7 Artists: Paolo Rivera

July 9th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Covers sell comics. I mean, obviously, right? Back when you could buy comics in public, covers had to be exciting and interesting as a general rule. Severed heads, gorillas, and frankly stupid ideas were commonplace, and it was all calculated to catch your attention. As the comics industry became more insular, the covers did the same. They stopped trying to attract civilians and started trying to trick comics fans into buying the issue because “nothing will be the same!” If you look at early ’00s Marvel, and actually several covers recently, it’s clear that they weren’t even trying to reach even comics fans. “Get Adi Granov to draw She-Hulk standing on a gunmetal-y background! That’ll move units! Get Greg Horn to throw some D’s on that joint!” In a word: lazy. Another word: boring. Those are two of the worst things a comic book can be.

Paolo Rivera, though. This guy did a series of fully-painted Marvel books with Paul Jenkins that I liked well enough. They were origin stories, slimmed down and tightened up. Fun, but not particularly interesting, you know? They were stories I’ve read dozens of time before. The art was good, and the writing was okay, but it wasn’t groundbreaking. But his cover work… that’s where he shines. This guy actually makes interesting covers, something that was in short supply for a long time.

I don’t really have any science for this one. I don’t really know cover theory beyond realizing that some cool type, clever copy, and great art makes for a good cover. I have several cover artists I like (Dave Johnson, Rafael Albuquerque, Frank Miller, Walt Simonson, Jordi Bernet, others), but I couldn’t genuinely tell you why I like them. Not beyond “It looks good.” I’m not equipped.

If I strained, I could point out reasons why Rivera is a great cover artist. It could be the little details he puts on his covers, like Spidey’s tiny (but expressive!) eyes, the glow of Cyclops’s visor on the snow, or the awkward mid-motion poses of Punisher and Spider-Man (and his web). Maybe it’s the draftsmanship/craftsmanship in his work. His characters tend to have real weight and are believable in context. Spider-Man is kinda thin, Cap a little tall, and Punisher looks a little like a creepy child molester. Maybe it’s the hand-lettered sound effects. Maybe it’s how he knows how to draw your eye to a specific point on the cover. Maybe it’s the look on Sandman’s faces while he pummels Spider-Man. Maybe it’s the incredible sneer on Black Widow’s face.

Who knows. Who cares. I’m a firm believer in examining what you enjoy. If it’s worthy of time, it’s worthy of examination. Why you like it, what’s good about it, what it says, what it means. Whatever. At the same time… sometimes you just have to sit back and like things. Sometimes that’s nice.

I like Paolo Rivera’s work.

And this cover down here, with the blue and the red? Cover of the year and instantly one of my favorite Spider-Man images. No contest. It doesn’t even need any copy. It knocked my socks off when I first saw it. Even if you didn’t know from covers, that’s a cover. Check the process here.

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7 Artists: David Aja

July 8th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

There’s this Grant Morrison quote I like a lot. It’s inflammatory, but I think there’s a lot of truth in it.

As for all this talk I keep hearing about how ‘ordinary people’ can’t handle the weird layouts in comics – well, time for another micro-rant, but that’s like your granddad saying he can’t handle all the scary, fast-moving information on Top of the Pops and there’s really only one answer. Fuck off, granddad. If you’re too stupid to read a comic page, you shouldn’t be trying to read comic books and probably don’t. As creative people, I feel we need to call time on the relentless watering down of comics design and storytelling possibilities in some misguided attempt to appeal to people who WILL NEVER BE INTERESTED in looking at or buying hand-drawn superhero comic books.

The emphasis is mine, and keep it in mind as you read.

How do you read a comics page?

Stupid question, right? But no, not really. The comics page is the most basic building block of a comic book. They haven’t changed too much since they were first invented. You can have words and pictures and you can have ink in CMYK or digital PSDs or AIs in RGB, but without a page to put it on, the tabula rasa of yore, you’re out of luck. It’s probably the one thing in comics that’s genuinely indispensable. (Well, that and ink.)

