Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Milton Caniff - Master Cartoonist

For Christmas, I received The Complete Terry and the Pirates, Vol. 3: 1939-1940 -- another volume in IDW's excellent Library of American Comics series. These are wonderful books, printed on high-quality paper so the artwork can be reproduced with crisp, sharp detail. And that's good -- because in Caniff's case, it's artwork worth studying.

Take this panel, for example. (click on image to enlarge)

With the continually shrinking size of comic strip panels, it's unlikely we'll see such a drawing again. In this one scene, Caniff depicts the clashing of two armies, and the way he salves many different problems simultaneously is nothing short of a tour-de-force.

First off, "Terry and the Pirates" was published in family newspapers, so Caniff was limited in how much -- and how graphically -- he could depict the violence (Dick Tracy had a corner on the Tarentino-style stuff). So if you look closely, you'll see that this panel is remarkably bloodless (even the bayonet running through the officer in the center of the panel is clean). And yet it still conveys the power of two armies clashing.

How is this possible?

One way is by composition. No one's standing around here. All of the figures are in motion, most off-balance, which adds to the energy of their poses. There's also the dynamic of the overall scene.

Caniff uses the knowledge that the reader's eye will travel from left to right to his advantage. Moving from left to right, we start with a pair of figures, one standing over the other with a rock. Then there are two fighters in closer foreground, forcing the eye to refocus. Then in the center, there's the officer getting run through, back on the same plane as the first pair.

And then the action picks up. The figures become more jumbled, the action confused, and an explosion punctuates the last third of the panel. We're also looking at the line of combat at an angle, and the figures get smaller as we near the end of the panel. Not only does this suggest depth, and give us the idea that there are many more people involved in this struggle than we can see, but it also provides closure to the scene.

Just as a song fading out signifies the end (while suggesting it keeps on going), the perspective shortening of the figures also diminish the pull on the eye, so that by the time it reaches the end of the panel, the eye is almost stationary.

And note also the judicious use of black. The left third of the panel has a white cloud behind it, the center has a black sky. The right third is punctuated by an explosion which shows more white space (but not as much as the left third) and the remainder of the panel has a big black sky. So from left to right there's a transition from a big white space to a big black space -- you can bet that was intentional.

There's much more I could write about this one panel, such as the undulating line that runs through the heads of the figures. But I'll leave the rest to the reader. Just look it over, and then think about what you're seeing. Caniff certainly did, which is why his work merits deluxe collections eighty years after the fact.

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