Wednesday, September 8, 2010

This Is Bugging Me (Eisner v. Swan)

I just finished grading a set of very short papers that contrast A Contract with God with an issue of Superman that was also published in 1978. A couple of my undergraduates' frequent generalizations are really sort of throwing me off.

When they talk about the books' different visual styles, they frequently say that Eisner's drawing ...

... is much more detailed than Curt Swan's.

(This panel is less than half the size of the Eisner panel above.)

I think what they're trying to say is that Eisner generally makes more marks per panel, because he's cross-hatching. But I think we have to agree that cross-hatching isn't the same thing as detail. A vast field of cross-hatching, by itself, reveals no details. And it's true that the background in Superman 331 drops out a lot in favor of a field of solid color, but I don't think the difference with Eisner is really all that distinct, once you account for the cross-hatching.

So, clearly, one of the things I'll have to talk with my students about, in the weeks to come, is the difference between shading and detail.

This other generalization really baffles me, though.

My students keep saying that Curt Swan's characters are much more cartoony...

... and Eisner's are drawn much more realistically.

What do you think they are talking about, here? The best guess I can come up with is that they mean the character designs represent a more realistic variety of body types—pretty much all of Swan's male figures have the same build in this comic, and Lois's face looks a lot like Lana's. But can that really be what they mean when they say Frimme Hersch looks less cartoony?

My other hypothesis is a bit dispiriting: the students had already decided what they thought a superhero comic looked like, or what a "sophisticated" comic would look like, and they didn't really look at what Swan and Eisner had drawn.

Any other theories?

They also keep saying that Eisner's writing is more sophisticated that Marty Pasko's—that it uses more advanced vocabulary (and, presumably, more complex sentence structures?). That's not a note about subject matter, as far as I can tell, but about diction and style. That claim really has me perplexed. Is it merely coming from Yiddishisms like "tsimmis" that the students probably had to look up? I don't think any of the students noticed that most of the individual panels in Superman have more words in them than most of Eisner's pages do.

Help me out here.


Lula said...

One difference which may have prompted that misguided observation on your students' part is Eisner's use of fewer, but much more exaggerated (and perhaps more efficient?), details to get across an idea or a character. For example, let's suppose Eisner had drawn that fellow on the left of the second Curt Swan panel: he might have had an open, angry mouth that showed some gritted teeth, and been practically poking Clark Kent's disguise-glasses out with his pipe. We wouldn't have seen all those subtle lines in his hair, but that forelock, though it might have had few enough lines that Miyamoto Musashi could have painted it, would also have pointed towards Clark, paralleling the pipe. Our hypothetical Eisner stand-in, taken out of context (cover the word balloons with your hand, or in your mind's eye) would indeed have been more cartoonish and less realistic-looking than our existing Curt Swan model; but the panel's overall effect—the sense of direction of motion, of critical word—might have been stronger.

I mean, maybe I am making shit up that Will Eisner would never have drawn, because I am not Will Eisner and he is dead; but since your class introduced me to the guy, I've always loved the way he uses relatively few lines to get across a sense of direction—and then frames it, exaggerates it, draws your eye to it with a lot of empty space around it in-panel. Frank Miller likes to do the same thing, and so does Tezuka Osamu.

Like you said, it sounds like your students thought the Eisner comic told a better story (which they equated with transmitting more details) than the Superman comic, and then in criticizing the art, decided that since the Eisner comic just had that much more story, its fewer details counted as that much more detailed, and in that thought process skipped over the fact that … uh … it has fewer details. In another context we might say that Curt Swan's style is "simulationist" whereas Eisner's is "narrativist" ….


JohnH said...

I think you partially got it right already. There's a type of drawing style(?) that people associate with comics and it happens to be what Superman is rendered in because a lot of people associate comics with superheros. Give someone a black and white comic that doesn't involve guys in tights and / or constant exaggerated proportions and they will tell you that it's "better" than ::insert other comic here::.

Tom K said...

It's because one is a 'graphic novel' and the other is a 'comic-book'... in other words the broad categories (all the associations that come with it) are coloring the perception of the work... maybe?

Isaac said...

I have to admit that not many of the papers revealed a lot of careful reading of the issue of Superman: a few of them talked about how Superman always triumphs and "gets the girl" when, at the end of this particular issue, he's in jail and Lana Lang has been captured by the Master Jailer.

So maybe you guys are right: the students knew what they expected to see in the Superman comic, so they didn't look at it. (Or didn't look carefully.)

Next time I should use like a horror or romance comic instead.

Lula said...

Have you thought of incorporating one or two of Will Eisner's "lower-brow" comics, maybe just to see what the reaction might be? Perhaps Hawks of the Seas or … well, The Spirit might be a little too fraught at this point in time. But I'd love to see these students react to HotS and Superman, or perhaps that horror or romance comic, side by side—especially if Watchmen is still in your curriculum.

Isaac said...

Sorry, Mendez — there's only room for a couple of days on Eisner as it is. I do sometimes wish for an infinitely expandable syllabus, but if it comes to choosing between The Hawks of the Seas and Chris Ware, I'm going to go with Ware.

For people who haven't been through the course, maybe I should clarify that it's not a "comics history" course. It's meant to be a survey of the graphic novel movement. Even asking the students to read one issue of Superman for background is a big stretch.

I've stopped teaching Watchmen, at least for the time being, but my reasons for that decisions are extensive enough to require a post of their own. Maybe later in the semester.

Ben Towle said...

I think your take on both of these things is pretty much correct. With the "cartoony" thing, I squarely blame all the silly, ironic Roy Lichtenstein-ish imagery that's still pretty pervasive in pop culture. I think the general populace associates this sort of imagery with "cartoony" and of course Swan's style is fairly similar to that 50s romance comic style in a lot of ways.

You're spot-on as well, I think, with the "detailed" thing: I'm betting that they're just reacting to the sheer number of lines. Tangential to this is that this is often used as an evaluative measure for some reason. As in: more lines = "better" art. (I think this is just a reflection of the Western aesthetic of More is Better, a particularly important notion to overcome when studying comics, an art form whose stock and trade is simplification and exageration.)

Isaac said...

I keep wondering what they're going to think when we read Lynda Barry in a few weeks.