You could make cases for Jack Kirby, Steranko, and even the often-horrid art of the speculator boom of the ’90s for changing the way people read comics. This change has happened several times. The change came when people began treating the space between the panels, the passage of time that happens there, differently. Panels began to convey different kinds of action.

What’s nice about David Aja’s work is how he treats his layouts. Rather than simply being a tool to convey the story, which is generally how most artists treat their layouts, Aja often turns the layout into part of the story. It’s like if the television you use to watch movies ended up actually introducing new data into your viewing experience.

He’s done this in a variety of ways. David Uzumeri wrote a pretty fantastic appreciation of a single page from Daredevil 116 for Funnybook Babylon. It’s absolutely worth reading, if you have the time. The reason why this page is so crucial is simple. (Hopefully I can talk about it without plagiarizing David.) The Kingpin is a man defined by his relationships. The tommy gun and revolver represent his status in a very old-fashioned form of organized crime. Spider-Man was his introduction to the superhero community. Daredevil looms large in Kingpin’s mind, ready for violence, but bottled within Daredevil is a silhouette of Bullseye, Daredevil’s worst enemy and Kingpin’s former chief assassin. Separate from all of that is Vanessa, the Kingpin’s wife. He tried to keep her segregated from his less than savory pursuits, but those pursuits eventually destroyed her.

(When Ditko and Romita would draw Spider-Man with a half-Spidey mask over his face, it was meant to show how Spider-Man and Peter Parker coexisted, and how they cooperated and interfered with each other’s lives. They compete and battle each other, with Spider-Man taking the form of his responsibility and Peter Parker being his inner selfishness. The two halves need each other. They define each other by their existence, and sometimes even their absence. A simple technique–a face that is half Peter Parker and half Spider-Man–with fantastic depth. It’s storytelling quicksand, you don’t realize just how deep it goes til you’re knee deep in it. If that technique went off and had a baby with Steranko’s Agent of SHIELD, and that baby was raised by some of the more out there Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli stuff on Daredevil, you’d end up with something like this, I think. This is also a technique that only works in comics. It’d look stupid in live action.)

This is a comics page. It’s the same kind of comics page you’ve grown up reading, but it isn’t. The grid is gone, replaced with the outline of a man’s head, and stacked high with meaning. It’s part of the story, not the hanger the story is draped upon.


In Immortal Iron Fist, certain punches and strikes get a bit of extra oomph. Aja plays with your sense of time to accomplish this. Each panel on a page is a specific instant in time. When Spider-Man has several afterimages present on a page, doing a diverse array of actions (or just punching one guy 3-10 times), that is meant to take place in the same instant. It’s a show of speed. Aja, though, slams it into reverse and likes to pull your focus in to a specific point on the page you’re reading.

You see the punch in a panel of its own, but there’s a little more added into the mix. Small circles, like targeting reticles in video games, emphasize the point of impact, and by virtue of taking place at one specific moment in time, emphasize the impact itself. It changes the pace of your reading, so instead of going punch-kick-punch-uppercut, you’re seeing punch-jawbone-kick-kidney-punch-neck-uppercut-chin. Four beats become eight, and suddenly you’ve spent more time on the panels, more time focusing on the thing the layout wants you to focus on, than you normally would have. One breath becomes an infinite amount of time, captured like a slideshow.

He does something else when Orson Randall arrives in the USA. He does a little jedi mind trick, something that would be a flick of the wrist and a blur of the fingers in real life, and each position of his hand gets a panel dedicated to it. This little bit of nothing, something that later in the book is a mere blur across two panels, gets a lot of page space.

This forces you to dwell on the trick itself, rather than the fact that a trick happened. Imagine if Spider-Man’s web-swinging was drawn differently. Spider-Man in mid-air-right arm curved in-right arm flung out-thwip position-web shooting out-hand pulling tight over the web-right arm pulling back and propelling Spider-Man forward. One action split into seven distinct segments. This is choreography at work.

