Erwin Panofsky’s perspective as symbolic form – in comics?Posted: May 7, 2013
In his essay “Perspective as Symbolic Form” (“Die Perspektive als ‘symbolische Form'”, 1927), Erwin Panofsky dispels the myth that artists didn’t know anything about perspectival construction before the Renaissance. He shows that the Ancient Greeks and Romans just employed a different system than the vanishing point system we are used to today, and neither can be said to be more “correct” than the other. For Panofsky, the transition from the old to the new system was a paradigm shift. As long as a perspectival paradigm is upheld, artists will construct their pictures in that system. Once a paradigm shift occurs, there is no turning back to the old system – artists don’t choose between different systems.
If we follow Panofsky so far, one question remains: is the vanishing point system still the uncontested paradigm today, or has another shift occurred in the last 85 years? Let’s look at a random comic book to see how perspective is handled there. It’s been a while since I last reviewed Astonishing X-Men, and I’m going to properly review the current issues in a later post, but for today I pick issue #57 from December 2012 (cover dated February 2013). With this issue, Gabriel Hernandez Walta took over as the regular artist from Mike Perkins. It is a harsh transition, as their art styles are so different: none of the lines in Hernandez Walta’s art are exactly straight; they are all slighty irregular and seem nervous, vibrant and sketchy. And yet, see how he constructs perspective in the first panel on the second page:
If we trace the lines indicated by rows of windows or sidewalk seams (traced in red by myself here), which would be parallel to each other in real three-dimensional space, they converge in a single vanishing point when Hernandez Walta projects them onto the two-dimensional space of his panel. Furthermore, this vanishing point is at the same location in the picture as the head of the character Warbird, the protagonist of this story.
This comic book is full of such obtrusively constructed vanishing point perspectives, often including floor tiles or other grid patterns that help to convey a feeling of depth. However, this is not the only perspectival system employed by Hernandez Walta. In several panels, he switches to isometric projection. For instance, in the third panel on p. 3:
Parallel lines formed by the furniture in the depicted room (assuming the furniture is meant to be rectangular and arranged in parallel) stay parallel in the projection – they never converge even if we extend them beyond the panel borders.
Overall, the predominant perspectival construction system in Astonishing X-Men #57 is still the vanishing point system. But maybe Hernandez Walta’s little isometric deviations are a sign that the vanishing point paradigm isn’t quite as uncontested nowadays as it used to be.