Arthur Ranson, Mazeworld, and The Photoreal

Mazeworld is a comic about a murderous villain who right at the moment of his execution by hanging, is transported to a fantastic labyrinthine world of mazes, called Mazeworld.  He is somehow able to survive his hanging and living a state of suspended animation as a kind of human guinea pig–he floats in between the two worlds, one where he is a hero, the other where he is a cowardly villain.  The comic is written by Alan Grant, with Arthur Ranson supplying the art.  It is currently available in a collected edition from 2000AD, wherever fine comics are blah.

And while the story overall of Mazeworld is interesting in a kind of 80s technogreed fantastic world building kind of way–the reason why one would read Mazeworld would be to take in the wonderful work by Arthur Ranson.  And while even of the limited Ranson that I’ve been able to read, Mazeworld isn’t the most impressive work(I think the Judge Anderson stuff is more fantastic, and Shamballa in particular seems to play to all of Ranson’s strengths as an artist).  It is certainly remarkable in it’s own right, and I thought would be a good sampling to serve as an introduction to the more interesting qualities of what Ranson has to say as an artist.

I think with Ranson while there is a side to his work that is wonderfully psychedelic in it’s design and execution–that kind of plays out like a more in control form of what you might see from a Druillet comic–I think principally the most interesting discussion to dive into with regards to Ranson is his execution of photo-realism, and how even though he is using a photo-realist style, he is able to create extremely dynamic movement and imagery on the page.

I think Ranson does a good job of exposing how photo-realism is being misused currently in the superhero comics in which it is currently a fairly huge influence.  I think for the most part there has been a confusion that simply making something look like it is real, even though it is a drawing, is a quality of great art, and not simply an exercise in technique sans vision.  Someone like Ranson even though his art is photo-real, is still expressing a strong point of view as an artist.  And even though photo-realism is a quality that you can use to describe his art, I would almost say it is the least consequential in terms of why these comics pages are working.

With Ranson there are sort of two main rails on which his work succeeds, and that is texture and movement.  The former is less complex to unravel than the latter, which is I think a multi-layered thing in and of itself.  And it is actually his eye for this last thing, movement, that really creates the special moments in Arthur Ranson comics.

Anyways.  To examine these points, I’ve chosen a three page section from the middle of Mazeworld where the hooded man(seen wearing a hood) and Dark Man(guess which one he is) are having a bit of the old smashy stabby high up on this sort of wooden pier.

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So since it’s the more basic aspect of Ranson’s photorealism, I’ll address it quickly and first.  The textural element.  So even though these images are photorealist–Ranson’s hatching, which vascilates between smaller clusters of ticks, and longer ropier marks creates a certain voice and individuality in just the rendering that might be lost simply throwing down some blacks, or using just one stable style of hatching.  So like the smaller more sort of moebiusy ticks that he uses for the Hooded Man’s skin is contrasted against the ropier 70s ish lines used for the bridge–these kind of ropier textures have all but died out in mainstream contemporary comics, despite being very much in vogue for what…2 decades with artists ranging from Bernie Wrightson to Jose Gonzalez to Esteban Marotto to even someone like Neal Adams.  Added against this are these longer more singular lines which you can see really well in the last panel for the top of the deck where they contrast against the tighter technique used to shadow the hand.  I love these lines because if you look at each one individually–it’s just so human.  A machine didn’t make this.  This is the chaos of the human hand.  Every one of those lines is a man’s life, and seeing each one sort of pull out is just always really wonderful to see.  

But more than that, the conjunction of these different rendering styles allow for a greater sense of texture and feel.  Wood looks different than skin than cloth–it looks different to our eyes, there is contrast–and this allows us to feel the difference too.  

 

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The second principal element to notice with Ranson is movement–or more, how he captures movement.  One of the issues with photorealism is that oftentimes the reality of the images cause us to slow down too much(generally because our eye is looking for all of the ways in which it isn’t real) to be able to perceive the movement necessary for the kind of dynamism that makes action comics fun to read.

There are two main ways that Ranson combats this stiffness.  One is control of his camera.  And the second is his overall page composition.

