Note: The following is a paper I wrote recently for a contemporary art history class. It features Sean Gordon Murphy, Jake Parker and Skottie Young. You should become familiar with these artists and buy their work.
Traditional ink in an industry of digital color
Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit and one of the earliest artists to draw comics in their modern form, stated that, “Story is the most critical component in a comic. Not only is it the intellectual frame on which all artwork rests, but it, more than anything else, helps the work endure.”1 In many ways, sequential art is a type of storytelling that is very limited compared to other media like novels and movies. Comics, with their lack of motion and sound, have only written words and static images at their disposal. Comic characters cannot employ voice inflection or tone while delivering dialog, nuances that are just as important in conveying meaning as the words themselves, the music that builds suspense, the sound effect of an explosion or the detailed written description cannot be used in comics as they are in books and film. In sequential art, storytelling, changes in mood, pacing and emphasis must be conveyed visually in a still image.
Since their inception in the 1930s, technological barriers of reproduction necessitated the use of black ink lines in comics.2 For decades, color in comics was limited to four colors. This limited color palette caused the inker’s line to carry the bulk of the narrative responsibilities. As technology progressed in the 1980s, the advances in printing and software allowed for the use of more and more colors. A group of Marvel’s best artists quit and founded Image, then revolutionized the coloring of comics by using Photoshop.3 This pivotal moment marks a significant shift towards an industry dominated by color and away from storytelling. The industry is only recently recovering and trending towards a focus on good storytelling. As the pendulum swings back, artists focusing on the black ink line are beginning to stand out. Sean Gordon Murphy, Jake Parker and Skottie Young create a feeling of movement and narrative in monochrome in an industry that relies heavily on color.
After touching on the use of line in impressionism and expressionism as a tool, “to suggest the inner state of the artist and to provoke the five senses,”4 Scott McCloud states that, “art historians have generally held that while painters, musicians and poets have grappled with such ideas, practitioners of the ‘low’ art of comics have remained blissfully ignorant of them,” then simply questioning that statement with, “but have they?”5 McCloud proceeds to employ such adjectives as proud, dynamic, rational, gentle, savage, weak and honest to describe different examples of monochromatic line work in comics.6 With the understanding that a black line of ink can convey mood, emotion and sensation, one may read the narrative of an image.
Sean Gordon Murphy
Ryan Ottley, artist of Invincible, says that Sean Gordon Murphy is on the same level as, “the great comic artists of yesteryear,”7 and calls his work “genius.”8 Murphy began, “pushing a really messy style with a lot of black,”9 during his run on DC’s Hellblazer. Heavily influenced by the Italian illustrator Sergio Toppi, Murphy’s use of blacks is explosive, energetic and often angry. His use of conflict and opposition is strong. Not only do his blacks and whites often seem to fight each other for space, the juxtaposition of his stationary objects against the indication of the moving objects seems to increase their speed.
In this commission (figure 1), one can sense the very real movement of Marty sliding across the hood of the Delorean, the car’s wheels firmly planted in the shadows, pressing into the ground, thick blocks of black indicating the weight of the vehicle while the thin, long lines defining Marty’s outstretched legs seem light, their diagonal angles indicating action and direction; the viewer of this static image can almost hear the sound of his jeans sliding across the metal. Note the street light in this image, not depicted as a soft glow, but as a stark explosion of light invading and cutting into the darkness of the night sky. The composition of this piece shows asymmetry and balance. The clock tower and the raised door, both triangles, are drawn at slightly different heights. The shapes and values created by Marty’s face and hair are diagonally balanced by the mirrored shapes and values in the street lamp. The objects in the foreground, middle ground and background all overlap each other, giving each other form with their contrasting values.
