Of the four essential concepts in comics comprehension that I’m taking under a bit closer examination, minimalism is my favorite one, because when used correctly, it keeps one in check and prevents you from blowing your (artistic) load. Not to confuse it with the artistic style of minimalism, in this case it’s a bit more literal, although the connection to the artistry is meant to be obvious … I mean, this is about visual art, right?
Minimalism refers to the concept of simplicity, simplification for amplification or my preferred down-to-earth equivalent of less is more. This principle means that the portrayal follows a specific narrative pattern, keeping in check overabundance and overcomplication of pictorial stimuli. Overemphasis on detail in a panel depicting action that is meant to be read fast can hinder the narrative flow in that particular instance just as much as it can hinder the artist further down the line. Thus, when following this simplification for amplification, when a particular element is stressed, it has more weight. This works with plenty of art forms, film as well. Action flicks generally end with a large action scene, like in the case of the 2012 The Avengers. I mean, this is about comics (in one form or another), right? The final large-scale battle obviously wasn’t the opening scene. Everything was built around it and the events of the film lead to a perfect crescendo (with heavy help from previous film instalments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). There is obviously the possibility of different/non-standard narrative flows, but the point I’m trying to make is that through simplicity, The Avengers were able to gradually amplify not just the action scenes, but also lead the viewers towards a climax, where suspension of disbelief was flawlessly executed and the expectations of the viewers matched the on-screen performance. (Which consequently led to a box office record. Now always related, it in this case it definitely was.)
But minimalism is not just about that. It’s about clever use of certain items, techniques and takes on a given story, so it seems constantly fresh and helps build suspense and intrigue. Minimalism is the haiku of storytelling of sorts, the art of making the most from the basic building blocks, because once you master the basics, everything else you add to that, will stand out. And in the comics medium that is primarily all about (visually) standing out, this point should not go understressed.
Some more comics examples of minimalism: the use of certain colors in Sin City or the use of splash pages in the final chapter of Watchmen or The Death of Superman. In terms of these large (and in charge) panels, we can go one step further with a double-page spread that should be reserved for occasions that depict an over-the-top situation that literally jumps at the reader (even more so than a splash page, which only takes up one page, not two).
The two following pictures are examples of how using color sporadically can spark visual interest, because the respective red and blue hues were otherwise not used in Sin City’s neo-noir black-and-white technique. Note that such example make far less of an impact in isolation (such as here), so you have to take the whole work as the norm.
Simplification of sort can be observed not only in all walks of life, but seemingly in the Universe as well. We can apply this to the understanding of the history, arbitrary epochs of the world as seen from the viewpoint of humanity as well as our cognition. We simplify everything from languages (signs and sounds) to physics (basic equations) in order to understand its “essence” and consequently build on it and further expand it. In diagrams, we simplify the shapes of planets as spheres (or circles in a two-dimensional representation) and their orbits as cyclical, despite them being more or less elliptical – because of gravitational fields and their complex effects not just in our solar system, not just in our galaxy, but in the Universe as we know it.
In other words, this minimalistic principle can be imagined to having an ace up one’s sleeve, or using selective means most effectively with restraint. Again, if the artist reveals all of his or her cards at the very outset of a comic, if will be harder to keep the reader’s attention span, since the story will already seem to peak during prologue. Arguably, there is a different “simplification” in work when we for example simplify a philosophical doctrine in order to give it clarity, as opposed to being wavy of overexposure and excessiveness of pictorial material, but comprehension can in both cases be enhanced by the very nature of stressing only particular elements. Thus, the focus is clearer and understanding is greater.
The issue of less is more can be best assessed through the superhero genre, where the pictorial extravaganza bombards the reader, while the nature of these powerhouses among humans hinders the effectiveness of storytelling, as the stress is placed purely on the impressive visuals. And to stress the matter further, the superheroes as essentially gods become an ego-driven ideology in itself. Once you unearth God and the (hu)man made in his image, we may as well ask ourselves, where the line is between our self-imposed prominence as merely a selfish desire to be gods and the natural progression/evolution (with or without us). In any case, while the over-the-top heroic elements may pique the interest of (younger) readers, because they present a fantastic, other-worldly sphere brimming with imaginary potential, the author may in fact alienate some (adult) readers by relegating the present human condition to the excesses of some fantastic force. Once you propel the superhero towards hyperbole, it becomes a commonplace for creating more and more powerful figures still. The more celestial the planet-eaters and god-destroyers get, the less humanizing the layers of the story become, so the human reception echoes harder through them. This issue of is also strongly shared by the delusion of religion in the current era of myth-busting. I’ll move on, before this turns into paradox for the sake of paradox, akin to this relatively long-winded post about “less is more” … ahem.
An interesting parallel can be drawn to the notion of wu-wei, present particularly in the Daoist (and Confucian) philosophy. Essentially meaning spontaneity and effortless action, wu-wei bears striking resemblance to the principle of minimalism (or rather the other way around). Following a natural flow, either the artist or the sage embarks on the path of least resistance, where all the other elements follow suit. Consequently, the background noise in music, the darkness/negative space in visual art, the conundrums and paradoxes in religion and philosophy take center stage and become not just more meaningful, but necessary for the subject matter.
An empty picture with a person standing in the middle has a more striking effect than the one displaying a crowd. While the latter demanded more attention and work, it is the void of the first that adds depth and emptiness that the observer fills with their own perceptions and beliefs (again, context always matter). Akin to the notion of Dao, emptiness becomes a tabula-rasa-like possibility, the negative space that the reader fills with an array of choices limited only by one’s imagination. Further, these observations can share resonance with the gutter as the empty-yet-full comics component. Also, by not stressing a particular element, the artist is in fact stressing everything else about it. The empty picture becomes full and remains in strong (yet natural) contrast to the sole person inhabiting it. While in different surroundings the devil is indeed in the details, in this case less is definitely more.
The final point about this varied category of minimalism may be a bit of a stretch, but feels suited here, especially in relation to the notion of less is more. Namely, I refer to masterpieces. So, what’s that about? A masterpiece is a work that transcends not only its specific genre or medium, but connects cultures through different eras by the mastery of its subject matter … This by definition is an irregular occurrence. A perfect world beaming with one masterpiece after another would not only devalue the individual worth of such a work, but raise the level of expectations, where the grandeur of a work of such depth must be contrasted by its place in society.
Utopias aside, humanity seems to have always envisioned progressive lands, states, organizations and orthogenetic ideologies, but pragmatically, there has always been strife and conflict. To a large extent, advancement itself requires diversity, which means the dirty stuff as well. Many a masterful work was a direct response to the less than progressive events of its time (Guernica being a prime example). A masterpiece can only be a masterpiece in the true sense of the word when it directly reflects the human condition in full (the “good” and the “bad”), in the process differentiating itself from the rest in an attempt to artistically take the society towards a higher level (hand in hand with the “good” and the “bad”). And in a perfect world, this becomes a paradox akin to the ideal of liberal democracy in our present world.
I mean, all in all this is about life, right?
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …