Monday, 22 June 2015

Providing Some Background

When working on sketches for some buffer pages for my comic (Tails of Lanschilandia), some thoughts occurred to me while drawing panel backgrounds. I've heard from someone recently that they don't draw them as often as I do, and I've noticed of myself that I often add them as an afterthought and focus on the more important elements first. So why have them at all, and what level of attention do they deserve? "Expressive", abstract backgrounds can be used to affect the mood of the panel or story. But is there ever any need for "real" backgrounds of actual places? What do they add to a comic, in this humble author's opinion?

Backgrounds set the scene. They make the comic's world feel more complete - or rather, actually present. For without them, what world is there other than a blank void? Backgrounds can also provide context. Where are the characters? What might they be able to do there, where might other elements come into play? And in the almost words of Cotton-Eye Joe, where did they come from, where do they go? Backgrounds give the impression that things are happening outside of the panel; what leaves the panel goes somewhere, and what enters it comes from somewhere. It's not just there because it has to be, for the limited time it has to be. Everything exists within a setting and can move to other locations within that setting to interact in and with. Even the basic implication of a room lets one assume so much more: the characters are most likely inside a building and able to move around within its boundaries, interact with elements in other rooms and also leave the building. They don't wander a featureless plane, and when a character isn't present, they may be in another room or somewhere outside the house, pursuing their own activities, not inexplicably absent from reality because they aren't needed.

Does this mean that backgrounds need a great deal of attention? Absolutely not, I would say. From my experience, panel backgrounds are something that I - as a reader - pick up subconsciously and retrieve information from about general location and an impression of the setting. They are not something I analyse or gaze upon in awe (unless the particular panel deliberately invokes awe-inspiring scenery over actual action - which is also fine now and then, most obviously for establishing shots). My focus will be elsewhere: on the characters, their actions, their speech. Backgrounds add to the comic, as stated above, but under normal conditions, they are not the comic. They should be there and convey that information, but there is no mandatory reason to go beyond that in most situations as the vast majority of readers most likely won't go beyond picking up the basic information unless what's happening in the foreground cannot hold their attention (in which case there's a bigger problem at hand that's harder to fix than by polishing backgrounds). Here's an example from a story by the late Carl Barks that I love to cite on this topic:

Clicky link to image hosted on Comic Book Resources

Let's look at the panel backgrounds here. Do they convey information? Very much so - the characters are interacting inside a room, mayhap an office, and it's in a building within a city, as the window illustrates. It sets the scene and provides a context for an approximate location within the setting - anyone with experience should be able to tell that the characters are inside Scrooge's money bin, information that can be retrieved even from these few basic details and lines in the background.

As stated, however, the panel backgrounds are extremely basic. A few straight lines outline a room (which consists of plain surfaces devoid of texture in the line work); there are money bags to clarify the location, as these are recurring motives in Scrooge's office (and in association with him in general); the window provides a view of Duckburg; the telephone is there because it's being used. Apart from a lone picture on the wall, the background is suspiciously lacking in details, and it's also inconsistent: Where's the picture outside of panel 2? Where did the window go in panel 4? Why does the telephone table change size? In panel 3, there is no background at all (apart from the gradient added by the colourist).

Is the reader going to be bothered by any of this? The answer, for the majority of readers, is most certainly "no"; there is too much important action going on in the foreground for anyone to question the absence of texture on the carpet. Without deliberately focusing on the background details, their lack is hardly noticeable when reading the story, and neither are the inconsistencies. Many comics I have read are ridden with them if one is specifically on the lookout for them; the reason no one cares is that they tell interesting stories and convey the important aspects well, which the reader is going to pay more attention to than whether or not the tree in panel 5 has disappeared by panel 7.

So, in closing, should a comic utilise panel backgrounds? Most definitely, at least enough to convey the information touched upon above. Should a lot of time be spent on them? It's hardly necessary, I would say. An entertaining story, even with only the basic implications of a setting for it to take place in, is worth so much more, and when working on a schedule, time can be precious.

No comments:

Post a Comment