These are all magic tricks that artists can use to control how you read comics. Aja does it better than most, particularly on Iron Fist. Two things made kung-fu movies exciting: speed and clarity. You want to see people moving quickly and doing impossible things, but you also want to be able to see exactly what Five Elements kung-fu is. If you can’t tell what it is, the action sucks (see also: The Dark Knight). Iron Fist is a kung-fu book, and while the cinematic stylings of kung-fu movies cannot be directly transplanted onto a comics page, Aja does the next best thing. He captures the look and the feel, if not the totality of the motion.

Do you get it?

A punch, for a particularly relevant example, is one smooth motion with a lot of moving parts. Your back muscles flex, your arm changes shape, and your body turns with the punch. Throwing repeated punches turns one motion into many, but since they’re taking place on the same body, they have to flow into each other. It’s not as easy as just drawing jab-jab-straight. Look at this Roy Jones Jr highlight reel. Jones is fantastically flashy, but watch how he moves. His legs move, his feet shift, his head bobs, and his body works. Have you ever seen Bruce Lee’s Green Hornet audition video? There’s a lot of similar things on display, and the theory holds true for all of it. Aja applies this sort of thing to comics very well, showing the myriad motions that people go through when they do simple or complex things and picking out the specific moments you need to show maximum action.

This is the opposite of the watering down that Morrison spoke out against. It’s aggressively pushing forward the standards of what to do with a comics page, how to tell a story, and expanding the language of comics.

And I haven’t even talked about his collaboration with Ann Nocenti, 3 Jacks. Tim O’Neil and Abhay already did that.

Pay attention to David Aja. Pay attention to how you read comic books. Everything matters. It’s all part of the story. And if you can’t handle it… maybe you should quit comics and start reading novels.

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7 Artists: Richard Corben

July 7th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Richard Corben can draw anything. I’ve seen him do dark horror, mean crime comics, superhero books, prison drama, and post-apocalyptic ugliness with aplomb. He’s been creating stories since the late ’60s and has amassed a pretty imrpessive resume. For the past few years, he’s been working with mainstream publishers like Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse and pumping out must-read tale after must-read tale.

The thing about Corben is that he’s not a pretty artist. His work is grotesque in the traditional sense of the word–not ugly, but distorted and unnatural. His men are super-muscular, with prominent jaws (and, when nude, penises), while his women are buxom and bulky. No one is skinny in Corben’s comics unless they’re dying or dead. Everyone’s rounded and ripped, with long or round faces, brawny arms, sausage fingers, big noses, wide lips, and thick gums. Corben exists in that weird area where his art definitely has a touch of ugly about it, but ends up being aesthetically pleasing because of that.

There are a few things I think of as Corben’s signature flourishes. His approach to violence is one of them. He draws this weird, cartoony violence, like slapstick Tex Avery shorts where people actually die. In your average Corben tale, lizardmen crush skulls, axes cleave skulls in two, people get burned alive, and swords poke out eyeballs. It’s very gory, but not in a realistic way. It’s more akin to cartoon violence, where the blood and acts are exaggerated just enough to be thrilling without being too disgusting.

This carries on to his approach to corpses, too. They’re decayed and disgusting, with battle wounds, worms, and broken bones jutting out at odd angles, but they’re always drawn just gross enough to be interesting, rather than off-putting. His work on Hellboy, and various short stories recently, has led to Corben drawing a lot of dead people. A collaboration with John Arcudi in Solo featured Corben telling a story about the Spectre. A man is dismembered, disemboweled, and cut open, amongst other various punishments, on-panel. In the hands of a more realistic artist, say Hiroya (Gantz) Oku, you would have gotten an almost pornographically detailed vision of spewing guts and broken faces. In Corben’s hands, it’s cartoony and scary, to be sure, but you could never accuse Corben of being dependent on gore as a gross-out factor.

