Strip Panel Naked: ‘The Underwinter’ And Ray Fawkes’ Art Of Change
Ray Fawkes is back, bringing his staple watercolour art to the first issue of The Underwinter. The majority of the book is rendered in a particular style, but Fawkes changes his approach fairly dramatically for a single sequence near the end of the book. It's a similar technique to a few different things I've talked about in this column on other occasions, but there's a very interesting element to it that makes this particular example a little different, and worth further exploration.
Before we get into that, let's look at the way the art is normally presented to us. It's a loose, sketchy watercolor style. Often the lines around characters and objects are colored to match the actual source it's outlining, or just blend as part of the art. The colors themselves are typically quite washed; they aren't particularly bold or deep, feeling more faded and pastel. There's only a few occasions when you get a bold color, and they're all linked to the mysterious house that appears in the opening of the book. Primarily, those bold colors all tend to be the same, too: red.
Even in a dream sequence near the start of the book, that style stays the same. A standard approach in visual storytelling is to change up something to distinguish reality and non-reality. It's almost expected: flashbacks in black and white, or a different palette; grainier art; no panel borders; et cetera.
What Fawkes brings to his dream sequence is more of that red, and crucially, a heavy black.
Again, the black is a wash, which means it's not particularly deep, but that combination specifically of red and black is worth noting for when Fawkes changes up the style of his art near the end of the book. Black enters the space more and more as the sequence draws closer, heading in from the page edge to shroud the characters, and as soon as we hear the word "Play," it comes in full force --- as does that new art style.
Now the visuals in the panels seems more jagged, rough, less flowing and pastel. They're deeper reds and blacks, and everything has a thicker black outline to it. It's literally like the world has been redrawn since that word was "spoken." It recalls something like Get Out's spoon-round-the-cup idea of something triggering a change in a character or world.
That panel difference with the "Play" dialogue is fantastic. The juxtaposition of the two styles in an almost identical panel is a stroke of genius, because Fawkes really asks you to pay attention to what's changed between those two panels. It's kind of like a spot the difference puzzle, when we see two things together we naturally notice the changes.
It's not a subtle move, but it's clearly not designed to be. There's something different going on here that is outside the realms of normality, even outside the realms of a dream. By keeping that differentiation, Fawkes is also telling us that this is the real world --- not any previously designed dream world. It seems harsher, more dangerous, less fluid.
To top it off, what's even more intriguing to the story is how Fawkes then switches back to the previous watercolour wash style for the big reveal at the end. He's playing around with expectations and understanding in a very clever way. Interestingly, he's using his style of art as a storytelling device in and of itself. By switching the method of rendering for a sequence, a very noticeable thing in a visual medium, he's advancing the plot of his narrative. Brilliant.
In Strip Panel Naked, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou looks at elements of the art of visual storytelling on the comics page.