Groundwork of Evangelion: 1.0/“cinematic” comics


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

This is my first post here. I’ve never regularly written about comics, or anything else, before so please “go easy” on me and forgive my poor word-writing ability. Thanks to the CC crew for inviting me to participate. I will try to post once a month, unless my previous posts become too embarrassing.
Groundwork of Evangelion: 1.0 (2008) is a collection of preparatory drawings and pencil tests for the (forthcoming to the USA) animated movie. The pencil test drawings usually follow a grid but occasionally a single frame is enlarged to cover two tiers. It reminds me of how sometimes when a newspaper strip was collected into a book format the publisher would print a single panel larger than the others. Since everything was originally drawn to the same scale, a single panel would have larger text and the ben-day dots would be bigger, oppressive. It’d give it a Pop art aesthetic for just one panel. Or the old Crockett Johnson Barnaby reprints where the publisher stacked the panels Yummy Fur style. My favorite example of this is a Little Orphan Annie reprint where all of the panels were spaced out strangely, still following a grid but with unusually large gutters. Each panel was orphaned from the others. I wonder if the cartoonists themselves approved any of these decisions.

Anyway, this book isn’t really a comic book or an ani-manga (stills from a movie arranged as a comic for no good reason- see the Pantheon Scanner Darkly release) although you could read it as a confusing one. And it doesn’t have the fanboy nerd-fest feel of one of those “concept art” books, where you can see endless drawings of how a mecha looks and what all of the parts supposedly do.

This is a book of ephemeral, notational drawings for a movie that I haven’t seen yet. Large portions of it look like if Cy Twombly drew a comic.

Other parts look like portraits of character scenes where the “performance” in the drawings are still being worked out. Since it’s all light-boxed from previous drawings, it has a thin-line traced drawing look like Warhol line drawings.
They’re marked with little notes that I don’t understand. All of the Japanese I once knew is gone, and I don’t know filmmaking vocabulary anyway. Unlike comics, which have a widely-known “insider” language (“these bubbly shaped frames around the words mean the character is thinking- is that cool with everybody?” “yeah, okay”) this is a totally foreign “insider” language used by the people at the studio to communicate to each-other. They weren’t drawn to be published for a wide audience; but here they are, published, and I could go into Kinokuniya in NYC and buy a copy. Awesome.

It seems like “cinematic” is used as a derogatory word for a comic because it suggests that the comic was designed for the reader to use it as a springboard to imagine something that it’s not. Obviously, most cartoonists would like to think that they’re making comics as opposed to imaginary movies awaiting a budget.

Since this is published and I could get a copy before I could see the movie, I’m left with a book that stands on its own in my mind. I know the characters from the animated series, but these drawings are too abstract for me to connect it to a specific scene. It’s too incomplete for me to use the drawings to imagine what the movie will be like.

Chris Ware and other cartoonists have frequently dissed the idea of “cinematic” comics in a variety of ways:

“Some of the best comics, I think, are still from the turn of the century, when the medium was still being developed as a language. And each particular artist developed that language to suit his or her own particular vision, which I don’t think has happened since the 1940s, where it’s just absorbed- this sort of ready made language of, sort of cinematic close-ups and dissolves and long-shots and that sort of stuff.”

I just googled “Chris Ware cinematic interview” and pulled this up. He’s said similar things in interviews I remember reading. I think Ware’s the greatest living cartoonist, but what’s strange about this argument to me is that:

(a) So many of the early newspaper comics that Ware and other cartoonists love and appropriate from have a language based in theater (like Thimble Theater). There’s a lot of theatrical staging in contemporary cartooning. Why is theater somehow more akin to comics than movies? When these early cartoonists were drawing comics, it made sense to be influenced by theater because it was an extremely popular medium, like movies are today. In fact, I think movies are a little tiny bit closer to comics (as a medium) because film is on a 2-dimensional plane while theater is 3-dimensional.

(b) What’s wrong with drawing from a “cinematic” language?

