The Heightened Reality of the Art in 'The Names'

by Matthew Derman

4 June 2015

Today, our series looking at Peter Milligan and Leandro Fernandez's The Names continues, with a focus on the art of the comic.
 
cover art

The Names #1-9

Peter Milligan, Leandro Fernandez

(DC/Vertigo)
US: May 2015

The world of The Names is one of heightened reality, and the series’ artwork creates that atmosphere expertly. Everyone’s physicality and proportions are a bit off-center, and the backgrounds are always slighter grander than real life while the colors are slightly moodier. It’s a stylized aesthetic, but subtly so, never so slick or bizarre as to be distracting, yet still distinct and immediately recognizable. It’s attractive even when the story gets ugly, but also ugly in all the right places, specifically when it comes to the book’s most unlikable characters.

With all of the linework done by Leandro Fernandez and all the coloring by Cris Peter, the look of The Names is consistent and full for all nine issues. It walks a line between inviting and terrifying that fits the narrative to a “T”, as impressively captivating and deeply unsettling as any of the craziness that goes down in Peter Milligan’s scripts.

The title’s best character and primary protagonist, Katya Walker, is also its best designed. Katya spends the entire series simultaneously grieving her husband’s death and furiously searching for his murderer, which requires her to hit various emotional highs and lows as the story progresses. But she never fully loses it, either, never entirely abandons her wits. She’s a force to be reckoned with, but a controlled one, able to unleash herself when needed yet just as capable of reigning herself in. What all of this boils down to in terms of her appearance is that she needs to be convincingly intimidating, heartbroken, restrained, and/or unhinged at different points throughout the story.

Fernandez captures every one of these moods perfectly, giving Katya a massive range by making her just a little bit larger than life, but also realistic enough that the more tragic, understated emotional beats land, too. Her face can have a stone cold stare, an explosion of anger, a blank look of deep thought, or a snarl of disgust with equal power; her hair is just wild enough to amplify her rage without being so wild as to overpower the rest of her; she’s fit and well-trained, so we can buy her as an action star, but even in her few overtly sexual scenes, she’s never reduced to being an object or having her body positioned in ridiculous ways just to point out her physique. What holds all of this together is a clear sense of self-assuredness—-Katya carries herself with confidence even when she knows she’s in over her head, and that attitude underscores everything else she feels and does in this comic.

from The Names #1

from The Names #1

The Surgeon is probably the most cartoon-looking member of The Names’ cast, but his weird build and mask-like face serve a very specific purpose. He’s a hitman for the titular organization, and as such, he’s meant to be nightmarish, monstrous, and chilling, his outsides matching his psychopathic and sadistic insides as much as possible. His smile and teeth are oversized because he gets an unnatural amount of joy from all the killing and torturing he does, and also because it makes him look all the more ghastly. And when he’s angry, his already-distorted features distort even further, so that he is a truly horrifying sight to behold.

The Surgeon isn’t the book’s only villain, and arguably isn’t even the biggest or meanest of the bad guys, either, but he’s the most memorable and unnerving. This is partly due to his total lack of empathy and mercy, but mostly the Surgeon is impossible to forget because of how crazy he looks, very unreal yet somehow still upsettingly lifelike. He enjoys his grim, brutal, fatal work way too much, and it shows on his creepy face in every panel that features him, up to and including the one where he finally dies.

While Katya and the Surgeon both have designs that play into the core aspects of their characters, Katya’s stepson Philip’s look sort of does the opposite, or rather, it highlights one part of his being while his voice and behavior highlight another. Philip is a mathematical genius of the highest order, but with that brilliance comes a heavy dose of social awkwardness, selective mutism, sexual immaturity, and the like. All of his intelligence and emotional problems come out in his dialogue and actions, but his youth, his teenage-ness, that’s all contained in the art.

Philip is one of the most believably rendered teenage characters I’ve seen in a comic in a long time, let alone in other mediums like TV and film, where teens are usually played by people who look like they’re in their early 20s and are really in their late 20s. Philip has a nice wide-eyed thing going on, and a certain amusement with life (including the dark parts) that smacks of a legitimate teenaged perspective. Even with all his smarts, he’s new to most experiences, and it shows in his subtly thrilled facial responses and just-too-slow reaction times. He’s constantly being a bit too impressed with things, trying to absorb all he sees but not yet capable of doing so.

