The Digital Novel Noir

Creating photo composites by computer,
pair tell a story in a new way.

By Kevin Washington
Sun Staff

Five ruffians have surrounded Edgar Allan Poe outside a Baltimore bar, and Steven Parke, digital camera in hand, is telling a one-armed thug to step back and lift his club higher over the poet's head.

Meanwhile, Stephen John Phillips tries to focus a large spotlight with an aluminum foil funnel on the giggling group - hoping the final effect will be an eerie, 19th-century scene in film-noir style.

"A little bit more," says Parke, who is directing the actors as Phillips stretches an extension cable almost high enough to get into the picture. "I can see the cord. ... Yeah, yeah, that's it."

The ruffians' smiles turn to grimaces of anger as the shooting commences. Eventually, this will be a key scene in a book that exemplifies an emerging art form - a surrealistic, hardcover novel composed of digitally manipulated photographs, published by Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics.

The digital images themselves will take quite a journey as the two artists create what they call a fictional account of Poe's life with an X-Files twist in a comic book format.

The scene in which thugs attack Poe wasn't shot near a bar, but in Phillips' Hampden studio. Parke will take the actors' images and use an editing program to combine them with one of the backgrounds he's shot all over Baltimore.

That careful work will go into each panel, which may have up to a dozen images composited into it. And each of the book's 90-odd pages will have three to four panels on average.

The artists' tools include a 5-megapixel Olympus E-20 digital camera for the actual photography, with the editing supplied by Adobe Photoshop 7 and Corel Painter 6 software running on an Apple Macintosh G4 computer with 1 gigabyte of memory.

The collaboration is the artists' second novel together using composite photographs to tell a story. The two produced the images for I, Paparazzi, which was released last year (Vertigo, $29.95, www.batman .com/features/pap/). Their work also appeared in the second volume of DC Comics' 9-11 memorial comic book.

Pat McGreal, a veteran author of adult comics, wrote the story for both I, Paparazzi and the three-page 9-11 piece. Parke's friend, Jonathon Scott Fuqua, the novelist who wrote Darby and The Reappearance of Sam Webber , is writing In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe will arrive at stores in October.

Graphic novels got their start in the 1970s with the debut of Will Eisner's book, A Contract With God, aimed at more mature readers. The novels, painted or illustrated with line art in comic book form, tend to have an edge, are more reflective than traditional comics and may feature profanity and nudity.

Adults who enjoy basic contemporary fiction are most likely to buy graphic novels, says Karen Berger, Vertigo's executive editor. People who didn't grow up reading comics as well as comics aficionados are part of the art form's growing audience.

Phillips, along with digital artists Jose Villarrubia and Aleksey Zolotaryov, created Vertigo's first photographed graphic novel, Veils, in the late 1990s.

A fine-art photographer for more than 20 years who teaches at Maryland Institute College of Art, Phillips says he had often shot series of photographs with one theme, but until the late 1990s he had never tried to do a book. The idea for Veils emerged from a series of photos of cigar smokers.

McGreal wrote the story involving an English woman fascinated by a 19th-century Middle Eastern harem.

Using storyboards sketched by an artist, the artists shot actors in the studio, then placed them in a variety of backgrounds, some created by graphics software, others shot around town, and still others from 19th-century paintings that were scanned and manipulated with Photoshop. A similar process produced I, Paparazzi and the Poe project.

"People will look at this shot [of Poe on a hill] and say, 'Where did you take it?'" says Parke, 38, who has painstakingly worked over each image in the book. "Well, it was shot in a lot of places."

For one panel in the current project, actor Damon Norko (Poe) was photographed against a mottled tan wall in Phillips' studio. Parke then placed the actor's image on a composite shot of Federal Hill created from an old photo of Baltimore and a contemporary picture in which Parke erased the tall buildings. Park also added grass to the hill, along with a tree and leaves.

Look closely at the finished book and you'll catch glimpses of the Washington Monument, Church Home Hospital and other locations around the city.

The Poe project is the artists' first all-digital effort. Phillips, 44, shot I, Paparazzi conventionally with a Canon EOS-1 film camera. He had to be persuaded to shoot Poe with a digital camera.

"I love the darkroom," he says, but when he saw the quality of the digital images and realized how quickly he could review them and avoid reshoots, he was sold.

Parke brings to the partnership years of experience as a traditional and graphic artist in the music industry. For years, he was a one-man art department for the musician Prince, producing everything from album covers to posters to the designs on the singer's guitars. Other clients included David Bowie and Chaka Khan.

He edits images in his Canton loft, which is filled with hundreds of models from the movies, comic books and other media. For the cover of Ivan Neville's recent Saturday Morning Music album, he composited images he shot of a bacon-and-egg breakfast with those of a piano in his basement.

Soon, Parke will finish the artwork so that graphic artist Susan Mangan can put in the type.

Parke says many people have praised the photographic style of the new graphic novels, while others don't get the innovation.

For example, Parke used toy helicopters and a photograph of a cityscape for one composite picture that would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to shoot on location. Unfortunately, it looked too real.

"We sent this in to an illustration contest and they said they didn't see the illustration in it," he recalls.

Obviously, the judges didn't get what the two were doing. "But you know, it was kind of a backhanded compliment," Parke says.

Phillips' and Parke's work appears at

Copyright (c) 2002, The Baltimore Sun