Despite the menacing appearance, the first cover of Sarah Vaughn’s comic SLEEPLESS had me hooked from the beginning. The dark figure with a long sharp sword and blue cloak stands protectively behind a young woman with a small fox sitting alert on her shoulder. The ornate geometric patterns on their clothes are hypnotizing. And the poppies and chrysanthemums curling around the bottom of the page balance the arch under the comic’s smokey title. On the whole, the image evokes the graphic design work popular in the decades of Art Nouveau.

Image courtesy of Image Comics

Art Nouveau style grew out of the turn-of-the-century desire to escape traditional art and define a new era of modernism. Artists, like Alphonse Mucha, centralized women in a mix of vines and geometric shapes. In SLEEPLESS, Leila del Duca’s artwork and Alissa Sallah’s colors deploy the feeling of Art Nouveau throughout the series. These artists borrow motifs from the modernist style to reinforce the development of the themes and character.

The Possibilities of Art Nouveau: An Overview 

Art Nouveau describes the artistic style popular between 1890 and 1910. Primarily used in decorative art forms, the style is nevertheless visible in architecture and graphic design from the era. Artists of Art Nouveau wanted to move beyond the styles that defined the previous century. Styles such as neo-baroque and neoclassical were used to develop a “new” form of art for the modern age. Art Nouveau featured internationally, with many design elements coming from Japanese art as well as some European folk arts. 

Art Nouveau embraces both organic and geometric designs. Botanical illustration akin to what filled the pages of Darwin’s Origin of the Species reprinted in 1871 inspired many of the plants seen in Art Nouveau works. Stylized vines and stems of plants are frequent motifs. Many artists, including William Morris who was very influential in the contemporaneous Arts and Crafts movement, saw Art Nouveau as an opportunity to embrace natural forms and combine aesthetics with function.

Die Jungend
Otto Eckmann artwork for magazine Jugend, 1896

The experience of modernity, and what defined modernity’s aesthetics, was the ultimate concern of artists of this period. Decadence, a symptom of “fin de siecle(end of the century) anxieties, played a critical role in determining the direction of Art Nouveau style. General fear of chaos coupled with an excitement for technological advancements set the tone in the art world. Technology played a direct role in much of the artwork as well. For example, graphic design and illustration experienced a period of growth thanks to improvements in printing. Works by artists like Alphonse Mucha and Otto Eckmann, whose graphic designs featured glamorous women surrounded by flowers, embodied Art Nouveau’s goals. Details from geometric framing to swirling fonts became icons of Art Nouveau.

Art Nouveau in SLEEPLESS

Because of its concerns for breaking new ground, Art Nouveau is an appropriate style for comics. Comics are a groundbreaking medium that invites many styles and voices. The medium is challenging to define because new artistic style and innovation is often a goal. Moreover, comics such as SLEEPLESS do not shy away from anxiety-producing topics. Vaughn’s series follows Lady “Poppy” Pyppenia and her guard, the Sleepless Knight Cyrenic, after the coronation of a new king. Forced to be far away from her family, Poppy, Cyrenic, and her lovely fennec fox meet threats at every turn. As the title suggests, SLEEPLESS deals with themes of sleep, dreams, memories, and death in a world of uncertain futures.

SLEEPLESS is a complex story of courtly politics that plays with mixtures of cultures and belief structures. As a result, Vaughn’s writing sheds light on the malaise (“discomfort,” to borrow a fin de siecle vocabulary term) that comes when cultures clash, as well as the chaos resulting from cultural advancements. Structurally speaking, the plot is fertile ground for themes that also troubled Art Nouveau artists. Thus del Duca’s Art Nouveau-esque illustrations are fitting for the comic’s overall voice.

