2000 Words for Sergio Toppi

Sergio Toppi is one of my big artistic influences.  Which is to say he is for me one of the hardest riddles for me to crack.  Which is to say, that there is a language within what he does, that I am trying to find my own words to describe his language to myself.  An influence is at it’s most apparent in this stage of figuring it out.  Once you figure out what the work says to you, and why it is powerful to you, you can find your own words to speak with–your own lines begin to come through.  This is what is meant by Lone Wolf and Cub–which is most certainly my art school of choice–when you see the buddha on the road, kill the buddha.  Influence is meant to be taken apart, wrecked, and defeated.
So the reason someone like Toppi or Schiele are so apparent in my work is because they present the most difficulties for me in surpassing, and in understanding why them and not some other artist–why aren’t I trying to draw like Jim Lee–like everyone else who read superhero comics growing up when I did?

So I’m going to try this by attacking Toppi’s masterwork Sharaz-De, which thanks to Archaia Press, is also the first Toppi book I’ve read in my native language.  And this is proto-proto what I’ll probably write for a review of Sharaz-De later on.  But I had this whole brain storm today just thinking over Toppi and his influence for me–and had to get it out of me.
The first most obvious thing about Toppi that hits you is the hatching style he uses to render everything.  There are some of the Breccia influenced artists who have a few accents in this direction–but aside from them and maybe some Dino Battaglia–it is a pretty unique feature of Toppi’s work.  The lines are almost so iconic  that the instant you see them you know them.  Why are they so powerful?
I think some if it is inherent to the medium.  I mean on their own in a fine art context, they would still be striking.  But when we are talking about the act of reading a comic, and eyes moving around a page–from one to the next–the control of the eye is even more important in the composition than even it would be in a fine art piece.  Because you are controlling the way your book is read, and affecting hugely the sensation your reader gets.  Like just as my stock example.  Say Toppi and Brandon Graham were in some sort of top chef contest but with pencils and pens–and the secret ingredient was like–turtles and a dude with a hat on–the space Brandon creates with his lines and their clean curvatures–and now with the recent multiple warheads books–these sophisticated light texturing lines on cliffs and backgrounds–the sensation you get looking at his work is space.  Not warm.  But comforting in a way.  They’re like a cool secret handshake with a friend you’ve not seen in ten years.  Your eye moves through his work easily without much interruption–this is the thing–and we’ll let it ride.

Toppi on the other hand is constantly breaking up your sight line.  It’s bombastic angular line on top of bombastic angular line–hating in all directions into these sudden almost violent negative spaces–in just a singular line there is psychosis.  It bends and wriggles and writhes into shapes–inside of shapes–shapes manifest inside of shapes inside of shapes.  And the way this splays out into the hatching is like if you’ve heard a song from the black metal band Blut Aus Nord(which go listen to one of their songs to see what I’m talking about).  Toppi’s hatching is this layering of insane line riff under insane line riff–Schiele lines on top of Schiele lines creating Klimt collages(Sienkiewicz, yeah?).

The mastery at play here though is that in every time he approaches a new figure or shape to hatch–it is like he is learning a new song.  Each one is different and like it’s own individual snowflake to a degree that goes beyond the simple rendering purposes of most hatching.  Each figure has their own hatch pattern–it’s so beautiful and perfect–it’s like the unrepeatability of color and light dappling onto a stream.  There’s never the same ripple–even if the sensation is still that you are using the same elements of light, dark, and stream.  So every line is a choice–but with Toppi the choice is the combination of a grandmaster who is allowing his subconscious to know what is right.  He knows this box of lines next to that box of lines is right at this angle and not that angle–and you know he knows–because it fucking works.

But okay.  Is just the hatching?  If it were then why is Sharaz-De the masterwork, and not some of his also excellent Collector series?  Both of these works use the same hatching styles to a lot of the same dramatic effect.  And don’t get me wrong–I will write more on just the hatching–because there are elements of just that which I think are part of the mystery.  But I think Sharaz-De stands out as the greatest manifestation of Toppi’s art–and that is even though other works of his have the same hatching style.

What Sharaz-De does different than say the Collector series–and I think this is also something that makes his work Tanka stand out above the rest as well–and that is his eschewing of traditional paneling as his primary comic storytelling technique.  And I’m going to say that with the caveat that I don’t think Sharaz-De eschews paneling at all.  In fact, the one way it does emply panels when it employs them–long rectangular panels cutting against the grain–and then working in their own interior directions–their power comes from how sparingly they are used–by not using traditional paneling sequences–he calls even more attention to the panel when he uses it.  But anyway let’s just say–what we conventionally understand as paneling he tosses.  What we generally understand comics to be is a sequence of panels containing or not containing information to create the sensation of time.

In this way we can see comic panels like piano keys.  You push this one, it makes this sound.  You push this one, it makes that sound.  You put this panel next to this panel–it produces this sensation of time.  And then you dictate rhythm on the page by fiddling with the order, shape, and composition within and without the panels.  See also: Crepax.