Another Corben high point is his take on Hellboy. Several artists have drawn Hellboy’s adventures, and each have had a very specific take on the character. Mike Mignola drew him as mostly monster, clearly inhuman and huge. Duncan Fegredo has a more human take on Hellboy, where he’s more of a brawny guy in a trenchcoat. Corben has the most interesting take on Hellboy for my money, though. The only way I can think to describe it is to say that it’s Hellboy by way of Sesame Street. Corben’s Hellboy looks like a muppet. He has this oddly-shaped, squared-off head, a flat jaw that’s connected to his head in a way you can’t quite figure out, and a stubby nose. If you look, really look, it looks like his jaw is connected to his head like a puppet’s jaw is connected, rather than anything that’s actually human.

This take on Hellboy works. He looks pretty dopey in personality, but it actually adds a lot to the character. Hellboy has always been treated as a normal guy stuck in extraordinary circumstances. He doesn’t do Dr. Strange-style magic spells, and he’s just as likely to punch a monster as use a talisman to kill it. Corben’s muppet version adds a thick layer of cartooning onto Mignola’s blueprint and delivers a character that looks friendly, good-natured, and more than a little inhuman. When Hellboy is wrestling vampires or battling giant African spirits, he doesn’t feel out of place. He’s this bright spot of gritty, dirty red in the middle of a variety of browns, but it works.

It’s creepy. His face is expressionless, with just a thick black line for a mouth, but that lack of expression makes Hellboy look kinda sad at the same time. His body is Corben-beefy, with a healthy dose of chest hair, but his head is totally out of place. Hellboy’s red right hand feels more real than Hellboy’s head does. His trenchcoat is real, but his head isn’t. The contrast between real and unreal throughout Corben’s version of Hellboy creates a weird disconnect in my mind. It actually makes it easier to buy Hellboy as taking part in these stories and whatever weirdness that comes his way. It’s spooky from jump, and all you need to know that is clear by looking at Hellboy himself.

When Frank Miller and Jim Lee were doing All-Star Batman, there was a tonal disconnect between the art and the story. Miller was doing this really hard-edged take on Batman, abrasive and maybe a little honest, and Lee’s art was more or less traditional superhero art, shiny and exuberant. I enjoyed the clash between writing and art, but it made it tough to get into the story. You have expectations that don’t get filled in the way you expect, or at all.

This otherworldly aspect of Corben’s work is what makes his work so good, I think. You’re clearly reading a story, whether it’s about a British con-man turned convict or a barbarian lost in a strange land, but it’s easy to accept that world as real and lose yourself in the story because it’s weird from the start. Due in part to his style and in part to his body of work, you may have expectations for Corben’s stories (his barbarian will find a busty lass, someone’s head will be beaten against a wall or bounced off a sidewalk, someone will light or smoke a cigarette while backlit, someone will cock their head at a wholly unnatural angle), but you don’t have just one expectation for his work.

Versatility is a funny thing. The mainstream comics industry tends to place people in boxes. Jim Lee has a superhero style that evolved while he was doing X-Men with Scott Williams, but he’s also come up with a pretty fantastic watercolor style, too. What fans want, though, is his X-Men style. They want Hush, not watercolors. So, Jim Lee does big time superheroes. Michael Lark does gritty crime stuff. Amanda Conner does shiny smiley face comics. Jae Lee does moody stuff where people stand on rocks. All of them are talented and fantastic at what they do. But, when I pick up a book with their name on it, I expect to see that specific thing that they’re known for. When I pick up a Corben book, I just expect to see something that’s a little awesome, a little ugly, and a little goofy.

Corben, though, gets to skate by and do a wide variety of stories. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t been as firmly defined as capital J Jim capital L Lee in terms of what people expect, maybe it’s because his style is going to be off-model on anything but his own creations, so you’re going to get something weird no matter what it is, or maybe it’s just because he doesn’t like to do just one thing ad nauseam.

Who knows? I’m thankful for his versatility, though.

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7 Artists: Amanda Conner

July 6th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

One thing superhero comics have a glaring lack of are actual acting. For a wide variety of reasons, the emphasis in comics art is on figures. You need to be able to draw strong dudes, sexy ladies, and if you can manage to fit in surprise, anger, stoicism, arrogance, and something that kinda sorta resembles bedroom eyes on the figure, more power to ya, superstar. The emphasis in most books are on the figures and the costumes, with faces being a distant third at best. You’d think it wouldn’t be this way–Brian Bendis is fond of using reaction panels and Geoff Johns is doing a mega-arc based around emotions, but it is what it is.