These days, Murphy mostly inks by instinct while focusing on, “clarity, mood and precision.”10 This panel from Punk Rock Jesus (figure 2), written and illustrated by Murphy, is overflowing with storytelling. Utilizing a one point perspective, the speed lines on the street and in the sky, coupled with the blurred buildings whizzing by and the car in mid impact, all combine to tell the story of a horrible case of road rash. In fact, the only two things that break out of this vanishing point are the man’s sprawling legs and the crashing car. Note again the starburst explosion of the motorcycle’s headlight cutting into the black night. The storytelling of this piece needs no color. The stark monochromatic pallet takes a backseat to the visceral reaction of the reader as one imagines how much that would hurt. There is blood-like arterial spray in this image, but not where you would think. The grime of the ground is being displaced and sprays in either direction as the tires speed down the road. Where the viewer would expect to see spray, the man’s face meeting the street, Murphy has nothing but negative space. No blood, shadow or line. Only nothing. It is as if Murphy is indicating what will happen moments later, this man’s face will disappear as it the road wears it away.
In this commission of Batman and Wonder Woman, Murphy draws a simple scene (figure 3), but indicates an impending threat. Murphy uses shadow to define the form of things. Note how the forms of the tires are shaped by the shadows cast on the underside. He is able to depict the curvature of the tire, the texture of the tread, the bead of the rubber as it meets the rim with the consistent application of shadow indicating the direction of the light source. One can tell that Batman is stepping forward because his right leg is cast in shadow. The shadows are anchoring the vehicles to the ground in a way that allows the viewer to feel their weight. Note that the heavier of the two bikes sinks into the ground more than the smaller, lighter bike.
Mood is an important factor in visual narratives. Color is typically a huge component of setting the mood in sequential art. “The style I’ve settled on conveys a couple of things pretty well I think: mood, darkness, humor, movement, energy, iconography and storytelling.”11 These are not photorealistic representations of the human form or human biology. They are impressive depictions of mood. Batman’s mood is indicated in his stance, locked arm, tensed shoulders and in something Scott McCloud calls, “a visual metaphor - - a symbol.”12 The ink splatter spraying diagonally away from Batman is a visual metaphor of his intent to intimidate. The acting of each character in this shot is different and has a different mood. Superman seems detached, almost pouty, Batman seems threatening and Wonder Woman seems curious, but unconcerned.
There are, of course, many ways to read this image. In fact, this particular image spurred a little debate about what was actually going on. Murphy was accused of portraying Wonder Woman in a weaker, inferior and vulnerable position in her relation to the men in the image, though the author clarified that she was not calling Murphy a misogynist.13 In a response to that accusation, other possible interpretations were given in defense of the art.14 Are they being attacked and Batman is on edge while Wonder Woman seems unconcerned? Was there a noise or explosion that drew their attention? Is the artist calling the viewers intentions into question? Is Batman angry with the viewer for ogling Wonder Woman? It should be noted that Wonder Woman is standing from her bike and turning and Murphy has a body of work that is far from the common cheesecake objectification of woman in comics. Like most good art, there are as many different interpretations as there are people viewing the art. One thing is clear, all of this discussion of mood, intention, action and story was triggered from a black and white ink drawing without the need of color.
Murphy’s fingerprints are all over this commission, literally and figuratively. Note his fingerprint right under Wonder Woman’s rear tire. Stating that he didn’t invent the use of fingerprints, Murphy said, “Fingerprint inking is old. Others did it before us.”15 And yet, Murphy’s fingerprints in his work act as a symbol of his unique style. No one draws like he does. In an industry where a house style makes it hard to tell one artist from another, Murphy’s style is much like his fingerprint, completely his own.
An article in Salt Lake City Weekly starts, “Jake Parker’s name might not immediately ring any bells to most, but his work sure does.”16 Parker has worked in animated films, children’s picture books and comics.17 He has been published, self published and run several successfully funded kickstarter campaigns. Parker founded InkTober in 2009 after his friend gave him a brush pen. He found the brush pen, “somewhat unwieldy,” but liked the results.18 Parker describes his results in his collection of his 2013 InkTober drawings, “The biggest thing I walk away with is how it consistently challenges me to become better and more refined, not only in the application of line, but in the narrative of my visual storytelling.”19 Parker’s confidence in his line work grew that first year and now thousands of artists across the world participate each November.20 Parker’s line is fast, sketchy and has a very human quality to it. Watching Parker ink something,21 one will note no hesitation in his decisions. He draws at a fairly consistent pace, varying the weight of his line slightly, lifting his pen infrequently like a series of small continuous-line contour drawings. He is known for both for his “mech” and cute subjects.
