Over the years I have come to realize that I’m not very good at drawing backgrounds. I am currently working on a project that is set in a school, and beyond the usual lockers and doors I can’t seem to find anything interesting to put in the background. Roy Doty told me that the primary purpose of a background is to place the characters in some kind of context, and I’m had some success with backgrounds when I haven’t had to rely so much on geometric shapes like outdoor scenes. Perhaps this is the reason I dropped out of the industrial design program at college.
Every so often I find a cartoonist whose ability to seamlessly integrate characters and backgrounds is so perfect that it makes me want to either hang up my brush or carefully study their designs to see if I can figure out what going on. I found Mister Oswald on Paul Tumey’s Screwball Comics site, and was immediately draw to Russ Johnson’s ability to create convincing backgrounds. Mister Oswald is set in a hardware store, and Russ Johnson actually worked in one while producing this wonderful strip on the side. Here’s a perfect example of the genius of this strip:
So obviously this strip is set in a doctor’s office. The dialogue explains this, but the details in the setting tell us this is the waiting room of a doctors office: M.D. backwards on the door, and people reading newspapers and magazines with some strewn about the table. Then we go into the doctor’s office for a series of panels. Johnson here is a master of choosing simple little details that suggest doctor’s office without crowding the panel which would cause the characters to get lost – no mean feat. We have the examination table front and center as it will occupy the main action – the “camera” rotates around the table for every shot hereafter. Of course there’s the obligatory diploma on the wall – cartoon shorthand for “doctor” as well as a microscope on the table, a detail that I never would have though suggested a doctor’s office, but it certainly seems right.
What amazed me most the first time I saw these panels was the architectural precision of the perspective in these panels. Johnson is a guy who know how to employ two point perspective exactly. But the other aspect that amazes me here is how well thought out this room is. We see three walls here and not only has Johnson correctly placed each object once the room rotates, he seems to have completely planned out the room as if he were an interior designer. You can see how methodically he worked – what are the bare essentials of a doctor’s office? How many chairs would there be? I would also point out how the chairs frame the action in each panel, keeping our eyes focused on the characters, not only because of the dark colors but also because of their shape.
One also has to admire the depth that Johnson has put into the backgrounds as well – there are multiple planes at work – and even more so in the final panel where we see not only the waiting room but also into the doctor’s office as well.
Sadly, other than on Tumey’s blog Mister Oswald is tough to find. Tumey, who scours used bookstores for goodies, has only seen about three of them in existence. I managed to pick a copy up on ebay for $30. However, what is out there is definitely worth searching for.