Year of the Artist, Day 58: Francesco Francavilla, Part 4 – Detective Comics #875
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Francesco Francavilla, and the issue is Detective Comics #875, which was published by DC and is cover dated May 2011. Enjoy!
By the time Francavilla became the “back-up” artist on Detective, he was coloring his own work exclusively, and his work on the title showed how much he had grown as an artist in a few short years. His figure work had become (and remains) a bit more abstract, but his layouts and his coloring had taken huge leaps forward and he’s become one of the most dynamic artists in the business.
One thing Francavilla does with his coloring is decide on a palette that reflects the tone of the book rather than simply coloring things based on how they would look in “reality.” He does this early on and sticks to that palette, influencing how readers feel about the content. This is the first page of issue #875, and Francavilla pretty much uses all the hues he plans on using throughout the comic. While he uses the orange/blue complement that we saw yesterday and see a bit too often these days in comics (in my humble opinion), he also shades in between those two stark poles rather well. Harvey Bullock is colored orange and yellow, giving him a warm tone in the middle of the dark Gotham night. As we saw yesterday, Francavilla is very good at lighting things, so we get the fringes of orange on the dark Bat-signal. Harvey’s suit, tie, and hat are blue, which is a nice touch because I very much doubt that all of them are actually blue in “real life” – the fedora is probably brown, but again, Francavilla is going for a mood, and given that Harvey is standing outside at night, the blue helps create a cooler, darker mood than coloring his hat and clothing more “realistically.” Francavilla also uses different shades of purple – the black of Gotham in Panel 4 becomes a purple and then a bright pink toward the ground, as the city is lit by neon, while the Bat-signal’s black is edged with purple as well. The present-day story in this issue takes place during the winter, and Francavilla is introducing cooler colors to reflect that. He sneaks in some brown in Panels 1-3 to “cut” the warmer tones and provide a bridge to the cooler tones. The musical notes streaming across the top of the page show that Harvey is listening to “oldies,” and the fact that they’re blue could imply that he’s listening to the blues or jazz. Notice that Francavilla’s faces are getting a bit more abstract, but we’ll see more of this in the upcoming panels.
This is a good example of Francavilla using purple very well to create a mood of coolness but not iciness – the purple helps make the scene not quite as forbidding as blue would, and it also gives the reader a feeling of loneliness that ties in with Commissioner Gordon’s lonely vigil. Francavilla, I believe, doesn’t use blue because purple is more analogous to red, which he uses in the final panel most specifically. While red and blue are analogous to a degree, red and purple are more so, and therefore they’re more harmonious when used together. When a colorist uses complementary colors, he or she is trying to create contrast. Analogous colors don’t create that contrast and are usually less vibrant that complementary colors, but they do create a richer look, and it’s clear that Francavilla didn’t want to make the red pop, he wanted to make the scene less vibrant and more moody – which comes from harmonious colors. The purple remains cool and helps temper the red’s heat, as Gordon is coolly surveying a suspect and Francavilla wants to hold that mood. The red in Panel 4 also hints at the heat to come, and the next page is all red and orange, changing the temperature of the story from Gordon being dispassionate to Gordon being so heavily invested in the case he almost can’t find his way out of it. The tone shift is impressive, and it comes from Francavilla’s clever choice to use a lot of purple on this page.
The pencil work is impressive, too. Once again, we see that he’s becoming a bit more abstract, so in Panel 3 all we get is the shock of white in Gordon’s hair, mustache, and glasses. Francavilla leaves the rest of his face alone and heavily inks it so that the face is almost completely in shadows. This makes the white stand out even more, and Francavilla uses a bit of white ink on the glasses to reflect the city that Gordon is looking at. In the final panel, we get the slightly curved buildings of Gotham – Francavilla doesn’t curve them excessively, but he does just enough to add a touch of vertigo to the panel, and given that Gordon is standing on a bridge, it’s just enough to make the reader a bit queasy. The fact that the binoculars completely obscure his eye and the rest of his face is in darkness makes him look inhuman, too, which plays into his mood over the course of this issue – he’s going to go to some dark places, and Francavilla is almost draining his humanity out of him a little bit at a time.
This is another wonderful sequence, as Jim and Barbara Gordon (this is a flashback) talk about their son, James Jr., who has some … issues. Francavilla uses the purple/blue/red color scheme quite well here, as James Jr. sits on the stairs while his mother discusses his future. Francavilla colors the stairs a purplish/blue (or maybe a bluish/purple?) and uses a lot of blacks to hide James Jr. The first panel is brilliant, as he shows just his glasses and hand, linking the mirror-like spectacles back to Gordon’s on the example I showed above. This also makes James Jr. look a bit bug-like, and given what we know about the boy, that’s probably intentional. As he comes into the light a bit more, Francavilla fills in his features just a little, and his set mouth and thin eyes make him look far angrier than he probably feels. The dull red hair shows that he’s a Gordon, of course, but it also links him to the right side of the panels, where his mother sits on a sofa with a red throw rug and doilies over it. The colors bleed from purple/blue to a duller beige, with the red providing a small pop against the brownish background (red is slightly analogous with the brown) but also creating warmth, which stands in contrast to the coolness of the staircase. This is another wonderfully colored sequence.
