Comics, Panel Eulogy

On the magnificence of Artists’ editions

Just so you know, this post does not talk about movie The Artist. I talk about comics. Fair warning.

Before I talk about an Artist’s edition, allow me to explain for the sake of those who came in late, a little behind the process of a comic’s creation. Traditionally, a comic is drawn by hand, with India ink on pencils, ink that is thick, black and lends itself gloriously to the printing processes of the early twentieth century. Pages are drawn on giant boards that are bigger than the final printed size. Then comes the lettering, the word-balloons and sound effects, that would be done either directly on the page, by hand or pasted-on from photocopies done separately. There is a colorist involved as well, yes, but again, due to the limitations of the printing process, the most that colorists could do before the advent of computers was to create color “guides”, done on photocopies of the line art shrunk to publishable size. Printers would use these guides to create the final plates, but it was not necessary that every nuance of the coloring would translate to the final product.

This has substantially changed in recent times, where Photoshop and Illustrator and a variety of other lettering software have transferred a bulk of the coloring and lettering parts of the process online. Some artists even bypass the inking process by allowing their pencils to be directly scanned and enhanced on the computer. And there are artists who stick to the computer for every step of the process – the only physical artifact in that case becomes the printout.

But we talk here about the actual physical art, these boards which, once the printing is done and the comic-book is published and read, used to be treated as disposable trash. While the assembly-line nature of monthly comics has shelved creators into discrete boxes – penciller, inker, colorist, letterer – it is still safe to say that the best kind of artist is the one that does it all. One who is able to not only plan and break down a script into fluid panels on the page, bring them to life by his or her pencils, but also ink, and ink well. Because the inking process is severely underrated and much vilified. Inks not only necessary to show off the contents of the page when they are scaled down to size, but the very thickness of an inked line – its weight – can be used by an experienced inker to convey the import of the artist’s intent with minimum strokes. Less equals more. A good inker can not only ensure that the comic you hold in your hands is as true to the penciller’s vision, but he can sock you in the guts when (- if – ) you hold the board of original art in your hands and see his work up close. This is part of the reason why there is a market for original art. Strip away the nostalgia, and the money-making and the thrill of holding something that is one-of-a-kind, and what remains is the sheer joy and awe of seeing and holding something masterful.

Now fast forward to 2009, when San Diego-based company IDW began a somewhat-bold venture. They took the Rocketeer stories of creator Dave Stevens, and published a giant-sized edition of the work using Stevens’ original black and white art pages. Rather than being a generic facsimile version, this edition was stunning because it was shot in color – what it means is that you can make out textures of the page, the parts that have yellowed, pencils underneath the inks, eraser and whiteout, even coffee stains. It is not an easy task to complete this sort of project because most artists’ pages are spread out among anonymous collectors, making it difficult to track down originals. In Stevens’s case, a bulk of his pages remain with his estate, and the people involved in the project – editor Scott Dunbier, Seinfeld writer David Mandel and collector Kelvin Mao were uber-collectors of Stevens’ work themselves. The successful sell-out of The Rocketeer Artist’s Edition prompted more volumes to come out – a 10-issue selection of Walt Simonson’s run on Thor in the eighties, and a selection of John Romita’s work on Spider-man, among the superhero comic runs most celebrated for their precise, heady combo of art and story.

Wally Wood’s work was picked for the next Artist’s edition, a departure from the superhero genre of the previous volumes. (Since it’s stupid to talk about biographies when you can easily read about it on Wikipedia, here’s a handy link. )Wood was one of the old guard, in a class of his own, who cut his teeth on the legendary EC comics of the fifties. He’s not too well-known outside fandom, mostly because he worked on non-mainstream horror, science fiction and war comics, did a lot of underground stuff in the seventies, and then proceeded to kill himself in 1982. Most of his original art is still together as full stories, partly because of EC publisher Bill Gaines’ foresight and in part because original art collectors were rabid enough to want to own complete stories by him. The Wally Wood Artists’ Edition collects some of the best of Wood’s stories from the 1950s. It is even more ambitious than the other releases because it seeks to reprint pages that were drawn on “twice-up” sizes, about 14 by 20 inches. That makes it humongous, maybe the biggest book I’ve seen barring the Little Nemo and Gasoline Alley books brought out by Sunday Press.

The cover itself is gorgeous, the kind of science fiction tableau where every brush stroke, every blotch of black feels economical and yet loaded with intent. Opening it the first time gave me the sock-in-the-guts that I was talking about before. As I flip through the pages, it seems impossible not to linger, to peer at a splash of correction fluid here, at a pasted-on correction that has aged less than the panel surrounding it, making it seem whiter than the yellowing art board. You want to caress the zip-a-tone paste-ups that Wood uses to convey three-dimensionality in his backgrounds and the effects, like reflection in the water, or a pattern on a carpet. The women he draws remind me of stars of silent black-and-white cinema, a Harlow here, a Garbo there, voluptuousness of a Mae West in another. The men likewise bear the stamp of square-jawed matinee idols. But at the same time, Wood does not hesitate to coat them in grime, sweat and mud, to add a seven o’clock shadow to the craggy face of a handsome protagonist, or wrinkles and crow’s feet to a face to convey age.

