man, and seems like he’s ready top step closer the moment his friend needs him to. He’s telling a solemn story, and is prepared to offer comfort when needed.
The most obvious and simple difference is size. Kyle, being younger, is slimmer and more compact than Hal. Look at the waist area and the size different there. Then look at the respective chests and shoulders.
The hair’s another easy one. Hal’s is neat and orderly, it will come undone in a battle to reflect stress, but otherwise his hair is in a perfect coif. Kyle’s hair is wild and messy, chaotic. Good character design reflects personality to an extent.
Personally, I always compare shoulders when I see these two characters together. Kyle’s shoulders droop slightly, not necessarily as a sign of confidence issues, but more because of his easy temperment. When he stands with his shoulders back, chest puffed out, it’s a put-on. It’s not his real self. Hal, though, with Hal droopy shoulders are a sign of deep distress. Even during his low points, he keeps a heroic posture. If you flip through the Emerald Knights trade, you’ll see it with both artists. Hal’s shoulders are usually up, Kyle’s lowered.
Look at the arms and legs again. Not only are Kyle’s legs close together while Hal takes up as much space as he can, but Kyle keeps his arms closer to his torso than Hal does. Hal’s arms are extended, even though he brings his hands into his body. It gives Hal the illusion of being broader than he is. Look at the feet. Hal is standing very squarely on the ground, while Kyle’s right heel is slightly lifted. Hal’s entire posture is built on giving the impression of largeness, Kyle’s emphasizes his smallness. This makes Hal seem like a force to be reckoned with, while Kyle comes off as someone who might need protection himself. Hal’s clearly an action-oriented person, a fighter at heart, even when circumstances require another strategy. Kyle’s clearly more social and empathetic, a talker at heart, even when circumstances require another strategy.
It’s very clear that Hal is an aggressive personality, and Kyle’s a receptive personality. That’s what makes this panel so interesting to me. That personality is captured in silhouette, but so is the situation. The situation where Hal is listening to Kyle talk. Hal’s getting a lot of very traumatic news from Kyle. Hal’s in the receptive position, while Kyle’s the aggressive one here.
This panel effortlessly shows an obviously aggressive person using a receptive posture interact with an obviously receptive person using an aggressive posture.
That’s not easy to get across, folks.