Chris Ware's comic Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth strikes me as a great guide to retro art design. I feel it is an amalgamation or picture gallery of different art styles of the late 19th through mid 20th Centuries.
Ware is an admitted fanatic of ragtime music and the fashions of that era. Ragtime was popular from the mid 1890s to around 1920, when Jazz began to supersede it. Around that time, Art Nouveau (1890-1905), American Modernism (late 19th to mid 20th Centuries), and Art Deco (1920s-1940s) were the dominant styles.
Art Deco could be described as a less ornate Art Nouveau. Whereas Art Nouveau had very Rococo style ostentation and curved lines, Art Deco was more streamlined with straighter lines. Art Deco, at least in print, can be summed up as using heavy lines, warped text, and bold contrasting colors. In architecture, the Chrysler Building in New York City is a good example. Art Deco style remained very popular in Eastern Europe right up until the present day. Many modern movie posters from that region still have obvious art deco influence. There has been an on-and-off resurgence in modern America of Art Deco too. One example is the 1991 superhero movie The Rocketeer. More recently there was the beautiful 2007 videogame BioShock.
The purposes and effects of this style in Jimmy Corrigan are quite simple. First, they are very eye-catching and make the comic unique. It stands out from the crowd. The fake letterheads, advertisements, synopses, and introductions in Jimmy Corrigan are dynamic and antique looking. The old, clunky robots and airships could be right out of an early sci-fi publication.
Second, Ware is updating a retro style with a modern story which includes cursing, nudity, etc. In fact it is a pretty mundane story. Jimmy is lonely, has no friends or girlfriend, talks to his mother on the phone every day, has a dead-end job, and eventually flies to meet the father he's never known. All in all it is pretty straightforward and a bit depressing. However, over the course of the story, Ware interjects surreal memories, flashbacks, and dream (or daydream) sequences. Ware may be saying that, despite the passage of time, people are inherently the same. Relationships between people, particularly children and parents, follow the same path. Jimmy's ancestors in 1893 Chicago have the same issues he has today.
Ware brilliantly adapts his drawing to the era it depicts. The Civil War scenes are drawn very realistically like sepia tone photographs, with detailed trees and explosions. Later, in 1890s Chicago, the art changes to evoke the early "color" photographs that actually were black-and-white prints diligently colored in by hand. On another page, a hospital transforms to Doctor Linn's Pharmacy, back to a smaller St. Mary's hospital, and finally to a Medlife Clinicare. Ware nails each architectural style perfectly. The reader is immediately drawn into that time period without having to be told where or when it is.
In Thomas A. Bredehoft's article "Comics Architecture, Multidimensionality, and Time" (p. 3), Ware mentions his compositional style. At first he compares the eye taking in a page as the ear listens to music, but then also compares it to a building. "Another way is to pull back and consider the composition all at once, as you would the façade of a building. You can look at a comic as you would look at a structure that you could turn around in your mind and see all sides of at once."
The effect of Ware's widely-varied composition seems to imply a musical sensation. Many pages are uneven, with alternating large and small panels. Others switch between tall and short. Still others have panels that don't have a clear flow from one to the next. Oftentimes the characters take an entire page to get out one sentence of dialogue. In those cases, the panels and drawings themselves provide the beat rather than the words. Some panels may have such little differentiation between the pictorial action that they could be frames of film or pages in a flipbook. Ware apparently wants the audience to be as much a viewer as a reader. The art should be used to create mood and tell the story just as much as the plot and characters.
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