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    Investigating the Clear Line Style

    By Dafna Pleban

    Comics often become synonymous with Jack Kirby’s heavy black inks, Joe Shuster’s realistic body forms and the bright, primary colors of the superheroes they each created. This is due, in no small part, to the popularity of the superhero genre early in the medium’s inception. A sparkplug for this popularity was the introduction of Superman in 1938, as the demand for American comic books that practically dominated the industry.

    The popularity of American comics overshadowed significant European comics being produced at the same time. European comic artists often had to compete with the popular American comics imported in their countries.

    But with the advent of World War II and invasion by Germany into Belgium and France, the possibilities of importing American comics soon dwindled to nothing. Faced with a growing demand for the increasingly popular medium, many publishers began to foster local, distinctly European, comic artists. This brief period of time, between the invasion of Germany, and the end of World War II, created a prime opportunity for European artists and their comics to come into their own.

    The most influential of these artists was Hergé –the creator of the popular boys’ comic “The Adventures of Tintin.” “Hergé” was the pen name of the Belgian comics writer/artist George Remi. Responsible for some of the most memorable characters in European comics, his comic style soon became synonymous with European comic art as a whole. The clean, even inks paired with the cartoon-proportioned characters and detailed, intricate backgrounds created a surreal landscape where the antics of Tintin and his dog Snowy coexisted with the real world.

    This style continued to evolve with the creation of the Tintin magazine in 1946. After World War II, Hergé found himself out of a job. Accused of collaborating with the Germans during the Belgium occupation, Hergé could no longer publish his increasingly popular comic. It was only after Raymond Leblanc, recognizing Tintin’s popularity, offered to start a new comic magazine using Tintin that Hergé was allowed to work again.

    Hergé was given artistic control over the magazine, and this control fostered what would soon evolve into the style known as “ligne claire,” or in English, “clear line.” Coined by Joost Swarte in 1977, ligne claire describes comic art that gives equal weight and consideration to every line on the page. By forgoing shading with ink, the artist creates a depth of field on the page that brings equal amounts of focus to the background and foreground.

    With artistic control of the magazine, Hergé was able to influence the other artists and writers on staff. He taught many of the artists in the style of ligne claire urging them to simplify not only the art, but also the story. The artists who worked with him on the Tintin magazine would later be known as the “Brussels school”: Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor, Roger LeLoup, Willy Vandersteen and Jacques Martin. All accomplished artists in their own right, under Hergé’s tutelage, their personal styles were molded and adapted to that of ligne claire.

    By the 1950s, the popularity of ligne claire was at its peak. Hergé and his contemporaries overwhelmingly defined the art style of European comics, as the members Brussels school eventually left the Tintin magazine and started on their own ventures.

    By the 1960s, however, ligne claire began to go out of style when a new crop of comic artists came onto the scene. Considered old fashioned, the crisp, detailed lines were soon replaced with the cartoony proportions of comics such as Albert Uderzo’s “Asterix” and Morris’ “Lucky Luke.”

    But trends have a way of coming back in style, as ligne claire was back a decade later, thanks to a Dutch artist and graphic designer Joost Swarte. The first to coin the term ligne claire, Swarte championed the style to other artists in the Netherlands and was a defining factor in the ligne claire resurgence. The style was of particular interest to the Dutch underground comics scene, because of the nostalgia it provoked.

    This resurgence continued all the way through France and into the 1980s with the popularity of Yves Chaland, Ted Benoit and other French artists. For many artists, the ligne claire style of art evoked a nostalgia for a time gone by. A retro movement emerged in France, began by Chaland, known as “atoomstijl/style atome” that paired the ligne claire with an appreciation of the future promised by the Atomium building in Brussels.

    Just as Jack Kirby’s black inks defined America’s superhero comics during the Silver Age in American comics, so too did Hergé’s style come to define the Franco-Belgian comic scene during and after World War II.

    Contemporary use of ligne claire often taps the nostalgic and historical implications that have become deeply associated with the style. In Dutch artist Peter van Dongen’s “Rampokan,” published in 1998, the story of the struggle for independence by the former Dutch colony of Indonesia was drawn completely in ligne claire. Dongen uses the clear line style, paired with the sepia tone coloring, to intentionally invoke the questionable colonial content of old Tintin comics such as “Tintin in Africa.”

    Through the subversive use of ligne claire, French artist Yves Chaland’s “The Adventures of Freddy Lombard” invokes the style of Hergé’s “Tintin,” Chaland tells a distinctly mature story, following the adventures of three destitute, unemployed youths as they travel the world looking for money to pay their bills. The contrast, between a style of art traditionally used to tell simple, all-ages tales, and the cynical, adult story Chaland illustrates, becomes a prime example of contemporary use of ligne claire in comic storytelling.

    ritish artist Geof Darrow, in his collaboration with Frank Miller on “Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot” (1996) used the nostalgia generated by ligne claire and paired it with the frenetic action of Japanese manga. In doing so, Darrow created a world defined by the hybrid art style that was at once fantastic yet instantly familiar.

    French artist Jean Giraud, also known as “Moebius” often takes advantage of the crisp, even lines of ligne claire to create instantly iconographic moments in time. The use of ligne claire paired with detailed, otherworldly scenes, Moebius creates unique, surreal landscapes. The ordered normalcy of the inks belay often the fantastic figures they encompass.

    The ability of ligne claire to be adapted and spliced with other artistic style can be seen to full effect in the work of Darwyn Cooke. While Cooke’s work is incredibly stylistic, and extensively uses shadows in the definition of its forms, the ligne claire influences –from the clean, evenly inked lines to the proportional anatomy of his figures - are many. Like Chaland’s “Freddy Lombard” adventures, Cooke often uses the wistfulness generated by ligne claire for an ironic, often cynical, effect. A prime example of this technique at work can be found in “DC: The New Frontier,” where the colorful nostalgic promise of the art paired with the gruesome realities of the Korean War, creates a powerful, indelible image.

    With the introduction of “Superman” in 1938, the superhero genre was born. With their powerful iconic images –the tights, the capes, the heavy inks and detail- superhero comics not only came to define the American comic scene, but almost the entire medium.
    In an ironic way, World War II came just in time – f it had not been for the isolating effects of Germany’s invasion, the Belgian/French comic book scene and the unique art style it produced may never have come into being.

    Posted by Tim Leong on November 7th, 2006 filed in Story Archive |

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