Sunday, 24 January 2010

Making Less Mean More

Way back in March of last year I wrote a blog entry about the bleed in comics art production.
Here's a link: link
Go ahead, I'll wait if you need to go and read it. . . .
Cool, from this point on we should all be on the same page, so to speak.
So, I'm developing a new project and I know I'll be playing with visual scale a great deal throughout. While playing with all the variables that go into the preproduction of a project you can consider agreat number of things that occur before you even sketch out the first thumbnail for the first page. With the recent success of books like Mouse Guard and VIKING, the standard comic book size and proportions are no longer mandatory. I'd think long and hard before making such a choice, but the choice is there.
Another choice, one that is considerably less risky at the retail end, is one that very rarely gets picked or even understood that it's a choice in the first place; how much art will sit on the page.
In our current comics environment we artists usually fill up the live art area as a matter of course and abuse the bleed in hopes of visually dazzling the reader. The one flaw in this is that the live art area was chosen for production reasons not for aesthetic ones. As artists, everything we put on the page should be there because we want it there, however, we've been quite lazy as a whole group and just accepted the live art area as a design choice we could live with.
However, we're actually weakening one of the major bonuses of working with pages that we can design and draw out to the bleed. The live art area is a production choice, as I've said, it indicates the understood maximum safe area for art and lettering to exist within. This leaves very little real estate between the live art default art zone and the edge of the page for the artist to demonstrate a dramatic visual difference.
Arguments like this are usually best made with visual aids, so I've quickly doodled up a number of pages to demonstrate what I mean. The following pages are all scaled to 6 9/16" x 10 3/16", with the live art area lifted from the most recent of Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead trade collections (art, of course, but the wonderfully talented Charlie Adlard).

Luckily, for these purposes, my blog background is black, so I don't have to draw potentially distracting boxes around the pages.
Above is a pretty standard looking page, about a 3/8" on either side and 1/2" top and slightly more at the bottom (actually, in the trade, there's about 1/4" on every fore or thumb edge of the page and 1/2" towards the spine to allow for the binding). The art fills the page quite nicely.

Two pages facing each other look like this.
And two pages, one of them a full-page splash/bleed page would look something like this.

Two pages, both with bleeding elements would also usually look like this.

Nothing wrong with this, but I feel the bleed doesn't really have much of an impact here. The difference between what sits in the live art area and what gets to run off the page is too minor to have much of a visual impact.
I majored in Book Illustration in college, and there was a fair component of book design involved, so I may be the only person who would find the live art area something worth addressing. Classical book design requires the artist to consider the best visual dimensions of the back, head, fore and tail (bottom) of the page, crafting an attractive space for the body of the text or illustrations to sit within. The similarity between the live art area on the comics page and this designing of book margins always struck me as something to look at and consider.
My text from my college years suggests the classical formula of 1 1/2, 2, 3, and 4 for the back, head, fore and tail as a starting point. So, if one chose a half-inch as the base measure, the back edge would be 3/4", head would be 1", fore would be 1 1/2", and the bottom of the page 2". The formula presupposes a rectangular proportion slightly less tall and art intensive than the 6.5 x10" comics format.
Below, I decided to design an art-space smaller than the typical live art area. About 3/4" for th back edge, an inch for the head and fore edges and roughly 1.5 inches for the bottom.

It's not such a significant change looked at in isolation, really.

Here I pasted the smaller art area on top of the standard format page -- the size difference does seem more dramatic here. It's unlikely the smaller art area could handle some of the page content often included in the standard format -- such a design choice would need to be considered at the writing level. My own personal rule of thumb for standard pages (5-9 panels for talking heads sequences, 3-6 panels for mixed action/talking, and 1-4 panels for actions sequences) might have to be shaved by a panel or three. Or not -- the actual page isn't shrinking, just the default working area.

For continued comparison: a two page spread at the smaller size.

A two-page spread, one of them a splash/bleed page. Here the larger margins start to pay off -- the splash page image becomes much larger in contrast and has more impact.
Back in my late teens, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns started coming out, and one of the first things that struck me was how much larger the splash pages in that series seemed in comparison to all the tiny panels in his usual grid layout. I had the same reaction to The Watchmen -- working within a 9-panel grid meant a two-panel wide panel seemed really large. As a result the occasionally larger panel devouring 6-panels of space seemed enormous.

Here the bleed panels have significantly more impact when placed next to the smaller art area. The larger margins to draw and design in has a similar effect to what I described happening in DKR or The Watchmen. It does do so by opening up a different series of artistic options, which the creator would need to examine and explore.

I didn't want every comparison page to end up looking nearly identical, so I whipped this one up.
I have seem other artists play with the live art area in the past, though it often seemed more a result of deadline crunch than a choice made for a larger creative purpose.
While I'm making the direct link between comics and books from a design standpoint, an equally forceful one could be made for comics and magazines, and has, in fact, been explored many times before. With the rise of trade collections being the intended end result of comics publishing, I do believe the notion of a comic and its resultant collection being thought of and designed as a book from inception becomes worthy of more discussion.
There are already a great number of books of comics that are beautiful, but there are also a great many that are merely reprinted and bound collections and missed opportunities as a result.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Frank quitely often makes use of these techniques.