So for the first point, notice in that bottom row of three panels and how he pans out and shifts over on Dark Man’s choke hold on the Hooded Man.  This accomplishes a few things.  It allows you to pull out and get a beginning sense of scale.  In the first panel the two characters take up 90 percent of the panel, in the second panel 70 percent of the panel is now the drop they are fighting over.  This movement is coupled with capturing Hooded man’s kick to Dark man’s back.  It is absolutely the perfect choice of shot to bridge the two bottom panels, because as we see in the final panel, the kick has knocked both characters off of the deck.  And now the proportion of characters to fall is inverted from the first of the three panels.  And dramatically this has all been set up because of that third panel, and the bottom left to top right angularity of the movement of those bottom three panels.

The drop literally rushes up to you as a reader.  Which is what allows you to feel the downward pull of that last panel.

Consider if Ranson had instead chosen another close-up for that second panel along the same plane as the preceding panel.  So like if you saw from behind them instead, so you could see more of Hooded Man’s Kick up close–suddenly you have completely lost that build up and you would just jolt from fight to fall with no real connective tissue.

Besides that, Ranson not only knows where to put his camera, he knows when to snap it too.  So in that second panel the leg kick hasn’t yet hit Dark Man.  In fact, we never really see it hit him.  We simply see it about to connect and then the result—which makes the impact occur in our imagination–which again makes it more dynamic than if he had shot that image just a few second later.   And then look at the last panel, they’re not completely off of the deck.  Hoodedman’s foot is still attached–so this is literally the most terrifying point of the fall–they’re going over, and they’ve just realized they’re going over–it is the exact middle point between losing balance and falling.  This gives a tension to the image that wouldn’t be as palpable if he had drawn them just a foot farther in their fall.

The other thing to notice, which  gets us into how page design helps in all of this–is the overall construction of this page.  Six vertical panels.  Basic grid. The simplicity of the grid allows for the page’s movement to instead be dictated by the overall composition of the page, which Ranson is modulating through his camera.  It would get confusing if he was hitting you with a complex layout AND spinning his camera around.  Or if not confusing–you can say that the simplistic grid brings emphasis to these other elements.  So you have this Z-shaped movement that you also see prominently in something like a Sergio Toppi comic–so you have this sort of two planed page where the interiors of the panels are diagonalizing bottom left to top right, and then reset down into the next row which then repeats the action.  So it’s by this mastery of the basic storytelling elements that the complexities of Ranson’s imagemaking can be appreciated in their fullness.

 

Image

This page brings up the last aspect of Ranson’s art which combines both movement and texture–and that is his coloring.  Ranson uses a subtlety with his brush strokes and a good balance between the dimensionality of that blue background, and the flatter foreground elements of the characters and cliff.  He’s not giving you too much visual information in how he is rendering his colors to overwhelm his overarching composition and textural elements.  And that stark blue background really pops out the foregrounded characters in an extremely severe way which doesn’t allow them to sort of muddy in together, which is something you see a lot from even the best colorists in today’s comics, where there’s no contrast between background and foreground.  Here, even though the hooded man is also wearing blue, you never lose him against that blue backdrop.  That wonderful black shadow that Ranson puts in over the Hooded Man’s blue clothes pretty much is there to assure that.  Additionally here we have the third vertical panel which flips to the all white cloud–serving as a moment hovering on the page, before the two characters fall through the clouds in the final image.  So much of the dynamism of this page is coming from the strong dictation of values and contrast by Ranson in terms of his colors.

I think in general Ranson’s palette as an artist is really interesting because while it does have a certain ostentation, it is very restrained too.  His work is never plastic, and it has almost a Hal Foster Prince Valiant sensibility(which with Mazeworld I’m sure is a reference).  The danger with his palettes would be just falling into the kind of muddy bleh that would become a staple in 90s vertigo comics.  Ranson has just enough pop to his color that he actually is able to express things just on that level.

It also illustrates one of the ways that modern photorealist comics are ruined, which is by the overly plasticy rendering of muddy dark colors with very little contrast.  By forcing so much visual puke on the page, your eye is really unable to process the complexities or beauty of what is actually in front of you.  Modern photorealism + modern coloring in contemporary comics is anti-art.  Something like Bryan Hitch’s work on the Ultimates isn’t designed for you to see his art as art.  But rather, it’s literally meant to be glossed over–your eye slides off of one panel to the next.  Composition is largely dictated instead by lettering and the basic cohesion of it’s simplistic story.

