Into the depths of The Fountain: a study of visual layers in Aronofsky and Williams’s vision by Malin Bergström

09 Jul

Synesthesia refers to the uniting of the senses: when the reader transfers ‘qualities from one sensory domain to another’ (Heyrman, 2005, np) by translating experience into a psychological reaction. For example, comprehending colour as sensation, like warm, cold, loud or silent and so forth, describes a synesthetic reaction (McCloud, 1994: 123). Because art relies on sensory appeal the manipulation of synesthetic effects within comics gives the creator an opportunity to engineer analogies and metaphors into the visual landscape of a narrative (Heyrman, 2005, np). Describing the method Sarah Wyman adds that:

…a metaphoric relationship develops in which form stands in for feeling/sensed experience and that the reader/viewer makes the leap via figuration, signified linguistically or graphically… one witnesses great technical control of rhythm, gravity and balance. These considerations communicate both the artist’s primary experience (actual or imagined) and reflect the contours of the potential viewer’s perceptual processes.

(Wyman, 2010: 41)

This creator/reader connection is developed through a ‘constructive picture formation’ (Wyman, 2010: 44) in which the artwork consists of structural elements such as colour and pen-stroke. A naturalistic representation is not necessary to achieve the desired reaction in the reader as: ‘The very ambiguity of open signifiers challenges and draws us in as readers, reflecting the very nature of our perceptual experience, our being in the world.’ (Wyman, 2010: 45).

In Understanding Comics (1993) Scott McCloud applies Klee’s theories in comic book analysis, emphasising that the minimising of details opens the image for personal interpretation. Klee’s statement ‘Art does not render the visible but renders visible’ becomes the focus in the study of subtext in comics (McCloud, 1994: 123), making the interpretation of the existing detail essential. Like Wyman, McCloud emphasised the significance of the rudimentary image by stating that human beings are a self-centred race that automatically inserts themselves into a narrative, making ‘the world over in [their] image’ (McCloud, 1994: 33). However, it is important to note that the response is dependent on the individual reader’s own perceptions of each separate visual plane depicted in the comic. Circumstances, beliefs, experiences etc. are essential factors in the reader’s association to the imagery (Lefévre, 1998: np), which can work to the narrative’s advantage by opening it to various interpretations, and thus increase the possibility for the reader to connect to the text on a more personal level. Equally it may fail to deliver the desired message completely (Beronä, 2002: 20). Charles Hatfield raises the issue of visual and verbal tensions in the construction of comics, dividing symbols into those with the purpose to ‘show’ information to the reader, and those that ‘tell’:

…we may say that symbols that show are symbols that purport or depict, in a literal way, figures and objects in the imagined world of the comic, while symbols that tell are those that offer a kind of diacritical commentary on the images or…a ‘soundtrack’ for the images.

(Hatfield, 2009: 134)

Hatfield proceeds to explain that in most comics the symbols that ‘show’ are representational drawings whereas the symbols that ‘tell’ are the actual icons, words and balloons (Hatfield, 2009: 134). Because the ‘soundtrack’, or the atmosphere, of an image is a type of backdrop detail in the panel, the concept requires further personal interpretation of the setting in the scene. Therefore in order to fully comprehend the narrative with subtexts, the reader is expected to understand the backdrop detailing as well as the iconic features.

To consider the essence of time and speed in a comic book narrative is another fundamental strategy in the attempt to create a creator/reader relationship. Frames and panels construct a timeframe, in which the speed of the comic is divided into a selection of singular moments. The emotional setting is also open to interpretation through the panel’s creative design. Detail such as length, spacing and shape are the windows into the interior scene of the frame (McCloud, 1994: 98-105). The reader perceives a narrative in various ways, reading at a different pace and sometimes in different orders, which often has an impact on how the text is understood (Beronä, 2002: 23).

