Thursday, October 22, 2015

Vanesa Del Rey & the Power of Thinness: Hit: Pen & Ink #2

(originally published on Comics

Cartoonist Vanesa R. Del Rey works thin places.

The idea of a thin place comes from the ancient Celts. Peter Gomes, a Harvard theologian, describes thin places as ''where the visible and the invisible world come into their closest proximity … the clearest communication between the temporal and eternal … the ultimate of these thin places in the human condition are the experiences people are likely to have as they encounter suffering, joy, and mystery.''

For some the 'temporal and eternal' meet in the Golden Ratio or the stars or a lover's arms. Those old Celts would search for thin places along riverbanks or mountains, intersections where the perpendicular and the horizontal align, points in which the infinite is nigh, edgy stuff. Left unsaid in Gomes's definition is the inherent spirituality of a thin place. In its broadest sense, 'spirituality' presupposes nearness and engenders transformation in the search for meaning as each of us strives to understand ourselves and the world around us.

From image and text to the jumble of high and low, Comics exists as equal parts ink and ideas, profane, sublime and always personal. Del Rey possesses a 'know-it-when-you-see-it' bravura. She draws with an idiosyncratic and honest ferocity that leaves little doubt as to mood or manner in either her character's faces, bodies or in the unfortunate (and oftentimes seedy) settings they find themselves in. Straightforward yet complex, Del Rey's art plays big and contains multitudes. Her men are men of action with faces like cliff walls, angular, blunt and sharp, as honest as steel and twice as vulnerable in matters of loyalty and love. And the women? Curves, curls and waves, breakers in every way and undulation all the way down. Del Rey's women are survivors, bricoleurs who take what life gives and endure.

Del Rey does more than get by on her character's looks, she knows how to work the page as well. She sets these contrasts of unadulterated feminine and masculine ideals within compositions of compositions, each page and panel is stylized, couture. Panel to panel and page to page, Del Rey designs as much as she draws comics. Through her use of perspective, close-ups and all that ink, her art feels, at times, journalistic as if she were an illustrator for The Illustrated London News or Cruikshank's Comic Almanac.

Even with this documentarian's eye, she always allows her imagination to have the final say. Del Rey understands when it comes to Comics, fundamentals are not absolutes, mundane realities like limbs, backseats of cars and gun barrels distend or narrow as they are stretched by a rubber band of story and time. For Del Rey the black and white of good storytelling—its cardinal intention being understanding—trumps the greys of technique. This is Del Rey's land, her milieu, an artist of thin places, a cartoonist at the crossroads to suffering, joy, and mystery.

cover Pen and Ink
The release of Hit: Pen & Ink #2 from Boom! Studios, affords Del Rey the space her ideas deserve. The 11X17 format tailors well to her big canvas thinking. Hit is the creation writer Bryce Carlson who also serves as the managing editor at Boom! Studios. With Hit Carlson crafts an L.A. noir, straight no chaser, blacktop, bullets and broads … also cigarettes. Hit is the story of an off-the-books hit squad headed by Harvey Slater, his bent boss (natch) the Chief of Police Arthur Blair, the chief's wayward daughter (Hit's femme fatale), Bonnie Brae, whiskey-slingers, assorted hoods and the looming presence of real-life baddie Mickey Cohen. Take every James Ellroy novel and the trademark low-key lighting of John F. Seitz or Jimmy Wong and Carlson's inspirations and intentions fit like bespoke shirts and Tiffany cufflinks.

The first issue of Hit marked Del Rey's debut as a comic book artist. In his commentary to Hit: Pen & Ink Volume One, Carlson writes how Del Rey's test pages brought ''a vision'' to the project. In those pages he saw ''the version of Hit we all want to do.'' Like something out of the legend and lore of Schwab's Pharmacy—too perfect for a story set in L.A.—Carlson says, ''no one believed that this was Vanesa's first comic book […] Not every artist has the luxury of seeing their test pages published. Vanesa did.'' What Del Rey brings to that first issue is her personal sense for the design and the layout of a page as a page. In each panel she makes sure her voice and her intent are clear. Carlson says, ''I remember when the test pages came in, you'd taken it upon yourself to do the location captions. No other artist we'd been looking at had done that.'' Del Rey's use of location captions (and her intuition to do so) reflects her instinct as a storyteller; not to mention, letting the reader in on where the action takes place, especially in the shadowy environs and narrative cul-de-sacs of a noir, acts like black coffee after a weekend drunk.

