Incanto (2006), pages 11 and 12. Frank Santoro.
One of the main problems all visual art has to deal with (comics very much included) is the fact that it’s completely impossible to create an artistic representation of the world that matches the fullness of visual experience we get by simply keeping our eyes open in daily life. Instead, art becomes a lens through which we focus on particular details of the visual world at the expense of others, a process of selective simplifications. The cartoon drawing that nearly all comics art engages in to some extent or another is a form in which art’s move out of reality toward a place of greater simplicity is put right on display. Cartooning is basically a rigorous form of abstraction, in which the world’s every shape and form is put through the funnel of an individual drawing style, coming out the other end as a readable system of pared down two-dimensional symbols.
Put simply, cartooning is a type of figurative drawing, a way to approach the making of representative marks. However, it’s interesting to note that cartooning’s process differs from the basic idea behind figurative drawing fairly significantly. More or less, drawing is an attempt to create a convincing facsimile of the real world, to approximate it by creating a sense of visual reality even if complete duplication is impossible. Cartooning, on the other hand, is more often about creating something solidly other than what surrounds us. The best cartoonists are the best stylists, less concerned with the realism of their work and more with its internal logic, making shapes and lines that have more to do with stylistic consistency than the look of reality. Cartooning jettisons fidelity to the way things really are for a uniformity of appearance: under the brushes of the best, it’s always apparent that everything, from clouds to cars to clothes to characters, have come from the same unmistakable hand.
Frank Santoro is one of a relatively small number of great comics artists whose work incorporates as much of drawing as cartooning. Incanto, especially, carries a great number of images in which the goal seems to have little or nothing to do with stylistic tics and affectations, everything to do with simply depicting something with as much immediacy as possible. This sequence holds no end of simplification — in fact it goes right to the bone, whittling both characters and background as far down as they can go — but its final, simplest panels have little indeed to do with the kind of simplifications cartoons make. Cartooning relies on exaggeration as much as simplicity, amplifying certain facets of the way an image’s subject looks while stripping away others. By comparison, this Santoro spread speaks softly, stripping away detail and leaving the space rendered bare. By the fourth panel all that is left are the most basic lines, communicating the human shape and a gesture, no room given to exaggeration. It’s a drawing, not a cartoon; a strikingly honest attempt to communicate the most basic facets of the way something looks.
That said, this sequence’s first panel is undoubtedly a cartoon — one with more spontaneity and looseness to its lines than most, but a cartoon nonetheless, one set firmly in the style pioneered by the “Godfather of Manga”, Osamu Tezuka. Bright, expressionistic eyes pop from faces, the shape of the girl’s hair is as exact as if it were cut into stone, and the mountain landscape that forms the background juts up in a regimented range of triangles. It’s just enough detail to set a full, immersive scene, the ideal amount to propel a sequence of cartoons. But then Santoro begins to strip it away.
The background goes from a single triangle to one slashed line by the final frame. Facial features disappear one by one before dropping out entirely. All that remains to focus on is the figure, a simple human shape, drawn with too few lines to imply anything but its placement in the panel. The detail drops out as the figure’s gesture becomes more and more pronounced, implying the sudden blur of motion, but the panels are so big and so loosely drawn that it’s difficult to read this sequence as a quick, tight movement. Style vanishes, focusing all attention on the subject itself. Time is left open for the reader to determine: whether you think this spread takes up a few seconds of story time or a full day, the drawing is there to support it.
What Santoro is doing here can perhaps best be desrcribed as “cartooning a cartoon”, taking the strength of that first, basic configuration of shape and line and sanding it down until only the idea is communicates remains. The gracefully scrawled lines that close this spread out are about as basic a form as depictive drawing can take, the bare minimum necessary to communicate what they communicate. By showing us the process of stripping a picture down to its core one panel at a time, Santoro is not just drawing: his sequence is also a cartoon of the process of simplification that comics use to tell their stories and imply their motions. We see things being pulled away from the look of reality, replaced with empty space. This is what comics do. The real accomplishment, though, is when they do it with this much beauty.