Here’s another Chris Ware quote from

“I don’t like to think of my work as ‘cinematic.’ A movie is passive — you’re watching it, taking it in. Where a comic strip, it’s completely active: you have to read it, search it for meaning, for the connection with your entire experience and your memory. Yes, you do have the illusion of watching something happen in a comic strip — but if it’s done well, it comes alive on the page like a novel. A novel is the most interactive thing ever created.”

I don’t think Ware is creating an either/or argument here. I don’t think he dislikes ALL movies, or feels that ALL movies are “passive.” I don’t know him, but I’d be surprised if that was the case.

This Evangelion book makes me think of “cinematic” comics in a positive way; not passive; one of many modern languages that comics can react to.

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27 Responses to “Groundwork of Evangelion: 1.0/“cinematic” comics”
  1. T. Hodler says:

    Good post!

    I think one reason Ware and a lot of other cartoonists bristle at the film/comics comparison is that it's so commonly made in lazy, and often misleading, ways. Comics can definitely draw on film, but when that is the only lens people use, it can be a very narrow one. Like look at most Marvel comics these days: They draw so heavily from cinematic language that they're almost crippled.

    I get your larger point, though, and it's never a good idea to throw out the baby with the bath water.

  2. Lyrthas says:

    Awesome! What an eerie publication, that Evangelion book…

  3. John says:

    ware's argument seems to ignore the filmic heritage of Winsor McCay.
    BTW Dash, I really love your work and am very much looking forward to the long, varied and ongoing maturation of your comix… if they're this good now, I can't wait for the future!

  4. Andrei says:

    Dash–the "Cy Twombly" like pages look great. Twombly, if not making comics, has definitely made sequential art—especially his "Nine discourses on Commodus." Here (courtesy of madinkbeard) is a combined view that cheats a bit by arranging them too much as a comics page. Here is a better view in situ, but too small. At least it gives you the sense of scale.

    John–"the filmic heritage of Winsor McCay"
    –do you mean that McCay inherited something from film, or the other way around? Because the first option would make little sense. By the time McCay was already at the top of his game in comics (1904), film was still at a quite primitive stage. There was very little there for him to inherit… (Well, ok, I can see it in the Nemo page of the elephant drawing closer and closer, in a held-framing sequence. That seems to go back all the way to the Lumiere brothers' "Arrival of a train." But there he's not so much borrowing/adapting an artistic procedure, as giving artistic form to a phenomenon that film highlights–the changing in size of something coming toward the observer.)

  5. pete. says:

    I always assume when cartoonists say their stuff isn't cinematic, they're essentially saying it's not widescreen super hero comics.

    I do think it's weird, since comics is such a 'junk' art form, to deny one influence without saying it's also not illustration/tv/theater/a novel/blogging/whatever as well.

  6. Jon Hastings says:

    Neat post! The comics/cinema thing cuts the other way, too: David Bordwell (among other cinema studies people) have pointed out the way a lot of contemporary movies take their visual cues from 2D comics/cartooning (like the way the Coen Bros. (a) use all those wide-angle shots and (b) compose their shots to be read instantly – like a comic book panel). He's also noted how CGI (and other kinds of sfx) are used to create impossible, cartoon-like perspectives. One could argue that this makes those movies "less cinematic", although I'd probably say that the real problem is with creators using the storytelling/art-making conventions-of-the-day unthinkingly/by rote/etc., regardless of which way the inter-media influence is going.

  7. Benjamin Marra says:

    Dash, really interesting post. Looking forward to reading your future contributions. That book looks kind of insane. Strange that it exists to me actually. So much air on the pages. Comics and cinema seem to share an inherent logic in their presentations of information. This image comes before this image to communicate this idea. Cinema might share more with comics in the pre-production phases. But they differ wildly in so many other ways they're more different than similar.

  8. ULAND says:

    Good post. Makes me wonder what hard and fast distinctions can be made between "cinematic" vs. whatever else. It can't be something like close-ups, or weird angles, can it? Or is it more a matter of trying to achieve certain effects, like draping scenes in heavy light/shadow and drawing characters that look like actors?
    How does someone like Jack Kirby fit into that spectrum?
    It's weird but— if we're dealing with "cinematic" as more a sensation than anything else— I think lots of Ware sequences are cinematic; Worlds Fair from Jimmy Corrigan, for instance. The sense of scale offered in that sequence doesn't seem to play by his ol' timey rules ( if you can call them rules..).

