It looks clear that I liked Helter Skelter more than Noah or Bill did. (Me here, Noah here, Bill’s first here and second here.) Apparently, the big difference is the art. Noah and I agree the fake beauty/diva-bitch material is pretty tired; Bill is more indulgent toward it, but a good deal less enthusiastic about the book than I am. At any rate, Bill tells us that “the art lacks the patchwork quilt of pattern common in girls’ and women’s comics.” That surprises me. From what I see, patterning runs thru the book like an electric current; maybe manga art delivers more of a jolt to newcomers. But before I get tangled in cheesy metaphor, I’d better back up and address my subject as a whole.
I want to write about Okazaki’s artwork and especially her page design. In my last post I talked about the high probability that she intended Helter Skelter to be a visual blast on the order of the sonic blast delivered by the Beatles song “Helter Skelter.” Everything is taken to a high pitch, hysterically high. The epigraph sets the tone: “A word before we start: laughter and screams sound very much alike.”
The book, according to my theory, is supposed to be a shocker but one that doesn’t count on a simple bludgeoning of the audience to get results. To quote myself, it’s “an example of high-style assault, of art that uses velocity, technical skill, and shock to impose itself on the audience. You have to be very good to pull it off, and Okazaki does.” What do I mean by all that?
I mean those pages move fast and they take a lot of hairpin curves. I’m talking about layout and page design here. The eye isn’t wafted from panel to panel; the eye has to hang on like hell. On a given page, the eye will go thru zigzags and ups and downs and bounce its way from the top of the page to the bottom, and then on to the next page and the one after.
But when I say the eye has to hang on, it’s more like the eye doesn’t have a choice. Do a middling job of roller-coaster page design and it’s easy enough to look away. Do a first-rate job, one where all the panels and visual elements lock together, and looking away gets ruled out. The reader is in for the ride and it’s a blast. At the same time, Okazaki varies the eye’s pace: the densest page will have panels that open up some space, a little here, a little there, sometimes an unexpected gulf of sky in the page’s upper left or right. But then the gulfs create offbeat page balances that also pull the eye. Okazaki lets up, but then she’s right back at you.
Let me underline a point. There are different kinds of speed in comics. Most manga, from what I hear, features biggish panels and smallish word balloons and therefore moves at a good clip. The speed achieved in Helter Skelter is different because it involves so much eye movement per page. You never float, you zip. And you’re intruded upon; in a way, you’re interfered with — your eye gets runs ragged and there’s nothing you can do about it. Not that that’s a bad thing, or at least not here.
Underlining a second point: this isn’t just a case of
speed metal play it fast, play it loud, and run down whoever’s in front of you [Noah says a lot of speed metal is highly crafted. Ah well]. Without Okazaki’s high degree of technical skill, the pages would be reader repellent. The Beatles’s “Helter Skelter” is similar. That is one loud, fast fucker, but it’s also a highly designed fucker. I’m no music expert, but anyone can hear the song’s variations in texture.
Moving on. I mentioned that the eye gets intruded on in Helter Skelter. Visually, it’s a bitchy sort of work, bitchy toward the reader. You’re always getting jabbed and needled. Here we get into the patterning mentioned above, into visual texture. Helter Skelter works with right angles and straight lines, with grids and needles. There’s a shortage of gentle curves; the only softness in the book comes from the round, blurry street lights that surface in the smaller city-at-night panels. Mainly, the book’s curves get yanked into long stringy lines or segregated as pure circles, banks of them to go with the banks of squares and rectangles. These banks, the gatherings of hard-edged geometric shapes, keep popping up in different sizes and configurations thru the book. When I was talking about electricity up above, they’re what I had in mind. It’s not just a matter of shape, of course. Black and white are played for high contrast, crowded together in checker patterns.
Finally, I have to agree with Noah that Okazaki is good at drawing bodies (well, he cited Ririko’s body only, but I’ll extend matters a bit) and not so good at faces [Wait, he says he does like her faces! Well, that’s his problem]. In fact I would say her faces are not good enough; at their worst, they remind me of a drawing I once saw of a shoe that Andy Warhol did as a young freelancer.
All right, some examples of what I mean. Let’s start with Okazaki’s visual repertoire.
Grid and needles:
Circles and grid:
High-contrast black and white:
The whole visual scheme condensed (we even have the stringy lines, what with the way the tower curves):
Now layout. An example of a very dense circuit:
And it’s only one part of the page. Take a look:
That page is high density, even by the book’s standards. Here’s a medium-density page:
And down a notch (notice the low-freight middle panel; the lack of detail allows the page to move):
And now opened a lot wider. It’s also a good example of the missing-calligraphy factor. With the calligraphy there, that central panel’s void would lighten the page, not empty it:
And, by the book’s standards, pretty damn wide. You’ve still got the dense grids to liven up and anchor the page:
Now some bad caricature. Dig these shoe faces:
But it’s not like Okazaki is a page engineer who doesn’t know how to draw. Buildings, bodies, etc., are great. And though she doesn’t go in for heavy detail, she has a knack for the right detail. My example is this dream corridor. A weirdly configured hallway is not the most original item in a dream sequence, but I like the way Okazaki gets this one on paper. The image appears just twice in a very busy book, but she’s taken the trouble to rig the details so that perspective gets thrown off in a few different ways:
All right, e-frigging-nough. I’m out of here.