Guido Crepax has died. It’s hard not to have mixed feelings about the material this Italian comic creator chose. There’s often a fine line between sexual freedom and liberation for female characters, and old-fashioned exploitative porn, and I don’t think Crepax stayed on the right side with any consistency – and my guess is that he wouldn’t have cared about this. But that’s a debate for another day. I’m more interested in his extraordinary qualities as a comic artist.

I confess that I’m partly reacting against a line in The Guardian‘s very narrow obit, where Philip Willan claims that Crepax’s unique interpolation of little close-up panels amongst the narrative shots was “the cartoon equivalent of the zoom lens”. It’s not true in this case – these are often deliberately interpolated within panels, overlapping and even hiding things (see the cover shown here) at the same time as revealing and emphasising and repeating other details, rather than simply switching to a magnified image temporarily. But the more general point concerns me. Comics criticism is still grossly underdeveloped, and this infant form is stumbling around grabbing tropes and memes and ideas from more matured bodies of thinking. That’s understandable and probably necessary, but it needs doing with lots of care. The cinematic borrowings are particularly prominent, and sometimes useful – the comparison between a movie director and the task of laying out and composing panels is often rewarding – but they are risky because the forms are very different in several obvious and more subtle ways. Here the writer has failed to spot that the fact that you can see more than one frame at a time, that comics can be and are absorbed more than a frame at a time, makes all the difference. (I know there have been experiments with sub-frames in movies, but in comics the ability to see several images at once is inherent, not some special add-on gimmick.)

It’s a basic failure to understand the medium under discussion. This seems particularly sad when discussing a cartoonist who while heavily influenced by books (he adapted a number of erotic classics such as The Story of O and Justine) and movies (his most famous character was modelled on Louise Brooks) made real contributions to the development of the toolkit and palette available within comics, by being a uniquely untramelled and imaginative user of its basic unit, the panel.