In most pictorial illustrations, it is very common to see different types of lines throughout the images. Some lines are short, long, or curved; some of them are in the background; and some lines are clumped together—but each line serves its own purpose. That is, when an illustration is black and white and lacks description, in order to achieve the same or better expression as color comic books, abundant lines have to be used. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud demonstrates to readers how lines can be used to both express emotion and create atmosphere. I have always thought it easier to interpret emotion and atmosphere in a colored image or picture. But, as McCloud points out, we can just as easily interpret emotion in a black and white illustration if the artist manipulates the lines very well. With this in mind, applying McCloud’s line theory to the images we find in Lynd Ward’s Vertigo will advance readers’ understanding of a wordless novel.
One of the easiest ways to distinguish the mood of one illustration from another is by looking at the quantity of the lines in the illustration. Using fewer lines makes the panels appear to be brighter. There only a few bright panels in the novel, and the majority of them show delight or pleasant feelings. The second image in “February” is significantly brighter relative to most illustrations in the novel. The image shows a person lying by himself on a long chair on a beach. The weather is beautiful and clear, which readers can tell by the sunshine and the light reflected by the sand. The whole illustration evokes a calm feeling and relaxing atmosphere.
On the other hand, the illustrations that appear to be gloomy are those with a great amount of lines used. In Vertigo, the majority of illustrations appear to be dark, and the atmosphere of these illustrations is either depressing or disheartening. For example, on the second panel of “September”, the illustration shows a drunken man who has fallen down from his bed on the floor. The room is dark and he is alone. He is pushing against the floor and struggling to get up, but he is too weak to do so. The dark background could show the cold atmosphere, and the whole illustration evokes the helplessness and loneliness of the character.
Furthermore, the lines bring various emotions because of the shape of the lines used. In general, there are two kinds of lines: straight and curved. Various emotions can be expressed by manipulating the styles of lines.
The straight lines can be separated into two kinds: thin and thick. Thin straight lines are most often used as sunshine and light that encourage people and give them hope. In the image from “1929”, the principal is on the stage raising his hands at a 120-degree angle in the air. The sun is high in the sky. The reader can sense that the principal is trying to convey to the student that the future is bright and full of opportunities. The straight thin lines represent the bright sunlight scattered in all directions, which give an encouraging and promising impression. The whole panel gives readers a positive feeling.
As the lines get thicker, the tension and strength start to show in the bold lines. A perfect example of this is the 13th panel of “1929”. Two men are building a railroad. They are holding the hammers high in the sky. Using the bold line as the handle of the hammers draws attention to the swinging hammers and the workers’ arms. Every muscle in the body is bolded to show the strength of the hard-working men.
Furthermore, there are lots of curved lines used. Curved lines also have different styles. In Vertigo we can find widely curved lines and wavy curved lines. Widely curved lines are used in some extreme conditions. On the first page of “February”, the panel depicts a train rapidly crossing a bridge and continuing into stormy weather. Wide lines show that the wind is strong and harsh. The large portion of the panel shows the wind and snow blowing against the train. The train is kind of small compared to the storm in the panel. Using the widely sharp curved lines across the panel and the shady background create a feeling of strong winds.
In contrast to the large sharp curved lines, small wavy lines have the opposite effect to the reader. Wavy lines evoke soft and mellow feelings, which are often used in positive illustrations. The second image in “February” is not only brighter, but also softer because of the soft sands and the mellow palm tree branches. Using the wavy lines to represent the soft sands in this illustration promotes the positive emotions of the illustration.
If a line represents a word, then the combinations of the lines could tell many things. In a novel, it is difficult to express a character’s emotion with no words or colors but Lynd Ward still manages to let readers perceive the attitudes and living conditions of the great depression. Each type of line symbolizes a character. By manipulating and composing different styles of lines, the artist can clearly express the attitudes and emotions of the characters in the story.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: Harper Collins Publishers Inc., 1993.
Ward, Lynd. Vertigo. New York: Dover Publications, 1937