Comic artists must take a different approach than traditional artists to portraying the Pacific Northwest outdoors, since the landscape becomes their setting rather than their subject. The landscape needs to complement, not hinder, the action. Comics are also produced on a fast schedule, so artists are forced to produce pages relatively quickly, giving them an incentive to simplify backgrounds.
The same thing that makes Cascadia so beautiful also makes it challenging to illustrate – the forests are often dense, the understory flush with shrubs and groundcover. Open meadows are uncommon; when the forest looks open, it’s generally a stand of douglas firs with sword ferns or thick moss beneath. Cutting cross-country can be difficult if you don’t find a deer trail to follow.
I looked at three comics set in the Pacific Northwest to compare their depictions of the forest – Black Hole by Charles Burns, Northwest Passage by Scott Chantler, and Fables 3: Storybook Love by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, and Steve Leialoha.
Black Hole by Charles Burns
Black Hole by Charles Burns uses black and white to create luscious scenery. Burns doesn’t shy away from detail, using stark outlines to enumerate blades of grass and individual leaves, but also makes use of silhouettes distinguished by halos of white to fill large night-time forests.
Note that he’s careful to balance background detail against the main element of the picture, keeping the overall darkness or lightness enough to contrast rather than distract from the central figure.
Northwest Passage by Scott Chantler
Northwest Passage by Scott Chantler achieves a softer feel by adding grayscale and using a more stylized, less detailed, look. The forest floor and understory are simplified and cleared to keep attention on the action of the story. Chantler takes advantage of the Northwest’s vast forests with overviews, creating seas of Douglas firs, some fully outlined, others suggested with partial outlines.
While our forests are a blend of evergreen and deciduous trees, it seems that Chantler favored deciduous trees for more detailed sections, probably to add some more visual interest lower in the canopy since Douglas firs can often be bare on the lowest 30 feet.
Fables: Storybook Love by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, and Steve Leialoha
Storybook Love: Fables Volume 3 by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, and Steve Leialoha, features a chase and battle scene through the Western Washington mountains. Buckingham details selected foreground elements – a tree trunk and gnarled roots, a pile of boulders, a few bunches of grass – and fills the background with silhouettes or solid color. The art hints at the forest’s complexity, especially in the close-up scenes, but also relies on negative space to complete the vision. Again, the forest floor is relatively clear. Though Fables is in color, background shading is added with a black half-tone pattern and swaths of black.
Leaves whirl through the pages, adding an interesting element that hearkens back to the greenery of the Northwest. Annoyingly, the leaves appear to be ivy, a nasty invasive up here. I think the ivy relates back to another visual elsewhere in the book, but still. This scene is set at night so the colors are muted, and emphasize browns and grays rather than greens, as you might expect to see in the northwest.