Caleb Orecchio here with thoughts on, you guessed it, cartooning–and other news!
“Be aware of your surroundings,” my dad always said to me as a kid. Just after I’d run into some inanimate object or unlucky pedestrian, incidentally located in my path while some shiny object distracted me. Be aware of your surroundings. Of all the great film directors, Brian De Palma knew this best. I bring up De Palma because I’ve become obsessed with his obsession (no pun intended–get it? it’s a filmography joke) with a character’s environment. It’s interesting to me because he thinks like a cartoonist in a way.
Ever seen Carrie? There’s this long take, a series of long takes really, during the prom where De Palma is setting up the “prank” John Travolta and Nancy Allen will, literally, pull on Sissy Spacek, aka Carrie. He takes his time to really show the audience all the factors involved as he leads up to the climax. He takes us all around the gym where the dance is held. He shows all the players involved and their positions. Nancy Allen holds a rope and De Palma guides us up the length of the rope and into the rafters where a bucket of pig’s blood awaits its destiny. Then, once we the audience understand the potential energy involved, De Palma knocks over the dominos and the payoff is classic.
Now, what I’ve just explained may sound fairly simple. It’s basic storytelling. It’s rising and falling action. However, De Palma’s use of visual information is the key to the tension. We know where all the exits of the gym are. We know where the characters are in relation to these exits. So when Carrie closes off these exits and we realize many characters we were sympathetic too don’t escape due to their respective positions, we panic alongside the characters. It escalates the horror and, dare I say, joy of the rush of the thriller. Even when the split-screen is implemented, we are not disoriented. In fact, speaking for myself, it further intensifies the adrenaline for me while I watch this familiar environment become a deathtrap.
How does this relate to comics. Well, that’s what I’ve been thinking about. I think “the environment” can be an afterthought for most cartoonists. Or at least the power of knowing your surroundings can be an afterthought. The best recent example of a cartoonist being aware of their surroundings is Connor Willumsen and his latest book, Anti-Gone. I’ve wrote about Connor’s work and how this very subject relates to it. You can read it here to save me some space. But the basic idea is to present an environment, then allowing the story to breath by highlighting certain aspects of objects within that environment. In Connor’s case, it often entails omitting unnecessary information as a “scene” progresses. The result is a very effective and a deceptively simple tool that allows for sophisticated comics. The reader follows the action very smoothly because Connor can expertly iconize the objects within an environment and isolate them in a way that is completely logical and uncluttered. It’s very similar to Bushmiller’s work in Nancy. In fact, I’d argue De Palma’s methods are most comparable to Bushmiller’s as far as a comics comparison goes. There’s a purity of form that both Bushmiller and De Palma apply which cuts to the essence of their respective crafts. If you haven’t read How to Read Nancy, you should. A lot of effort is concentrated into the set up of a payoff. The domino effect.
Simply put, think of Chris Ware. Every character, object, and environment is paired down to bare essentials visually. Everything is a symbol. There is very little confusion in a Chris Ware comic despite its intricacies due to the use of the symbolic rendering of the environment therein. When a character walks in and out various rooms, we can easily follow them. In fact, I feel I have actual awareness that is lacking in other comics because Ware often will show the reader the sum of the parts before exploring the individual pieces.
Look at the above cutaway image of the building. Imagine if Ware wanted a bucket of pig’s blood to fall on our heroine on the top floor because the old lady on the bottom floor wanted to “prank” her. What De Palma did with the set up for his prom set piece in Carrie, which probably ate up at least ten minutes of movie time, Ware (or any cartoonist) could have done in one page. Do you see my point? What is my point? I’m just thinking out loud and have a platform to write it all out in all it’s raw rambling. Is anyone still here?
Thanks for reading. See you next week.
if you don’t know, now you know
- Frank Santoro is in Italy in support of the Italian release of his book Pompeii. Go check out an interview conducted at the show here.
- The great Marc Sobel reviews the great Ed Piskor’s X-Men: Grand Design at TCJ.com.
- I really like when The Comics Reporter’s “Five For Friday” gives some insights into comics’ past.
- Somehow missed Comic Books Are Burning in Hell’s latest episode.
Suzy and Cecil – 4-30-18 – by Gabriella Tito
Joanie and Jordie – 4-30-18 – by Caleb Orecchio