Here's another post that'll eventually get around to comics.
Bruce Conner died on July 7th. If you've heard of him, I'm sure you mourn his death like I do. It's possible, though, that you have no idea who he is, even though his art is in the collections of prominent American art galleries--I first saw some of his sculptures in person as part of the Whitney Museum's American Century II exhibit in 1999--and his found-footage films inspired Madison Avenue advertising and the sound/image juxtapositions of MTV. Despite these achievements, Conner was a stealth artist, one who often refused to sign his work as a protest against the cult of personality so dominant in the art world.
I won't write an obituary of Conner here. There are plenty of comprehensive ones on the Internet (try here), and excellent tributes to Conner too. I'd especially recommend Manohla Dargis' NY Times appraisal of Conner's career, which ends with Dargis' praise for one Conner movie in particular: Breakaway (1966), a shotgun-edited study of Toni Basil dancing to a relentlessly catchy pop song she recorded in the mid-'60s. It says something about our culture--though I'm not exactly sure what--that two weeks after Conner died, Toni Basil popped up as a celebrity judge on So You Think You Can Dance.
Virtually all of Conner's movies are currently unavailable to the public. 16mm copies have been pulled out of circulation--they're undergoing extensive restoration--and videos and DVDs of the films have long been out of print. But I teach at a university that owns a copy of the VHS anthology Bruce Conner Films (Facets, 1990), and over the last few days I've watched the films again, renewing my love for them, especially the minimalist masterpiece Marilyn Times Five (1968-1973). Marilyn's soundtrack is maddeningly simple: a recording of Marilyn Monroe singing "I'm Through with Love" (a song she originally performed in Some Like It Hot ) is repeated five times over the course of the film. The images that accompany "I'm Through with Love" are taken from a stag short, "The Apple-Knockers and the Coke" (1948), starring a Marilyn-look-alike named Arline Hunter striking various erotic poses with an apple and a Coke bottle. Conner repeats images too; near the end of Marilyn, a brief shot of Hunter descending to the ground is compulsively repeated, and through repetition comes to stand for the real Monroe's suicide. The images of Hunter, however, are frequently intercut with long passages of black leader. The first half of the fifth repetition of "I'm Through with Love," for instance--more than a minute of screen time--plays out in almost complete darkness like this:
With just these three formal elements--the song, the Hunter footage, and black frames--Conner creates a heart-breaking meditation on the male gaze and Monroe's star image. But what does this have to do with comics? After re-watching Marilyn, I found myself wondering if comics artists use black frames (or maybe we should call them black panels?) as frequently and as evocatively as Conner does in his films. As a tribute to Conner, I've tried to figure out and categorize the most common uses of black panels in comic books and strips, and I've provided a list of below. I'm sure that my list is incomplete, and I hope TB readers will write in with corrections and suggestions, so we can all better understand those unique panels where cartoonists withhold, rather than provide, visual information.
1.) Black panels can act as a sort of transition between new scenes in a comic, in the same way a fade-to-black (and the fade-from-black) can occur between scenes in a movie:
These two panels introduce the final three pages of Jason's I Killed Adolf Hitler (Fantagraphics, 2007), and much of the book's wit comes from its dry, matter-of-fact treatment of time travel. Only a deadpan storyteller like Jason would use such simple means--a black panel and a three-word phrase--to jump the story forward a full fifty years.
2.) In I Shot Adolf Hitler, one black panel ushers us forward fifty years, but another way to elide time is through multiple black frames that quickly zip us in and out of scenes. The effect is a bit like a strobe light, as in the following two pages from Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Criminal (Volume II, #2, "A Wolf Among Wolves, collected in The Dead and the Dying trade paperback):
Brubaker and Phillips' Teegar Lawless drinks and drugs himself into serial blackouts, and we're all surprised as we emerge from darkness to find ourselves in startling situations.
3.) Another first-person use of black panels is through the subjective point-of-view of a blind central character. In "Colorama," a story drawn by Bob Powell originally published in Black Cat Mystery #45 (August 1953) and recently reprinted in The Comics Journal #290 (May 2008), a defective pair of glasses strips the protagonist of sight:
4.) On the other hand, black panels serve a more objective function when they display darkness that is part of the story world and shared by characters. The final page in Eddie Campbell's After the Snooter (2002, and a book I can't stop thinking about) is a strip of eight solid-black frames adorned with elongated word balloons:
The Campbell bedroom is dark, and there's at least two ways to read Eddie's black panels: perhaps he's being chivalric here, refusing to show the intimate moments between himself and his wife, and/or perhaps Eddie's hiding his own embarrassment at how fretful he's become over insignificant details.
5.) Whenever we have literal darkness, of course, we have a metaphor for the "darkness of the human soul" or the "darkness of human existence." At the end of chapter six of Watchmen (1988), psychoanalyst Malcolm Long discovers that Rorschach's existential dread is contagious, and a zoom-in on an ink-blot represents Long's mounting realization that God and universal meaning are nothing more than convenient fictions:
Later in Watchmen, it's whiteness--the whiteness of Ozymandias' Arctic retreat--that symbolizes atrocity on a scale far beyond that of Rorschach's "abyss."
6.) A more light-hearted use of black panels is as a cheat, a cartoonist's shortcut. Comic artist and educator Christian Hill's Revelations (2003), for instance, is both a 24-page story that takes place during a blackout--it's virtually nothing but black frames--and Hill's metatextual, witty response to the demands of Scott McCloud's 24-Hour comic challenge. Here's page 17, from Hill's website:
7.) A sequence of black panels can also become a significant compositional element of a page or double-page spread. A quintessential example is Gilbert Hernandez's "30,000 Hours to Kill" from Love and Rockets Volume II #6 (Winter 2002/3), a four-page story that sticks to an insane 55-panel (!) grid. On page three, when Hernandez's goofy hero Roy submits to being buried alive, his isolation is conveyed in black panels occasionally punctuated with word balloons. The last page:
For me, the black panels of the first two-thirds of the page weigh the story down. The darkness, in sync with poignant story events like Judith's rejection of Roy, give "30,000 Hours to Kill" a somber tone, at least until the deux ex sundae of the finale.
8.) One offbeat example involves black marks layered over drawings, pictures and text. One inspiration for this approach is Tom Phillips' A Humument (first edition, 1970), an artwork that subjects an edition of W.H. Mallock's Victorian novel A Human Document (1892) to all kinds of innovative mark-making:
A more contemporary, graphic design example of black-mark detournement is Jonathan Barnbrook's infamous cover for the "Design Anarchy" issue of Adbusters (September/October 2001), created by scribbling a Sharpie across a magazine ad for lipstick:
Frankly, I can think of only one comic that does something like Phillips and Barnbrook do: Jochen Gerner's TNT en amerique (2003), where Gerner makes a palimpsest out of Herge's Tintin en Amerique (1932/1945) by blackening out most of its original pages. In an article about French experimental cartoonists (the OuBaPo project), Bart Beaty describes TNT in amerique as:
a page-by-page recreation of the earlier work in which only a select few visual and iconic elements, including random words, have been retained. The rest of the book, including the panel borders that structure the space and indicate a reading order to the sequence, have been replaced by a solid field of black ink. The result is sixty-two pages of blackness populated by brightly colored and seemingly randomly placed visual icons.
Here's a page from TNT in amerique, purloined from Austin Kleon's blog:
We begin where we started: both Conner and Gerner twist and obliterate old art (films, comics) to create new art. Darkness can tell a story, can fragment a story, and can force something new to rise out of the decimation of the old: is it too much to say that black panels can be as versatile as the pictures in a comic?