In this image (figure 4), a mad scientist has mutated a blowfish into a huge monster. The slight black lines in between the bricks curve to indicate that this scene is taking place inside a tower. The cylinder shape is repeated throughout the image in the pedestal, pipes, tubes, and containment tank, all in Parker’s dieselpunk mech style. The intentional shakiness of Parker’s lines add some movement as the viewer’s eyes trace the ellipses and cylinders. Parker deftly indicates form with the weight of his line, thicker on the edges of a shape, thinner and broken on a corner or a bend. His line also suggests material. The glass has a very light line, while the metal and stone have heavier lines. There is a diagonal balance to the triangular black shadows that frame the image. There is also a childlike playfulness to his ink work as he allows his lines to overlap each other, trading precision for whimsy. The two characters on this page contrast each other, the heavy, round, lumbering fish monster opposite the small, jubilant, spindly mad scientist.
This image of a monster attacking a trolley (figure 5) is all rhythm and repetition. Note how the detail and size of the track shrinks and fades to black in a display of vanishing and atmospheric perspective as it snakes into the background. The trolley jumping off of the rising and falling rhythm of the track creates a flow that leads the eye to the monster and then up the monster’s raised arm bringing us back to the trolley. The bits of debris and small amount of air between the wheels and track not only make the trolley look like it is in motion, but add the personification to the trolley, jumping in cartoon surprise just as it hits the apex of its ascent to see the monster’s raised hand and gaping mouth. The repetition in this adds depth to the structures and unifies the elements. Note the repeated shapes in shadow on the far side that form the depth of the trolley and the tracks. The careful observer will also note that the roof of the monster’s mouth is roughly the same size, shape and angle of the shadow cast on the underside of the closest apex of the track. The small group of flying debris is repeated in the background as the monster crushes the track. Finally, the monster’s tail repeats the rise and fall of the snaking track.
Throughout these pieces, what seems at the initial glance to be a haphazard, chaotic placement of blacks, after careful inspection seems to be revealed as the implementation of a carefully, calculated series of design and compositional rules; in fact, it is neither haphazard nor calculated. Parker describes the experience of drawing comics, “it can be overwhelming… everything you have to learn to do comics, but I think a lot of that stuff is intuition. If you’ve read a bunch of comics… you already understand the language and a lot of that stuff can flow out onto the page, even if the rules aren’t being followed closely…”22
Shawn Chrystal, comic artist and host of the Inkpulp Audio podcast, says that, “Everyone who knows Skottie, feels a positivity coming off of him. He is alive. He is full of life…he always seems to find the positivity in things.”23 As Young tells Chrystal of his rough past on the Inkpulp Audio podcast, the listener starts to develop an understanding of what that an accomplishment a positive attitude is for Young. His interest in art really flourished as a teenager when his friend’s father gave them the keys to an abandoned car dealership and he decorated it with graffiti. At 15 he was hired to hand draw signs for a retail store and “I just sat there and drew the Big Lots superhero guy, smoking cigarettes, listening to [hip hop] and drawing signs.” Moving out and living on his own while still in High School, Young learned life lessons and work ethic. After quickly breaking into comics at a young age, he publicly learned drawing and storytelling as he was being critiqued by a harsh readership.24
Young’s style involves a chaotic, expressive line with radical thick to thin transitions. He often adds a mess of frayed cloth and hairy curly cues inspired by Sam Keith. His exaggerated form and children’s book style are reminiscent of Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein and Quentin Blake, of whom Young says, “These guys taught me how to draw.”25 Young draws a daily sketch in ink as a warm up practice.