Faces are extraordinarily important when it comes to acting and body language. When people say that the eyes are the window to the soul, they’re more or less correct. The eyes are probably the most expressive thing on your face, and they change shape and appearance based on how you move your face. Look in a mirror and smile, frown, glower, or whatever and watch how your eyes move around. Obvious, right? You can smile or frown with your eyes, even when trying to keep your face expressionless.

Let’s be honest here. Most facial expressions are stupid. If you ever look at someone grinning, or scowling, or screaming in terror–I mean, it looks stupid, right? The face contorts and shifts and all the muscles under the skin move around, creating hills and valleys where once were plains. Watch your friends while they laugh, especially if they do deep belly laughs. Their mouths gape open and their eyes squeeze together. (Don’t get me started on people who stick their tongue out when they laugh. I mean, where do you learn that?) Facial expressions can be movements or moments in time, and every person is different. Capturing that takes paying attention.

There are a lot of artists who don’t know what to do with a face. Ed Benes draws these empty-eyed, expressionless, hollowed out shells of characters; people who stand around with blank expressions until they get a chance to shout or shut their eyes. (Benes’s inability to draw attractive women baffles me, considering that Brazil is pretty much Pretty Woman Heaven. Go to the beach, son, draw from life.) Other artists have these set facial patterns they go for and graft onto their characters. Not Amanda Conner, though. No, she goes all-in as far as facial expressions go.

Her most recent work was a twelve issue run on Power Girl with Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti. It was the DC Comics equivalent of one of Marvel’s mid-list titles like Immortal Iron Fist. It didn’t ever really tie into the overall story of the DC universe, instead picking up and running with stories about the day-to-day life of the titular character. Power Girl gave Conner plenty of room to play around with her art, using a lot of funky body language and facial expressions to push the story along.

What’s interesting about acting in comics is the way it replaces dialogue and exposition. Shouts, grunts, screams, growls, and certain other noises don’t actually need the word balloon with “AHHHHH!” or “Grrr” or “sigh” to get the point across. Think of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” where a man standing on a bridge screams in silence. Sure, you could add some sound effects on that, preferably by John Workman, but you don’t need it. The expression is clear enough.

Conner incorporates this fact into her work, and Power Girl became one of DC’s strongest comics because of it. There are tons of scenes where grunts, gasps, or shouts would have been appropriate, but instead, all of the expression is left to Conner’s art. Power Girl biting her lower lip is an expression we can all understand. She’s angry and focused. With her eyes half closed and her lips molded into something like an “O,” it’s clear that she is sighing.

Conner’s art doesn’t stop at your usual mix of facial expressions. She runs through grumpy, happy, sleepy, bashful, sneezy, and dopey, which already puts her over and above most artists, but also throws in exasperated (my personal favorite), violently determined (as in when she scrunches her face before headbutting a monster), giddy, slack-jawed surprise, fear, bemusement, amusement, embarrassment, skepticism, irritation, and uncontrollable anger. Even that emotion that can be best surprised as what you feel when someone tells you that something was due forty-five seconds ago, that kind of “Wait… what?” feeling–it’s in there.

Facial expressions are just one part of acting, obviously. Body language counts for a lot, too. How close you’re standing to someone, the distance between your hands and your body when standing with your arms at your side, the tilt of your head, the angle of your shoulders, the way you clench your fist, and the width of your stance convey an astonishing amount of information. You can take in someone’s mood at a glance once you start paying attention to body language.

In comics, this is just additional storytelling. The more you can display in your art, the less you have to actually write. A cocked eyebrow, tilted head, crossed arms, and crooked mouth says, “Oh, is that so?” better than dialogue ever can. Tightly clenched fists and a scowl are extreme anger. Nervousness is a full body emotion. A goofy smile and eye contact says more about attraction than “You had me at ‘hello.'”

