In college, I did a senior year thesis on Frank Miller, Klaus Janson & Lynn Varney’s The Dark Knight Returns. Because I was a hotshot snot-nosed kid, I thought I could do Scott McCloud one better than Understanding Comics.
He explores a topic in that book that he calls “closure,” which is the reader’s effort to fill in the narrative or movement “blanks” between panels. It’s the imaginative leap that makes comics work.
I “added” a concept called “emphasis,” which is the creator’s choice of what to depict in any given panel. In retrospect, it’s an embarrassingly obvious notion. It probably adds nothing to any conversation about comics.
And yet…I return to the idea often, because while the choice of emphasis by an artist seems obvious when a panel simply conveys story information, it’s just as often used to set mood and meaning. That was the crux of my thesis–a close read of the sequence in Dark Knight where Bruce Wayne recalls the death of his parents. We see closeups of Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace caught by the arm of her attacker; as the attacker pulls his arm away, the necklace is pulled apart. We see the necklace stretch and the pearls separate in excruciating detail. More than just suspense, this sequence builds an excruciating tension because of Miller’s emphasis in key panels on the pearls versus any number of other images he could have used to convey the same information.
Anyway. Klaus Janson’s work on “Gothic” has me thinking about emphasis again, because as a penciler, he has a stylized, unique approach to it.
Action sequences are another place where emphasis plays a huge role–the choice of what positions to depict for the participants can help convey a sense of motion, or if they appear too posed, give the sequence a halting, motionless feeling.
Klaus Janson chooses some weird poses to capture in his art.
This is Batman rousting a thug, pencils and inks by Janson.
In a sense, it’s similar to any number of familiar images of Batman–the dark knight falling from above with menace in his eyes, his arms outstretched, cape furling in the wind.
Except that’s not quite what we get here. There’s nothing that establishes Batman as being above the ground prior to this page, so it’s not clear of he’s dropping down from a height or maybe standing from a crouch. His arms aren’t outstretched, holding his inky black cape aloft; they’re in mid-motion, either extending the cape or bringing it in.
It’s a lived-in, real version of an image that’s existed before, and will exist countless times again. Janson’s own inks give the moment (and many others throughout the book) a kinetic charge that almost brings to mind some of the more disconcerting shots in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. It’s as close to a jump cut as you’ll see in comics.
But there is a firmness, a solidity in the image, and it’s in Batman’s face. That half-smile. It leaps out from the page. His full frame isn’t quite as menacing as his expression. And he dominates the rest of the page–not just because his reveal fills the top two-thirds but because he and his cape are in the foreground of almost every other panel.
It’s that preference for emphasizing unconventional moments and his disciplined control (or intentional lack thereof) of his line work that make Janson one of the all-time greats.
Next: Moench/Gulacy/Austin on Prey
A brief postscript–I wanted to try something different by focusing on art with this write-up rather than my usual comfort zone of X number of graphs about the story and writing, followed by a cursory nod to the contributions of the artist.
Fortunately, a far better writer than I has already tackled this story, and that’s comics blogger and all-around exceptional writer Tegan O’Neil. In fact, she toyed with doing her own story-by-story write-up of Legends of the Dark Knight in 2015. I’ll be linking to the pieces she completed as I finish my own write-ups, so by all means, visit her take to get a more Morrison-centric look at “Gothic.” And here’s her piece on the previous storyline, “Shaman.”