A page like this is intrinsically not designed for you to be able to see it:

 

It’s only two panels, but if you tried to diagram it’s composition it would look like you were having some kind of seizure.  Gone is the textural separations of Ranson’s reality.  The more considered values of Ranson’s palette.  The elegant composition.  Pages like this are fundamentally why nobody bothers with saying artist’s names in reviews anymore.  And I’m not making a qualitative judgement on whether this is good or bad.  I actually liked the Ultimates, and enjoyed Hitch’s art–but I’m just talking about that it is not fundamentally designed for you to appreciate or even see the artist.  The whole emphasis on a page like this is the storytelling beat–the page is a placeholder for that.  You don’t feel anything about this world.  Everything is made from the same material.  Rocks, leather, cloth, skin–it’s all just a plastic mud that combined with it’s photo-realistic style puts too much visual information on the page for a human being to appreciate, particularly in a comic where the next page is very much like this one, and on and on and on.  It’s anti-artist work.

Anyways…meanwhile:

You hang one of these pages up in a book, I bet they won’t forget to put your name in the review.

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4 comments
  1. That’s flattering so thank you .
    But more importantly – how interesting and what a pleasure to come across writing that gives a thoughtful genuinely analytical view of comic-book art.

  2. Thank you! I try to write as close to the text as I can, so that I say anything interesting is completely the result of the power of the work itself. I had actually been planning to write about your work for awhile, so I was glad to finally get around to it. There’s obviously a ton more to say, and my focus here was pretty narrow–but the way your characters move through sequence has always been pretty magical to me. There’s this really cool train fight in Shamballa that you did that is one of my all-time favorite action segments in comics. I will probably write about that someday too.

    I also really get into a lot of the more psychedelic page layouts that you come up with, which I didn’t really touch on here. The control you have in terms of the totality of your composition on the page is daunting to look at, and I come at it from guys like Druillet and Sergio Toppi who are also masters at that. I think there’s some contemporary artists who try to go in that direction a little bit, but for a variety of reasons lack the compositional control, and so the pages just read like a splat of images. There’s a cool segment in Mazeworld where Cadman is being absorbed into the green and you depict it with these descending inset square panels that as a singular page look amazing–but as a reading experience mimic really well a kind of sinking super conscious experience.

    Anyways. I’m glad that you enjoyed the piece. Thank for all of the great comics art that you have made.

  3. That’s why Sarah is the best, Arthur. While everyone else is going “Derrrrp it’s pretty, now let’s fanboy about the story arc for 8 paragraphs” Sarah actually gets under the hood and explains why things do or don’t work for her.

  4. teporochoreader said:

    I´d add that Sarah is the only american critic I care for, and that´s including people from academics circles. Her interest lies in comics as a medium, not as a genre, her eye is an educated one and even more important, she isn´t blindfolded by languange and nationality, wich makes her an exceptional american comic book critic/activist (I´ve personally met a bunch, read another lot, and only I have the same consideration for Matt Madden). Even some of her own peers who may show some good analytical skills tend to fall in the provinciality of “why I care or not care about superheroes comics”. Who gives a heck about actual topical, crass and stereotyped stuff when you have a WORLD of master artists that have produced much more interesting and pertinent comic book ART? So far, only Sarah. (Heck, Madden moved to France, so there you go.)

    I wonder if Sarah is aware of what kind of anomaly (a GOOD ONE!) she is in her own country for this given context.

    From Arthur Ranson I´ve only got my hands on the first Button Man volume and I´ve been hunting down his Judge Anderson stuff. The man really knows how to pace a story and this review pretty much gets how he manages it. I envy the hell out of his craftsmanship. It´s also a nice call on the current photorealist bluff of some american comics: I can apreciate the craft on Hitch´s work, but it is unreadable; they are basically trying to sell impresive storyboards to Hollywood studios an even as storyboards they fail miserably. This also goes for Alex Ross, who is an impecable artist but whatever story he paints suffers because few people actually read it, most only flip the pages just looking.

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