Ah, the dreaded cliché super-hero page – well drawn, beautifully rendered, and completely incomprehensible. The example below is a piece of uncolored art originating from Astonishing X-Men #26, with artist Simone Bianchi and writer Warren Ellis. There are plenty of things wrong with this page. Often, the first target to undergo scrutiny is the exceptionally detailed draftsmanship. Many have criticized this hyper-detail as distracting from the story. This is surely true – for we are not so much aware of the actions of the X-Men in the opposite page, but of the artistic beauty of their skin-tight suits overlaying an incredible minutia of well-rendered human anatomy. We are not focused on what the X-Men are doing, but how they look!
But that is not the only problem, nor is it even the primary one. The next target often lambasted is the panel layout. This, too, is a valid critique, for the panels and the actions within do not flow in any particularly meaningful way. The lack of any panel border or environment in the third panel seems arbitrary as well. The layout gives the reader absolutely no clue as to what is happening, does not lead the eye in any direct manner other than relying on established convention, and serves only to draw attention to its own beauty as a piece of design, not its function as a piece of a story.
But even this is not the most grievous offender! No, the biggest problem with this page is not its cluttered draftsmanship or its lack of distinct layout, but its lack of space. Looking at the page, there is no established location! The reader has no idea as to where the X-Men are, save in a place with some pebbles and what appears to be mechanical wreckage off in the distance. Other than that, the reader is utterly in the dark. Where are the characters? Where is their goal? How far have they moved? What direction are they going? None of these questions are answered or even hinted at for an entire page.
The problem with this is that the reader should never be given a chance to ask those questions. They should be answered before he can even think about them. They should be established at the beginning of the story, never be in doubt at any point within it, and carried through to the last panel. Because if the reader ever stops and thinks “Where am I?”, or “What is happening?” then he is no longer reading, he is questioning. When he is questioning, he is no longer caught up in the story and experiencing it as the characters do. He has suddenly become aware of his own presence, and of the fictional aspect of the comic book in his hands.
When all spatial questions are answered and a new reality forms about the reader, then he ceases to question, in fact he even ceases to read. He experiences the story before him, as though he were in the same place at the same time with the characters, fighting their fights, sharing their joys, and suffering their sorrows. This is the feeling of ‘being lost’ inside a story, and it can only be accomplished in visual terms through successful use of space. Events occur to a specific person, but also in a specific place.
But if Mr. Bianchi’s page above is not a good example, then what is? Furthermore, how do we create a space that will draw a reader into a new reality? Seems like a tall order.
We must begin with sight. If we can fabricate how a space would appear to a viewer, and show them what is there, where it is, and how it looks, then we can make them believe, if only subconsciously, that it exists. The primary way of doing this is through choice of angle.
Choice of Angle
To understand this aspect of creating space, we need to step back a few centuries. Let’s head back to the 16th, shall we? There, in the Italian Renaissance, the science of perspective was concocted. It’s a lot of geometry and a fair bit more measuring and calculating than is appropriate for this article, but suffice to say they discovered and proved one-point perspective – a method of projecting a real space onto a flat surface.
One-point perspective follows a very simple rule – all parallel lines appear to recede to a single point on the horizon. All other lines, or those which are not parallel and receding, will be horizontal. You can see one-point perspective at work if you stand in the middle of a pair of railroad tracks, as the diagram above illustrates clearly (source: animationbrain.com). The road, telegraph poles, and rail lines are all parallel, and all recede to the vanishing point on the horizon. The wooden railroad ties of the track cut horizontally across the receding rail lines at increasingly smaller intervals as space recedes. Simple enough!
But there is a problem – this view does not look particularly natural. How often do we actually see things in one-point perspective? To witness something in one-point perspective we have to be standing directly in front of one of the main planes of the structure – in other words facing it head-on. To reproduce the view of railroad tracks in the diagram above, one would have to stand directly in the center of perfectly straight railroad tracks, and look directly forward. This is a restricting view, and in fact we very rarely do face objects in our world head-on. Rather, most of our time is spent witnessing objects from an angle.
