Film buffs will be familiar with the term “rack focus,” a manipulation of the camera lens’ narrow depth of field to direct attention from a character or object in the foreground to a character or object in the background of that same frame. It’s a technical maneuver used for dramatic effect, and as Craig Fischer of The Comics Journal explains in a recent article, we’ve become so accustomed to the trick that it often doesn’t register unless we’re hunting for it.
Can the same kind of visual trickery be employed in the two dimensions of a comics page? Fischer says it’s all in the details. And there’s no better place to start examining how artists have employed line and visual shorthand to suggest or even force reader focus than in the work of Jack Kirby.
“In the following panel from the second page of Fantastic Four #60 (March 1967), the figures dominate the foreground, especially Ben Grimm, whose outline is inked with thick holding lines, whose skin is dotted with spot blacks, and whose body is moving left-to-right in a dynamic diagonal. As we look away from the characters, however, and allow our eyes to roam around the panel, we can see that the machinery on the far wall is inked with a much thinner line than the contours that surround the characters in the foreground. The formula is intuitive: the foreground is drawn in thick, eye-catching lines and the background in unobtrusive thinner ones, to create the illusion of receding depth. And the artist has the option to ditch backgrounds altogether if s/he wants the reader’s interest to focus exclusively on the characters.
“Some of these ideas about selective attention can help us better understand Kirby’s art.”
Head over to The Comics Journal to read more of Fischer’s insights on detail in focus in all media.