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Almost Lifelike: Drawing Out Reality in Comics Art

A rendition of Quinnpool Street, one of Halifax's two "downtown" streets, by © Erin Hicks (partial)

While leaving out details that we often associate with 'reality', the drawings of comics artists will often evoke a sense of place more effectively than the photos from which those images may be drawn.

Last month in this space I looked at the art and craft of licensed comics. One of the constraints of that form is the need to reference televisual and cinematic people and places. However, the use of 'real' individuals and locations as models, particularly through photographs, is not limited to comics adapted from live action film and TV. Many comics artists work from reference photos, even in the making of fictional settings and characters.

In my alternate life as a cultural geographer, one of my primary interests is sense of place. What do places mean to people and why? What role do they play in feeling and memory? What evokes those feelings, meanings, and associations?

Creators who invent locations still need to confront the question of how to give those places the right sense of authenticity for readers. Borrowing from, and re-molding other realities – film, television, other comics, 'real' landscapes – is one strategy for making a place that looks and feels 'right'.

Writer-artist Faith Erin Hicks recently shared a comparison of drawn panels and reference photos with readers of her blog (see “On Reference”, And Then Canada Exploded, 10 June 2010). The photos are of locations in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the panels are of Hicks' fictional “Sanford”, a “Generic Coastal Small Town” for her book Friends with Boys. One of those drawings is of a house on a corner.

The centerpiece of both photo and drawing is the house on the corner. While the artist has made some embellishments, particularly to the yard and lot, Hicks has reproduced many of the architectural details of the residence in a precise way. Working from a photo of a house with the desired shape and age aids in the creation of the desired look and feel for the book, even though the goal isn't to locate the original building, and its environment, in the comic.

Indeed, Hicks has recontextualized the building by changing the surrounding landscape. The apartment block in the photo has disappeared, and the house next door has been downsized. The street has been given a more pronounced slope. The space between the residences has widened, and the houses are set back further from street. These changes 'relocate' the house from the more urban environment of Halifax to the 'generic small town' of Sanford, while retaining the fundamentals of the building of interest. Even though the setting changes, the details from the photo work to make Sanford as real as Halifax.

Which raises an interesting question: which image feels more 'real'? What are the ways in which different media evoke different senses of place?

The photograph has the advantage of approximating human vision. In a literal sense, it comes across as being of a real place. By itself, though, it does not have much meaning. Knowing that the corner in the photo is in Halifax helps to orient a viewer, and if one knows Halifax, then that knowledge makes the image even more real. Maybe the viewer has been to the corner or can make an estimation of the neighborhood based on the architecture and the street.

However, even if a reader has an intimate knowledge of Halifax, maybe intimate enough to locate the corner without being told where it is, the inorganic feeling of the photo makes it, in other regards, a less successful evocation of a place than Hicks' drawing.The varying thicknesses of the lines, the way in which some lines, particularly for the roof and siding, fade or trail off, suggest a 'living' house, one that bends and settles and wears, much more effectively than does the photo. The latter captures a moment, but not the movement and change that shapes places as we live them.

A detail close-up of the house in the photo could suggest these processes, too, but then you would lose the structure proper. The drawing is able to suggest a dynamism to the whole structure from the same wide angle as the photo. Critically, it those qualities of wear and tear that largely give houses such as this their sense of character.

While Hicks refers to Sanford as 'generic', a case can be made that her panel brings the street corner to life more effectively than the photograph. Leaving aside the figure of the girl leaving the house and crossing the street, which unquestionably helps to give life to the picture, the simplified bushiness of the trees, their openness, the distinct cracks and scuffs on the sidewalks, the merest suggestion of grass with a few lines, which implies unevenness among the blades, all allow for a feeling of movement, which is part of the lived experience of place, to enter the image. In contrast, the photo 'freezes' the corner, draining it of that sense of motion.

Paradoxically, it's the simplification of the drawing that makes it more open to imagination, and, therefore, more evocative than the photo, particularly for those unfamiliar with Halifax. Hicks' panel invites readers to fill in the missing details with their own memories and associations. On the other side, the photo already appears full and complete, or, at least, will most often be read as corresponding to something 'real' as opposed to something 'made'. I might be tempted to guess at where the corner is located, but my guess, whether right or wrong, will always be bracketed by my perception of the photo's inherent, and literal, realism.

The incompleteness of the drawing allows Sanford to come to life. Indeed, if Faith Erin Hicks had chosen to set Friends with Boys in Halifax, I would likely be able to imagine that place with greater openness from her drawing than from the photograph. In this way, her art is potentially more real than the photo, at least in terms of its ability to engage a reader's mind, emotions, and senses in a more active and wide-ranging way.

'Realism' is, ultimately, a cultural convention. Following convention, Faith Erin Hicks' drawing of the house on the corner could be dismissed as a simulacrum, or flawed copy, of the photo. However, sense of place, wrapped up as it is with memory and emotion, mind and body, is more complicated than the apparent level of correspondence between image and reality. Reference photos are simply that, references. They are tools for creation, and that creation will have its own life and reality.

Photo of comics artist Erin Hicks (partial) found on the Halifax Commoner, University of King’s College School of Journalism

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