Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Futurism in Comics; Thoughts on Motion

From Marilyn Stokstad's Art History Second Edition Volume 2 published by the University of Kansas:

"Italian Futurism emerged on February 20, 1909, when a controversial Milanese poet and literary magazine editor, Filippo Marinetti (1876-1944), published his 'Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism' in a Paris newspaper. An outspoken attack against everything old, dull, 'feminine', and safe, Marinetti's manifesto promoted the exhilarating 'masculine' experiences of warfare and reckless speed. Futurism aimed both to free Italy from its past and to promote a new taste for the thrilling speed, energy, and power of modern technology and modern urban life.
In April 1911 five Milanese artists issued the 'Technical Manifesto' of Futurist painting, in which they boldly declared that 'all subjects previously used must be swept aside in order to express our whirling life of steel, of pride, of fever, and of speed.'"

Futurism showcases this odd mid-point in the history of painting where working in a representational manner begins to mesh with working abstractly. This occurs because of the urge to illustrate speed. Umberto Boccioni's above painting is of a man on a horse, but the emphasis is to not illustrate anyone of particular significance; he's focusing on capturing the motion. The end result is thrilling and new for it's time. I even see a little bit of Kristin Baker in Futurism (or Futurism in Kristin Baker - you know what I'm saying).

Comics differ from painting because they are time based. Comics have to keep in check that a story is being told through a series of individual panels; the cartoonist is in charge of how much time is passing from panel to panel (a second - thousands of years - Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics has a whole chapter devoted to time).
So the concept of something like futurism in comics, or better put, the depiction of motion through time, seems somewhat counter intuitive, right? Not necessarily.

Motion through time is so commonplace in comic books we take it for granted. It's been there since AT LEAST the 40ties (Professor Calculus with his ball and string). Herge uses motion subtly and as an illustrative device here in the above panel.

However, as we go through comics history to the present day motion through time gets more expressive, decorative and fantastic.

Here's a panel from a Superman comic from 1970. The artists are Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson. I wonder if they knew about the futurists or if this just happened on its own. Already in the 70ties mainstream comics are loosening up; a couple of different pens and brushes are used to illustrate this panel. Still, I find the panel to be sort of predetermined.

Once again for excitement, experimentation, ridiculous compositions and raw passion I turn to Kentaro Miura, author of Berserk. I really can't say enough about this series. It's not for everyone as it's quite possibly the ultimate male power fantasy and the most over the top horror/dark fantasies out there. Then again, if that description appeals to you go out and buy the whole series. You won't regret it. AND - 34 volumes later, HE'S STILL WORKING ON IT.
Miura is a master of sequence and aesthetic single panel composition. Usually cartoonists are good at one or the other; they're either phenomenal illustrators or wonderful sequential storytellers. Once in a blue moon you find someone who is good at both.
As far as motion through time depiction, Miura uses the device on a regular basis. About 1/3 of Berserk is battle scenes, so he gets his figure drawing workout, making movement captivating.

The above page spread (and excuse for the sub-par scan job) needs no description; the illusion of speed and time is there and yet you look at the final panel as one, solid image. Remember to "read" it from right to left.

Dash Shaw has a background in animation if I'm not mistaken, and therefore movement is paramount in Bottomless Belly Button. Like Herge, Shaw uses movement in time subtly and without emphasis. It makes reading his work extremely accessible and therefore, a "page turner". The above panel's movement is instructive, allowing the reader to know exactly where to move his eye.

Here again, Shaw uses vocabulary and movement lines to illustrate exactly what's going on. The illustration is simple and effective.

I couldn't make a post about the connections in fine art and comic books without mentioning Gary Panter. The above drawing was included in editor Sammy Harkham's "Kramer's Ergot 5". This may be better classified as "comic book art" as opposed to "sequential art" because no narrative story is being told with your traditional beginning, middle and end. Rather, Panter is using the gridded format of the comic book page and going straight to abstract expressionism. Regardless, the motion in this comic is unprecedented. It needed to be included in this post.

Here is an example of motion in comics from The Invasive Exotics Act 1. I have singled out the panel, so perhaps out of context it is harder to "read", and while drawing this I wasn't thinking "hmmm - I wonder how I can connect this with futurism". Unlike the Superman panel above, the direction Easewell is going in is a circle as she steals items from the Slimecold Secret Lab. While it may be harder to "read", I am content with the composition for its aesthetic values. Also notice the use of "speed clouds", most notably used in Road Runner cartoons (which is quite possibly the best pop reference to futurism out there).

In these two panels I was given the opportunity to perhaps do a Miura or Superman figure transformation. But, I separated the illustration into two panels and just used subtle motion lines. Maybe next time I'll take the opportunity to have her do a downwards flip. Regardless, from a narrative perspective, the reader knows whats going on.

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