So how do we draw such an angle? We resort to two-point perspective, in which there is not just one vanishing point to which all parallel lines recede, but two of them, one for each visible side of an object. The difference between the two types of perspective is illustrated in the simple diagram to the left (source: cadtutor.net). Where in one-point, we are limited to drawing an object (in this case, a box) with only one side of it receding into space, in two point both sides now recede, each to their separate vanishing point! With this in place, we are now equipped to illustrate an object at any angle we so choose – not just from the front or the side.
Now let’s investigate how the two approaches differ in practice. The comparison I have set up on the right involves two panels from two different stories. The top panel is from Kull the Conqueror Vol. 4 #7, written by Alan Zelenetz, penciled by John Buscema, and inked by Marie Severin. The lower originates fromThe Savage Sword of Conan Vol. 1 #72, written by Bruce Jones, also penciled by John Buscema, and inked by Ernie Chan. In the top panel, we see one-point perspective at work. We can tell because the lines of the ceiling are clearly all pointing down to the same vanishing point, even though they do not physically reach it in the picture. The back wall is horizontal and cuts the lines off, and all the objects in the room are also horizontal. We get a sense of depth, but we’re not particularly sure how much depth. I assume that the man in the foreground and the men in the background are roughly the same size, yet the men in the background are much smaller. There is a small amount of distance between the feet of all of them, and though I accept that they are standing in a bare room large enough to hold them all, I cannot really determine how large that room is, the size of the objects within it, or the general atmosphere. It is convincing, but it is not engaging.
In contrast, the lower panel is in two-point perspective. We can tell because the lines of the blocks do not all coincide as either receding towards a single point or horizontal to it. Though the placing of the blocks appears random, Mr. Buscema was quite crafty. By placing one block pointing to one vanishing point (Bottom left.), and another block pointing to the other (In the center with the body over it.), the perspective is clearly defined.
Now that we have established the character of the panel as a two-point perspective shot, let us see what it tells us. We are much more aware of actual depth here – I could hazard a guess that the body of the man whose face we can see is fifteen to twenty feet away from the body slumped over the block in the center of the panel. This is because in two-point perspective, there are two receding sets of lines, or planes, that occur. In one-point perspective, there is only one single recession, and every other aspect of the picture that is not along receding lines must necessarily be flat. This denies depth and tends to confuse the issue, resulting in a space that we cannot clearly define. In two-point perspective, since there are two separate receding planes, our frame of reference for how far away either plane is from our viewpoint is heightened. In essence, we can literally see more from an angled viewpoint.
But not only is two-point perspective more measurable in terms of visual depth, it also appears more incidental, as if we are there on the smoldering battlefield looking down on the destruction. Similarly, the space seems to extend out of the panel borders to encompass the reader. Why is this?
Well, in Kull panel, everything is arranged as if it were on a stage. We are an audience looking at a production playing out in a confined, fictitious space directly in front of us. This stage set-up is actually distracting from storytelling, because it makes us subconsciously aware of our own presence as anaudience member, not a member of the story. In a two-point perspective drawing, the incidental, reality-simulating angle is immediately more engaging – we are there, in the battlefield, and we wait with baited breath to see what will happen next.
With all of its advantages, the choice of how to illustrate a story is clearly in favor of two-point perspective. Yet so many artists of today completely ignore it! I do not mean to say that every panel in a comic book should be constructed in two-point perspective, for sometimes we do see things head-on, and one-point perspective has a certain grandeur and power to it. But that should be reserved for when it is needed most in the story, and all attention should be paid to drawing the reader into the world beforehand, so that such a grand moment will have all the impact that it should. While not every comic panel should be in two-point perspective, a great many of them ought to be.
Angle isn’t everything.
Perspective is a drawing method for constructing space. It is not how humans consciously perceivespace. I know of no one who walks from their television to their kitchen and consciously notes how the vanishing points of each object change as he passes by them. We simply do not perceive depth that way. This is important because even if you make a perfect two-point perspective construction and have a drawing at a beautiful angle that is sure to snag the audience’s attention, you can still fail. There is still more to the art of drawing space left to uncover.
Read part two here.