Friday, 26 June 2015

Sussing Spider-Woman #8

Or a look at the use of blank backgrounds in Spider-Woman #8
by Dennis Hopeless, Javier Rodriguez, Alvaro Lopez, Munsta Vicente; Marvel Comics

Backgrounds are an integral part of comics. They provide important spatial context for comic events and provide a level of verisimilitude to the depicted story. When done especially well they can lend comics extra atmosphere and character that permeates every panel of the story to effect better storytelling. I mean, all of this is pretty obvious, backgrounds are obviously important.

The thing is, having a very detailed background is not always helpful and, in some situatons, depicting a blank background is actually better for comics storytelling. And Spider-Woman #8 has a good example of this.

There will be *SPOILERS* for Spider-Woman #8

Despite their obvious value to comics storytelling, backgrounds also look like a total pain in the butt to draw. We live in a hyper granular, complex world and to represent that in an illustration frequently means drawing a world filled with fractal details. Which is problematic because in some situations it must be really annoying and because it also sucks time, which is one of the most precious resources in comics publishing. This creates an incentive to draw pages with blank backgrounds: empty spaces where characters exist but which contain no finicky details that need to be seen. If combined with some judicious establishing shots this can result in some effective if obviously streamlined comics.

In some situations it really does come down to resource management and the compromise between quality and a reasonable, on deadline workload.

In other situations cutting down on background detail is all about story. The white middle panel on this page is a great example of this: in this panel Jessica Drew uses her superstrength to smash apart the mecha-armour of Lady Caterpillar, sending a myriad of components flying. The thing that makes this panel so memorable for me is that it is loaded with finite little details that really sell the emotion of the moment. When Lady Caterpillar is struck, her amour tears apart in a rain of sprockets, and fasteners, and tiny detailed components that when taken all at once wonderfully conveys the sense of something disintegrating. (Honestly, I can nearly hear the pings of components rattling off the floor from this image). 

I would argue a big part of what makes this panel so effective is the white background. By throttling down the background detail and removing any colour from the composition, Team Drew is removing any element of distraction from the panel. This way the reader's attention is firmly locked on the foreground where the reader is able to clearly see and appreciate all of the little, detailed bits of machinery spraying from the impact. It's a really effective choice. 

It's also a great example of how creators can use more passive approaches to drive reader attention in storytelling. Instead of actively using tangents or guides or shapes to drive attention to certain aspects of the composition, creators can also pare down a page and edit out extraneous elements so that readers are better able to see and appreciate what is on the page. Which when used as judiciously as it is here in Spider-Woman #8, this approach can be really smart stuff that is more than just an artist trying to save time. 

Spider-Woman #7: the brilliance of the inset panel

Spider-Woman #6: Guided chaos and multiple reading paths
Spider-Woman #5: Character Design and composition

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