The Streets of San Francisco
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Tastes change. Styles change. Everyone knows the story about Hitchcock’s Psycho, right? After filming lots of big-budget color movies in the mid to late ’50s, Hitch decided to take a different approach with Psycho. Convinced that he could do it better with his smaller TV crew (from Alfred Hitchcock Presents), he shot Psycho in black-and-white and structured it very much like the short-form pieces he was doing for TV. I think Hitch also understood that tastes were changing and that people liked the small-screen, simple and clear, episodic format that hearkened back to radio (and to Hitch’s own films from the ’30s). Also, many of the people who worked in TV in the ’50s and ’60s were former filmmakers from the pre-Technicolor, pre-Cinemascope era.
Contemporary filmmakers can attempt to evoke older films (Todd Haynes’ Sirk-themed Far From Heaven, for example) as much as they like — but in my opinion they will never be able to truly match or copy exactly what the old timers did BECAUSE THEY WERE NOT FORMED IN THE SAME CAULDRON. (Of course Haynes didn’t want to copy Sirk exactly. Haynes was investigating Sirk’s LANGUAGE.) The dominant style of staged movement, proscenium stage “blocking”, nuts-and-bolts “shot/reaction shot” that one can easily see running through all films of the ’40s and ’50s began to give way eventually. Interestingly enough, it was the French New Wave that had a lot to do with this because they themselves were looking back, like Hitchcock, to the older, formative films of Hollywood, to noir, and to westerns. This back to basics approach was picked up on by the ’60s and ’70s auteurs, but by then they could inject new flavors in to the form (more skin and sex) and the whole paradigm shifted.
Comics have a similar trajectory. All the talk that comics artists today can draw BETTER than their forebears is meaningless. The point is that this common language I’m describing IS NO LONGER IN USAGE. It’s all but dead because the people who were formed by it, who passed it on, are gone. Toth was an innovator; he was more forward-thinking than Caniff, yet he was still a “Caniffer.” Darwyn Cooke can attempt to evoke Toth in some of his Batman stories, but he will never be Toth because he was not formed in the same 1950s cauldron. So subtly, step by step, each generation puts its own spin on the dominant style. Any attempt to resurrect these “house styles” is seen as retro and somewhat conservative. The bland illustration style that ruled ’50s and early ’60s comics was part Caniff, part advertising, part hackwork. The practitioners of this style, though, knew how to construct a page that read clearly, much like directors of the ’50s films knew how to stage action.
Steve Rude is a great example of an artist who, like Toth, builds on the existing nuts-and-bolts style of comic storytelling without resorting to drawing in a more stylized approach like Frank Cho or Dave Stevens. One hundred issues of Nexus continuity prove Rude’s determination to remain a “classicist” and document his development. He’s committed to telling a story and frames the movement across the page in order to extract the maximum dramatic impact. Rude’s choices work for me as a reader because the clarity of it all, the simplicity of the drawing, allow the narrative to retain its momentum. Cho’s flourishes of technical wizardry, I think, actually prevent the narrative from assuming center stage. His transitions from panel to panel are generally awkward and ham-fisted. Compare the clarity of the Rude page (below left) to the clumsiness of Cho’s page (below right) in sequences that have a similar “action.”
Does Miami Vice look like Dragnet? Does a Dave Stevens page read like a Caniff page? Would I rather watch The Streets of San Francisco or Law & Order? Would I rather read Don Heck or Frank Cho? For me, the last is a litmus test. If you think Cho is a better draftsman, fine. But if you think Cho is a better comics artist than Don Heck, then I’m sorry, but I do not agree. In fact, I think it’s pointless to compare the two. For the reasons I’ve explained above, I think Cho is an ILLUSTRATOR first and a comics artist second. Don Heck, long reviled as one of the worst hacks in the Marvel Bullpen, was a solid storyteller. He had a great sense of comics “naturalism” and is a perfect example of the kind of “nuts-and-bolts” non-photo-referenced approach that prevailed before 1970 or so. In my opinion, artists like Cho and Stevens have contributed very little to the development of the form. Except maybe to impress upon a generation of young comics artists that technical virtuosity is more important than basic storytelling.