Art vs. Story

We’ve had a few discussions in class over the past few weeks over whether or not art is the most valuable part of a comic.  Some said that they would never read a comic with bad art, while others argued that they’re satisfied as long as the story is interesting.  “Bad” art, here, is obviously not only subjective but also a word that depends on context.  “Bad” art doesn’t necessarily mean “technically inept” – Gary Panter’s art may, for example, be ‘technically’ bad, but his grungy, sketchy also serves his stories effectively.  “Bad art” can just as easily be ‘technically good’ art – though it may be capably drawn and well-proportioned, it could not work well with the story/genre or it may just be lifeless.

Mara, issue 1.

Mara, issue 1.

I’ve been reading some new stuff lately, Brian Wood (writer) and Ming Doyle’s (artist) new miniseries Mara in particular.  Let me tell you:  though I’m now pretty involved in the story, I had to slog through the first issue.

Luckily it improves in later issues, but the art in issue 1 of Mara is absolutely lifeless.   Just LOOK at that page – this is a pivotal scene but it’s marred by static movement, static colour, and Mara’s dead eyes.  To better illustrate how static this page is, I performed the same exercise we did in class, identifying the dominant shapes in each panel.  Doing so, it was easy to quickly see the pattern that emerged.



Rectangles, as far as the eye can see.

And, well… that’s a lot of rectangles.  Now, it’s completely possible that some of you will look at this page and go, wow!  Look at that great, interesting artwork!  Greg McElhatton over at Comic Book Resources raved about Ming Doyle’s art in issue 1, stating that, “This is the first full-length comic I’ve seen Doyle illustrate, and hopefully it won’t be the last. Her art continues to impress me; it’s energetic and has a flow from one panel to the next that feels effortless.”  To each his own!

Would it be reasonable to say this is a case of “bad art”? To be fair, Ming Doyle’s art isn’t technically bad.  Though her art style is certainly different from the sleek superhero art that’s usually expected from these kinds of stories, she can still obviously draw.  But unfortunately, her stiff figures, boring panel progression and Jordie Bellaire’s dull colours combine for a generally terrible page, in my opinion.  Does that make it “bad art”?  Is “bad art” just “bad”, or can “bad art” be boring art?  How about uninspiring art?

I almost didn’t even finish the first issue, I was so unenthused with the lifelessness of Mara‘s illustrations (the rest of the issue, well… imagine panels that look like these, broken up by paragraph upon paragraph of narrated exposition.  Capital-d Dull.) Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m glad I ended up picking up the second issue, as well as the third.  Mara’s story has hooked me at this point.  However, I know very well that don’t continue to read this series because of the art.  Instead, I’m reading it in spite of the art (and, relating to last class’ discussion of Neil Gaiman, because of the brand that is Brian Wood).

So I want to throw this out there for you guys:

1) What do you think of this page from Mara #1?  Am I way off base?

2) Have you read anything only because of the art?  Have you read anything just for the story, in spite of the art?  And, if both cases are true for you, how did those reading experiences differ for you?

– Alex McKay

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9 Responses to Art vs. Story

  1. mclongman says:

    Very interesting and well-put blog post, and I definitely agree about how art that does not work with the story isn’t necessarily the same as “technically” bad art. In Doyle’s page here, the wide gutters and absence of background or dynamic colours make the page slow to read and give me a strange sense of dissociation towards the events taking place — I do not feel at all involved in the action, but as though I am watching it take place far away. I have to wonder, however, whether Doyle did this intentionally. The character is clearly walking rather than running, which creates a lack of dynamic action but also fits with the surreal mood of the silence around her. I haven’t read the comic as a whole, and if all Doyle’s pages progress in such a slow, distant style, it would definitely make the comic difficult to read, but looking at this page alone I do get the impression that this lack of dynamism is intentional, and maybe reflects the character’s own sense of dissociation from her situation.

    For my own experience of comics with “bad” art, Hajime Ueda’s artwork in Gainax’s FLCL is extremely sketchy and disproportionate, and oftentimes I didn’t even know what was going on. However, I actually read this manga for the artwork, as the pages were just so fascinating to look at and created a sense of their own unique world very different from my own. The story itself is very dreamlike (sometimes nightmarish) and incredibly bizarre, and so I thought Hajime Ueda’s use of distortion, dynamic lines, and huge white spaces to create silence and huge black pages to create noise, worked perfectly to create this mood.

    Thank you for the interesting and thought-provoking post!
    -Madelaine Longman

  2. leejnelson says:

    1) I think the art for Mara is lifeless as well, you’re correct.