These are all tools in a comic artist’s repertoire, and Conner used them to their fullest in her run. There’s thirty-five images in this post, most of them single panels, and all of them pulled from the first five issues of Power Girl. Many of the faces reflect the same emotion (anger and surprise, mostly) but in a different way each time. I chose Power Girl as the example for a couple of reasons. First is that it’s her book, so she gets the majority of the attention. The other reason is to show that just because you’re focusing on one person doesn’t mean you get to come up with just one expression for each emotion.

What makes Conner such a great artist is that detailed and expressive faces, a glaring omission for most comic artists, get just as much care and attention as huge splashes or the carefully crafted contours of your average superheroine. Conner’s work on expressions and body language is a smaller reflection of the attention she pays to comics art in general. Conner’s art is focused on telling a story in the clearest and best possible way. If this means getting important information across via body language, rather than dialogue, so be it. If it means explaining a character’s personality by way of her facial expressions, rather than oodles of exposition and quips, so be it.

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7 Artists: Chris Bachalo

July 5th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Nobody in comics draws quite like Chris Bachalo.

I’ve seen people complain that his work is too confusing, hard to follow, or too jumbled. There may be a point there, but not one that I ever really agreed with. Bachalo’s art is dense. He draws in a way that fills panels with details. He doesn’t do the Bryan Hitch thing, where every jet has several realistic parts. He’s not Moebius or Katsuhiro Otomo, so he’s not throwing in every detail there is to throw in. No, Bachalo has more in common with Geof Darrow than any of those guys.

Darrow and Bachalo have a style that can be described as “obsessive.” In Shaolin Cowboy, Darrow drew every rock and lizard and butt crack he could get away with. His figures look like real people, but as you look at his work, you see more extraneous information than you would with the average comics artist. There are too many details, too many little touches, for them to be realistic.

Bachalo’s work is similar, though for different reasons. Bachalo doesn’t even try to replicate reality in his work. He’s more concerned with replicating the experience of life, rather than the appearance. In essence, where Hitch or Otomo try to make their drawings as close to real life as possible, Bachalo wants to replicate the feel of real life via caricature. Bachalo’s approach is fascinating, and makes for exciting, and beautiful, comics. The closest person to his drawing style in American comics is Humberto Ramos, but that is more due to the fact that they have complementary styles, rather than styles that resemble each other (i.e., Alan Davis & Bryan Hitch).

Bachalo draws these smooth, Play-Doh-type people. They have smooth skin, prominent noses, gelled-up hair, and wide mouths. Bachalo doesn’t go in for the muscles-upon-muscles style of superheroic art. Instead, he shows how powerful someone is by simply drawing them bigger and broader than everyone else. His Spider-Man is tiny and fairly muscleless, but he’s also lithe and practically a contortionist.

One of my favorite visual gags that Bachalo has drawn came early in Amazing Spider-Man: Brand New Day. J Jonah Jameson, after suffering a heart attack, is in the hospital, crankier than ever before and ready to go. He sneaks outside into the snow, barely making any headway against the wind. Panel five has the money shot–James with his leg thrown out far, bound and determined to take another step while a nurse drags him back inside.

That one panel is a perfect look at how Chris Bachalo uses caricature to create believable body language. It’s not realistic by any means. The snow is a big ball of blurred white, Jameson’s gown is just a little wrinkly, and his neck is way too long. This is practically a Three Stooges or Buster Keaton shot in comic book form. Jameson’s exaggerated motion, along with his stick-thin legs, enormous chin, and long neck, all work in concert here to tell you everything you need to know, clear as day.

Bachalo is a master of acting. In this page from Amazing Spider-Man: Shed, Carlie and Peter are having an impromptu lunch. Bachalo uses close-ups to frame the page and three wide panels to show the actual action. Peter has a Ralph Dibny nose when he goes “Cheers” with his cup, Carlie’s carefully dabbing at her mouth after a messy bite, and her relaxed lean in panel four is killer. The quiet laugh in panel five is pretty great, too. Peter and Carlie come across as comfortable and friendly, and you don’t need dialogue to figure that out. It’s a little goofy, a little funny, but it’s great work.

