I’m a big fan of backgrounds in comics. I think they get neglected, for the most part because there is so little space. But a few well-placed background elements make for a more expansive world. It’s amazing how far a well-placed shrub or cactus will go to setting a scene.
Garfield succeeds because of, not in spite of, it’s minimalist nature. You rarely see a background. You see the single line representing the counter, or table on which Garfield and his co-inhabitants live. If Jon needs to make or receive a phone call, there is a phone. If Garfield is sleeping, there is a box for his bed. It would be scary to picture a real house of solid white walls and waist-high counters, but this is the world of Garfield. It works because of Jim Davis’ writing style. If he wrote florid, descriptive dialogue, well maybe there could be more decoration in the drawing. But as it is, there’s really no need. The drawing does everything the writing sets out for it.
I like to include background elements into each panel, unless I’m doing a close-up or a very emotional scene. Since I don’t care about continuity, I like to change the elements around on purpose. I like to think that the characters are walking around and so you’d see different views of the surrounding desert each panel. Sometimes I’ll deliberately move around the same background elements. When I do that, I think of the characters as being on a theater stage and the stage hands keep shifting the sets for no reason. On a recent comic, I had two plants and two mountains. In each of the three panels I shifted them just a bit – not drastically, but enough so that they don’t look like I’m trying to make them look the same. Do I do this out of boredom? I know I hate drawing the same picture over and over. But I’m also not going for realism in my stories, so why go for realism in backgrounds?
Krazy Kat was the comic strip that did this best. When I saw the original drawings at the Cartoon Research Library, it made perfect sense why. Herriman was writing a fantastical strip, and drawing solid, unchanging backgrounds wouldn’t have jibed with the writing or the characters. It made sense, in the terms of the strip, that a house would morph into a plateau then into a tree. Nothing was stationary. It’s part of what makes Krazy Kat so fun to look at.
I’m going to talk about Calvin and Hobbes again, so read no further if you’ve heard enough from me about that comic.
While thinking about backgrounds, I remembered that Watterson said he used the landscape of the Southwest (Welcome to Falling Rock National Park territory, in case you’re wondering) as his inspiration for alien worlds. Spaceman Spiff crash lands into a canyon that resembles the Grand one in Arizona; Calvin and Hobbes go searching for aliens on another planet that resembles Aches National Park, in Utah. It was completely accepted that these strange worlds would look like the Southwest. I wonder now, had Watterson grown up in Flagstaff or Moab, if he would have done the same thing. Would Calvin be tramping through the canyons and dry riverbeds in his backyard and flying off to forest-covered worlds resembling Ohio in the summer? I don’t think it would have worked.
Even though I’m so used to the landscape of the Southwest, I never thought it strange that alien worlds resembled the one that surrounded me every day. Heck, even NASA uses the Arizona desert to test their Mars rovers before shooting them into the void. It’s natural, to us anyway, that the desert is not our natural habitat. It’s otherworldly; we live there now thanks to technology. Air-conditioning and water piped in from the Colorado River allow people to reside there, for now. But when resources become scarce, we may have to leave the desert. We can only be visitors there.
The desert is a good setting for the fantastic. So when I move a cactus here or a mountain there, don’t be alarmed. It’s all part of the story.