At the request of coffeeandink, some blathering on about why and how manga pages work. Images in it, with at least one image about 200K - slow-modem users beware.
Not that I've even got to SAIYUKI and FRUITS BASKET yet, which is what she asked for. I'm going to hit DRAGONBALL Z first, for reasons you'll shortly understand.
First, I'm going to start off by attempting to explain what makes the difference between the pro artwork and the almost-there-but-not-quite artwork, because it's something that I think people who don't have much of a background in art have problems seeing, as well as what "confidence in linework" means. The easiest way to show you is to compare Akira Toriyama's work (DRAGONBALL Z, published in SHONEN JUMP) with R. MacPherson (SHORT TRIP, published in EigoMANGA's RUMBLE PAK), since the style is so similar that the comparison should hopefully be obvious.
Here's a page from each, with roughly the same amount of stuff going on in each. Read the Toriyama page in the Japanese way, from right to left, but read MacPherson's in the Western way, left to right.
The first thing you can see here is that Toriyama uses negative space - when he leaves empty spaces in his panels, the shapes made by the white space are solid, distinct ones. If you colored the characters and background elements in solid black, Toriyama's are clean and simple. You can figure out what's going on in the panel almost by the silhouette alone. Note that MacPherson clutters his with extraneous shapes, and that the outlines of his character and landscape aren't as strong. Note also that Toriyama's character shows her strong, defiant personality in her stance, and you can guess at her character just from seeing the silhouette. MacPherson's character's silhouette is pretty much indefinite, and you can't tell anything about him from it. Toriyama's speech balloon gives the character plenty of room, but MacPherson's crowds in on him and gives a sense of claustrophobia, which doesn't contribute anything to the panel.
It's quite possible to do a good page without using negative space as such, which is something that Kazuya Minekura does in SAIYUKI, but what she does is fill up her spaces with so much linework and tone that it still becomes a form of negative space; visual white noise. I'll get to that when I look at SAIYUKI (which may be in a separate post).
In the comparison above, I think MacPherson's panel would have been stronger if his character had a stronger pose, where the chest arched outward, because a chest collapsed inward signals fear, weakness, and inescurity. His character is cocky and sure of himself, so the pose works against him. The character is also reassuring the girl about their ability to fight monsters, and thus I think should probably be in more of a boasting stance, with chest thrust out, in an attempt to inspire confidence in her.
Going back to the pages as a whole, another big difference between the two is that Toriyama allows panels for characters to have wordless reaction shots - there's no need for him to crowd dialogue into every single panel, and the story flows better because of that. You have a better idea of what's happening on the emotional level, and the characters seem just a little bit more complex because of that.
Now take a look at how the panels are composed. Toriyama goes in for close shots in panels with higher emotional tension, like when Number 18 (the girl) is berating the other characters, and zooms out for establishing shots. This allows for the characters to be placed solidly in their environment, and lets us build up a picture in our minds of what the setting looks like. It also allows the characters space in which to exist. MacPherson chooses to remains tight on his characters, which gives all the panels the same emotional intensity. I think the panel where the girl is saying "M-Monsters?" would have been improved by pulling way out, and leaving the background white, with a large amount of whitespace on top of her, because she would look small, exposed,and uncomfortable, and the white space would have given an oppressive feel. The whitespace would also have allowed for a resting place for the eye on the page, which is desperately needed - right now the eye is darting all over the page because there's no place for it to rest for a second and that doesn't work for pacing - cluttering the page makes you read it at a headlong pace, like Connie Willis' novels, which are exhausting because they don't let the reader slow down until the end of the book.
Since you almost never see the full body of MacPherson's characters, and they tend to fill the panel, you get a claustrophobic feeling, even though they're in a wide-open wilderness setting. One thing that might have improved that is to remove the big speech balloon from panel 1 of his page, which would give us a big wide-open feeling about the landscape, *or* to do what Toriyama did in panel 1 on his page (remember, it's on the top right for Toriyama) and clear a much bigger empty space for the balloon to float in, so it wouldn't be obviously blocking out background elements. And allowing for big empty spaces in one or two other panels would have added more visual resting spaces.
