When is an S not an S?


One of the things I love about graffiti is the immediacy and looseness of the wrist that the best artists possess – and which I can’t get exactly right myself – probably cultivated through years of keeping an eye out for the police while honing their craft.

Parallel to actual delinquency, graffiti artists also casually bend the rules (or conventions) of letterforms and calligraphy – yet I did a double take when I saw the above on a Malmö door frame: It clearly read “SMA”, but what’s with the S, all tumbled over backward by the speed and urgency of writing? The direction of the end flourish is pure emphasis.

Of course, the restrictions of the narrow door frame forces a horizontal shape on the initial first and foremost, but in the final result the artist turns that necessity to their advantage. My main point is still the fact that the letterform S is so strong that it remains recognisable, even if it’s skewed 90° counterclockwise.

This skewing of accepted forms is especially interesting to me because, in my day job as a publication designer and layouter, legibility are paramount on letter, word and paragraph levels, whereas in my creative outlets, I consciously stray from formal conventions.

It’s food for thought, then, that street artists, under the imposed restraints of their work conditions, might be pushing the base forms of the alphabet further than – and could be seen as a new generation subverting – the work of the last millennium’s scribes, calligraphers and sign painters. And that’s not even considering the plastic distortions of large scale mural works that warp the rules of typography beyond recognition, familiarity, or even legibility.

End note: Having written this, I checked the image again and wondered about the purpose of the dot in the right-hand loop of the S. If it’s not entirely ornamental, it could be the simplified stem of a D (with an exaggerated entry swash)… and I would have grossly misinterpreted the tag in this post :/

“You don’t create comics —”

There is a biopic about Edmond Baudoin! That's fantastic, he is one if the great living masters of comics. However, there's one paragraph of the press release that I can relate to and recognise (below is Domingos Isabelinho's translation from French): To justify his refusal to give him a prestigious award a publisher admitted one…

Ahoy, Londoners!

On Saturday 14 May, you can buy my book When the last story is told at the Comica Comiket in London! It’ll be available at the Lines of Enquiry table, manned by Dave Crane and Simon Russell.

Lines of Enquiry is a recent cooperation between Crane, Russell, Gareth Hopkins, Simon Moreton and myself, joining our efforts to promote each other’s fringe comics at a wider range of festivals than we would be able to individually. Watch this space for more Lines of Enquiry appearances!

Here’s a thought about Roy Lichtenstein

[…] one thing Lichtenstein accomplished by putting a single panel on a gallery wall was to force us to look at that panel in a whole new way. We know the panel has come from a larger narrative, but we are left to imagine what went before and what will transpire after. On top of that we are asked to see the frozen moment; it’s emotional content, it’s graphic power, it’s strange mix of words and picture; for itself.

– Rick Veitch, Panels Out Of Context

Old Lichtenstein has been on my mind as well for a while, and Veitch’s thoughts make me wonder some more: Yes, Lichtenstein appropriated comics panels for his paintings in a way that’s ethically dodgy, but the formally interesting thing in this context is what he had to do with the images to make them work as individual paintings.
My (not fully developed) argument is that the basic rules of composition do not apply to comics panels entirely as they do to other visual art – the non-sequential sort, some might say, although personally I’m not too hung up on sequence.

In comics, every panel codepends on its neighbours in the page, and artists will (more or less consciously) compose it to guide the reader’s gaze across the page as well as within the panel (In fact, visual linguist Neil Cohn recently published a paper analysing the way readers will read a basic comics page.) If, however, a single panel is culled from its context, it will likely have image vectors pointing every which way on to a next panel now unavailable to the spectator. It’s in this perspective that Lichtenstein becomes really interesting to me, because comparison of his work to the original shows clearly that he didn’t simply copy the panels 1:1 – he often reconfigured their elements to work as single image units, although they would still imply a larger narrative unseen to the viewer.

Whaam! original 01 Whaam! original 02_full page Whaam!

The above examples (source: the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation’s Image Duplicator site) show how Lichtenstein combined two panels from different issues of All-American men of war into the diptych Whaam! The scanned comics pages are actually from Lichtenstein’s resource file (or “Notes”, as they are called on Image Duplicator), and you’ll notice that the explosion panel has been cut more or less exactly where the canvases of the paintings join.

I hope to be able to examine the source material (or prototypes) to Lichtenstein’s “comics paintings” in their intended context to identify just where and how he felt a need to adjust compositional elements for his specific purpose. Hopefully that will give some new insights into the compositional principles and how they differ, compared to just analysing comics as an isolated phenomenon.

For an exhaustive comparison of Lichtenstein’s “comics paintings” and his sources, visit David Barsalou’s Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein flickr stream. Barsalou has done a massive amount of research to reconstruct Lichtenstein’s swipe file.

Side note: You should also check out Simon Russell’s comic Roy, which is a wittily acerbic comment-as-a-comic on the pop artist’s best known works and their (re)production.