    2) I recall picking up a comic from Image called ‘Epic Kill” because it was recommended as a hard hitting, fast-paced action story with plenty of gore and violence. Sure enough this was true but the female protagonist had the exact same expression in each scene, any features within settings seemed to be drawn without much detail at all, an afterthought. The whole book was a dissapointment and I was reaading it when I was still buying my comics in physical form, so to pick up 3 issues of a book was at a cost to me and it was just boring and dry. The art of this book turned me off of it completely, yet I would still agree that the story was action packed.

  3. alexmckay says:

    Thanks for your comments!

    Madelaine, I agree with you about FLCL (one of my favourites). The art in the manga adaptation is kind of sketchy and confusing and a little messy – but I think that works perfectly with the story, which is itself sketchy and confusing and messy. I wouldn’t deem it “bad” art, but I certainly think it’s strange art, love-it-or-hate-it art, that brings a lot to the super-nutty FLCL story.

    It’s definitely possible, too, that the way this page was set up was intentional. However, I think it goes way beyond evoking silence and paused time — I think it’s just downright dull. I’ll have to upload a couple more scans to show how this style continues through the entire issue.

    Lee, I hopped onto Google Images and looked up Epic Kill. I found this page:

    Just based on one page, I can see where you’re coming from. The art is kind of sterile, with flat digital colouring. This page has a slightly interesting background, but the flat colouring kind of kills any interest. And those FACES. Holy moly, those are some horrendous faces. I can totally see what you mean about the protagonist having the same expression in every panel. So I guess, in your case, the story wasn’t enough to keep you reading? The “bad” art outweighed the interesting story?

    • leejnelson says:

      The story did not amount to much at all either after a few issues. It was thin, almost written like it was just a scene by scene description of a banal action film with really awful dialogue. At first I was hooked because it seemed like an interesting escape story as this young female discovered her own powers whilst under distress. The main thing was the art, it was horrible, if not for that I MAY have continued reading Epic Kill.

      On the other hand though one of my favorite writers seemingly has all most of the artists he has worked with recently doing a similar thing. The writer I am speaking of is Brian K. Vaughan, and often he will have multiple full page single panels in one issue. His stories are without a doubt awesome in my opinion, but the frequent use of this technique is annoying since he will have preceding page be a lead up to some big twist and the next page is the unveiling of the twist. Now while both the art and story are great, the frequent tendency to use this technique appears more formulaic than stylistic.

      So, sometimes when both the art and story are fantastic elements like composition can still turn me off a comic.

      • alexmckay says:

        That’s funny, I was originally going to use Saga as a counterpoint to Mara. I’ve never actually noticed the technique you’re describing in his work. What do you mean by “multiple full page single panels” – that sentence is a little confusing. Are you describing his use of splash pages? Because I have no problem with his use of splash pages – I think they ground stories, giving them room to establish space and time (and, given that he tends to work with very talented artists, it gives them a chance to shine).

        I just can’t imagine why you’d have a problem with that. You’d rather reveals be done in a small top left corner panel on the page after the set-up, rather than a splash page? I disagree 100%.

        Alex McKay

        • leejnelson says:

          Yes, his use and lead up to using splash pages.
          If you have read all ten volumes of Ex Machina you may have a better idea of what I mean. Perhaps it was due to the melodramatic nature of that comic book but his use of splash pages sometimes didn’t go over well with me when it was usually just containing character portraits and an announcement like, “I’m going to run for president”. Considering that there would be 2-3 in each issue, the big twists deserving of a splash pages just weren’t there, but this may have just been due to the nature of the story (which is really great btw).

          • alexmckay says:

            Oh, I haven’t read Ex Machina, so that’s probably why I haven’t noticed his overzealous use of splash pages. Maybe he’s toned down the splash pages since then – or maybe it’s all the fault of his artist for that series?

  4. leejnelson says:

    It feels like something really common in his books, this dramatic lead up to a splash page. Its just my opinion that sometimes the effect is weak, even given a strong story and art. I think it was just the melodramatic nature of Ex Machoina .

  5. Dan Silver says:

    The art in Mara is definitely not bad art but it is quite lifeless as you say. I think two main issues are that the colour is quite dull and all the art is very static. All the characters appear to be standing around in very stiff poses.

    It’s hard to answer the question because I think in comic books good art depends on a good story in the same way that good writing needs a good story. You can’t have a bad story and good writing it’s contradictory. In the same way I think it’s not possible to have good art with a bad story because the art in a comic book makes up part of the story. They rely too much on each other to be exclusive. In my opinion good art in comic books means it is drawn in a style that resonates with the story. That being said I would not look at a comic book simply because it had aesthetically pleasing art with a substandard story and I wouldn’t read a comic with good writing and art that was out of place.
    If I want to look at something simply for its visual qualities I would go to an art gallery or museum and if I wanted to read something for its high quality writing I would read a book. However if I am looking to read a comic book I would look for one with artwork that supported the story because the whole point of comic books is to combine the two art forms to enhance a story.

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