MacPherson is also shy of whitespaces in general, not just in the backgrounds. Note how Toriyama's characters have areas of solid black and solid white within them - Number 18's sleeves and hair, and the bald guy's tunic have white areas. MacPherson doesn't do that. He fills in whatever white spaces are in the inks with a grey tone, or with lines, and the only big white space on the page - the hand in the close-up of the vial in the next-to-last panel - is covered over with emanating rays. I think that panel would be much improved by having the emanating rays *behind* the hand. The white space of the hand would then frame the complicated lines of the vial, so it would be more prominent and seen as soon as the eye hits the panel, instead of being lost in the lines.
Which leads into the linework.
Toriyama uses thinner lines, and his lines have a subtle variation in width that lends a certain fluidity to them. This is most noticeable at Number 18's hairline - the lines on the top of her forehead taper to fine points from a subtly wider start deeper in the hair. Her eyelashes also taper to very fine points. In contrast, MacPherson uses the same width of line throughout the entire page, and in the comparison picture just above, the girl's hairline and eyelashes taper to much wider points than Toriyama's equivalent. The position of the irises and pupils in MacPherson's girl are indefinite - you can't quite tell which way they're looking, but there is no doubt as to exactly which direction Number 18 is glaring, and it focuses her anger -- you do NOT want to be on the receiving end of that glare!
Now go back to the two full pages side-by-sside and note that Toriyama tends to use ever-so-slightly-thinner lines for his background elements, and reserves the areas of solid black and the variations in line width for his characters. This focuses attention on the characters because they're mor visually complex. MacPherson uses the same style of inking for both his characters and background, and there's no prominence given to one over the other, which again leads to the claustrophobic effect and visual confusion.
Now to the ever-amorphous condition of "confidence" in the linework. It is, I think, a combination of the quality of the line itself, and how much the artist commits to a line or curve. Take a look at the panel comparison of Number 18 and the girl Let. The lines of Number 18's cheek are smooth. Let's cheek lines have a certain wibbliness to them, a roughness which happens when either the artist uses a paper that absorbs too much ink, so it spreads out a little bit, or when the artist doesn't draw big and shrink down small -- the action of doing that smooths out wibbliness in lines. I've got a quick-and-dirty example of that on the scraps in my DeviantArt account. That's part of the confidence thing. [In all fairness, the wibbliness might be caused by pixelation from the low resolution that EigoMANGA used to post the pages, but it resembles the wibbliness caused by the other two things and detracts from the overall look of the art in the exact same way.]
The other part of line confidence has to do with angles and curves. Note that Number 18's cheek is made of two distinct lines with a fairly sharp, although slightly rounded, angle, and she has a small but definite chin. Let's cheek is almost perfectly round, but not quite, and her chin is nonexistent. There are no real, definite angles on her, but there's no really definite curve, either, which would be made more prominent by thinning the lines at the end of the curve.
Last, anatomy, which also contributes to the line-condfidence equation. I've seen manga where the perfectly-round face shape works, but it doesn't quite work for me in MacPherson's, because it's not quite perfectly round, either. The curve arcs inward, pushing the side of Let's jawbone in unnaturally, so her chin gives the impression of being a little too far to the side, a little bit off the middle. Note the jawlines on both of them Number 18's jaw has a small but definite upward angle defining the jawbone *before* the ear. Let's jaw sort of vaguely curves up, and the jawbone is showing as *behind* the ear. That reads wrongly and makes the head appear weirdly pulled-back and slightly misshapen. If you look at Number 18, yes her head *is* weirdly misshapen off of what we think of as human, but all the bits fit together correctly and give it an internal consistency that Let lacks.
The other major anatomy quibble with MacPherson's girl is her neck. The pose in these panels is similar - the character is thrusting her head forward in anger. But MacPherson doesn't get the emotion across and his character looks off-balance because of the neck. Number 18's neck thrusts forward with her head, but MacPherson's doesn't react to the movement of the head. This is unnatural - the body's parts *always* react with each other's movements and even if you don't notice it consciously, the figure still looks somehow wrong if nearby bits aren't reacting. This is something that MacPherson carries throughout the chapter, and his characters resemble bobblehead dolls whose heads are mounted on springs and whose bodies aren't entirely connected to the head. This is also why his characters' heads look too large while Toriyama's, whose heads are definitely on the same scale as MacPherson's, look natural -- Toriyama's heads move with the body while MacPherson's move independent of the body.
That's it for now. I'm going to go eat dinner and think about what I'm going to say for SAIYUKI and FRUITS BASKET, which are two completely different styles distinct from Toriyama's and will be fascinating to rip apart like this.
Index to the Series