In this Sketch, titled “Scavenger Mouse” (figure 6), Young portrays an image of a mouse, laden with gear, walking in the dark during a rainstorm, a makeshift light bulb staff illuminating his way. The scene is almost completely black. White splatter lines are strewn diagonally across the page to indicate rain and the light reflects off of the rippling puddle covering the mouse’s feet. Thin, quickly drawn circular lines outline swirls of wind and radiate out from the bulb as a cast shadow defines the shape of the inside of the sleeves, bottom of the pockets and curvature of the ear. Young depicts the rain so well, that the viewer would be forgiven for feeling cold and wet as they get lost in the moment portrayed.
This Daily Sketch of Gizmo (figure 7) depicts a scene with the character ready for battle. Young’s brushwork, in quick, thin strokes, defines the furry outline of the character. In the crook of the bent elbow, we see the fur lines overlapping and clearly defining the bending joint. Note how the weight and variation of thick to thin transitions are used to depict texture, the furry body versus the leathery ears, hands and feet. Young uses a series of strokes to define a ragged edge and erratic folds of the bat-like ears. Gizmo is standing, one leg on a box of matches, the other on the tile floor, the lines in the tile suggesting a slight perspective grid and adding a touch of depth to the scene. Note the playful lines that shape the matchbox; they should be straight and rigid, but instead are thick and wavy, a mere suggestion of form and an indication that this is not the focal point. Instead, the viewer’s focus is brought to the eyes as the lines of the eyebrows, eyelids nose and mouth all converge on a central point. Even the fur radiates out from this focal point. The furrowed brow serves both to draw the viewer in and to show the threatening expression.
This image (figure 8) is a child wearing headphones. The artist depicts this kid as fun-loving and playful, though the moment is calm. There are indications that both the headphones and the child have had some wear and tear. The dents and creases of the metal headphones are a fitting match to the Band-Aid on the child’s cheek. The curly cues mentioned above, define the mess of frizzy hair on both the child and the little creature. There is diagonal balance between the gnarled cords attaching to the headphones and between the Band-Aid and the smiley face pin. Note the exaggerated anatomy, the large circular head sitting on the long, thin and slightly crooked neck. A mere suggestion of a nose sits slightly above an off centered, crooked smirk with the mop of hair sweeping across and obscuring the eyes. This child is the everyman and the viewer’s childhood experiences dictate why the child is smiling.
Even in the limited medium of sequential art, storytelling can be ingrained in the line itself. Without sound, motion or color, these three artists are able to effectively communicate a message and elicit emotional responses. Will Eisner said, “There is a psychic transmission present in the best graphic storytelling. It is generated by the storyteller’s passion. It carries the story’s emotional charge to the reader.” He goes on to explain, “Invariably the storyteller becomes identified with and somehow part of the narrative,” and possibly remembering the loss of his daughter and how it affected his own work, continues, “Contriving the postures and gestures of a heartbroken character reacting to a great misfortune, for example, stems from inside the storyteller. The graphic story-teller has to be willing to expose himself emotionally.”26
Could it be that it is the passion and dedication to their craft that drives the narrative in these artists’ work? Could Skottie Young’s childlike escapist style be a result of his childhood? Could Sean Gordon Murphy’s aggressive line and conflict laden style be a result of his transition from devout Christian to staunch Atheist? Could Jake Parker’s quick sketchy style be a result of the fear of all of the projects that he won’t get to if he doesn’t hurry? There is humanity and personality in those monochromatic images unique to the artist. In an industry bursting with digital color and locked down with house styles, artists who are inking traditionally with an individual style are standing out.
I want to point out two things:
- I love color and colorists. In no way, should the following be read in a way that disparages any of the amazing colorists in comics right now, many of which I almost wrote this paper on.
- There are a lot of incredible illustrators out there that I could've written this about. Due to the constraints of the assignment, I had to choose three and I needed a lot of background information that I could do research with. I love these three artists, but I could add a handful more to the list that are just as amazing.
