While I was cleaning last week, I ran across a Discover Magazine anniversary issue. Intrigued by the cover blurb, which promised steamy details of Einstein’s love life, I convinced myself to take a break and sit down to read.
Inside, I found a peer review of HDTV by Douglas Rushkoff (yes, that Douglas Rushkoff) called “Too Clear for Comfort” and subtitled “The increased detail of HDTV may decrease our viewing pleasure.” It’s available online here. I found this part particularly interesting:
But what happens when we bring the highest-resolution technologies into worlds best left in the realm of myth? This tendency to apply scientific accuracy of observation to literature and even religion may actually strip them of their greater power. Mel Gibson’s computer-generated depiction of Jesus’ every bleeding wound in The Passion of the Christ turned a universal gospel into the literal story of one man’s mutilation and death.While such realistic simulations might be valuable for ambulance-training videos, their application across the full spectrum of human storytelling may be a symptom of our society’s continuing devaluation of anything that can’t be understood on a literal level. It’s the same trend that’s replacing fictional television with “reality” programming, interfaith dialogue with intolerant fundamentalism, feel-good patriotism with strident nationalism. There are no symbols, just real things.
This reminded me of when I was a teenager, and I followed the artists who pencilled like the world looked. I refused to read certain books because the art was “too childish” and “too cartoony,” I’ve been going back and buying a lot of those books in the past few years.
Since then, I’ve heard more than a few people trash some of my favorite artists for the same reasons I trashed those earlier books. They want to see comic books look as close to real life as possible.
I, on the other hand, have discovered that with very few exceptions, I hate photorealistic art in superhero comics.
There are wonderful artists out currently, mind you, drawing in every degree of “reality” that’s possible. I think too many of the less conventional ones are written off because they aren’t realistic. I think the wrong artists are often spotlighted for the wrong reasons.
“How true to life is it?”
How true to the story is it?
Does it believably accomodate the rules of the universe? Does it draw you in and surround you with the words and ideas of the creators? Does it bend and flex according to the plot? Does it support the characters’ personalities, or do they lie flat and lifeless on the page? Does it flow? Is it too still? Is it just still enough? Do you believe that man can fly, or does he just look silly?
Under one artist, a costume may look bright and colorful, appropriate to the setting and the plot. Under another artist, the very same costume looks so ridiculous you can’t think about anything but how embarasssing it must be to wear that get-up.
I think Mr. Rushkoff’s point about TV applies very well to comics, where the standard that slides towards more and more realistic art threatens our suspension of disbelief in some conventions.
Classic superhero art can get away with some ridiculous costumes and situations, because the characters are so simplistic that anatomy and physics aren’t a concern. As the art turns more and more towards the photorealistic, more and more flaws show up. The wrong flaw can disrupt suspension of disbelief, and end in the reader staring at the image, completely unable to reconcile small things such as way the character’s head is angled or the lighting around a desktop computer with the story. When art gets too close to photorealistic, there’s simply not enough room for the weird, absurd, and fantastic. And superhero comics are about weird, absurd, fantastic situations.
Because of this, I’m much more fond of Silver Age art than most Modern Age art. Modern Age art tends to be much too literal. It’s much too concrete. There’s a sad tendency to value the ability to draw the real believably over the ability to draw the strange and wonderful. The Silver Age was when they had broken free of the duller Golden Age conventions (Eisner’s work aside) and were playing with reality. It stayed through the four-color filter, though. There was just enough reality to make it fun and flexible and interesting, but not enough to kill your disbelief. The flaws were easily smoothed over.
I’m not saying I don’t go after artists for bad anatomy. Every art style has it’s rules, every artist occupies a degree of “reality” that their art must stay within. It just bothers me that I’m seeing more and more artists hired for occupying the degrees of “reality” closest to actual reality, rather than the degree of “reality” occupied by the tale itself.