This idea of color as something other than coding is nothing new, and since the days of Frank Santoro’s “Sirk” and even earlier with Françoise Mouly’s and Spiegleman’s RAW Magazine, cartoonists have been figuring out ways around the limited printing technology we’ve had at hand. Without delving in too deep with the history of its induction, and the restrictions that were placed upon it by the technology of the time, color in comics has come a long way. So much so that it’s no longer has to be a simple device to differentiate between characters and objects, it now has the opportunity to be something more.
Dash Shaw’s latest book New School is a prime example of this. If you haven’t picked this book up yet you’re doing yourself a disservice. New School, apart from being a deftly crafted work of mostly fiction, Dash uses color like no other comic every really has. Spreading shapes and patterns full of different color underneath his black line art, sometimes covering the page and other times intersecting across panels, leaving some space blank and other parts full of vibrant patterns, there is a unique abstraction that happens. The experience of it is jarring at first, as a reader automatically can’t help but wonder what the artist’s intention is with this approach to applying color. But as you progress through the narrative (the narrative being presented in a expedient manner) you stop questioning why the color is the way it is and let it do what it was intended for.
Dash is setting up color to be like an orchestra. A counter melody to the black and white line work that is the “guts” of the story. The story itself is presented clearly in what Dash calls his “dumb line, a term he said to have come from David Mazzucchelli, to describe a line whose quality is unsure of what it is representing. If the book had been printed in just black and white the reader would understand it without the color, so in not having the story hinge on the color component of the comic, Dash is afforded the opportunity to experiment. This goers back to the Dash’s idea of the orchestra. The line work is the guts of the song, but the color is that rich counter melody that brings a fullness to it’s sound. Instances of bright and vibrant color’s being like cymbal crashes and allowing the intensity of the color (or lack of it) act like crescendos and decrescendos, adding to the complexity of the story/song. He visual shows these layers, as the physical quality of the pages with color show the obviousness of the separation of the line work and the color, like two instruments in a band. Think Henry Rollins barking vocals vs. Greg Ginn’s guitar, two parts of one whole.
For brevities sake, I won’t take about the physical quality of the painted color, or the mark making, or the way that the patterns Dash would paint in the page reflect in terms of iconography, shapes in the guts of the page, thus heightening the emotional quality of the what’s already taking place at that moment in the stories time. Those are things that can only come from spending some time with New School, and I think it behooves any comic’s enthusiast to do so. But I would be woefully dismayed to not talk about how Dash has introduced a digestible abstraction to a medium which (for the most part) is about clarity.
Will Eisner said that in being a cartoonist you are not afforded the same spontaneity that say a painter has. Apart from the literally thousands of successful comics that prove this contention wrong, Eisner would still have been right if he amended that statement with “in a classical story telling sense.” That is until New School. Dash has opened up the possibility of how in juxtaposing abstract shapes of color and patterning against clear and concise black and white storytelling, that you can breathe the life force that is spontaneity into a medium whose normal working methods are as anal retentive as a Klingon (sorry I didn’t have a better joke).
This, whatever you want to call it, barely scratches the surface of what Dash accomplishes in New School, but hopefully imparts some idea of the next level thinking that is available in this book. So go buy it. Preferable here.