In the paper ‘The Construction of Space in Comics’ Pascal Lefévre proposes that space may portray various meanings and that the detailing within a panel can give an insight into a character’s personality. For example if the panel portrays a room the décor may suggest a window to a character’s internal state. In keeping with Hatfield’s suggestion of ‘soundtrack’ that ‘tells’ the narrative, Lefévre suggests that space within the comic book page can represent an underlying concept, scene or story (Lefévre, 2009: 157).

In the construction of space, the creator is able to manipulate the general layout effects to underline or hide certain details from the reader. But as with the imagery, the freedom in page layout design may restrict the reader’s perception to the extent that valuable information may be misunderstood or not recognised at all (Lefévre, 2009: 158). The lack of commentary in a comic makes the frame a ‘silent panel’, giving icons and symbols the opportunity to simply capture an emotion (McCloud, 1994: 98). According to David Beronä, comics that rely solely on imagery to display their meaning require a more proficient narrative structure, as well as a more competent audience to fully understand the story (Beronä, 2002: 20). As ‘[w]ords represent an artificially imposed intellectual system removed from primal feeling; images plunge us into the depth of experience itself’ (Beronä, 2002: 29) the creative use of pictorial language becomes essential. This added commitment between the creator and reader increases the depth of the reading experience, taking comics beyond language barriers and ‘all levels of literacy’ (Beronä, 2009: 39).

While the panel layout, colour scheme and density give the narrative a timeframe and suggestive emotional tone, it is the imagery that completes the attempt to communicate the creator’s ideas and layered personal/social commentary to the reader. The visualising and fulfilling of this correspondence is left to us, as readers.

Exploring the effects of colours, layout and panel design in a comics narrative I wish to investigate a graphic novel that has combined two story interpretations – the writer’s original concept and the artist’s visual representation. The Fountain, by film director Darren Aronofsky and artist/comics illustrator Kent Williams is a project that compares the cinematic experience with the reading experience, offering the story in the two different media. This type of shared narrative allows the reader to experience the text through different representations, giving various insights to the spiritual and abstract aspects of the storyline, which can be revisited at each re-reading of the comics or re-watching of the film. It opens the narrative further for discussion and interpretations, as its storytelling structure is not only presented in comic book format, but also as a cinematic adaptation (Di Liddo, 2009: 328).

The film version was postponed due to financial issues but as Aronofsky had secured the rights for the comic version of the narrative he was still able to share the story (Welland, 2005, np). Using the script for the first version of the film Williams was given complete freedom to translate the narrative in his own visual perspective (Welland, 2005, np). Because of the delays in the narrative’s film production, Williams had the opportunity to create the story without external influences, such as knowing which actors were to be involved in the film. Equally, the eventual adjustments that were made to the film script allowed the two adaptations of the story to function as separate entities – complementing each other’s visual and narrative achievements (Welland, 2005, np).

The result was a combination of paintings and drawings, in which the styles and colour schemes clearly separate the three time periods introduced in the narrative. Williams refers to the story-telling aspects of his work as a ‘suggestion of narrative’ (Williams, 2011: np) where the viewer is presented with work that invites them to examine the image further and ‘ultimately that the subject, in concert with the painted surface, has enough gravity to solicit prolonged and repeated viewing’ (Williams, 2011: np). In the graphic novel several of the sequences and panels are ‘silent’ panels that often reflect the atmosphere and tone of the setting. Through the ambiguity in the image, of the type discussed in Klee’s and Wymans’s theories, the narrative attempts to captivate its audience.

© Phineas Gage Productions, Ltd. Used with permission of DC Comics.
Painting contrasted against sketch-styled drawing, with a coloured backdrop to emphasise the tone of the setting.
Click image for a larger version.

Williams’s page composition, as well as frame structure, often juxtaposes realistic paintings with sketches and drawings. These sketches sometimes distort the original and naturalistic perspective with an abstract factor that suggests movement across the panels. Though the naturalistic painting forms a realistic portrait of a scene or character it is the sketched detail disrupting the serenity of the image that stirs the image to life, with its uncertainty in the overall composition. Varying between three linked stories, the incorporation of sketches in paintings and vice versa is Williams’s recognition of conceptual depth: ‘[t]his incorporation of disparate calligraphy generates a sort of electricity, a juxtaposition of opposing forces that make come alive the human aspects of [Williams’s] picture-making and/or meaning’ (Williams, 2011: np).

© Phineas Gage Productions, Ltd. Used with permission of DC Comics.
Page 20: Paintings and sketches are infused against a plain backdrop. The sketches represent a chaotic environment where the contrasting painted face raises the narrative-thread out of the battle.
Click image for a larger version.

Lefévre reports that several comics creators have admitted to experiencing a release of emotions while drawing, some stating that the art form is ‘something uncontrollable’, directing the artist by opening and closing doors, as if sending the author/artist messages (Lefévre, 1998: np.).

The creative sketches in The Fountain are complemented by the setting of the tone, such as the background colour. The colour is not always contained within the lines of the sketch but rather a free motion achieving its purpose when combined with the sketch. The softer image of a realistically painted figure juxtaposed with a rougher, drawn line attracts the attention to the painted figure thus showcasing its significance to the narrative. In the fictional Spanish chapters the battle by the Mayan temple is drawn with hard lines and sharp edges against a foundation colour, finished with soft painted images as focal points, which maintains coherence in the chaotic section of the narrative flow. The scenes in Spain change the palette with rich, heated and seductive tones reflecting the political/sexual tension in the narrative. A sudden interruption illustrated in black and white, with gentle shading, portray an element of silence and secrecy, as the reader is taken away from the central colours in the story. The timeframe here is paused and retracted to a conversation set aside from the story-current, contrasting white-based panels set against a black backdrop that bleeds off the page. Lefévre suggests that the reader recognises and accepts discrepancies within the panel design and structure, looking for overlaps that tie visual fragments together rather than interrupt the reading experience because of inconsistencies in the panel details, thus the reader acknowledges ‘the existence of fictive worlds with their own rules and principles’ (Lefévre, 2009: 159).

In the chapters concerning the timeless, or the possibly futuristic, aspect of the narrative Williams uses a gentler and more natural palette of blues and greens against a lighter colour to set a calm atmosphere. Even the text in these chapters adopts a more poetic quality, reflecting the ethereal sensation of the represented spiritual domain. When contrasted with an inset of black/brown the ethereal calm becomes shaken and unbalanced, signifying threat in the narrative.

The spiritual theme is also present in the framing of the panels. Unlike the heavily outlined panels of the other two storylines in the narrative, the frames here lack borders except for the occasional grey line, which in keeping with the sketch-styled contents shapes some of the panels. The illusory effects of the spiritual chapters in The Fountain suggests a quiet approach to the subject matter and narrative, shaping the narrative to a more poetic form both visually and linguistically.

Alongside the previously mentioned chapters is a third current represented very differently in style and colour. The inked drawings and grey/green scaled colours reflect a clinical environment, and indeed the setting here is mostly in a hospital or laboratory, suggested to be set in the present time. The imagery often lacks framing completely and characters are placed against the white of the page, allowing them to step outside the story and into the reader’s reality – or allowing the reader to transfer the white background into a personalised, familiar setting. Here the imagery is more detailed than in the previous chapters, suggesting that this is the part of the story that is more coherent and therefore is easier for the reader comprehend and absorb. This is the section where the reader is told to listen rather than to interpret.