1 Eisner, Will. Graphic Storytelling. Tamarac, FL: Poorhouse Press, 1996. Xii 2 Flanagan, Josh. Sean Murphy: Will Inkers Be Obsolete? December 15, 2011. http://ifanboy.com/articles/sean-murphy-will-inkers-be-obsolete/ (accessed November 17, 2014). 3 Gary, Beatty Scott. Comic Artists Direct. June 18, 2006. http://www.comicartistsdirect.com/articles/coloring.html (accessed November 17, 2014). 4 McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. 121-123. 5 McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. 123. 6 McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. 124-126. 7Ottley, Ryan. Twitter. October 26, 2014. Accessed November 19, 2014. https://twitter.com/RyanOttley/status/526460523354013697 8 Ottley, Ryan. Twitter. October 26, 2014. Accessed November 19, 2014. https://twitter.com/RyanOttley/status/526460783065300992. 9 Murphy, Sean Gordon. "Hellblazer." Sean Gordon Murphy. Accessed November 19, 2014. http://www.seangordonmurphy.com/gallery/hellblazer/. 10 Murphy, Sean, and Cory Kerr. "Conversation." Twitter. November 16, 2014. Accessed November 19, 2014. https://twitter.com/Sean_G_Murphy/status/534084529041207296. 11 Murphy, Sean Gordon. "Quick Fire round 2." Sean Gordon Murphy. May 4, 2010. Accessed November 20, 2014. http://seangordonmurphy.com/?p=483. 12 McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. 128-129 13 Sonne, Ray. "How My Critique of Sean G Murphy Led To Misunderstandings About Art, Feminism, & Debate." Eat Your Comics. February 12, 2014. Accessed November 19, 2014. http://www.eatyourcomics.com/2014/02/12/how-my-critique-of-sean-g-murphy-led-to-misunderstandingsabout-art-feminism-debate/. 14 Drici, Adam Joseph. "Three Feminists Walk into a Comic Book Store..." Driciorg. February 13, 2014. Accessed November 19, 2014. http://drici.org/comics-criticism-and-feminism/. 15 Kerr, Cory, Sean Gordon Murphy, and Cam Kendell. "Conversation." Twitter. November 3, 2014. Accessed November 19, 2014. https://twitter.com/corykerr/status/529421678707609600. 16 Sheehan, Gavin. "Jake Parker." Salt Lake City Weekly. May 29, 2011. Accessed November 20, 2014. http://www.cityweekly.net/TheDailyFeed/archives/2011/05/29/jake-parker. 17 Parker, Jake. "About - Mr Jake Parker." About - Mr Jake Parker. Accessed November 20, 2014. http://mrjakeparker.com/about. 18 Terry, Will, and Jake Parker. "#6 Jake Parker - Inktober - Interview by Will Terry." YouTube. September 22, 2014. Accessed November 20, 2014. http://youtu.be/2mACqDl42SU. 19 Parker, Jake. InkTober. 1st ed. Salt Lake City: Jake Parker, 2013. 3. 20 Note: search the hashtag #inktober on most social networks to see the participants. 21 Parker, Jake. "Skullchaser in a Mech." YouTube. March 14, 2014. Accessed November 20, 2014. http://youtu.be/QFDaXryAL10. 22 Drozd, Jerzy, Jake Parker, and Kohl Glass. "CAG! 86 - Getting Out From Under Your Medium with Jake Parker and Kohl Glass." YouTube. October 13, 2013. Accessed November 20, 2014. http://youtu.be/amzYhWwofgA. 23 Chrystal, Shawn, and Skottie Young. "Inkpulp Audio." Podcast. June 1, 2013. Accessed November 20, 2014. https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/ep-6-skottie-young/id586276073?i=160345244&mt=2. 24 Chrystal, Shawn, and Skottie Young. "Inkpulp Audio." Podcast. June 1, 2013. Accessed November 20, 2014. https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/ep-6-skottie-young/id586276073?i=160345244&mt=2. 25 Montgomery, Paul, and Skottie Young. "CBR Sunday Conversation: Skottie Young." Comic Book Resources. December 22, 2013. Accessed November 20, 2014. http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=49869. 26 Eisner, Will. Graphic Storytelling. Tamarac, FL: Poorhouse Press, 1996. 153-155.
