The Problem of Comics Spatiality, Part One: Stan Sakai

Comic artists depend upon concentration and abbreviation to communicate narrative, character, theme.  Any impulse on the part of the comic artist toward detail or elaboration is held in a balance by the challenge of rendering a work amenable to the reproducible limits of physical production as well as the constrained scale of the final printed page to say nothing of the practical, occupational necessity for speed.  In other words, the strategies of comic art actively respond to and present solutions for the limited set of artistic means, the small amount of workable space and the short amount of time that has characterized the institution as a distinct form of profit-seeking creative expression.

However, I argue that these problems act less as limitations and more as productive forces compelling artists to define the very bounds of comic aesthetics (indeed, the more a piece of work isn’t subject to one or more of these constraints, the less likely it should be considered comic art at all) and, in exemplary moments, to develop unique techniques that acts as defiant artistic signature.  For example, the use of line itself, specifically to outline forms, figures and borders, predominates throughout the early history of comic art as an artistic resource that is greatly amenable to the process of reproduction, that retains its legibility in a shrunken form and that offers a relatively quick method of representing forms and environments.  Of course, as the the standards of production and reproduction have become digitized, the line no longer acts as the absolute standard.  Comic artists now use digital forms and painterly brushstrokes that are just as quickly rendered, just as reproducible and just as legible in the printed page.  The point remains that both the line and the digital brushstroke serve as techniques in deep conversation with the problems of production and the lived realities of comic art.

Let’s consider another aspect of this problem: in this production system characterized by problems in printing, size and speed, how do comic artists represent space and depth (here we will confine the question to space within individual panels and reserve the question of space across panels for later)?  Comic artists, like all makers of representational drawings, deal with the issue of creating a sense of depth, but do so with the cardinal virtues of concentration and abbreviation always in mind.  For example, take two panels from an Tony Stobl Uncle Scrooge (#80) story:

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Ignoring the issue of figural overlapping and the oblique stance of the ducks, depth is economically suggested by a simple use of line and color.  In the first case, an abstracted line implying bushes and overgrowth as well as field of uninterrupted green separates Scrooge in the foreground from the midground and from the blank white space of the far background.  The same technique plays out in the second example where the water’s horizon line separates fields of blue and red implying multiple planes of depth with the near absolute reduction of elaboration.  In both cases, simple uses of line and color do the work of filling space.  Even in more elaborate examples where Strohl has to introduce novel environments, such as below, the artist buttresses the use of relative figural scale (that is, Scrooge is “larger” than the houses in the midground to imply distance — even though such a vantage the horizon of the road seems illogical to the eye) with same simplified use of the mountain line and cloudscapes as well as fields of green, blue and pink to establish deep space in what is a relatively small panel (about 2.5×7 inches in its printed form)

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Comic artists also turn and rotate their figures with respect to the flat plane of page to suggest depth.  This already happens in a limited way in our examples from Uncle Scrooge as characters are often slightly turned giving just enough visual data to suggest volume.  But in genres that more prominently feature physical action and specifically violence such as superhero comics, bodies act the focus the artwork, literally taking up most of the panel, and the means for communicating depth.  Take, for example, several panels of Steve Rude’s work on Tales of the Teen Titans (#48).

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Here the relative size of Cyborg’s body parts implies the distance from left hand to head to cocked right hand.

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In this case, the relative size difference in a crowded mass of bodies defines the entire composition in distinction from an anonymous field of green.

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And even when at a posing rest, the relative size, posture and subtle overlap of the Titans, and not the illogical kirbian geometry of the machinery in the background, implies the space.  Rude further demonstrates how the use of skewed bodies could be combined with horizon lines and fields of color (a la Tony Stobl)…

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…or how vectors of relative bodies can be amended with use of more geometric forms as in the use of the receeding passageway in the unbalanced, hybrid composition below.

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The tendency to imply space with bodies in composition points to the mannerist tradition practiced in many comic artists.  As in Rosso Fiorentino’s Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro (1523), bodies are piled up accruing mass individually through modeling and collectively through overlapping, both tendencies recurrent in Rude’s Titans.


The artist Stan Sakai further elaborates on these tendencies on Usagi Yojimbo and, I argue, pushes them to a unique breaking point.

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In Sakai’s frequent scenes of intense combat, figures bunch and overcrowd the space, leaving only an occasional gap in the mass of forms to reveal traces of a linear vector, here the porch banister (echoing Fiorentino’s castles in the far distance).  But Sakai’s use of bodies for composition is an idiosyncratic one.  In his overpopulating figures, Sakai ignores (or at least under-emphasizes) the strict application of relative size indicative of radically foreshortened superheroes, in the process disrupting our optic sense (if all these figures are the same relative size, where could we possibly be seeing all this from?).  And, while Sakai includes meticulous detail to capture these figures, particularly where it entails repeated textures and patterns, he refuses to model form with shading to provide a deeper indication of volume.  Here and eslewhere (see below), the artist produces paradoxical image that is thick with figures at the same time illogically compressed.  In other words, Sakai models a perceptually unique and complex form of rendering space that is both in deep conversation with the imperative of comic art’s endemic abbreviation as well as its conventionalized use of bodies in action to define space.

Photo on 8-22-15 at 11.42 PM #4


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