In ‘Recovering Sensuality in Comic Theory’ Lefévre presents the artist Mattotti’s ideas on colour theory, which suggests that the reader is not able to know the meaning behind brushstrokes, suggestive colours etc, but is invited to feel the palette and is ‘invited first of all to experience visual pleasure’ (Lefévre, 1998: np). Mattotti further investigates the impact of the painting medium, stating that his painting reflects ‘his particular creative actions, his active presence and temperament’ (Lefévre, 1998: np) but does not expect the reader to respond to the colours the same way as he does (Lefévre, 1998: np). Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), a colleague of Klee, suggested that colour, when isolated, still creates the same synesthetic response in the reader regardless of circumstances, whereas Lefévre argues against this statement, claiming that colour and response is too much of a complex subject and cannot be encapsulated into simple laws (Lefévre, 1998: np). If the reader is not able to comprehend the exact meaning in a piece of work, does that then mean that the work has failed to deliver its purpose? W.J.T Mitchell construes the argument of a valid viewer response in the following words:

Figurative labels (“blue” moods and “warm” colours) apply as firmly and consistently as literal ones and have as much to do with actual experience. That images, pictures, space and visuality may only be figuratively conjured up in a verbal discourse does not mean that the conjuring fails to occur or that reader/listener “sees” nothing. That verbal discourse may only be figuratively or indirectly evoked in a picture does not mean that the evocation is impotent, that the viewer “hears” or “adds” nothing in the image.

(Mitchell, 2009: 119).

What appears from the individual response to the comics icons and structure builds the reader’s overall reading experience. If a detail is misunderstood it does not mean that the experience is necessarily ruined since the individual searches for the familiar in the comic, adapting to the depicted scene or character.

In The Fountain, the main characters Izzy and Tommy are fused within all of the storylines in the novel, following a fictional and spiritual pattern that echoes the novel’s main theme: the chase for eternal life – mythologically, spiritually and scientifically.

The chapters are not separated by pauses but flow into each other, with their start and end points represented by the changes in the style. Contrasting the empty space with the filled spaced indicates change and tension in the atmosphere, and can be adjusted to create significant impact in order to accentuate the actions depicted in the scene, such as details that suddenly disappear or change (Lefévre, 200: 159). One clear example of this is the chapter-transition on pages 130-131 where present-Tommy’s sorrow constrains him in a shrinking frame on a completely white background, displayed in a manner that suggests a falling motion where each successive panel is increasingly rotated to the left and lower on the page, juxtaposed against a full body portrait of future/spiritual-Tommy, who is presented upside down. The image of future/spiritual-Tommy is portrayed in a much softer style than the framed representation of falling present-Tommy but his nudity here emphasises the character’s feeling of loss. Like an explosion the image bleeds out of the entire page without any panel constrictions as if the present-Tommy finally breaks free from constraints into complete emotional turmoil.

© Phineas Gage Productions, Ltd. Used with permission of DC Comics.
Pages 130-131 juxtapose two of the different chapter illustration styles, where one chapter floats into another. Considering the context, this particular page composition suggests an emotional climax, allowing the stories to merge together.
Click image for a larger version.

The fantastical settings work parallel to the main narrative as independent stories. Combined with the main narrative the stories reach an emotional climax attempting to capture the essence of life within death, finalised in the epilogue showing the ethereal Izzy planting a seed on the real Izzy’s grave.

The Fountain is ‘a story that more so suggests [its] meaning than defines it’ (Williams, 2011: np) and gave Williams the opportunity to completely interpret a narrative through his own work, producing a depiction that complimented Aronofsky’s vision (Welland, 2005: np). Divided into three connecting stories the concept embraces ambiguous and abstract aspects that open it for further reader interpretation. The three stories flow into each other but with clear chapter separation: reality mirrors the clinically-based atmosphere, the fictional story within the narrative is rich with deep, sensual colours (but even here a separated timeframe represented in the black and white) and the spiritual aspect of the futuristic setting is golden toned with soft outlines representing an illusory backdrop to an abstract concept.

The narrative is open for various interpretations, particularly as it is offered to the reader in two media based on two different scripts of the same story. Applying the tools of comics analysis to a text like this reveals several layers – where, perhaps because of the required audience associations, these layers may raise more questions for further investigation rather than give satisfying answers.

The use of silent/little worded panels, and colour scheme juxtaposed with the hard lines of sketched images, mixes the three chapters – yet separates them clearly by change of style.