This is part of a double-page spread, but I didn’t show the entire thing because I’m showing another one down below, so y’all can just chillax. Gordon is thinking about James Jr.’s childhood, and on the side of the page we don’t see, we get the more disturbing aspects of his son’s childhood, while this page shows us a happier – for now – memory. On the right side of the page, we can see that Francavilla colors it more blue – the memories of James Jr. acting horribly are cooler, and Francavilla doesn’t even color it purple, so it’s unequivocally cold for Gordon to remember them. On this page, we slides into far warmer tones, using a red/yellow/orange-based palette exclusively for the rural flashback. The colors create a nostalgia for a more innocent time, but as we read the issue, we realize it’s not really that innocent a time, and this allows Francavilla to stick to the color scheme but introduces more red as Gordon becomes angrier and more frantic, so it works quite well.
The pencil work is done well, too. Francavilla bleeds Gordon’s older face into the scene on the left side, using the colors to obscure the edges of his face as he starts to think about the scene. He’s still being very abstract with the faces, but he gets enough across to make it work. James Jr.’s face in Panel 2 is well done – just the sideways view of the eyes and the slightly open mouth give us a good idea of his awkwardness around Sarah Essen. Francavilla uses the spot blacks really well in Panel 3, as he once again makes James Jr.’s glasses opaque to distance him from the warmth of Barbara and Bess’s hug, while he blacks out his face and front, edging him with a bright red, which signifies anger. Just by using those simple tricks, Francavilla separates James Jr. from the family.
This tremendous double-page spread really would look nicer if it were bigger; once again I curse my small scanner! On the left side, Gordon’s quarry, Roy, is in the present, as he’s the dude Gordon was looking at through the binoculars earlier in the issue. Gordon believes he’s a child-killer, which ties into the flashback, as Barbara’s friend Bess is about to go missing on the right side of the page. Francavilla continues with the color scheme he established on the first page, as he uses purple and blue and some brown on the sequence with Roy to show both the chill of the weather but also the darkness in Roy’s soul. Notice that the purple and blue isn’t quite as rich as it was earlier in the comic, as it appears Francavilla is trying to dull the colors so it’s a bit dirtier and messier – Roy is an ugly individual, and the coloring reflects that. He also uses red for Roy’s eye and for the color of the sky. The red, as we’ve seen, is analogous to the purple, but it’s also the color of evil, so it’s not surprising that Roy’s eye is red. The sky is red because of the Gotham lights, but it also casts a hellish light over the scene and links it back to Gordon’s narration about the snow covering everything – as “pretty” as the snow on the ground might be, Gotham can’t hide itself. The key – with the bat keychain, of course – both divides the page and links the two sequences, as the key is for a science kit that Bess owns and James wants to get into. Francavilla consistently colors it red, but he also uses nice blacks on it to make it more sinister. On the right side of the page, the nostalgic colors become more intense and darker as Bess walks farther away from Barbara and toward her doom – note that Barbara is a soft orange at the top of the page, while whoever is stalking Bess colors her a slightly darker red as the shadow creeps over her. As we’ve seen throughout this, Francavilla uses dappled color to create a more shifting sense of light, as we see when Bess walks along the creek and the oranges and yellows bleed into each other. As we’ve also seen, Francavilla uses blacks very well – he shades Roy’s face and the alley into which he walks, and on the left side of the page, the black encroaches on Bess in the second panel. Francavilla has become more and more confident about getting rid of holding lines, too – he uses thick blacks on the trash can, for instance, but doesn’t use thick holding lines, allowing the black blocks to create the contours of the can. Once again, with Bess’s face in the final panel, we see how his abstract faces don’t preclude him from a good emotional reaction. Her eyes pop and her mouth gapes, and that’s the last time we ever see Bess. Francavilla places the key at the very bottom left, so it’s the last thing we see as we leave the page – it hearkens back to the central image on the page and James Jr.’s interest in the science kit that he can’t open.
Francavilla brings the entire color scheme back together in this sequence, in which Gordon has been looking for Bess but hasn’t found her. In the gloaming, we get the purples and blues we’ve seen throughout the issue, but when we look up at James Jr.’s room, we get orange, which highlights the silhouette there. Although the orange is linked to the scene below because of the Gordons’ hair color, it’s still separate from the scene, which is the point – James Jr. remains separate from the family. Panel 2, with its crucial exchange in which Barbara is about to tell her father an important piece of information, is beautifully inked – the black threatens to overwhelm all the characters, and of course once Barbara tells Gordon what she knows, the darkness will overwhelm their family. The way he lights Barbara in Panel 3 has to be deliberate, I think – she’s lit by the setting sun, but the light looks a bit brighter than it should be, and I wonder if Francavilla was lighting her a bit more because of her future as a crimefighter, meaning she brings a bit of light to the world. I’m probably reading too much into it, but I think it’s interesting that Panel 2 doesn’t show a lot of light, and while there appears to be a porch light on in Panel 1, I’m not sure if Barbara is standing in a spot where it would illuminate her that much. Francavilla draws her with empathetic and sad eyes, as she knows she’s telling her father something that will get James Jr. in trouble, but she also knows it’s the right thing to do. Francavilla adds a tiny bit of gouache, it appears, to Gordon’s glasses in Panel 4, masking his horror at what Barbara is trying to say. It’s a nice touch.
Scott Snyder’s script is very good in this issue – this run on Detective is very good until the somewhat silly final issue – and Francavilla takes that good script and makes this a great comic. This is just an example of what Francavilla is now able to do in his comics. Tomorrow we’ll see one final example of how he controls tone very well, using all the tools at his disposal. I hope you come back to see check it out. And don’t forget the archives – we wouldn’t want them to get lonely!