I owe Alison Bechdel big time. The cartoonist responsible for the comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For and the graphic novels Fun Home and Are You My Mother? may be best known for The Bechdel Test, which she formulated to determine whether a movie is sexist or not. For a story to pass the test:
1. It has to have at least two women in it,
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something other than a man.
Some people amend the rules to require that both women have names.
David Chelsea is reading:
Manara Erotica Volume 1
by Milo Manara
Even though Bechdel devised this test for movies (some notable ones that fail it: The Godfather, The Graduate, Citizen Kane and the original Star Wars Trilogy) there is no reason it can’t apply to comics; a story is a story. When I first heard about the test I mentally applied it to my own work and was embarrassed to discover that only two stories passed: my first graphic novel David Chelsea In Love, thanks to a single sequence taking up part of two pages (41 and 42 in the Reed Press edition), and the 24 Hour Comic ID, which you can read in its entirety here. I was therefore inspired to create Sandy & Mandy, a story I’m working on for Dark Horse Presents which features two named female friends who talk about everything under the sun as well as the occasional man (I couldn’t resist having a bit of fun with such a P.C. restriction- notice the convoluted way Sandy & Mandy manage to bring up men’s names without actually talking about a man).
So hats off to you, Alison Bechdel, for opening my eyes to my own unconscious sexism. Now let me return the favor by showing you how to improve your perspective.
Here is a recent New Yorker illustration in which Bechdel depicts herself multiply at work in her basement studio. It appears to be a simple one-point perspective view of the basement as seen from overhead, (a view we could only get if the upper floors were removed) but it is actually more complicated than that. It was obvious to me at first glance that the receding lines do not all meet at a single point, which in itself is not terribly surprising- cartoonists often take a loose approach to perspective- but once I began diagramming them out I noticed that the lines do roughly meet at four separate vanishing points- a different one for each side wall.
The method of perspective Bechdel is using is known as vanishing axis or vanishing trace perspective, and it has a long history. Lawrence Wright in his 1983 book Perspective In Perspective gives a good description:
“If the artist wants to show more of both side walls, he can ‘open them out’ slightly without noticeably falsifying the proportions of the room. Each side wall now has its own separate vanishing point, both being on a common horizon. This discrepancy may not be noticeable, but a further problem arises if the orthogonals (receding parallels) of the floor, if they are to meet correctly, now need a third vanishing point, and those of the ceiling a fourth one. These last two fall on a common, vertical ‘vanishing axis’ or ‘vanishing trace’. Vanishing axis perspective often occurs in medieval drawings. It is a quite acceptable formula—if that word can be applied to an arbitrary device for which few rules can be laid down—when used with discretion. It has survived as an occasional remedy for the drawbacks of normal systems of construction.”
Whether Bechdel knew about vanishing axis perspective or reinvented the method on her own, it’s a clever solution to the visual problems set by her subject. Setting up the drawing the conventional way with one vanishing point at the center of the picture would mean that the walls to the right and left would be far more foreshortened than those at the top and bottom, an effect that would be even more exaggerated if the vanishing point were placed anywhere else. Using a different vanishing point for each wall enables Bechdel to foreshorten all of them equally (It does mean that the rectangle representing the floor is a different shape than the framing rectangle representing the ceiling, but I’m sure hardly anyone notices that).
While it is pointless to criticize any drawing in vanishing axis perspective for not having all its lines meeting at a central point, that does not mean there is no room for improvement. The method requires that objects and furniture attached to each wall should share the vanishing point of that wall, and Bechdel has not done this consistently. My revision brings wayward objects into line with their particular vanishing point, and I have in a few cases tilted or redrawn the human figures to better align them with the perspective of their particular part of the room. I believe my version improves on Bechdel’s inconsistent construction without destroying the charm of the original.
Thanks to Wilhelm Schroeder for bringing this piece to my attention.
Got an example of iffy perspective to show? Be a whistleblower! Send an e-mail to me at davidchelsea(at)comcast(dot)net and include Perspective Police! in the subject line.