Year of the Artist, Day 60: Ming Doyle, Part 1 – The Loneliest Astronauts
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Ming Doyle, and these strips are from The Loneliest Astronauts, which was published by Agreeable Comics and are cover dated October and November 2009. Enjoy!
I hadn’t seen Ming Doyle’s art prior to seeing her on Kevin Church’s webcomic, but she had done some work, although not too much. Since this time, she’s done some other work, and her profile keeps rising, so I figured I would check out her development so far. Obviously, she’s still early in her career, but we can still see what we can see. These strips are on-line, so you can read along if you want to. Let’s check out some examples of Doyle’s early artwork!
The Loneliest Astronauts tells the story of Steve and Dan, two astronauts who are stranded on an alien planet light-years from Earth. Something went wrong with their mission and the rest of the crew died. Now they’re on this planet with no ability to contact Earth, and of course their rations are dwindling. Plus, Steve hates Dan. Oh, yeah, it’s a comedy. Here’s the second strip:
The interesting thing about the joke is that it seems like it should be Dan staying and saying it, because Dan’s the more goofball one. Anyway, if we don’t fret about that, Doyle does some nice things with the art. She uses a lot of blacks on the gravestones, which adds some gravitas to the scene and makes the joke land better. Dan and Steve’s suits are a bit schlumpy – Doyle draws them so they sag just a bit, which makes sense given that the two men have been wearing them for a year, but also simply plays into the black comedy of the strip. The transition from Panel 3 to Panel 4 is wonderful. We never see either man’s face, of course (later in the strip, we almost do a few times), so Doyle uses shadows on the face plate almost like Dave Gibbons did with Rorschach – the small spot of white in the face plate functions almost as an eye. The way she draws Steve in Panel 3 is somber, as he stands silently. Then she simply lifts his arm so he can point at Beverly Gilmore’s grave, and Church nails the joke. The pointing is important because it’s a bit insouciant, undercutting the weight of the previous panel. It makes Steve’s dialogue less wistful, which it would have been without the pointing, and more arrogant. Steve’s finger helps take Church’s dialogue to a slightly higher level, and it’s crucial to the joke.
Dan is kind of a tool, but he functions as the upbeat one to Steve’s Russian novelist. Doyle does a very nice job differentiating the two men in this strip. Steve sits a bit more upright, and his despair and tension are palpable in Panels 1 and 3, as he looks more fidgety than Dan. Meanwhile, Dan is slumped a bit in his seat, and we can almost see his paunch as he contemplates Steve’s words. In Panel 1, Steve’s arm motion is harsh and decisive, while Dan’s motion in Panel 4 is almost languid. Doyle does a tremendous job with very limited resources here.
Church sends the two astronauts outside the ship occasionally in the early strips (and far more in later strips), which gives Doyle a chance to draw the landscape – not that it’s all that interesting, but it’s something different, at least. What’s neat about this strip is that she draws the entire ruined spaceship in the background, and while it’s a mangled mass of metal, she still gives it enough definition that we see how terrible the crash was. In the foreground of Panel 1, Dan and Steve play poker, and once again Doyle does a nice job with their body language. Dan is sitting up because he’s more excited about their predicament than Steve is – Dan doesn’t seem that bright, as we saw in the previous strip. He’s just happy to be playing cards with Steve, while Steve sits pensively, not even looking at Dan. He doesn’t care about the cards at all – he has a straight flush but what will he win with it? In Panel 2, Doyle really does a nice job. The cards are beaten up, and the skin-tight glove Steve wears makes the hand look old, as we can see every tiny wrinkle. Steve is presumably a young man, but the way Doyle draws the hand in the glove makes him appear old, as his loneliness has aged him terribly. Doyle, you’ll notice, uses the black/white/gray scales very effectively – Steve’s head casts a gray shadow over his hand, making the scene a bit more tragic. It’s not a hard choice to put his finger right by the breasts of the queen as he tells Dan what he misses, but it does add a nice soupçon of tragedy to the strip. Plus, it links back to Steve’s desire to “bone” Beverly Gilmore – Steve digs the ladies, apparently.
The absurdity of this joke works, I think, partly because of the way Doyle constructs the two panels. Obviously, she needs to stretch the first panel out a bit because of the long Burns poem that Steve quotes, but she shrinks the astronauts down and places them on a mesa, which she then inks heavily and thickly, making it a dreary and tragic place that complements the tone of the poem quite well. Then she zooms in on Dan, whose pose is interesting. His face is crammed over to the side and he reaches out with his three fingers, and the way he’s posed, it seems like he’s trying very hard to reach Steve, which is why the punchline, “But they never tell you what kind,” seems more desperate and therefore funnier. It’s a fascinating way to pose Dan in that panel, and it shows that Doyle gets body language very well. The joke would have been funny if she had used a more straight-forward pose, but it wouldn’t have had the desperation and therefore wouldn’t have been as absurd.
Doyle continued to draw the strip for another two years (with some breaks), and as it got weirder (and yes, it got weirder), she continued to do some cool things with the art. Tomorrow we’ll look at her first Marvel work and see what’s up with that. Before then, feel free to check out the archives!