The captions represent the most recognizable (and simplest) way Del Rey creates a foreground element in order to add dimension to her compositions. This devotion to perspective is one of Del Rey's signatures. Like Christmas Future, she pulls the reader unbidden into deep space where a brassiere hung from a chair or blinds or cigarettes or smoke from cigarettes or arms and legs bring perspective to the narrative. The setting of noir should feel claustrophobic and constrictive in order to amplify the paranoia, the inevitability, of what ever lose-lose situation is at hand. Cramped, overstuffed and tight spaces like barrooms, bedrooms or interrogation rooms need to appear, like life, inescapable, each its own prison, a single cell (panel?).

1766 SlaterIn Hit #3, Slater and his hit squad sit inside an unmarked car outside a Beverly Hills mansion studded with fences and guard dogs. Their cigarettes burn like censers, the smoke like an offering to some crooked saint, the patron of vagaries and fourth-place-finishers. In his mind Slater runs receipts and tallies up deaths as it begins to dawn on him he's been had. In the first panel he peers out the window, his upper body is on a slight incline off the backseat. The perspective shifts in the next panel to the front seat as the landscape of the car's interior comes into focus. Slater becomes an amorphous blot of inky dark as his partners and fellow conspirators, Porter McKnight and Sid Overstreet, knife in at the sides of the panel to cut Slater off—a subtle foreshadowing, a visual (and literal) set up shot. In the third panel Del Rey uses a subtle push as Slater slumps out of the gloom and into the light. In these three panels Del Rey corsets conspiracy (and conspiracies of conspiracies) and laces the fates of these three men together tighter and tighter until in the fourth panel, when the penny drops, a line is crossed and the intercessions to that crooked saint have been heard and meted out.

The fourth panel divides the page in half, a boundary, a sort of Mason–Dixon Line that states from here on everything is different. Carlson's original intent was to have dialogue in this panel. He says: ''it was such a good shot, such good acting that it didn't need anything else.'' Credit Carlson for knowing, like Flastaff, ''the better / part of valour is discretion'' (1H4, 5.4.118-19). This is the cinematic side of VDR. And cinema is (only) about the close-up. Del Rey understands this moment, for these three men, is an act of love, a vow. Again, she uses McKnight and Overstreet to frame the image and give depth to depth. The two faces on either side of the panel offset one another. For Overstreet, foreground left, Del Rey conveys complicity with only a slight smile while keeping most of the rest of his face, especially his eyes, off panel. While in the mid-ground and to the right, she draws McKnight's mouth clamped shut on his cigarette, to indulge a smile here would be to cheapen the answer evident in his eye: surrender.

CUIn the background, Slater's face comes into full view. His is the face of the conspiracy, no need to hide or hint with only an eye or a curled lip, Slater's commitment is as plain as the eyes, lips and nose on his face. Del Rey draws him at a slight angle so he's a bit off-center which speaks to his place in this triumvirate. He's in the middle of it, but something is still crooked, uneven. Slater may not know it yet, but Del Rey does. It's here that Slater commits to bring Blair down even though he's missing information his two stolid partners, the frames of this image, already know. They're ahead of Slater. He may be at the center of this image and the de facto leader of the squad and this conspiracy but he's still in background, literally one step behind. The decision made and the deed done, Slater is spent. The final two panels put Slater back in his place, alone in the back seat, cut off and alone, inside and outside all at once.

This is Del Rey at her thinnest. Her linework, horizontal and perpendicular, describes a moment—a place—which she elevates to show something approaching love, something eternal. One page. One panel. What she reveals are hidden secrets and hard truths. No one ever says the 'suffering,' 'joy' and 'mystery' brought on by transcendence is simple or safe.

Hit is a world of men and plans and the futility of those men who make those plans. Walk the cat back far enough and the narrative of Hit looks like a loop with the ends coming together in the character of Bonnie Brae née Blair. Bad-ish, blond and with hips like a lyre (thanks Mr. Vonnegut!) Bonnie checks all the boxes for the femme fatale. Bonnie's gift is her guile which is why when she has to break out the bleach and cold water to clean up a dirty situation. She points out: ''Rookies always make the hot water mistake and let the stain run on them.'' Such a helpful hint from a hellcat Heloise like Bonnie clearly comes from experience. Duh.

