Thursday, October 18, 2007

Captain Compass

A site I like to check out about once or twice a week is Toonopedia. A great site that is dedicated to comic books, comic strips and animation, scanning decades and media. I almost always learn something new. Today's Toonopedia entry is on Captain Compass:

I've read a few stories with him and found him to be an interesting detective character (of course, that partly could be because of my fondness for the seas). It was one of the reasons I got that Detective 500 that had a story with him and all the other back-up detectives over the years of Detective Comics' run, all wonderfully rendered by the master Jim Aparo. My first exposure to Captain Compass may have been in one of those little digests which reprinted a bunch of different individual detective stories with some of those same detectives. A quaint but enjoyable detective story where the clues to the mystery are in front of you.

However, what struck me about the Toonopedia entry was the panel of artwork that Don posted with it (He always posts an image, usually from the character's prime or original run). In this case, it is a panel from one of the stories. In terms of dynamics it's almost boring really; Captain Compass is simply pacing while musing in front of his chief in the office. On second look though, I was really struck by the amount of detail yet with an economy of line. Compass' head and shoulders are bowed in a defeated manner, his boss is watching with his head resting on the palm of his hand. The desk has panels, we see the blinds in the window, labels on the file cabinet as well as a shadow for depth. There's a model ship on the cabinet and a topographical map on the wall above it. The chair is completely rendered with the struts and Compass' clothes are realistically wrinkled, yet all with a sparsity of linework. Nothing fights for dominance, you have no trouble reading the scene, yet it's very detailed and very non-generic looking in that it does look like an office that someone head of a ship line might have thanks to little things like the model ship and map. It's the very type of scene that many of today's artists would fill up stray crosshatching lines, fancy angles (and today's writers would fill at least 3 panels, breaking up the dialogue and close-ups). And the colorist would fill it with gradients and photoshop effects. It is detailed, but it isn't busy or overly rendered or complex.

It's not the first time I've noticed things like this, a lot of times on some of the old art that is posted here or elsewhere. Taking the panel out of context (or in reprint books, sometimes the very fact the color printing is now in-register or bw so the bad printing is not a distraction), I see the artwork anew, not breezing through it to get to the next panel. And I'm struck just by how good it really is. Just how much detail that the artists manage to get in the scenes and still have it all be clearly legible. Often, less is indeed more.

Not saying I don't like detailed or busy art. John Byrne, if anything, puts more detail in his backgrounds now than he ever did. I love Perez and you cannot accuse him of skimping on details. However, what these two gentlemen do that many today seem not to is make it clear as to the story that each panel tells. Detail is fine as long as the purpose of the panel isn't lost in it, as long as the main idea that panel has to get across is loud and clear. You don't have to hunt in a Perez picture for the story it has to tell, if there are a hundred figures on the page, it's because it serves the scene. If it distracts you, it's not because you have to stop to figure out what the heck is going on, it's more because of what more former boss would call "The D**N factor". I.E. when you see it, you stop and go, "D**N!!" And you marvel at all that he managed to include in one scene.

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