Drinking his coffee from a jelly jar and sitting in a paint-spattered chair, GHC art professor Brian Barr has an air of laid-back congeniality. His studio is filled with easels and paintings in various stages of completion. It’s an expected environment for an artist – calm yet creative. But this conventional looking professor of art has teamed with Kelly Shane, assistant professor of developmental math, to create an online comic called Jackdaw that is dark and brooding, even a bit unsettling.
Barr says that creating the characters and drawing the action every week has been a challenge. “My focus at art school was painting, so I tend to work on a large scale. Suddenly I was required to reduce everything to fit a small strip. It was difficult.” However, he already had some practice. He collaborated with Berry College music professor Harry Musselwhite last year on his children’s book Martin the Guitar, creating visual characters of musical instruments. He also drew illustrations for GHC reference librarian Larry Stephens’ book about a violent and vengeful Civil War confederate, John P. Gatewood: Confederate Bushwhacker.
And his experiences with GHC students may also have helped him. He advises the GHC anime club, and anime has its origins in Japanese comics, known as manga. He and the group watch this genre regularly, and as a working artist, Barr takes note of the techniques and imagery of it. Additionally, he began his art education with a major in animation, though he discovered rather early on that he preferred other art forms. Still, that introduction provided fundamental insight to the art form.
His book illustrations gave him a bit of practice reducing scale so that by the time he approached Jackdaw he was more comfortable with a smaller size. Conveying action, however, posed another challenge. He had to make sure all the character and location elements were consistent from panel to panel. For example, the female sidekick’s character Thrasher wears pigtails and a headpiece that incorporates goggles. Barr needed to make sure the pigtails were at the same place on the head and were the same length. He needed to insure that the headpiece had the same lines from one frame to the next. The settings had to be uniform as well. If characters in a car were wearing seat belts in one panel, they had to be wearing them in the next.
Jackdaw tells the story of Joyce Sunn, a sidekick to Jackdaw, the iconic superhero who has been fighting evil for decades. Together, the two fight crime and the seedy underworld in the gothic city of Grimmsmoore. Both characters are masked and dressed in costumes that say superhero with a twist. The authors describe the storyline like this: “With a heavily promoted motion picture about to be released, the nation is in the grips of Jackdaw mania, and Joyce soon finds herself in the middle of a mystery as to the secret origins of her mentor. She soon stumbles upon a labyrinth of underground history, leading to uneasy revelations, difficult choices and perhaps self-discovery.”
Ironically, the role of the writer, which usually comprises the more taxing, time-consuming job in books and magazines, suddenly shifts to the artist in a comic strip – at least on the surface. The copy could merely say, “Pow,” but the artist must draw the action that makes that one word say everything. Perhaps a character is hitting another. Maybe a new character is being introduced by landing violently into the middle of a scene. Pow can convey a variety of meanings. The illustration, however, must be precise, defining the exact meaning of that one word within the frame. Still, that doesn’t mean Shane doesn’t write in detail about how visual angles, mood and overall design of the panel. He also explains the motivation behind the actions and other information that helps Barr to achieve a precise rendering of action, thoughts and feeling.
“It’s been a learning experience,” said Barr. “I’ve spent many years in a larger format, so I had to rethink my approach: how I would incorporate necessary details, how I would treat body language and facial expressions, especially with the masks.”
The result is a fascinating form of fine art that borrows from cartoon illustration. The end product simultaneously retains a bit of the refinement of a painting and projects the dark mood of a sci-fi drama populated by superheroes.
While Barr no doubt navigates well from one medium and genre to the next in part because of his formal education – a Master of Fine Art from the New York Academy of Art and a Bachelor of Fine Art from the University of Central Florida – he has also been influenced by his students at GHC who keep him current about the artistic trends and interests of the young.
Comics are, of course, a commercial undertaking, lending themselves to ancillary products –
t-shirts, caps, dolls and more. Earning money from a commercial enterprise is certainly a motivator for learning another medium. Still, as an artist Barr is similar to other visual or performing artists who want to keep growing, stretching creative talents to master new media. Looks like he’s just about mastered this one.
Enter the world of Jackdaw now.