Iron Man Vs. The Uncanny Valley

The theory of the uncanny valley, which has its roots in robotics, posits that the more humanlike an (usually inorganic) entity appears, the more likely it is to provoke a positive reaction in a viewer–to a point. And after that point, something like revulsion. It’s a means of explaining why, for instance, many of us comfortably brought stuffed animals to bed each night for years, but would have ran to Mom and Dad’s room if asked to share a bed with a dead-eyed, four-foot-tall stuffed humanoid.

The uncanny valley comes up more often in regard to video games and computer animation than it does comics, but this may soon change. Many comics artists are more audacious when it comes to photo-referencing than their peers of fifteen or twenty years ago, enabled by advances in digital coloring and printing. Characters in books such as Marvel’s Invincible Iron Man now inhabit the valley along with those of Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf or Tracy Jordan’s adult video game.

Iron Man penciller Salvador Larroca is not the only artist at Marvel whose art is consistently and conspicuously photo-referenced. (Mike Deodato Jr., Greg Land, and Alex Maleev also come to mind, though Maleev tends to work with greater restraint and nuance than the others.) But Invincible Iron Man is an unusually good superhero comic, due largely to writer Matt Fraction‘s sharp dialogue and inventive riffing on familiar Iron Man tropes, which makes it all the more frustrating when one turns to see an image like the one below.

This sequence finds Tony Stark in the midst of a tense exchange with longtime employee Pepper Potts, who, at least for the moment, looks uncannily like Nicole Kidman. (Why not Gweneth Paltrow?) The resemblance to Kidman–enough of a distraction, to be sure–is made more jarring by the severe glare colorist Frank D’Armata gives Pepper and Tony’s skin. Sequences inviting this sense of dissociation appear throughout IIM #27, and throughout Fraction and Larocca’s run to date (which, again, is highly entertaining stuff, if you can accept occasionally feeling like you’re reading a series of screenshots).

Perhaps it’s appropriate that such a tech-centric comic illuminates the problems resulting from our ability to more accurately reproduce human features on the comics page. But the art of Invincible Iron Man doesn’t exactly crackle with synergistic energy, and Larocca and D’Armata’s choices don’t come off like winks at a discerning viewer.

It’s been said that beloved Batman and Green Lantern penciller Neal Adams (who strove for something approaching photorealism) set an example for his contemporaries by drawing hair that blew in the wind. Larocca and co. appear to share Adams’ ambitions, but their art is much stiffer in execution. (Note Pepper’s unchanging expression on the top- and bottom-right panels above.) And their heavily photo-ref’d art neglects one of the great advantages of the comics medium provides: to tell a story with one foot in realism and the other in abstraction.

One would be wrong to condemn photo referencing in comics completely based on its use by Larocca or Mike Deodato Jr., and I should emphasize that this isn’t my intent. The technique is used to powerful effect in Parker: The Hunter, Darwyn Cooke’s recent adaptation of the 1962 thriller by Donald Westlake. Near the beginning of Parker, Cooke includes an aerial shot of Manhattan spanning dozens of city blocks, one that could not have been accomplished without the use of a photo aid. But I can think of few equally-compelling panels or sequences that feature photo-referenced people. (To wit: Cooke’s use of line is looser and livelier when drawing the scoundrels who inhabit Westlake’s New York.)

Rather than suggesting that the uncanny valley is becoming more relevant to comics, one could also reasonably say that the theory has been part of the conversation for a while, in slightly different terms. More than fifteen years ago, in Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud outlined how photorealism and abstraction differently inform a reader’s experience, and even allowed readers to locate where–approximately–their favorite artists fell in the space between symbolic representation and literal meaning. McCloud’s observations are lucid and incredibly useful, his gifts to the discourse numerous, and I’m not doing them justice in brief mention. Suffice to say that McCloud’s notion of what can be comics is quite generous (no photorealist is forced beyond the boundaries of the diagram at the link), and maybe this is why the uncanny valley–specifically–remains a uniquely useful concept: it’s an easy way to gauge when photorealistic art might actually disrupt the world of a comic book.

Explore posts in the same categories: Comics

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

One Comment on “Iron Man Vs. The Uncanny Valley”

  1. […] to stray from Matt Fraction and Salvador Laroccca’s Invincible Iron Man, incidentally, as Larocca’s ugly, sterile-looking photo ref’d art seems to get uglier and more sterile-looking by the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: