Solo #12 (2006), page 24 panel 3. Brendan McCarthy.
All my talk about varying levels of detail over the past few weeks can basically be boiled down to one nugget, and it's a good bet as the most nauseatingly over-cited piece of comics art wisdom: as long as it serves the story, it's probably OK to put in. As long as it's superfluous to the story, it's probably OK to take out. But there's a stream of comics to which that just doesn't apply, because they aren't about the story as much as the experience, the unique flavor, the things that only the comics medium can deliver. Gary Panter does that kind of work. So does Jim Steranko. And so, as I'll explain, does Brendan McCarthy.
McCarthy fits in with the other two guys I mentioned above for more than just the feel of his stories. Like Panter and Steranko, he comes to comics out of a separate, "higher" visual art tradition. Panter is a pop-expressionist painter, Steranko a midcentury commercial artist. McCarthy, for his part, is spawned from the English art schools of the 1970s, where whimsy and psychedelia intertwined with formal play and the utmost importance of style. (There's a reason more famous rock bands came out of those places than painters, after all.) What McCarthy brings to comics out of his pure-visual arts background, not to mention his time in movie and animation design, is an almost unparalleled focus on making the images come first, a willingness to throw the story in the back seat and just make mind-blowing drawings. That's a really foreign impulse for most mainstream comics artists, who not only work in a divided-labor system that makes true pictorial soloing impossible, but also come to comics via comics, the mere idea of choosing not to use certain storytelling conventions falling outside their headspace.
Reading McCarthy comics you often get the sense that he doesn't know or care just how directly upstream he's swimming, and as such the product is wildly variable. Sometimes a McCarthy page turns up a total mess, all sense of sequence and flow lost in a sluice of color or line. Other times it hangs together somehow, and the results are nothing less than a new way of comics that's not even definable for the amount of innovation it carries. Sometimes it's both at the same time, head-spinning, and that's probably why McCarthy's disorienting laughing-gas-blast pages have remained cult objects rather than bleeding into the canon like they should have years and years ago.
In the panel above, though, McCarthy gets it all right. It's a pretty basic take on subdivision, two actions in one panel -- but McCarthy subtracts the cold, formal procedure of in-frame borders and just packs two pictures in there, totally irregardless of the fact that the usual thing to do is one per rectangle. It makes for a hell of a kinetic composition, layering action over reaction, call welded to response in a fully organic, perfectly readable sequence that scrolls neatly across the page but doesn't ask us to hop any gutters or move past any dividing lines. It's the fullness of one (literally!) explosive moment in a self-contained unit, binding the two individuals' actions together rather than abjecting them from one another. A totally original approach to fight drawings, this is one where you wonder why they weren't doing it all long.
But McCarthy takes his all-in impulse way further than just forgetting to draw a line down the middle. There's a true pop artist's approach to the language of comic-book shorthand on display here: check out the massive amount of speed-line haze the monster's roundhouse swing generates in the upper left, the irreverent, video game-esque glow of the Latin sound effects that splat across the page in seeming ignorance of the figure drawings they're covering over. The starburst in the middle that provides the frame with its loudest noise also functions as a bold exhibition of individual style. When was the last time you saw a comics artist draw a starburst that looked like a radiant portal, or maybe a glittering deep-sea creature, and not that same regularized shape we all know? It's that kind of reconsideration of old comics standards that makes McCarthy's work so fresh, so surprising. And then there's the little details -- richly anecdotal, utterly distracting, totally not in service of the story -- but that endlessly layered explosion of bright-light crucifixes totally sells the anger of the starburst's blast while lending the panel a decorative element of high psychedelia. Hell, the processional line of them across the bottom even draws your eye right into the rising action, and it gives a backgroundless panel some definite perspective in the bargain.
Of course, McCarthy's career as a comics-color conceptualist deserves at least as much ink as his drawings. These days he pretty much stands alone as a computer-tone wildman (well, him and Frazer Irving), but this panel sees him in a relatively restrained, nearly Zen mode, innovating colored line art for every single pictorial element, the navy and pinks and yellows and most of all the absence of any distracting blacks unifying a hugely messy composition with calm, futurist precision. This is something almost nobody's picked up on since, and it's something absolutely everybody working in full color should have: given that pure black line doesn't even exist in real life, why not just go for it and make the tones of the lines a part of the over all color scheme? McCarthy's cornflower shadows and blazing letters go all the way to the bone for this picture, lending that expressionist explosion no end of strange, starry light. And despite the amped-up brightness and high contrast of the hues, it's all perfectly balanced, with derivatives of the three primary colors carrying equal weight and no extra hues needed, plenty of white left in a frame that somehow never gets overcrowded, the delicacy of the pastel tones evening out the spiky violence of the picture.
So yeah, this panel breaks a lot of the rules. It takes way more time to read than the average one-action composition, it moves your eye around the page in a veering, reeling fever-motion, it's messy as hell and full of concern for anecdotal detail. And yet it works -- because of the painterly color choices, the strength of the composition, whether unconventional or not, the pop-art vigor of the subject matter, the thick, blameless linework that slams it all into being. It doesn't look like normal comics, but would you really want it any other way?