Formalism


by

Sunday, April 13, 2008


I was going through yet another unmarked box of comics and found two books next to each other. Black Dogs by Ho Che Anderson and the issue 3 of the anthology, Instant Piano. Both are from the early 90s and both have stories in them with lots of dialogue. So I thought I’d compare them and riff on the striking differences between the two.There’s a Kyle Baker story in the Instant Piano about a couple at an outdoor cafe that is pretty great. Baker employs an invisible grid to hang his panels on and puts all the dialogue under the panels and more importantly under the person who is talking. It’s a signature device that Baker really made his own in Why I Hate Saturn and here he uses it effortlessly to great effect. By placing the dialogue below the panels he opens up the drawings themselves to function as film stills and encourages the reader to “read” the expressions, to really take time with them somehow. I’m not as hurried as I would be in other types stories that depict static characters with a lot of dialogue. Case in point would be the above page by Ho Che Anderson from Black Dogs. The opening shot is the first for this scene. On the previous page there is no mention of the couple in the story going to sit somewhere and talk under what appears to be an outdoor picnic area type of place. But there is no “master shot” of the couple talking, just that mustard color jacket under the shelter to give us a hint that they are sitting at a picnic table. Like Baker, Anderson uses close cropped framing to draw out the emotional content of the dialogue, but unlike Baker, Anderson makes it very difficult for the reader to follow the thread, to “read” into the charged conversation (it’s about race). In fact, it’s almost “un-readable”, the cropping of the figures is crowded further by the balloons of text creating a claustrophobic feeling that might in some strange way add tension to the conversation but instead just turns me off as a reader. I lost interest simply because it’s too hard to follow along. And I found it frustrating that such an important passage of the story (on the next page there is a fight) is without any structure to hold it all together, to move the reader through the page.

Anderson uses a grid, essentially, for the page but the way the dialogue overwhelms the page design obscures the flow of the reader. Baker’s “cleaner” approach is more successful and although I don’t think it necessary to put the dialogue under the panels, I do think that composing pages with grids is not as simple as it appears. One still must consider how the page is going to breathe and unfold in time.

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6 Responses to “Formalism”
  1. Rod McKie says:

    This is very good. I’ve been thinking along these lines (no pun intended) myself and I’ll be posting on it soom. I’ll link back to this because you make the point about overwhelming dialogue better than I do – with the Kyle Baker piece.

    Good stuff about the passage of time too and the act of reading.

  2. Alex Holden says:

    Right on, Frank.

    Did you ever read “Pop Life”?
    I really wanted to like that series, and bought them all, but they were totally illegible. I still don’t know what they are about.

  3. Frank Santoro says:

    Anderson actually asked me to do back up stories in Pop Life after Storeyville was released in 95. But it didn’t work out (I was too busy with illustration jobs at the time just trying to make ends meet).

    He’s a great styist but a little shaky when it comes to narrative transitions.

  4. Alex Holden says:

    I really liked Wilfred Santiago’s artwork in that too, but all the stuff I see these days is computer collaged and more confusing. I’d like to see another straight up B/W strip from him.

  5. Frank Santoro says:

    He has a new book called Godhead that looks promising actually. What I’ve seen is in color. There’s not much info out there.

    http://www.cafebabel.com/en/article.asp?Id=13023&T=T

    http://linea.cafebabel.com
    /en/post/2007/11/29/Ho-Che-Anderson:-dietro-le-quinte

  6. monster paperbag says:

    I really enjoyed reading “Why I Hate Saturn” last year. Smart, witty writing.