Chrystal, Shawn, and Skottie Young. " Inkpulp Audio." Podcast. June 1, 2013. Accessed November 20, 2014. https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/ep-6-skottie-young/id586276073?i=160345244&mt=2.
Drici, Adam Joseph. "Three Feminists Walk into a Comic Book Store..." Driciorg. February 13, 2014. Accessed November 19, 2014. http://drici.org/comics-criticism-and-feminism/.
Drozd, Jerzy, Jake Parker, and Kohl Glass. "CAG! 86 - Getting Out From Under Your Medium with Jake Parker and Kohl Glass." YouTube. October 13, 2013. Accessed November 20, 2014.
Eisner, Will. Graphic Storytelling. Tamarac, FL: Poorhouse Press, 1996.
Flanagan, Josh. Sean Murphy: Will Inkers Be Obsolete? December 15, 2011. http://ifanboy.com/articles/sean-murphy-will-inkers-be-obsolete/ (accessed November 17, 2014).
Gary, Beatty Scott. Comic Artists Direct. June 18, 2006. http://www.comicartistsdirect.com/articles/coloring.html (accessed November 17, 2014).
Kerr, Cory, Sean Gordon Murphy, and Cam Kendell. "Conversation." Twitter. November 3, 2014. Accessed November 19, 2014. https://twitter.com/corykerr/status/529421678707609600.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.
Montgomery, Paul, and Skottie Young. "CBR Sunday Conversation: Skottie Young." Comic Book Resources. December 22, 2013. Accessed November 20, 2014. http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=49869.
Morrison, Grant. Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011.
Murphy, Sean Gordon, and Cory Kerr. "Conversation." Twitter. November 16, 2014. Accessed November 19, 2014. https://twitter.com/Sean_G_Murphy/status/534084529041207296.
Murphy, Sean Gordon. "Hellblazer." Sean Gordon Murphy. Accessed November 19, 2014. http://www.seangordonmurphy.com/gallery/hellblazer/.
Murphy, Sean Gordon. Punk Rock Jesus. 2nd Print. ed. New York: DC Comics, 2013.
Murphy, Sean Gordon. "Quick Fire round 2." Sean Gordon Murphy. May 4, 2010. Accessed November 20, 2014. http://seangordonmurphy.com/?p=483.
Ottley, Ryan. Twitter. October 26, 2014. Accessed November 19, 2014.
Ottley, Ryan. Twitter. October 26, 2014. Accessed November 19, 2014. https://twitter.com/RyanOttley/status/526460783065300992.
Parker, Jake. "About - Mr Jake Parker." About - Mr Jake Parker. Accessed November 20, 2014. http://mrjakeparker.com/about.
Parker, Jake. InkTober. 1st ed. Salt Lake City: Jake Parker, 2013.
Parker, Jake. "Skullchaser in a Mech." YouTube. March 14, 2014. Accessed November 20, 2014.
Schumacher, Michael. Will Eisner: A Dreamer's Life in Comics. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010.
Sheehan, Gavin. "Jake Parker." Salt Lake City Weekly. May 29, 2011. Accessed November 20, 2014. http://www.cityweekly.net/TheDailyFeed/archives/2011/05/29/jake-parker.
Sonne, Ray. "How My Critique of Sean G Murphy Led To Misunderstandings About Art, Feminism, & Debate." Eat Your Comics. February 12, 2014. Accessed November 19, 2014. http://www.eatyourcomics.com/2014/02/12/how-my-critique-of-sean-g-murphy-led-to-misunderstandingsabout-art-feminism-debate/.
Terry, Will, and Jake Parker. "#6 Jake Parker - Inktober - Interview by Will Terry." YouTube. September 22, 2014. Accessed November 20, 2014. http://youtu.be/2mACqDl42SU .