See, Bonnie's a bit mobbed up. She's back in L.A. after having to play a little 23 skidoo to avoid some associates in Cleveland which is where she ran when she got popped on heroin possession with intent to distribute by Ken Collins, Slater's old partner. Bonnie's old man was able to keep her out of the clink and so she lit out for C-town. Slater and Bonnie have a vodka-soaked past so when she returns to L.A. Slater gets that familiar itch and it's Katy bar the door. Hit #2 concludes when Slater caps some muscle who's been sent to bring Bonnie back east to pay her debts. Slater shoots the guy in the face so there's little bits of goon all over the floor of the bathroom. Standing by her man, Bonnie goes on blood, bone and brain detail, it's the least she can do since Slater took care of the body of the cop she shot at the end of Hit #1. It is, after all, thanks to Bonnie (and her right cross) that the goon Slater shoots was tied to a chair and gagged in the first place. In Hit all roads lead back to Bonnie.

This is the only time in the series where Del Rey lets the design element of the location caption stretch across the width of the page and the lettering is in black instead of the traditional white. The gutters between the six panels form bars so the word 'Westlake' appears like a nameplate on the gate to an exclusive community where women favor an ensemble of rubber gloves and negligees when sponging brain and blood from the floor.
In the first panel, Del Rey foreshortens the distance in almost one of her trademark close-ups. A tiled floor with stylized rivulets of bleachy water takes up the front of the panel followed by a sodden rag which retreats into a left arm and then further into a right arm and the hint of a lace-cupped breast. This is women's work. The second panel reveals Bonnie in all her domestic glory. Del Rey composes the image so Bonnie's body fills the frame, the focus shifts from her work to the physicality of her shape and the constraints of the situation she finds herself in. Bonnie's round bottom dominates the top of the panel to give this image a wanton aspect so much so it's easy to miss that time has passed from the first panel to the second. Bonnie has switched hands. The rag which she held in her left hand is now in her right and has moved off panel. A subtle choice by Del Rey to indicate how Bonnie's body reacts to the effort she's putting in. She's been scrubbing so hard and for so long her hand has become tired. Genius. Del Rey doesn't mind if the reader wants to leer, after all, since her subject has one of those built-for-sin bodies, but Del Rey reminds us there is work being done and hard work at that. In the third panel Del Rey goes as wide as she gets in this sequence, the bucket of cold water with the added bleach to wash away the blood stains is off to her left as she rests her tired left arm on the lip of the tub. Her strong right arm—remember her right cross?—finishes the job. The sexiness in the first two panels gets tempered in this third panel as Del Rey exposes the glorified (eroticized?) mundanity of cleaning up the bathroom floor.

Del Rey links the third and fourth panel on the page by composing each one as wide as this little bathroom will allow. It's this kind of visual storytelling that sets VDR apart from her peers. Each set of three panels tells a short story. In the top three panels Del Rey starts close with the rag and then to the medium shot before she moves out wide to show where the scene takes place, similar to what she did with Slater, Overstreet and McKnight in the car. In the first of the three bottom panels Del Rey stays wide to maintain continuity with the last panel at the top. She shows Bonnie facing the mirror—curious that the bottom three panels (nearly) mirror the top three with Bonnie's head down on top and head up on bottom—before moving in tighter to show off Bonnie's tiny waist and her vintage hips. The sixth panel with Bonnie looking back over her shoulder breaks the reverse pattern of the opening three panels: close-up to medium to wide and then wide to medium to a modified medium shot. The sequence changes because the story has changed. Slater. The framing in the sixth panel shows Slater's point-of-view. It's no longer Bonnie's story about cleaning up after her man, the narrative has shifted and her job now is to clean up for her man. Bonnie's backward glance smolders, the top of her lacey panties tease her lover. She has her nightgown down over her chest not quite ready for the big reveal, this look is for him as much as it is for her. She's still in control, still scrubbing that floor and not ready to give away any of her secrets, yet.

As an artist, Vanesa R. Del Rey traffics in mood the way jewelers deal in diamonds—it's all mood, mood and more mood. The quality of art like the quality of a diamond is subjective, sure, there are standards, but that's for the lawyers and the accountants not for the real people. In the end, art is only about the feeling(s) it creates in an individual. Del Rey's work has a feel and it certainly has a mood. Carlson knew it the moment those test pages came in. He felt something and his instincts as a writer and editor were spot on. Vanesa Del Rey's art has power, a thinness that draws people in and takes them to a place of mystery, suffering and joy.

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