When Less is More

I love black and white. I’m not saying I don’t like color, but I love black and white. So when someone writes in and says “I hate the new black and white manga books” I figure maybe it’s time for a few words. (Now, admittedly, I don’t know if the letter writer hates the new DC Comics volumes because they’re black and white, or because they’re in manga format – so I’ll speak to both. Such a bargain!)

I remember an assignment, back in second grade English: The teacher told us to bring to class the following day a color picture – the subject didn’t matter – so that we could practice our skills at writing descriptively about whatever was in the image. Next day everyone else showed up with colorful illustrations clipped from magazines. Not me, though; I had cut out a large black and white photo from the newspaper. It was an autumn scene of a farmyard, with rolling fields beyond and several great trees overhanging the barn. When the teacher came by to look at the various choices we’d made, she stopped at my desk and said (a bit testily, or so I thought), “I told you to bring in a color picture.” My naively honest reply was, “But I do see all kinds of colors here!”

In 1963 Robert Wise directed a perfectly goosebump-raising film adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s story “The Haunting of Hill House.” (The movie itself was titled, simply, “The Haunting”.) There was nary a drop of blood to be seen, nor a single spatter of gore, and yet the film scares the berries out of us with everything we don’t see, or don’t quite see, or aren’t quite sure we see, in shadowed corners of rooms and underneath creaking staircases. Oh yeah, it’s in black and white. In 1999 a big-budget, big-name-star remake was done – in color, of course – and it tanked. The reviews generally agreed that the emphasis on special effects pretty much sucked any creepy mood out of the film. Was that color’s fault? No… But I believe that when you’ve got a ton of computer-generated tricks at your disposal, full of sound and fury and psychedelic color, you don’t necessarily have to pay attention to subtle things like mood and atmosphere. On the other hand, when all you’ve got is monochrome light and shadow as your toolkit, then you’d also better weave an irresistible web of story and pacing if you want to draw the viewer in.

I’m thinking about this because Wendy and I were talking a little while ago about how she planned to adapt the final issues of the Original Quest into manga format. The sixth volume of DC Comics’ “Grand Quest” series contains some very dense stuff – the final battle against King Guttlekraw’s northern trolls, the discovery of the Palace of the High Ones, Timmain’s revelation of the Wolfriders’ heritage, and more. And Wendy was saying how she wanted to let the original artwork expand to fill however many manga pages were needed; she wasn’t going to assign page numbers to the new layouts until everything fit and the pacing felt just right.

(Historical aside: Back in 1983 and 1984, when these chapters first appeared, Wendy sometimes asked for more pages in each issue – to give the story more room to breathe – than I as publisher was willing to give. We got into some humdinger arguments in those days about the needs of the art versus the needs of the business. As chief bean-counter I usually pulled rank and won; I am so very happy not to be in that line of work any more!)

I commented to her how very cool it is to be able, in my present-day role of editor and file-preparer, to experience the same story material that I’ve seen and dealt with over and over, as if I were reading it for the very first time. Because it’s true! From original black and white comics to Donning color reprints to Father Tree Press revised editions to ElfQuest Reader’s Collection volumes, the saga of Cutter’s quest for the Palace of the High Ones has worn many coats. And yet page 18 of Elfquest’s first incarnation is, structurally, the same as page 18 of each subsequent presentation. There’s nothing wrong with that; the pages that Wendy first drew are the pages that many of us (myself included) fell in love with, and they do a honking fine job of telling the story. (In fact, this is the material that goes into DC’s Archive editions.)

But to make the transition from American standard comic book size to compact manga size, we knew from the get-go that we couldn’t simply shrink the pages. Details in Wendy’s linework, already packing each page to capacity, would simply get lost in the process. (Many’s the time I’ve overheard Wendy muttering darkly as she reformats, “What the hell was I thinking, putting this many panels on a page?”) And so with every chapter she takes whatever’s on one page and decides how to break it apart and spread it over two, or even three, manga pages. Perhaps a bit of business – like One-Eye snitching the offerings left by the Hoan-G’tay-Sho – sandwiched into a quarter-page in the original (below left), gets a complete manga page to itself… (below right) More room to “breathe” and be its own little scene.

Another page of eight fairly straightforward panels (below top) is transformed into two pages where the panels themselves participate in the downward motion of Cutter as he attempts to rescue Skywise from the Deathwater falls. (below bottom right and left)

There are many such examples of this re-emphasis – so many, in fact, that the tale takes a new rhythm in the reading, and that’s a joyous experience. It’s like hearing a brand new version of a favorite song (Eric Clapton’s “Layla” comes to mind – originally tortured and wild and amped to the max and then “unplugged,” acoustic and lyrical) or a bold new interpretation of a beloved classical piece. That’s the feeling I get when I work on and read the new manga editions of ElfQuest; it’s the same and yet it’s different and new – andvery exciting. And color would only distract. After all, there’s a reason why 99% of all manga, whether created in Japan or here in the USA, is in black and white. It goes back to why the 1963 version of “The Haunting” works and the 1999 remake doesn’t. There’s nothing between you the reader, and the raw skill of the storyteller. In a way, it’s a contract between the two of you; the artist agrees to show you the most refined, distilled essence of the story, and you agree to apply the fullness of your attention and imagination to what’s on the page – in effect, to “see” as much color and movement and special effect as you choose.

They say that first impressions are the most lasting. All I know is that, in doing my part to bring Wendy’s manga-ized version of ElfQuest to DC and thus to you, I get to enjoy the happy sensation of having a first impression for the second time!

Shade and sweet rediscovery!

Richard Pini