Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Plus That Script!
In an interview given many years ago, Alex Toth advocated that comic artists should "plus" a script when converting it into drawings. The term comes from animation, and refers to enriching a story by inserting visual bits--background details, poses, actions--that don't appear in the script.

It's similar to what happens in movies. If a scene features two actors talking, the actors seldom just stand there and yak at each other. They'll perform some sort of business that tells something about their character while adding movement to a static scene. For some reason, though comic artists frequently enliven scenes with interesting camera angles, they often don't go much further.

Recently I re-read two stories that showed what a master Toth was at plussing a scene. One was from the 1970s, when he was drawing romance stories for Charlton; the other is a Dell movie adaptation from the late 50s. Before looking at the Toth panel, let's look at a typical dialogue exchange from another story in the same issue. The penciller is Charles Nicholas.
This setup tells the basic story well enough, but the eye-level camera and static poses lend the scene a generic look. The impression isn't helped by the casual background. This room has no personality; it could be any room anywhere. Now let's look at how Toth illustrated a dialogue exchange that could easily have been presented in the same way:Not much happens in this panel. The narrator (a movie star) drives away while her friend and the guy they both love discuss her departure. But the panel is exciting because everything Toth draws gives the scene a unique personality. Instead of a generic house Toth has created a "Bel Air mansion" appropriate to a temperamental movie star. He stages the scene in deep perspective. Matt strikes a dynamic pose we understand without needing to see his face. The star is driving off not in some generic car but an expensive Porsche. Its cockpit is crammed with luggage. All the smaller background details--the shadow of palm trees, the cobblestone street, the tile roof--shout "Southern California Richville." This scene has individuality, and the story is better for it.

Creating well-thought-out backgrounds is a great way to plus a script. Consider this panel from the Dell adaptation of Clint and Mac, a youth-targeted mystery-adventure set in London. It's easy to picture the script for what might have been a throwaway panel. Smith, the guy in the trench coat, returns to his apartment expecting to meet his accomplice Toby. Smith calls out but Toby isn't there. Here's how Toth interpreted the scene:
This panel is an entire book about Smith. As written the character is a typical bad guy without much depth. But when composing this scene Toth asked himself, "Who is Smith? How would he live?" So we see a cheap, impossibly cramped room with wet laundry hung over an old-fashioned stove to dry. A couple of magazines are thrown onto the rumpled bed. He's not a total slob, though: while his clothes are tossed over a chair, his dishes are done. Smith (like Toth) is apparently a car fancier: other than the calendar his only decoration is a print of an old automobile. The blind is pulled halfway down; Smith dislikes either the sunlight or prying neighbors. Smith has become a real person. This is what plussing a script is all about.

Still one might ask, "Is there a point to this?" It's a fair question. After all the Clint and Mac panel really was incidental to the story. Its basic idea could have been got across in a simpler way. Is Toth just showing off? Comics as a medium are admittedly less involving than movies. People tend to read them quickly without scrutinizing each panel. However I believe that, just as happens in movies, thoughtful plussing subliminally adds to a reader's experience of the story, allowing him or her to take away from it more than was originally there.


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Roberto Zaghi said...

I completely agree with this post. Toth says also that in order to "plus" a story you have to "subtract" from it, which may appear (to a superficial reader) like a non-sense. These panels are perfect samples: even though he filled them with details, he eliminated everything that didn't have a storytelling point. While reading a Toth story we subliminally learn a lot about the characters. He was truly a Giant.

Smurfswacker said...

You make a good point, Roberto. Toth always had his eye on what would best serve the story.

One common temptation (which I've fallen prey to at times) among artists is to "render the hell out of" a drawing just because it looks cool. Toth's utilitarian approach didn't have room for that sort of grandstanding.

Sometimes I feel schizophrenic admiring both the Toth approach and the fancy-rendering approaches of artists like Francisco Coching. But what the heck. It's okay to like everything.