The following two pieces remind us that death comes for us as well. It is something to fear, not simply ignore. The first is a cover piece by Charlie Adlard for a comic called The Walking Dead, one of the grimmest zombie stories you can find. It also won the Eisner Award just last year, for best continuing series.
The cover consists of a group of zombies at the top stumbling towards you, with you apparently lying on the ground, having tripped over debris. In the middle of the zombies there's a mother and child, suprisingly unhurt, and seemingly ignored by the hungry zombies - a mystery I'll get to in a moment. Below the zombies is just darkness, taking up most of the image.
So what does the dark represent? For me, this cover states a clear message. First you're going to be torn apart by these dead things, and then you'll go wherever the darkness leads - the depth of the black referencing the six feet of burial, although you'd be lucky to be buried in this circumstance. Charlie Adlard could've easily just drawn their legs and feet, in a field or street filled with debris, filling in a lovely background. He could've placed the zombies in the middle, or down below, adding a lovely bit of sky above - even stars twinkling in twilight. But it wouldn't have told the same story.
Despite the drunken stupor of these zombies, there's a definite longing in their eyes, a need to bring you down to their level - that mixed with a stupid hunger we've come to expect from zombies. In this image, death isn't just a fact of life or a force of nature, it's a hungry beast, and utterly ruthless. Charlie wants you to fear death, to fill you with dread and suspense, hinting at the horrors to come within the comic. And with a simple bit of perspective, placing the zombies above you, you become a participant in the story, not just a voyeur.
Here's a portrait of Chris Cooper by Daniel Clarke that says all the same things, without the zombies:
It's a bit more subtle, but it's amazing how just one man's expression can say so much. This portrait uses the same black compositional device, but the focus is a little different. While the first portrays death as an unthinking animal, this one embodies it in the cold intellect of a man, who ought to know better. Chris Cooper, as a villain in one of his films, displays a face that states both indifference and relentless drive. We fear him, but there's a second, underlying fear - that we are the monster as well. Zombies are no longer human, so they're not subject to notions of ethics or justice - they're free to kill and maim with a clear conscious. People don't get that luxury, and of the two dangers represented in these works, it's man we most have to fear.
I'm going to focus my next few posts on portraits, to explore the different functions they fill. It amazes me how some portraits are just heads on walls, while others can tell a complete story. I'll try to find more examples.