With the concept of Williams’s ‘suggestion of narrative’ I can conclude that the text invites the individual reader to commit to the text with personal synesthetic responses. The three linking story currents reflects the notion of an endless circle of life, and therefore the reader is able to dig deeper philosophically, scientifically and visually, linking and reliving the imagery and intervening story-currents with each re-visit to the graphic novel and film (Lord, 2009: 169). Ultimately it is the reader who has control of a comic narrative, regulating pace and focus; the characters and plot are always completely oblivious to the shifting perspectives (Morrison, 2011: 117).

Works Cited

Aronofsky, D., and Williams, K. 2005. The Fountain. New York: DC Comics.

Beronä, D., n.d. ‘Pictures Speak in Comics Without Words: Pictorial Principles in the Work of Milt Gross, Hendrik Dorgathen, Eric Drooker, and Peter Kuper’. In: Varnum R. and Gibbons, C., ed. 2002. The Language of Comics: Word and Image. Jackson: University of Mississippi, pp.19-39.

Di Liddo, A., 2005. ‘Transcending Comics: Crossing the Boundaries of the Medium’. In: Heer J., and Worcester, K., ed. 2009. A Comics Studies Reader. Jackson: University of Mississippi, pp.325-339.

The Fountain. 2007 [DVD] Directed by Darren Aronofsky. USA: Warner Bros Pictures.

Hatfield, C., 2005. ‘An Art of Tensions’. In: Heer J., and Worcester, K., ed. 2009. A Comics Studies Reader. Jackson: University of Mississippi, pp.132-148.

Heyrman, H., 2005. ‘Art and Synesthesia: In Search of the Synesthetic Experience’. Dr. Hugo Heyrman. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 02.01.2012].

McCloud, S., 1994. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

Lefévre, P., 1998. ‘Recovering Sensuality in Comic Theory’ [pdf] Available at:èvre/Papers/671504/Recovering_sensuality_in_comic_theory  [Accessed: 12.06.2012].

Lefévre, P., 2006. ‘The Construction of Space in Comics’. In: Heer J., and Worcester, K., ed. 2009. A Comics Studies Reader. Jackson: University of Mississippi, pp.157-162.

Lord, C., 2009. ‘Angels with Nanotech Wings: Magic, Medicine and Technology in Aronofsky’s The Fountain, Gibson’s The Neuromancer and Slonczewski’s Brain Plague’. Nebula 6.4., December 2009, pp.162-174.

Mitchell, W., 1994. ‘Beyond Comparison’. In: Heer J., and Worcester, K., ed. 2009. A Comics Studies Reader. Jackson: University of Mississippi, pp.116-123.

Morrison, G., 2011. Supergods. Our World in the Age of the Superhero. London: Jonathan Cape Random House.

Williams, K., 2011. Email correspondence.

Welland, J., 2005. ‘Talking The Fountain Graphic Novel with Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel’. Comic Book Resources. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 17.02.2012].

Wyman, S., 2010. ‘How Paul Klee and Frank O’Hara used painted image and printed word to signify worlds in motion’. Word & Image, Volume 26, Number 1, January-March 2010, pp. 40-51.

Malin Bergström is a passionate comics enthusiast, illustrator, writer and independent researcher. After living in the UK for over seven years, she’s moved back to her native Finland to see how the person she has grown into relates to the person who she used to be: looking for new routes on an old map. With various publications to date she functions in the world of fiction, illustration and poetry – writing, drawing and performing/presenting her work in various functions and forums regularly. She also has more vivid conversations with her cats than she would like to acknowledge.

[1] – As translated from ‘Kunst gibt nicht das Sichtbare wieder, sonder macht sichtbar’ in Wyman’s article ‘How Paul Klee and Frank O’Hara used painted image and printed word to signify worlds in motion’ (Word&Image, 2010).

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Posted by on 2012/07/09 in Guest Writers


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