They Had Faces Then: Close-Ups, 50s Photo-Realism and the Psychological Turn

Stan Drake, The Heart of Juliet Jones

The turn to photo-realism in the adventure comics after WWII is well-documented and obvious in any review of the major strips. Alex Raymond’s Rip Kirby, Warren Tufts’ Casey Ruggles and Lance, Leonard Starr’s On Stage, Stan Drake’s Heart of Juliet Jones, John Cullen Murphy’s Big Ben Bolt are just some of the clearest examples. The stylistic foundation had already been set in the 1930s, of course by Noel Sickles (Scorchy Smith), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates) and Hal Foster (Prince Valiant). They moved adventure strips away from the more expressionist modes of Gould and Gray, or the cartoonish remnants of Roy Crane (Wash Tubbs and Capt. Easy) or the sketchy illustrator style of a Frank Godwin (Connie). .But it is really in the post-war period that we see a clear ramping up of fine line visual detailing, naturalist figure modeling and movement, as well as full adoption of cinematic techniques.

But as I work my way through many of these 50s adventures, it is the pronounced and effective use of the close-up and emotional expression that really strikes me as a signature of this era. In the first decades of the American comic strip, few artists had either the artistic facility or perhaps the narrative impulses to use facial expression to add depth or impact to story. Some were better than others, of course. As Hal Foster matured, he occasionally brought the frame in tight to define the villainy of his rogues. And Alex Raymond was adept at registering the emotional dynamics of menace, eros and humiliation as punctuation to his masterful action sequences. And while most comedy strips used broad, stereotyped reaction to screwball antics, Al Capp was a notable exception, as he was a devotee of facial expressiveness.

But I think you can argue that many of the notable adventure strips of the later 40s and 50s started relying more heavily on facial expressiveness as part of the narrative palette than ever before. Even in the early years of Raymond’s Rip Kirby, in 1946, you can see him using the tight frame and faces to communicate emotion in a way even he hadn’t used a decade before.

Raymond used close-ups and faces to dramatize dialogue, give feeling to language. In other words, he was letting his characters act visually.

Even the best American cartoonists tended to use their drawn figures more as mannequins voicing dialogue than actors whose faces added layers of meaning to the script. Both comic and adventure artists were at their best putting cartoon characters in physical action, whether screwball slapstick or dramatic violence. Compare, for instance, Raymond’s use of faces in the post-war era to a comparable master, Milton Caniff, in Steve Canyon circa 1947.

Caniff certainly did use timing and expression at times. The first two-panel sequence above is a delicious bit of business in that narrow range Caniff allowed his women to perform – stereotypical competitive cattiness. But the second panel shows his more common use of figures and faces, stiffer puppets whose dialogue carries the emotional weight of the scene.

The emerging 50s style was not only brining the “camera” in closer to characters, but using the tightly cropped panel to pull us into the drama of a story in a more visceral way. One of the best post-war cartoonists, John Cullen Murphy, brought the close-up to another level in Big Ben Bolt. Murphy’s characters don’t just dramatize feeling with their faces but peer from the page at the viewer, courting our empathy.

Facial expressiveness and the photo-realistic close-up was embedded in the visual language of 1950s adventure. We see deployed with varying degrees of talent across Johnny Hazard to Cisco Kid, Twin Earths to Beyond Mars. But across the board we are seeing artists animate the comics page and their own characters with a level of emotive power and personal identification we simply don’t see in the “golden age” of adventure in the 1930s.

As the photo-realism of adventure advanced in the 1950s, a cadence for using emotional engagement in that three or four panel sequence also emerged. Emotive close-ups tended to end the daily strip, as if the traditional cliffhanger or tease panel were being replaced by a note of intimacy or deeper insight into a character. Leonard Starr’s On Stage (later, Mary Perkins On Stage) is the clearest example of this device. His daily sequence often move from medium and long shots to a two-shot kicker in which we either penetrate one character’s feelings or feel a moment of intimate exchange between two people.

No doubt, comic strip artists were taking some of their visual cues from the visual tropes emerging from the romance comic explosion of the mid-1940s. Essentially invented by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1947 with the Young Romance launch, the romance genre was immediately and massively successful. As Kirby turned his penchant for physical action inward to emotional landscapes and first-person narratives, he brought the visual perspective in tighter as well. While never a master of facial expressiveness, Kirby increasingly used close-ups and two-shots that tried to evoke, not just illustrate, feeling. Who invented which visual tropes when and where would be hard to prove in the melange of comic book and comic strip changes in the post-war period. One thing we do know about cartoonists is that they pay close attention to one another’s work to hunt new ideas. But it is clear that the visual tropes of facial expression, bringing inner feeling to the surface via close-up and photo-realistic line art, were conventions of romance comics that proliferated across the comic strip page and the evolution of the adventure genre of the 1950s.

And this was part of an inward turn in the adventure genre. Nothing spoke to this shift in adventure more clearly than Alex Raymond’s move from Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim in the 1930s and early 40s to the bespectacled, pipe-smoking, academic detective Rip Kirby after the war. Of course, the wise-cracking, stone-faced manly men of comics lived on in the likes of Steve Canyon and Johnny Hazard, not to mention the comic book superheroes and their perpetual appeal to arrested adolescence. But we see a more contemplative, introspective turn in Kirby and especially in Big Ben Bolt. Ostensibly about a champion boxer, John Cullen Murphy quickly filled his hero with self-doubt, a distaste for the violence of the ring and a preference for intrigue and social drama.

The comics were registering a shift in post-war culture itself. The 1950s is stereotyped as the decade of bland consumerism, anti-Communist jingoism and enforced conformity. Any careful look at high or popular culture of the era tells a much more complex story. The trauma of WWII carnage, while famously suppressed by many veterans, clearly informed the darker areas of mass culture production. And the Cold War threat of instant annihilation was an undeniable influence throughout American life. Film noir, increasingly grisly crime and horror comics, the proliferation of hard-boiled paperback fiction all suggested that Americans were interested in engaging more conflicted, emotionally taut lives than more acceptable forms of popular expression portrayed.

The psychological dimension of the human animal was also becoming popularized during the post-war period. The field of psychology enjoyed a boost of popular acceptance during WWII, when the military called upon the profession to help minister to soldiers’ trauma. In elite, urban centers, seeking therapy became more common, even stylish. At the EC Comics shop, for instance, both publisher William Gaines and chief script-writer, Al Feldstein, were in therapy. They eventually produced a short-lived comic called Psychoanalysis. But their appreciation for the the psychological depth of human character clearly informed their horror and fantasy storytelling. Likewise, the Simon and Kirby shop produced briefly The Secret World of Your Dreams, where “comics meet Dali & Freud.” Comics artists were expressing and interpreting a shifting understanding of human nature. lending image to the zeitgeist.

3 thoughts on “They Had Faces Then: Close-Ups, 50s Photo-Realism and the Psychological Turn

  1. Pingback: Into the Heart of Juliet Jones – Panels & Prose

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  3. Pingback: Connie and Frank Godwin’s Gentle Realism – Panels & Prose

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