Three of the best series I’m currently reading, Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, Shutter by Joe Keatinge and Leila del Duca, and The Private Eye also by Vaughan, but with Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente, have at least one outstanding quality in common: visually striking and imaginative storyworlds that provide the contexts for their respective stories.
In particular, these books feature backgrounds populated with a bewildering diversity of bodies and faces. The diegetic reasons for this variety are unique to each title, but all three feature a wide variety of characters who combine recognizably human features with traits drawn from other animals (e.g., horns and compound eyes), machines (e.g., televisions and clocks), and different mythological traditions (e.g., traditional Greek mythology and literary high fantasy).
While there may be a zeitgeist-y explanation for these commonalities — this time and place feels like a particularly rich time for speculative fiction in comics — and two of the titles have a writer in common, I also think that the attention to visual character design and detail in these books is a product of the authors’ intentionality in telling their stories with comics. As cases in point. consider the panel excerpt from Shutter #1, above.
What’s notable here is the seemingly whimsical variety in the background and supporting characters. In comparing the panels, one can also see how the world of the series is being built through Leila del Duca’s art. Seeing the recurring Minotaur-like character design is important information about the world that Kate Kristopher, the main character, inhabits, as is the appearance of the “astronaut” on the subway, the fox-like character in the background on the street corner, and the seemingly “normal”-looking youths in both locations. At this point in the series, these kinds of visual details and flourishes prepare the reader to expect anything, from everyday activities – riding the subway, listening to music on a mobile device – to the fantastic – Minotaurs walking the streets and reading newspaers, bi-pedal foxes entering an office building.
Either of these scenes could also be set in prose, but the economics of storytelling are different in that medium. Translating these images into words effectively would likely result in an author losing the plot. In prose, these kinds of details are likely to be more selective and shown through named characters or characters that interact directly with the protagonist. Different media train and channel the authorial imagination in different ways.
One could also imagine these scenes on film or television, but, again, their effect would be different. In the camera frame, background and supporting characters are often fleeting presences; the scene would not be the same without them, but, unlike with comics, viewer/readers don’t have the time or freedom to dwell on what’s in the frame, at least not when watching as intended.
The fox-like character might go unnoticed, or a spectacle like the Minotaurs could be so eye-catching that the importance of the “normal” characters would go missing. These kinds of details work differently in moving image media where the viewer’s vision is directed and propelled by the camera and by editing. There is more opportunity for a wandering eye in comics. All the more reason to fill panels up with the kinds of strange, and jarring, juxtapositions seen in Shutter.
From The Private Eye #3
For The Private Eye Vaughan and Martin invent a near future Los Angeles where protection of privacy manifests in a fashion for masks. In Saga, Vaughan and Staples populate their panels with a wealth of broadly humanoid species, both organic and bio-mechanical.
As in Shutter the narrative context in these books is being built out and filled in through the art more than through dialogue and exposition. The masks in The Private Eye aren’t just cool and fun to look at; they are material to the story, signifying Vaughan and Martin’s speculation on the value of privacy for the future. Difference is at the core of the story in Saga. Every new way of visually distinguishing characters devised by Vaughan and Staples is a reminder of this theme.
From Saga #1
While Joe Keatinge has written almost exclusively for comics, I think that the fact that he has also worked as an artist helps to explain the visual richness of Shutter. Both Keatinge and del Duca are putting the medium to good work in terms of telling stories with both words and images.
For his part, Brian K. Vaughan writes for both comics and television. In an interview with Brian Truitt for USA Today, Vaughan explains how he sees the differences between the media:
It’s not just handling the creative side of it, but also the practical side — financial concerns and what happens if we get rained out to stay on set or what if an actor suddenly finds out she’s pregnant? We have to take her out of a scene we put her in. There are a lot of day-to-day challenges that mostly make me appreciate comics. A writer and an artist have total control over their universe. Television is really something where you just try to hang on and do your best (See Brian Truitt, “From ‘Swamp Thing’ To ‘Saga’ to TV with Brian K. Vaughan,” Comic Book Resources, 22 January 2014).
The underlying issue here is “creative control”, in the sense of how much license Vaughan has a creator to make whatever storyworld he wants with comics, as opposed to in TV, where technical, practical, and financial concerns place limits on what you can do. This is made clear in his thoughts on adapting Saga, where the issue for him seems to be the difficulties that would be faced in trying to render the universe of that book effectively on screen without compromising the original vision for the story.
It’s significant that the one possibility that appeals to him right now would be to hand the title over to another auteur, not a studio or producer, and one who might understand what would make for a true film adaptation of the comic, something that Vaughan appears to imagine as very different from a panel-by-panel reproduction.
My point here is not to make the case for one medium as superior to any other, but rather to draw attention to the ways in which the best creators, even when working in a common genre, will find ways to make the best use of whatever medium they are working in. Comics afford writers and artists wide latitude when inventing storyworlds and populating them with a wealth of different kinds of characters. Shutter, Saga and The Private Eye are all exemplars of the medium that you could, and should, be reading right now.