Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Perspective As A Symbolic Form

Hector Germán Oesterheld (w), Hugo Pratt (a), "El Sargento Kirk: El pais de los mungos," Editorial Abril, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Misterix # 359, August 12, 1955 (page 665 of the series, 46 of the story). The original art was India ink on paper in the landscape format (three tiers: 2 x 3 x 2 panels); size of publication 5.7 x 9 inches, genre: Western.

In the last few days I praised the work of Hugo Pratt, Héctor Oesterheld, and Stefan Strocen in "El pais de los mungos" as if said work's excellence was obvious to anyone looking at my examples (it never is, of course). Today I want to look at one page of the story to see if a close reading sheds some light on the work of Oesterheld and Pratt (Strocen is absent because the page is in black and white). I will not convince anyone who dislikes the work of one of them or the work of both, obviously, because the critic can only "convince" the converted. Aesthetic choices, not unlike choices in the fields of politics or religion or sports are personal and not transferable. 

Anyway, I digress...

It would be very interesting to read Oesterheld's script to see if it's an Alan Moore kind of script or a somewhat looser one: Oesterheld chose the shots or Hugo Pratt planed it all? European fans of Hugo Pratt, some so-called critics among them, prefer to believe in this second option, but that's because they have a religion, they're Ugoprattians. Since I'm not part of that particular church I have to be Agnostic here: I simply don't know, so, from now on it's the work of Pratt/Oesterheld or the work of Oesterheld/Pratt. I put this disclaimer at the beginning just to get that shadow out of the way...

What the page above shows is basically a conflict situation. The page starts with an extreme close-up of Kirk (panel one). Kirk is alone because he needs to make a very difficult decision: will they try to save Tumiga from the Crows or will they abandon him in the name of the group's safety? Kirk chooses the latter option. The next shots are wide close shots showing the reaction of the group against Kirk (Corto) and in favor (Dr. Forbes) of Kirk's decision. Their silhouettes in panel three connote conspiracy, but we know that Corto will not confront Kirk, so, nothing will come out of that. In panel four the real danger to Kirk's leadership appears for the first time: Kani. Like Kirk she needs to make a decision and she knows that she's alone. So, like Kirk, she gets her full close-up (not as extreme as Kirk's, but her decision is not as difficult to make). The most important exception to the group's wide close shots though are not the close-ups, the most important exception, the panel that says it all, is panel six: a full high angle shot (it's a double contrast: of frame and point of view; it also contradicts the other composition solutions in friezes introducing the oblique line - between Dr. Forbes and Kani). She's diverging from the group and never was she bigger than when the perspective shows her smaller in the last panel.

Milton Caniff, "Terry and the Pirates," the last Sunday before leaving the series, December 29, 1946 (I don't know who the - great - colorist was). The sixth panel above reminds another panel that was ingrained in Hugo Pratt's brain (as seen on this blog already). The obvious difference is that Kani diverges while Jane converges.

It's a well known fact that Hugo Pratt started his career in comics under the powerful influence of Milton Caniff, but in "El pais de los mungos" another influence (an European one this time), and a not less powerful one, begins to show: Hergé and what was later called (by Joost Swarte) the clear line.

Hergé and Studios Hergé, "Tintin au Tibet," Le Lombard, Tintin Magazine # 20, May 20, 1959 (left); Hector Germán Oesterheld (w), Hugo Pratt (a), Stefan Strocen (c), "El Sargento Kirk: El pais de los mungos," Editorial Abril, Misterix # 357, July 29, 1955 (right). It may seem strange that I chose a 1959 panel to show its influence in 1955, but Hergé's (and Studios Hergé's) style was perfectly in place in 1955 when "L'Affaire Tournesol" [The Calculus Affair] was being serialized. Besides, Tintin au Tibet is another book in which footsteps in the snow are an important part of the plot.

If we look closely though, there are also important differences between the clear line in 1955 and Hugo Pratt's style in the page above. Pratt uses linear perspective, but the space is never very detailed or deep. Except for the last panel the forest is more suggested than shown, but the main difference lies in the thickness of the lines. Figures in the foreground are outlined with thicker lines than the figures in the background. This is clear (no pun intended) in the last panel when the linear perspective is enhanced to guide the reader's eye from right to left (the "unnatural" way of reading in the West, suggesting the difficulties ahead) until we find fragile, and yet gigantic in her resolve, Kani. The lines have also a "nervousness" in them that is absent from the clear line (we may say that the clear line is here to decrease the drama, but Hugo Pratt doesn't want pathos to fade completely; also, the sticks look like needles adding a subtle expressionist touch). There are no shadows, no hatching or cross-hatching, but thick lines suggest drape folds and logs.

Snow falls from the beginning to the end of the page. This provokes a relentless, uncomfortable, visual rhythm. The clock is already ticking... the fates never rest...

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