What’s interesting about this page is the way that both people are drawn. Peter and Carlie both have Ralph Dibny or Mr. Magoo noses, strangely round jaws, and there’s a bit of Colin Mochrie in Peter’s face. Carlie’s mouth is unnaturally huge in panels five and six, especially in six. It’s kind of weird that she’s clearly taking little bitty baby bites out of that sandwich with her big ol’ mouth, but that doesn’t matter any more than the big noses and Peter’s weird hair does. Bachalo warped them in tiny ways, but uses that to his advantage.

Bachalo uses unrealistic proportions well, but what he’s best at is playing with space. His mostly-white two-page spread from X-Men: Supernovas is beautiful, with the left-hand side being stacked with the aftermath of an attack, including some adorable flopping fish, while the right side is left largely empty. The composition is impeccable, perfectly displaying the chaos of half a second previous and the quiet moment just after.

I’m really fond of the cover to X-Men 190, too. Again, it’s very busy, overflowing with information in the form of clumps of ice, puddles of water, and the mountains in the background. The best part of the cover is the embrace between Mystique and Iceman. She has long arms and fairly thin shins, but she’s all round angles and smooth. Iceman is the opposite, with hard-edged ice, broken limbs, and a pointy face. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something about this cover stuck with me. Maybe it’s the way the blue and greys blend together (which I think is due to Antonio Fabela, Bachalo’s usual colorist) or the splash of color that is Mystique’s hair. It’s a striking image, and positively claustrophobic.

In this page, where Spider-Man has a guy strung up and is trying to scare him straight, the panel is tilted to the left and comparatively filled with information. The chimney stacks, water towers, and brickwork all work to show you exactly where this is taking place, but the real meat and potatoes are Spider-Man and his webs. Bachalo draws the best webs since Todd McFarlane left the Spider-books, and he’s just showing off here. Bachalo’s Spider-Man is crunched down into a tiny ball, ready to spring, and has huge and expressive eyes. There’s a lot to look at here.

Look at the image of Hammerhead, from Amazing Spider-Man: Crime and Punisher. This is how Bachalo shows power. Hammerhead is huge. Hulk huge. The scale would have you think that the kid in the foreground is barely a toddler, but no. He’s in his pre-teens. Hammerhead is just that big, and he’s half-crouched. One of his fists is as big as the kid’s head. The page is weighted toward the background, making the kid look even smaller. This is an effective choice, in part because it instantly gets across how dangerous Hammerhead is, even without the piles of beaten and brutalized bodies behind him.

Space and scale again. The Lizard dominates this page from Shed. He’s enormous and right in Spider-Man’s face. All of the details on the page go to the Lizard, leaving Spider-Man featureless, save for his wide eyes. A later page features Spider-Man swarmed with civilians, buried under a mass of them and drowning in the chaos.

Bachalo alternates between flooding a page with information and leaving them wide open. This is the way storytelling in comics should work. Every element of his work is done in service of the story, whether the characters are warped and compressed under the pressure of all the debris on the page or given room to breathe. He’s killer, and extraordinarily suitable to drawing Spider-Man comics. His take on the character gives you a short, fairly skinny version of Spidey, a take that works really well and makes everything a little more interesting.

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7 Artists: Ed McGuinness

July 4th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

JLA Classified 1-3 is the perfect superhero story. As far as stories about tights and fights go, it is top notch and one you can point to that has almost everything that makes superhero comics work. Grant Morrison supplies a script that’s packed with jet apes and killer robots, but Ed McGuinness, ably assisted by Dexter Vines and Dave McCaig, knocks the ball entirely out of the park with his art. Without McGuinness, this wouldn’t be half as good as it is.

For a long time, Jim Lee defined comics art for me. Todd McFarlane drew my first comic, but Lee did X-Men 1, which blew the roof off superheroes for me. His characters were tall, imposing, built, and attractive. They were the movie stars of comic book heroes. They aren’t as weird as McFarlane’s creepy take on Spider-Man, they were more realistic than Jack Kirby’s work, and they looked like they were chiseled, rather than drawn. They looked like the end point of the superheroic ideal, beautiful people doing powerful things.

