Shadows and Light: Dresden Codak and the (im)possibilities of webcomics

I had a different opening planned for this piece, but then the Guardian published an article lamenting the lack of art in comics and my priorities shifted. In his article, provocatively entitled “When did the comic-book universe become so banal?”, Johnathon Jones argues, with little evidence and a great deal of ignorance, that

“The vast majority of graphic novels today are drawn with studied banality. There is a lack of ambition and verve to their visual artistry. Comic-book authors have settled into a slick style of drawing that stays within dull limits.”

Even if one restricts one’s gaze to the world of print graphic novels, as Jones does, it quickly becomes obvious that he knows very little about the modern comic industry. His observations mention two current authors, Scott McCloud and Chris Ware. I’m not overly familiar with either of these authors, as it happens, so I won’t attempt to unpick his opinion of them. But I will point out a few of the authors he’s missing: Brian K Vaughan, and his exciting, expansive Saga; Noelle Stevenson’s lush, vivid story Lumberjanes; Ryan North’s work on Adventure Time and The Midas Flesh, two graphics novels hugely different in tone and scope and yet both teeming with engaging ideas and characters; G. Willow Wilson’s gloriously teenage run on Ms. Marvel. All of these creators present exciting, strange, marvelous worlds that clearly reflect their own personal attitudes to life and art.

One reason, perhaps, for Jones’ choice of comic artists to criticize is that both McCloud and Ware write and draw. The books I have listed above are all produced by teams, though Noelle Stevenson is also a talented artist in her own right. But even if I grant Jones’ point, and restrict myself to works created by one person, his article has a huge flaw. It entirely neglects webcomics.

It is my firm belief that webcomics are a legitimate art form in their own right — not merely a pale shadow of print comics, or some kind of digital portfolio for artists waiting to get picked up by Marvel or DC, but a living, breathing medium, with their own rules of structure and form, and their own unique narratives. Webcomics tell stories that could not be told in any other medium, and Dresden Codak by Aaron Diaz is a perfect example of such a comic.

There’s a lot I want to say about Dresden Codak, and especially about its current storyline, Dark Science. Dark Science is a narrative about inheritance, and myths and stories and how they both guide and hinder us. It’s a story about the masks people construct for themselves, and about the people they are when those masks fall away. I have promised myself a longer article devoted to examining its themes and characters. But that will have to wait. I want to start small, and today my focus is on panels, and how they can be used to tell stories.

Dresden Codak can be an intimidating comic to read. Its strips are large, their dimensions frequently exceeding a single printed page, and it their structure is dense, saturated with visual references and colour palettes that convey mood and narrative. Unlike many other webcomics, which exposit mainly via character dialogue, Dresden Codak expresses itself visually. Characters rarely reveal the whole picture, and frequently speak in metaphor. They are, as most people are, cagey and reserved: wanting to hold back more than they reveal. The reader must negotiate with each strip, looking not only at what is spoken, but at what happens around those words. This is not a webcomic you can skim or speed read. It demands your full attention.

I want to examine a single strip, Dark Science No. 11: Candle in the Dark. It’s both a dense and a simple strip, perfect for my purposes, and on its own it is not particularly plot heavy, being more focused on character, theme, and foreshadowing of later events. Hopefully this will allow me to discuss it without giving too much of Dark Science away.

A brief introduction to the premise of the story: Dark Science is a narrative about Kimiko Ross, the daughter of a famous inventor, scientist and roboticist who built a city named Nephilopolis. Kim, having run out of money and burdened by a genius that is entirely unsuited to doing actual work, travels there looking for a way to continue doing science. When she arrives she is forced to confront her father’s legacy, as well as the mysteries of the city itself. Dark Science has just finished Act Two and moved into Act Three, having answered some questions and raised others. The strip I want to talk about today comes towards the end of Act One. In the simplest plot terms this strip functions as a scene transition, bridging the time between her first meeting with Melchior and the next day, when she goes to search for her missing bag. However it also functions as the first strip to reference the deeper mysteries that underlie the narrative, and sets up the conflicts that are explored in Act Two.

Visually, the page is split in half. The top half is a series of panels separated by dark lines that echo a branching tree, while the bottom half resembles a Mondrian painting, full of clean lines and Art Deco influences. This visual bifurcation reinforces a character bifurcation. The top half of the page belongs to the strange shadow that Kim sees in the woods, our first visual hint of the Nephelim, a shadowy group of characters who serve as one of the primary factions in Dark Science.