    The only way I can understand Wares' position ( and this might be because I'm a little dense, and not a cartoonist myself) is as a plea for a certain kind of authenticity/purity that may or may not exist as such, but might produce work that— by forswearing attempts to create cinematic effects— will lead toward comics as a vehicle for speaking in a personal language, something that will naturally allow for more humane and affecting kinds of storytelling.
    I'm not sure if that's true, as a rule.
    I will say that I haven't read comics of the cinematic variety that have hit the kinds of notes Wares' have. I don't think that's just a matter of content, either. How it works, exactly, I don't know. It probably is to do with an iconic/pictographic approach that allows for more projection.

  9. Jeet Heer says:

    Hey Dash,

    Great post. I agree with Tim that Chris Ware's comments about cinematic comics isn't a general theoretical complaint but aimed at a specific type of comic and way of writing about comics. I think what Chris really objects to is the "movies on paper" school of the 1940s (Caniff,Eisner) which took their vocabulary from Hollywood.

  10. blaise says:

    Chris Ware limits himself as a critic to "old-timey" pursuits but as a creator he is incredibly contemporary – not young and reckless but nevertheless filtering all the culture going on around him (ie the internet) into his comics and modifying his filters (subtly, but intelligently) as he goes on.

    loved those pages, thanks!

  11. Dash Shaw says:

    I appreciate all of the thoughtful posts. Just to clarify, I picked Chris Ware because he speaks so intelligently about comics and I love his work. I could have excerpted other cartoonists who've said similar things. I'm just hoping to continue the conversation, like Tim said "it's never a good idea to throw the baby with the bath water." Thanks everybody.

  12. afdumin says:

    I think a lot of what Ware is talking about when referring to comics that rely too heavily on cinematic language, is when the artist's approach to comics is as a series of individual camera shots that are strung together, rather than focusing on the unique qualities inherent to comics (i.e. the page as a visual unit; panel design, layout, shape, and size; the use of expressionistic art styles, cartoon shorthorthand, and pictographic symbols; word/image juxtaposition; typography; etc.). With all of these devices their disposal, why limit oneself to drawing "storyboards"?

  13. Dash Shaw says:

    Uh. I don't know if that question is directed at me.
    Afdumin, I absolutely agree with you. I hope I never suggest cartoonists limit themselves to anything.

  14. BVS says:

    I've often heard the argument that the cinematic approach to comics mostly introduced by Milton Cannif and Will Eisner was a lasting and corrupting element. but conversely I never thought about the fact that same argument can be made about theater. perhaps vaudeville theater had an overly strong and perhaps corrupting influence on the cartoonists for whom it was their chosen form of Saturday night entertainment. makes one ponder effect that something like video games will have on the comics of today. as well how today's comics will be viewed by the nerds of the future. and what influence they may have on the next generation of cartoonists.

    Andrei, I think what John was saying about the filmic heritage of Winsor McCay, Is that McCay was every bit a Pioneer in Animation and experimental film as he was in comic strips. McCay's position as one of the early animators tends too be less emphasized when people talk about him today.
    I'd actually argue that McCay's animations had a way bigger influence on the world of animation than his comics actually had on comics. that is probably precisely why today his animation work doesn't seem very interesting while his comic strips are.

  15. Alex says:

    Aren't there other storyboard books? It seems like it.

  16. Dash Shaw says:

    There are storyboard books, yes. This isn't a storyboard book, though. Storyboards are different than pencil tests and preparatory drawings.
    There are other "Groundwork for ____" books too. It's a line of similar books for different animations.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Wow, that bit you say looks like Twombly sure looks like Henri Michaux to me. An unsung comics genius, to be sure.

    It's time someone broke from the Caniff/Eisner school of talking about cinematic comics. The last Cold Heat Specials reminded me of Parajanov, of all things. Resnais said he learned to edit from reading Mandrake the Magician, and Ware more than occasionally reminds me of Resnais editing (especially around Muriel and such). Just saying.

  18. John says:

    Andrei/BVS: Yes, my point on McCay is more directed to my understanding that McCay managed to simultaneously steer two of the major medias of his and our century: animation (and, by extension, film) and comics. Narrative film was indeed at a ur-state when McCay found it, but works like 'Lusitania' and Nemo set a standard of excellence and storytelling that's still visible in works as diverse and contemporary as 'Waltzing with Bashir' or the comix of Ware.

  19. Gorillamydreamz says:

    Many of these storyboard elements are dealing with effects notes. They are placed where they need to be in the frame with guide marks but the other details (like the machinery, robots or people, aren't needed for this level. So all they need to see are the points at which the effects will interact with the picture and the basic idea of how it will look.

  20. Jonathan Bass says:

    Reading the quotes from Ware in light of Tim Hodler's posts on the search for a viable comics adjective like "cinematic" and "literary" reminds me that such terms as "literary" or "cinematic" are very often used to talk about things that are NOT readily identified as literature or film. E.g., when a critic describes an author's prose style as "cinematic" or the plot of a particular film as "literary."

    We see this mode of application in Tim's extract from Clarence Brown, who wants a comics adjective to help him talk about "verbal patterns" in Nabokov's prose that try to imitate spatial and graphic patterns typical of storytelling in comics.

    Similarly, Ware, in the second quote above, uses "cinematic," less to say something definitive about film, than to specify something about comics – namely, about the kinds of cognitive and imaginative work they get their readers to do.

    For Ware: The comics interface requires – and allows for – imaginative gap-filling and elaboration, and the more it does this – the more the artist can provoke and provide for this activity (granted, without frustrating the reader) – the stronger the work. Ware offers this as a necessary, though I'm guessing not sufficient, condition for good comics.

    And speaking of gap-filling and elaboration: I'm sorry those "Twombly" pages aren't actual comics. Still, thanks for sharing them.

  21. Kioskerman says:

    I think theater "renders" the real world and creates a new reality in a very similar way comics do.

    And it has to do with the amount of information given in both mediums, and the "gap" the audience must fill.

    The amount of information may produce similar states of conciousness.

    Great post.

  22. Leif Jones says:

    I tend to think of most cinema as a three dimensional medium, because the camera moves (and the audience with it), thereby creating the illusion of movement thru space (or time). Whereas a theatre audience sits in their seats (mostly) and there view of the stage action is fixed, making it, in my mind, two dimensional, and more like comics.

    Cinema is similar to sculpture in that you move around sculpture in order to experience it, so sculpture exists in time. Theatre is more like painting, which is timeless, because even though you may move closer or further away, your perspective remains fixed.

    Although comics are a 2-D representation of the fourth dimension, I can see how they’re more easily based in theatre than cinema.

  23. Dash Shaw says:

    Uh. I posted something and then deleted it because I sounded like an idiot and it didn't contribute much to the conversation. If I figure out a better way to communicate it I'll try again. Ha ha. Sorry.

  24. blissy says:

    personally, i think film is great if it's informed by mark makers
    great editing is montage of symbols
    deciphering the connection between these symbols is as active as reading a comicbook
    writing cinema could or should draw from the tradition of great comic books which distill events down to the sweetspots, consider time and space as compositional form and so much more, incorporate montage, transport between the internal and external, linear and non-linear, etc etc using conventions established within the narrative… so much more
    there is a reason that big budget films are out looking for stories from comics books
    i think writers could benefit from taking the approach that filmmakers take. start talking about how you have influenced cinema instead of how it's influencing you.

  25. James says:

    I think the stage is more like comics because the area the actors move in is pretty flat, verging on 2-dimensional.

  26. Aaron White says:

    I bought some of the older Growndwork of Evangelion books back when I was fixated on the original TV series, and it was perplexing, even for someone who had watched the show over and over again. Imagine someone like C. F. retelling a giant robot soap opera.

  27. Kioskerman says:

    "When I'm doing the comics, I don't think in terms of cinematic flow. Great comics have their own rhythm ? that's what they're all about. It's the beat to the storytelling that makes them come alive".

    Daniel Clowes here.

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