After I came back to comics after a long time away, Ed McGuinness soon took over Lee’s spot. His take is even less likely to appear in real life than Lee’s, but something about his squat, muscular, and clean take makes superheroes look like they should. There are touches of CC Beck and Curt Swan in his work, but McGuinness never looks like a Silver Age throwback. There’s definitely some of the Image “muscles upon muscles” in his work, but it doesn’t ever look garish.

McGuinness’s superheroes look like cartoons, which is an astonishingly good take on the genre. Hyper-real superheroes look ridiculous, as a glance at any superhero movie you care to name will tell you. Superhero comics indulge in larger-than-life theatrics more than any other kind of book I can think of, and McGuinness’s art reflects that.

The most striking thing in these two pages are Wonder Woman’s eyes on page one, panel four. They’re made of very simple lines, free of wrinkles, and with the barest hint of a furrowed brow in the center. Instead, her eyebrows do all the talking. They’re unnaturally cocked high, aren’t they? Page two, panel two features Wonder Woman breaking the panel border as she flexes and pulls her lasso taut. Her back muscles are drawn in thick and large, but her hair is a solid mass of black. There’s no noodling or unnecessary details to gum up the works. He draws a lot of details, from pouches to cracks in armor to wrinkled cloth, but he always stops short of over-rendering. His characters are simple, with strong silhouettes and lantern jaws.

His storytelling is clear as a bright summer day, too. This story takes him from hyper-compressed sixteen panel grids to wide open two page spreads and he handles both of them with ease. McGuinness has never had a problem with readability, and his sense of panel to panel progression is impeccable. He repeatedly uses characters as part of the design of his pages in this story in particular, and it never stops being anything but good. When things go all sideways and his panels start twisting and turning, it’s to emulate a high-speed mid-air dogfight. At the end of the fight, when a laser goes straight through Squire’s arm, the panel is straighter than a ruler.

In the years since JLA Classified came out, McGuinness has been working mainly with Jeph Loeb on Hulk. He has introduced several new elements into his style, making his style less cartoony than it used to be, but still clearly his style. If JLA Classified was the Saturday morning cartoon, his work on Hulk and a few other comics since then is the big budget feature film.

On Hulk, he’s working more details into his art, embracing several techniques he didn’t employ previously, and upping the spectacle in his work by several orders of magnitude. Everything is bigger. The figures are more detailed and more traditionally expressive. What’s notable about these style changes is that McGuinness manages to do all of this without breaking what made his style so attractive in the first place. The figures are less simple than they were in JLA Classified, but no less recognizable and attractive.

Watching McGuinness on Hulk is kind of like watching Miller on Sin City. You can see where he’s pushing against his limits, bringing in outside influences or diverse styles, and still keeping it all within what you could call his style. He’s still doing interesting layouts, particularly in the Secret Warriors special he drew where Nick Fury and a friend engage in a midair dogfight as displayed on the sides of a few skyscrapers or when characters break the panel borders in Hulk.

McGuinness is definitely what pops into my mind when I think of a generic example of superhero art. Kevin Maguire’s strength is accurate facial expressions, and Frank Quitely is fantastic at body language, but McGuinness’s characters look like superheroes should look. Big, beefy, cartoony, and exciting. His strength lies in accomplishing that without sacrificing storytelling on the altar of pin-ups and so-called iconic shots. He knows how to tell a story, and often delivers work that completely out-classes the scripts he’s given to draw. As time goes on, he becomes more and more versatile and that’s what makes his work worth checking out.

You don’t get sub-par or uninteresting work out of this guy, and every time he takes a short break, he comes back with something new. Credit is also due to his inkers, usually Dexter Vines or Mark Farmer, and colorists, Dave McCaig, Dave Stewart, Jason Keith, and Morry Hollowell. They bring out a lot of the details McGuinness puts into his art, and you can tell that they’re a complementary team. Together, they do powerhouse work.

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