The bottom half belongs to Kaito Kusanagi, Kim’s father. Though only Kusanagi is known to the reader at this point in the story, the strong visual contrast between them already hints at tensions and intentions which will come to the fore much later. This dialectical opposition is reinforced by the thick black line, the trunk of the tree, which moves down into Kusanagi’s half of the page, connecting him to the events in the woods. At the bottom of the page the trunk merges with an image of Kusanagi in silhouette. Visually, he is at the root of the tree and merged with it, suggesting that his influence extends through the whole page. This confirms his importance to Kim, both in her past and her present.

This division of the page also serves to draw parallels between the strange figure in the woods and Kusanagi. They are both depicted in silhouette on the page, or in near silhouette with glowing eyes, suggesting that they are figures of comparable power and stature. Their fields of influence are distinct. The Nephelim stands among the trees, and its body is one of soft curves and indistinct lines, opposed to the rigid straight edges of Kusanagi’s house. The Nephelim is a creature of nature and the “Natural”, a word heavily weighted in Dresden Codak, and not necessarily for the better. Kusanagi is strongly opposed to any idea of “Nature” as beneficial, valuing technological progress and exploration. As of yet the narrative itself has not directly chosen a side, but the way the paneling in this page connects the two figures through the tree-like structure suggests at a possible conclusion: that the division between the natural and the unnatural is illusory or mistaken, and that they are in fact complementary.

Dresden Codak is usually presented in colour, and this is one of the very few strips to be entirely black and white. Partially this is because it’s a flashback, and monochrome colouring denotes memory in the comic, but it also works because the strip is so intensely focused on shadows and light. By reducing the world to black and white, Diaz highlights dark and light, and exploits them to their fullest potential.

In this group of three panels, the same image — a dark shape standing against a bright background — is repeated three times. First we see the trees, then the shadowy figure, and below them, several panels later but directly below we see Kusanagi’s house, which stands as a tall black shadow against a bright sky. By structuring the panels so that these three stand together in a loos triangle, their visual connection in emphasized. Notice how both the panel of the trees and the panel of the house have a darker space in the left corner, an echo that ties them together visually. The dark clouds over the woods and the bright sky around Kusanagi’s house again suggest the opposition of the two figures, tied into the only words in this strip. Kusanagi tells the young Kim to look to the rising sun, which will later be revealed to be a symbol of opposition to the Nephelim, and visually this distinction between dark and light occurs again and again through the strip. The figure Kim sees stands as a shadow obscuring the light. Kim runs from the darkness of the woods to the brighter area around the house. When she first enters the house she brings the sun with her, but when she appears in the library the doorway behind her is completely dark, suggesting the shadows she encountered. In the small detail panels around the bottom half of the page, images of sunlight and shadows occur again and again.

The transition from the woods and the Nephelim to the enclosed, structured world of Kusanagi is cleverly coded into the paneling of the strip. As Kim reaches the house, the fluid branching panels of the upper half of the page show the rigid lines of a Mondrian-inspired window. This pattern is then repeated in the composition of panels in the lower right corner of the page, so that the comic itself appears to become a larger version of the stained-glass window we already saw. Diaz is extremely good at using techniques like this to guide the reader through his dense panels.

Another excellent example of this is the use of circles. There are three circular panels in the comic — a full circle on the lower left, a semi-circle at the bottom in the centre, and another full circle on the bottom right. Perfect circles, these panels belong neither to the branching fluidity of the top half, nor to the rigid squares of the lower half. They belong to Kim, who draws a semi-circle in the very first panel. Furthermore, they stand out as moments of connection between Kim and her father. In the first, we see Kusanagi as Kim sees him, half in shadow and half illuminated by the sun. He stands as a figure of mystery, someone who is imperfectly understood. In the second panel Kim embraces her father, and she is clearly drawn while he becomes a silhouette. Her emotions are clear to us, but his are obscure. In the final panel they are silhouetted against the sun (a circle inside a circle) together, in an emotional unity that the viewer, and by implication the adult Kim, cannot reach.

Paneling can serve many purposes in a comic, but Diaz is a master of using it to its fullest extent. In his art, it reflects every aspect of the narrative, from plot to character to theme. This page is just one example of that talent, and what is most important about it is that all of these elements work together. Dark Science is a story that I always enjoy reading because it works like both a well-oiled machine and a flowering tree, all of its parts moving in synchronicity and yet generating something that is natural and whole.

Note: Aaron Diaz very kindly gave me permission over twitter to cut up his work and manhandle it into manageable chunks for Medium. Any loss of artistic merit in the cropping is entirely my fault.

Writer, poet, critic, teacher

Writer, poet, critic, teacher