By creating the space between two panels(the gutter, scott mccloud?) we create the space that allows the reader’s imagination to take hold, and for the magic of comics to take effect.  So what is Toppi doing in getting rid of such a reliance on panels?  Well where most creators are playing Piano.  Let’s say Crepax is Theolonious Monk in this comparison.  Toppi is Skip James(Ghost World reference, WHAT!?)–bending the notes.  Time distorts on a Toppi page–and the amount of time your eye spends on a given space is dictated by it’s importance–not just the space of time that is holding within the narrative.  This is where Toppi’s hatching style comes back into play–because now that he is playing without a rigid paneling net underneath him–the hatching density and angles are dictating the time and the rhythm of your read.

And this puts him in an interesting spot in terms of his composition.  Because if he were using standard paneling techniques–he could grid in horizontal sequences.  But without the panels there–if Toppi were to use the same rules you would apply for a 9-panel grid–it would be impossible for you to read(like Bachalo’s Steampunk–ha(your mom(I love Bachalo)).  So that’s one restriction in place from get.  And then you have to think about that most readers when they turn the page–their eye is going to start on one of the corners of the page depending on if they are used to reading manga or western comics.  So in this case the top left corner.  So he knows that he has to have angularity to his composition AND he knows he is starting in the top left corner with his readers.

These limitations are what create the tension and brilliance of Sharaz-De(see how in the above image, he uses the white diagonal space to push you to the top right corner and then the hatching stops you at the kiss–before stuttering you down the page until you hit the bottom left corner–feel the relief he creates with that final white space at the bottom and how that informs how you feel about the character of Sharaz-De–cool freaking stuff).  He is constantly playing with the diagonal line, and the natural reading motions of western readers.  Sometimes he can fight against that grain to slow you down on a page–sometimes he can trick you into cascading right–before ripping you across to the left of the page.  These are tensions that most comic artists don’t even really have to work with to this degree because of the degree to which you can bend panels(again: see crepax).  A really cool comparison actually is Crepax’s Anita Live books he did in the 80s–which also wrestle with these diagonals–with the added tension of trying to play with traditional Crepax paneling habits.

But anyways–what I’m saying is that I think the power that Sharaz-De gets artistically comes a lot from the fact that this is the perfect page design for Toppi’s line.  Which I don’t think is a consideration most artist’s even get to have in their life time.  And I don’t really know that Toppi stuck with this style much after Sharaz-De–I know Tanka is like this.  But I’ve seen later works of his where he’s gone back to a more formal panel structure–there is I think probably less stress in that format–but the marriage of these two things are I think why Sharaz-De works to a great extent.

But while that is itself interesting in talking about just Sharaz-De–even Toppi’s lesser works still speak to me and are a big part of why I obsess over him.  The first Toppi art I ever saw was paneled and colored work.  I can’t remember off hand the name of the work I saw–because it was just a page.

But I do think the discussion of hatching, line, and composition get to another powerful aspect of Toppi’s work which is present in all of his work–which is the creation of negative space.  It is almost an obsession of his work–and kind of ironic that he throws so many lines on the page–just so you can hear the lines he doesn’t.  I think that’s how irony works anyways.  I grew up on Alanis Morrissette more than Romeo and Juliet.

It’s such a fascinating aspect of his work–because at the end of the day–do you define a Toppi page by it’s lines or it’s spaces?  Is the page where he is–or where he has shown us he is not?  Of course even in the empty spaces he’s there–because he’s created them–but it’s really interesting–and a lot of the dynamics for creating those negative spaces play into his style.  For negative space to work at it’s most powerful on a comic page–you need to create the impact of that space.  Otherwise you’re just an artist with clean lines.  Toppi with his violent volcano of shapes and lines distracts your eye–takes control of your eye before plowing it into these sudden quiet and dramatic spaces.  His negative spaces are almost ecstatic in that way.  They produce in you a little bit of sublime awe.  Just in their construction

So what is speaking to me in Toppi?  Looking at this it’s a few things.  I can see the shared line psychosis that Schiele has–a line which on the human form attacks and contorts in almost nightmarish ways–creating an otherness of the body–that is something that is within my transgender experience and the attendant body issues of both being transgender and being a woman in such an image conscious society.  I see myself in those lines.  And I also like them objectively–because of the way that they communicate psychosis–for me all work is personal–and even if the story isn’t–my line is–and that’s true for everyone drawing–but some lines call attention to this–some don’t.  In this line I can see some of my own story.  But if it were just the line dynamics –I mean I can read that pretty quickly as Schiele/Klimt–in the same way that I enjoy Aeon Flux–but I’m not inspired by it or anything.  Me and Peter Chung just have a similar battle going on with Schiele.  Grandmaster takes on all comers from beyond the grave.

It is also that negative space.  Or that rendering breaks down into shapes when you zoom in enough on it–and I want to explore that nature of shapes within shapes.  The internet as a system of tubes–someit like that–ha.  No, but I think that shapes are interesting to me in this function because I spend so much time looking in mirrors watching my own shape contort and change depending on my mind state–and so I don’t see things as rigid in their construction.  I see them as loose and ever changing.  Floating squares–floating spaces of line and light.

I’d like to find the space between the logical conclusion of Toppi–which is I think abstract shapes conveying pure consciousness–and the edge of comprehensible storytelling.  Or at least that’s what Toppi’s influence means for me.

He’s also dope at character design.

  1. I have always loved Toppi, and now thanks to your analysis I understand my own admiration much better!

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