Image courtesy of Image Comics

Del Duca and Sallah Channel Mucha

Del Duca’s work creatively combines elements of Art Nouveau to fit the context of the comic. The decorative patterns on Cyrenic and Poppy’s clothes and the floral motifs in many of the frames are obvious inclusions. Even the landscapes and architectural illustrations call the style to mind. Woodblock printing was particularly popular for Art Nouveau artists. Del Duca uses dark lines to skillfully mimic woodblock prints. As a result, she creates shadows and gives the comic a foreboding feeling. Del Duca’s design elements are reinforced by Sallah’s colors. The color blocking with bright reds, deep greens, and purples make the otherwise muted earth tones all the more powerful on the page. Many frames give the impression of Arts and Crafts style tile work or even wallpaper.

One of the most recognizable artists from the Art Nouveau period is Alphonse Mucha. Mucha’s posters have become icons of the movement, far exceeding the purposes of his original advertisement design. With vibrant colors and floral motifs in geometric patterns, Mucha’s work captures the signature decadence of Art Nouveau. Many of his pieces reflect an interest in naturalism, as well as mythology with goddess-like women centralized in his designs. Similarly, del Duca’s SLEEPLESS artwork, the covers in particular, relies on similar designs. The arching frame set behind the central figures underscores the titles. In a smoky font, SLEEPLESS mirrors the titles of Mucha’s posters detailing the brand names of various companies. Careful swirling line work makes del Duca’s central characters materialize from the patterns. Similarly to Mucha’s work, Sallah’s colors rest on top of a delicately watercolored backdrop.

Art Nouveau
Alphonse Mucha lithograph, F. Champenois Imprimeur-Editeur, 1897

Mucha’s posters are both aesthetically pleasing and directed to a specific market. Likewise, del Duca’s art serves a purpose beyond aesthetics. SLEEPLESS’s motifs offer clues to the narrative’s many twists and turns.

A Sleepy Motif: Poppies and Shadows

Perhaps the most obvious motif in SLEEPLESS is the poppy. Not only is the motif referenced in the lead character’s name, it is reinforced in the artwork. As a motif, poppies are an ironic choice for SLEEPLESS. Anyone who’s ever seen the Wizard of Oz will know, as the Wicked Witch of the West cackles: “Poppies will put them to sleep!” Indeed, poppies are a common symbol of sleep as well as death. Cyrenic’s relationship with Lady Poppy balances courtly responsibility and romantic chemistry. As a Sleepless Knight, Cyrenic must keep constant watch over Poppy. But symbolically, the floral motif suggests that Poppy might very well be Cyrenic’s biggest weakness.

Image courtesy of Image Comics

Additionally, the poppy can be associated with dreams and memories, two other themes of SLEEPLESS. Featuring as a border motif on many of the comic’s pages, poppies form a common thread. The floral pattern gives SLEEPLESS a dreamlike quality. Moreover, the poppies often conflict with other floral motifs as Poppy and Cyrenic contend with other characters.

The geometric designs featured in the clothing and backdrops also serve to remind readers of the interwoven lives of each character in court. Poppy’s family’s culture and history is very different from that of the court in which she grew up. The patterns on her dresses shift according to context, and her appearance signals the strategic choices she makes to fit in at court. Nevertheless, each character’s motif brings the plot into focus and tantalizes the readers. Additionally, each pattern adds depth to each frame. Often, Sallah’s bright colors lead to dark tunnels and hallways. The careful patterns on clothes make the amorphous and disturbing shadows in the background feel more menacing. Ominous shading ultimately gives the comic a dark edge to curb the decadent flowers and geometry.

Moving Beyond Art Nouveau

SLEEPLESS’s artwork brings Art Nouveau style to comics. Del Duca’s curling lines, floral patterns, and dark colors reinforce Vaughn’s twisting plot. While the comic relies on elements of Art Nouveau, del Duca also makes room for her own style. Indeed, it is only fitting that del Duca extend the style, as Art Nouveau’s desire to make way for new aesthetics is relived in her work. Innovative approaches to artwork makes comics like SLEEPLESS stand out. As a result, SLEEPLESS is a stellar example of comics at its finest. By evoking Art Nouveau in SLEEPLESS, del Duca gives an interesting lens through which to read the comic. Vaughn’s fictional universe is reminiscent of a medieval court, but the artwork hints at modernism. Together, those elements forge a comic that pushes the boundaries of art and design.

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