State of the Art: Chris Burnham Creates Gnawing Dread Through Perspective and Paneling in Nameless

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When Nameless was first announced at Image Expo 2014, expectations were immediately high. All readers knew at that point was that Grant Morrison would be teaming up with Chris Burnham — the same team behind Batman Incorporated — for a horror book. The promise of a Morrison-penned comic of cosmic nightmares may have been enough to excite some people, but it was that ominous teaser image — what Burnham calls “like The Right Stuff, but creepy” — that really planted those first freaky seeds.

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“What’s really interesting about this job is, depending on how you frame the shot, the same actions can have wildly different gut feelings,” Burnham said, referring to the cover. “If you could see those guys’ faces, I don’t think it would be creepy anymore. Who is in those suits? What’s the deal with those symbols? There’s no background at all, where the hell are these guys? The whole thing just seems very strange, but also everyone is very familiar with the icon of an astronaut.”

With Nameless finally hitting shelves today, those three astronauts, emblazoned with tribal insignia and walking through a misty nothingness, were the only hint of the book’s sinister mystique for almost a year. “I was really feeling some self-imposed pressure on this comic to make it the best comic I’ve ever done, and to make it something worth waiting for,” Burnham said.

As for the emblems themselves, Burnham drew from cultures as distant as they are varied. With free reign on the look of the symbols, he hit Goggle Images in search of designs that signified protection and bravery. The hand with the eye in the palm, seen on the center character’s face for example, is a hamsa, a Middle Eastern symbol of protection. In fact, though the symbols look menacing, the characters wear them to ward off whatever insane evil Morrison has in store for them in the coming issues. Other symbols come from Native American and African culture. “Maybe it’s a little cultural imperialism for me to take these symbols and stick them on the cover of my comic book, I don’t know if that’s screwed up for me to do, but I liked what they looked like,” he said. “They had the vibe that I wanted and they clearly mean something to someone.”

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Almost every image serves the artistic goal of the book, which Burnham says is to keep the reader a little off balance to amplify a lingering sense of doom. The symbols, for instance, are a subtly unsettling juxtaposition between the modern and historic — these centuries-old insignia scrawled across idols of technological achievement. Burnham originally drew the suits as hyper-futuristic, but in the end took the practical route, settling on a design more akin to what today’s astronauts wear. “I kind of wish I’d have gone with the futuristic ones, they look like they’d be more fun to draw than the versions I’ve got now,” he laughed. “They looked like something out of Alien, 50-100 years in the future.”

One of the most frequent ways Burnham went about creating that off-kilter look was through paneling. Whether he ends up with rounded, pill-shaped borders, open panels or panels within panels, he starts each page with thumbnail images and traditional layouts. “As I’m moving further in the process, I’m trying to figure out how can I amp this up, how can I make a little more drama?,” he said. Often the answer lies in something subtle and easily-missed. Early in issue #1, the protagonist Nameless — an adventurer of the occult — runs through a swamp, his pursuers unseen. What makes the page interesting is that the swamp scenery flows seamlessly from one panel to the next, with the water ripples serving as de facto borders. “Adding the panel borders became very rigid, and took what was hopefully a very creepy scene and just made it seem very rote,” he said.

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On a page toward the end, Nameless is shown an obscure symbol and as the perspective widens, the massive scale of the symbol and where it exists is revealed. Burnham thought through a classic four-rectangle scheme for zooming out, but found it lacking. “When I had it on the page, it just didn’t look interesting or weird enough for how important that part of the scene was,” he said. “The main character is seeing this happen on the face of this drone that has a spherical projection screen. So, I started thinking, should I make the whole page a circle? Should I make each of these panels a circle? I started playing around with perspective and arcs.” After eight or 10 different layouts — a checkerboard, a series of spheres — he settled on splitting the page up curvilinearly, like a globe spread out into a two-dimensional map. “I wish I was smart enough to plan this sort of thing out ahead of time,” he explained. “But often I have to puzzle it out in pencil on the page. I can only do it right after I see myself doing it wrong.”

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In one of the book’s more bizarre scenes, Burnham employed a perspective trick that he’s used for years, though less subtly now. When he used it in Batman Incorporated, he says, it was probably barely noticeable. “I’ll use one perspective grid and I’ll fit all the panels on the page into that grid. So even though you’ve got five or six distinct panels, they are all kind of innately connected with each other,” he explained. “I’ll have the panel borders oriented along the same perspective line, so it’ll seem like the whole page is one interconnected object.” He knew that ramping up the effect would create the visual tension he was looking for, an innate sense in the reader that something just wasn’t right. “With Nameless I really pushed it and hope it feels nightmarish and subconsciously confusing — hopefully it feels really off and impossible, like looking at reality through some weird distorted lens.” The result is a sequence of skewed scales, where depth and dimensions work against one another, with the background sometimes appearing indistinguishable from the foreground.

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Maintaining that underlying sense of confusion is how Burnham captures the creeping, abstract notions — existential horror, nihilism, doom — that stand to make Nameless a singular reading experience. “There’s a subconscious Lovcraftian influence on the book,” he said. “There’s no Cthulhu or R’leigh or Dagon, but there’s definitely the idea that the universe is cold, remote and against you.” In preparation for the book, which Morrison described as “a disturbing anti-human voyage to the hopeless outer limits of cosmic nihilism and cruelty,” Burnham dug through mounds of the most terrible imagery that the internet had to offer. “If there’s a watch-list, I’m on it,” he joked.

Gore and existential dread can sometimes seem at odds with one another: a dismembered limb, for instance, is terrestrial and relatable, whereas cosmic doom is nebulous and immense. Though there isn’t much gore in the first issue, he assures readers that it’s coming. “There’s a fair amount of gnawing dread, and the flashing instances of violence are the release valve,” he said. “In a goofy horror movie, you build up the suspense, then show a cat jumping out of the refrigerator as the release valve. Our release valve will be someone getting their eye poked out.” And, for all of its gloomy buzzwords, Nameless is, at least for its first issue, a far more vibrant book than you’d expect, thanks to colorist Nathan Fairbairn who works the whole spectrum from cool muted shades to flaring neons.

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Nameless doesn’t appear to be a predictable book, and it’s probably the fact that we know so little about what to expect that has driven anticipation. Burnham made the point that the broadness of the first issue, with it’s vivid dreamscapes, open waters and flying drones, doesn’t last. From confined space ships to cramped conference rooms, the feel for scenes to come will be constricted. To that end, the influence of Burnham’s favorite 2000 A.D. artist, Arthur Ranson, comes into play. Burnham’s recently taught himself to shade more hatch-heavy like Ranson, and though he says it takes longer, the result works. “I’m definitely going for a visual claustrophobia,” he said. “A lot of texture, a lot of shadows. I’m filling in every page with a lot of line work, and not giving the reader a lot of negative space to rest their eyes. Hopefully it looks oppressive.”