Grey Vampires and Green Cowboys
Submitted by Brian Moore on August 19, 2010 - 14:00
Gus and His Gang by Christophe Blain
Vampire Loves by Joann Sfar
This is a quick examination of some color, drawing and design techniques used in two great bandes dessinées. I've kept Vampire Loves close to my drawing table for some time now, trying to glean some ideas and inspiration from Sfar's art. More recently I picked up Gus and His Gang and that's also been both enjoyable to read and to look over, saying "How did Blain do that ...?" Both artists have versatile, energetic, and very "cartoony" art styles, in the best sense of using all the tools of caricature, exaggeration, and symbolism that are available to cartoonists. They are Big Guns and worth close study. Some other artists in this vein that I enjoy, but didn't have time to fold into this post, are Kerascoet and Emile Bravo, both of whom have some work available in English (and probably a much vaster amount in French.) I hope you'll look them up!
Blain is a nimble and energetic artist, going from high-energy scrawls to inky silhouettes, often in the same panel. He has a great grasp of how to use contrast to dramatic effect. In the first panel, Clem rides into town, looking like he weighs a hundred tons compared to the scratchily-depicted people and stagecoach in the background. Clem's bright blue shirt and orange hair contrast strongly, adding energy to the figure, while the background is rendered in closely-related earth tones. It's a brilliantly lit outdoor scene. In the second panel, Gus and Grattan wait for Clem in the stale air of their hotel room. The wall decorations and chair are barely sketched in; the window is a few scratches of ink to indicate the light pouring through the mullions. Contrast (and size) is used to put Gus in the foreground.
And let's not leave out Blain's character design skills. He plays up that ridiculous nose on Gus every chance he gets—one sequence shows a very literal "Gus's eye view", a vignetted panel with the nose zooming from the foreground into the distance—and yet it doesn't distract from the story; it gives a window into Gus' character. Gus is a successful train robber with nerves of steel, but that nose precedes him everywhere he goes.
Here we have a beautifully simple panel from Vampire Loves. Depressed vampire Ferdinand has knocked himself out (he tried to fly and sulk at the same time, and crashed into a tree), and as a result is resting his head on the panel border. His friends are driving him home. A black fill stands in for the car interior and the night outside; Ferdinand's grotesque noggin is a simple (but interesting!) grey shape with three lines to indicate facial features. It's those two parenthetical eye marks that do the trick; he's as vulnerable as any sleeping person, hardly a terrifying creature of the night. (The overall effect is almost woodcut-like, fitting for a story about a vampire.)
In the panel from Gus and His Gang, normally cool-as-a-cucumber stick-up man Grattan is shaking in his boots for fear of standing up a lady (with the added complications that she's married to a judge, and Grattan is currently a deputy sheriff, past robberies notwithstanding.) The wobbly outlines of his body fill with green fear, which fulminates into a cloud that starts to fill the alleyway. The shadowy alleyway is toned in ominous red, and the patch of sunlit street behind Grattan is essentially white, which makes it appear warm in contrast to the green, and bright in contrast to the red of the alleyway. Hard-ass Clem, in the foreground, blends in easily to the alleyway, its red tones sneaking into the black silhouette of his body. He's in his element.
Here the color change signifies a change in location and in scene. Ferdinand is accompanying a Wailer spirit, who can pass through walls, and who can bring Ferdinand with her if he cooperates. They've just escaped from some villains in the dark-green room, and the orange lighting in the next panel marks a change to a lighter tone in the writing, too. Though that's kind of a simplification; Sfar is really good at mixing-and-matching moods, leavening scary bits with humor, adding horror to the mundane, etc. He's also got artistic range: compare these panels, with the frenetic hatching and spindly black shapes, to the panel above.
These are some of my favorite panels from Vampire Loves. These are both sort of pauses to breathe in the momentum of the story; in the first panel a ladies-man Werewolf is about to pounce, in the second Ferdinand is pondering just before he launches into the next sequence, with the Wailer. The characters are in repose, for just a moment. That wonderful smoke cloud adds interest (and characterization) to the first panel. And the high angle and patterning add visual interest to the second, while also emphasizing Ferdinand's loneliness. The brighter yellow-green of the Wailer heralds the action to come. Even without the color, these would be beautiful panels.