When he disobeys Katya, grows too cocky, or lets himself get tricked by an enemy who’s pretending to be a romantically interested peer, we believe those moments more because of his body language than anything he says. His dialogue is intentionally a bit robotic, the words of a young genius who speaks most comfortably in terms of statistics and logic and facts, but his face gives him away every time so that the audience always understands that deep down (or maybe not so deep) Philip is just as much a young, confused, hormone-addled, idiotic young person as anyone his age.

from The Names #4

from The Names #4

Up to now I’ve been talking strictly about character design, in part because it’s my favorite elements of Fernandez’s work on The Names, and also because it is a major facet of pretty much any comic’s visual appeal, especially something as character-driven as this series. But for all their power and importance, the cast doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s not a bunch of characters acting out this drama in blank white rooms. Fernandez constructs a fantastic world around them that makes their own appearances even stronger.

For me, the best set pieces were all of the strange, dark, often cramped and always shadowy rooms in which the Names conduct their business. Secretly running the world’s economy is a complex operation, and the Names are spread out around the world, yet there is a certain backroom atmosphere to each of their locations that ties them together beautifully.

Sprinkled throughout the story are scenes of chaos and rioting as various economic disasters strike around the globe. These events can’t be given too much space, because they are more of a backdrop to the main narrative of Katya trying to find out who killed her husband, but the market crashes and resulting violence are still extremely important, and their significance and severity have to be clear. Fernandez depicts them quite efficiently, able to fit a lot of insanity into only a handful of panels at a time, and showing an appropriate mix of rage, fear, and pure madness amongst the people involved.

Because of how well Fernandez draws these scenes, they sort of linger over the rest of the comic, so that the reader can feel the pressure mounting even when we’re not watching it live. There’s a pervasive sense that, right outside of whatever we’re seeing, everything is slowly but steadily falling to pieces, and that helps to propel the story and raise the stakes across the board. The heart of The The Names may be its characters, but it is the dark, destructive, crumbling apart world around them which calls them to action and pushes everything forward.

It’s a small thing, but Fernandez handles the gore in this book exceptionally well, too, which I think is important to note whenever it happens. It’s so easy and commonplace in comics for blood and guts to become the dominant visual element of any violent scene, because going over-the-top doesn’t cost any extra and offers the reader a cheap thrill. Fernandez doesn’t necessarily avoid this kind of thing, but he doesn’t lean into it too hard, either. There are moments of excessive splatter, but they always have an in-story reason to be so gruesome, even if they’re not wholly realistic in terms of biology/physics.

The Surgeon’s death comes to mind as an especially gory image, but it’s also a tremendously important and unexpected story beat, which the massive explosion of blood and brain matter underlines well. Still, overall there’s not too much of that in The Names, even though there is quite a bit of violence. Fernandez is smart enough to hold back on the bloodiness most of the time, so he can let loose when it really counts.

from The Names #6

from The Names #6

Cris Peter’s coloring does what amazing coloring always does, namely to improve upon the pencil-and-ink work, deepening it and giving it more life and solidity. Peter uses a big palette, never trapping herself in one section of the color spectrum, so that all the fine details in Fernandez’s work can be colored separately and thus seen clearly. That said, Peter is careful not to let things get too bright, using the kinds of muddied and muted tones that match the narrative’s rather depressing outlook and action. Even neon lights are subdued in this comic, because nothing too brash would fit, and illuminating anything too directly would detract from the general air of mystery that envelopes the story. So Peter pulls back on the colors when it comes to brightness, but not when it comes to variety, which goes hand-in-hand with what Fernandez and Milligan are doing, too, creating a world that feels much like ours but is also quite clearly its own, more intense, more exaggerated reality.

The only exception to this rule about brightness is the very last panel of the very last issue (#9). Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the conclusion is the first time Katya allows herself to feel anything resembling closure or calm. There is no firm resolution to the question of who killed the man she loved, but other things get accomplished along the way, and she does manage to get some revenge against the Names as a whole, even though she doesn’t find the individual responsible for having her husband murdered.

The comic wraps up, then, with Katya resolving herself to be happy with what she has. In the final shot, she is bathed in sunlight, first seen from behind in silhouette, then from the front with a good third of her face completely washed out. It is a sudden burst of light/hope after nine full issues of darkness, death, and gloom. Peter goes all out on that page, saturating it in bold, warm golds and oranges, letting the colors overwhelm Fernandez’s lines for the first time ever. It’s a very effective final shot, a powerful statement made with art alone, no words required.

And as unrepresentative as it is of the rest of the series, that page is still a great example of the strength of the Fernandez-Peter artistic team. That they could put such a complex tale to bed with such a simple image says a lot about their talent and the strength of their collaboration. For all the reasons I mentioned above, I believe they were the perfect fit for The Names in particular, but also that the two of them could make almost any story look just as amazing and visually cohesive as this, should they ever work together again.

from The Names #9

from The Names #9


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