Black History Month 2011: Billy Graham

February 4th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

Billy Graham
Selected Works: Essential Luke Cage/Power Man Vol. 1, Marvel Masterworks: Black Panther

Billy Graham is an art monster. He helped define Luke Cage for the first sixteen issues of Hero for Hire and he worked on what is still the best Black Panther story of all time: Don McGregor’s Panther’s Rage. Prior to that, he worked at Warren and banged out some perfectly solid horror comics work.

This guy draws great comics, with a Gene Colan’s figurework meets Jack Kirby’s explosive action sort of thing going on. He has these wonderfully proportioned and fairly realistic figures doing insane Kirby judo throws and flips. Characters have genuine facial expressions, often exaggerated for effect but still reasonable, and idealized bodies. Graham can even draw people of different races without descending into caricature, a gift that some modern artists can’t even match.

More than that, though, is that Graham’s art is raw. There’s this looseness or roughness that make his pages really interesting. They aren’t unfinished or lacking in detail, but the detail they do have is rendered in a way I don’t see too often. His work is chunky and scratchy, and I always feel like if you could wipe away the color, you’d see pencils that were worthy of being shot straight from the board.

Graham’s Kirby-influenced realism was vital for both Cage and Panther at the time, I’d say. The two books depicted a Marvel universe that varied from being even more street level than Amazing Spider-Man to being about half as cosmic as Fantastic Four. Graham’s art split the difference. Cage and Panther were both grounded, but not so grounded that they couldn’t expand into more comic book-y situations. If you look at something like Daredevil, which has been banging the Early ’80s Frank Miller Drum for entirely too long now, you see a series that has been defined and limited to one style. Graham was just street level and cosmic enough to make everything work.

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Black History Month 2011: Matt Baker

February 3rd, 2011 Posted by david brothers

Matt Baker
Selected Works: It Rhymes With Lust, Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour (forthcoming)

Matt Baker’s another creator whose name I’d heard in passing but never realized was black until a couple years ago. C’est la guerre, right?

Baker’s a master of good girl art. There’s the obvious, of course–pretty girls in comics are great as a general rule. But on top of that is something a little less obvious. Drawing pretty girls isn’t as simple as heaving bosoms, full lips, big butts, and pokey nipples. You can’t just draw smiles and long legs. You need to be able to draw grins and gams. Skintight clothes are all well and good if you’re lazy, but good artists will throw in fantastic looking dresses, interesting heels, great hats, fabulous hair, and a good sense of humor. What’s more–no two women will wear the same outfit. Proper good girl art requires a certain level of skill that simple T&A-centric art doesn’t.

Baker had all of it down pat. His Phantom Lady work is top notch, as goofy as it is sexy and heinously violent. There’s another strip of his that I like called Canteen Kate. Kate worked with a bunch of Marines, and her stories are somewhere between Milton Caniff’s Male Call and I Love Lucy. It’s all slapstick and goofy pratfalls, but it’s enjoyable.

Baker knew what he was doing, and he excelled at it. The thing is, good girl art is good for comics, period. It shows an attention to detail that needs to be present to make good comics art. Look at how John Romita turned Amazing Spider-Man into the most exciting romance comic ever, due at least in part to some good girl stylings. You can’t hack this stuff out or else people will get bored.

I could look at Matt Baker’s work all day long.

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Black History Month 2011: Jackie Ormes

February 2nd, 2011 Posted by david brothers

Jackie Ormes
Selected Works: PattyJo ‘n’ Ginger, Torchy Brown, but the only thing you’ll find in print is Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist by Nancy Goldstein

I don’t know half as much about Jackie Ormes as I wish I did. I was introduced to her by Cheryl Lynn and her Ormes Society. This essay by Karen Green helped quite a bit, too. (I also bit the images from there.)

I like that what Ormes represents as a person is reflected in the content of her strips. She slipped a certain level of biting commentary into her work, but coded for people in the know. It’s an affirmation that someone else feels the same way you do and has noticed the same things you have. If you’ve ever been in public and seen something scandalous go down and then lock eyes with someone else and know you’re thinking the same thought–that’s the feeling I get from the strip about the white tea-kettle whistling at the little girl.

Ormes’s work is, for lack of a better phrase, aggressively normal. Part of overcoming a four hundred year head start is proving that you’re just as much of a normal person as everyone else. In her strips, black kids are just as smart as white ones, black families are equal to whites, and people do groundbreaking things like “have regular relationships” and “tell jokes.” Her work outside of comics reflects that normalcy, too. She had dolls made of her characters, and took part in campaigning for social issues and supporting her community.

Herriman and Ormes are both icons of black comics, as far as I’m concerned. Herriman was there and worked at a point in time where I didn’t think there were any black people working in comics, much less legends of the craft. Ormes provides a valuable counterpoint to the frankly crap portrayal of blacks in mainstream books, in addition to emphasizing the normalcy of black citizens. I just wish more of her work was in print, but that doesn’t seem too likely.

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Black History Month 2011: George Herriman

February 1st, 2011 Posted by david brothers

George Herriman
Selected Works: Krazy & Ignatz 1916-1918: “Love in a Kestle or Love in a Hut”, Krazy & Ignatz 1925-1926: “There is a Heppy Land Furfur A-waay”

Last year, I discovered All-Negro Comics and was stunned to find that there were comics created by and for black people in the ’40s. This past year, I finally started paying attention to George Herriman, and my mind was blown once again. Herriman’s Krazy Kat was #1 on The Comics Journal‘s list of 20th century American comics and is widely loved by what seems to be everyone ever. The Ignatz Awards at Small Press Expo are named after the mouse from Krazy Kat. If you take a look at the history of comics, there’s a black guy right there in the early days. That’s wild, and it somehow never really settled in my mind. I didn’t just hear about Herriman, but somehow, the fact that he was black never managed to settle in my head.

Krazy Kat, though. I burned through 1916-1918, and for strips that are pushing 100 years old, they’ve aged fantastically well. I wasn’t expecting to see Herriman playing with panel layouts or having non-clunky dialogue with clever wordplay. The language is really what hooked me, even with how much I like how Herriman experiments with layouts and formula. Krazy mumbles and rambles, building a complex world of words that sit just to the left of ours. Herriman throws “quotes” around seemingly random terms, just like Kirby did. There’s even a bit of Brian Azzarello-esque wordplay at work in certain strips, like the vagrant William Bee, alias “Bum Bill.”

I’ve been losing faith in the mainstream’s ability to appeal directly to black readers, but Herriman serves as a reminder that there has almost always been an alternative. When something isn’t floating your boat, it’s time to find another something.

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