The EC stories are typical science and shock-fantasy fiction of the time, eight-ten page tales book-ended between a gorgeous splash page that lay down the story’s milieu and a twist ending that is the payoff. The verbosity of the writing sometimes gets to me, the art groaning under the narrative captions and thought balloons and a profusion of dialog boxes. What is surprising is the lack of sound effects – the only obvious ones are screams. “Yaaaaaah”, goes a man in a panel from a 1948, grimacing with pain, and then ‘Eeeeyaaahhh”, as if the single scream was not enough to convey the horror of the scene. The story, by the way, is adapted from Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, EC being among the first to adapt sci-fi stories written by contemporary writers into comic-book form. You see the obvious influences of the Pulp illustrators, and the newspaper greats – Hogarth, Caniff, Foster and Raymond – in Wood’s work (to be fair, these giants cast a long shadow – take anyone from Frazetta to Williamson to Will Eisner, and you will see veins of inspiration that lurk beneath the creativity). But what stuns is the dynamic imagination that oozes from his designs of prehistoric and futuristic monsters. From the bold storytelling choices that he makes to convey something as momentous as an atomic bomb explosion or a medieval joust. The tingle of erotic excitement from a woman’s body wrapped in a sheet. The frantic urgency of a rain-soaked battlefield.

I will probably never own a definitive Wally Wood page of my own, but owning this volume kind of soothes the longing, and tells my pleasure centers to have patience. Good art is calming in its own way, and especially art of this caliber. IDW is coming up with two more volumes in the next few months, one of them being a Will Eisner collection, of the same size as the Wood book. The other is Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again. It’s hard to get them unless you pre-order, but these are books that ought to take pride of place on your shelves. Highly, highly recommend that you buy them.


Comic Art, Comics, Panel Eulogy

Panel Eulogy: The Goon v3 issue 17


A bit of a cheat, this panels actually a 2-page spread

A bit of a cheat, this panel's actually a 2-page spread


Eric Powell’s The Goon is an achievement in itself. You’ve heard this story before – aspiring comic creator comes up with a character idea that evolves from doodles on sketchpads to something more fully-fleshed-out, the pitch is rejected by mainstream comic publishers, creator improves on his ideas, self-publishes his comic, and a phenomenon is born. The only variant to this starry-eyed story is that Powell’s creation was first published by Avatar Press at first as a black-and-white series, and after three issues, Powell stopped producing new material, waited for the contract to expire and then began to self-publish the series himself. By this time, the positive buzz on his horror-comedy series was high enough for Dark Horse comics to come a-knocking at his door, apologetic about passing on his series the first time he pitched it to them. The very first issue of the Dark Horse debut won him an Eisner for “Best Single Issue” in 2004, and since then, Powell’s been getting better and better. The Goon has consistently maintained its balance of outrageous farce, over-the-top violence and fine storytelling and the artist himself has evolved considerably since the early Avatar days. 

Because the series is mostly a one-man show, Powell allows himself to indulge in all kinds of visual experimentation in his issues. His art style, once rough and punctuated by scratchy inks, morphed into a lush painterly look as he began to use ink washes. His figures have a three-dimensional quality, as you can see in the panel above. The backgrounds are very understated, and it’s interesting to note how much he manages to imply with his minimal strokes and shades. Look at the background closely. A few clouds, the outline of an house, both rendered with a smoky feel that brings out more character in this snow-covered scene than a million spelled-out details ever could. At this stage, Powell was doing everything, including the colors – and oh good God, the colors are gorgeous! They do not have the murkiness that you see in many modern comics, the over-use of photoshop filters that end up making the final product look kitschy or just too dark to make out anything. ( The colors are now done by Dark Horse veteran Dave Stewart, to allow Powell more time to concentrate on the story and the art. )

Just like Mike Mignola does in Hellboy, Powell uses a very distinct look for his lead character, Goon, who’s the one hurtling through the fence above. The character’s appearance is fairly unchanged throughout, the cap shielding his eyes, the scar across his face, the gloves, the working-john’s clothes – in a way, I think of the Goon as the twenty-first century version of Popeye ( and I refer to the original the Segar strips here ), a laconic, violent rough-neck who can take a punch and dish it right back, with an extra one thrown in for luck. You can be sure that all these blood-thirsty little freaks get their just desserts in the next couple of pages. 

Part of the appeal of this particular panel – yeah, ok, two-page spread – is the way the violence intrudes into the reader’s ken. The few pages that lead to this one is a slow set-up, featuring a nifty tribute to a memorable sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, in which Tippi Hedren is smoking near the school and the birds begin to congregate, slowly, on the jungle gym. Here, it’s the lady you see in this panel and these vicious-looking creatures gathering around as she smokes a cigarette – you don’t know anything about her, just that something bad is about to happen, and you mentally prepare yourself for the inevitable end to which unknown supporting characters are subjected to in examples of the horror genre. And then Powell has to go and introduce our burly protagonist in a spectacular fashion, shattering genre conventions, and our expectations in this magnificient panel.

Do yourself a favour, and pick up The Goon. The early Avatar issues are a little rough, but by the time you come across this panel, you will be ready to worship Eric Powell. And while I know this sounds very cliche, The Goon just keeps getting better and better, as Powell begins tampering with the status quo he has laid down in the initial years of his saga.

Comic Art, Comics, Music, Panel Eulogy


Flash Gordon - The Witch Queen of Mongo

Flash Gordon: The Witch Queen of Mongo

This panel is from Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, among the most revered comic strips of the early 20th century, from a storyline called “The Witch Queen of Mongo”. Hard to imagine that it was published in May 1935, and appeared in family-friendly Sunday newspapers considering the kind of hullaballoo made nowadays over much more innocent imagery.

Why I like the panel so much is in part due to Raymond’s god-level figurework – Dale’s posture as she undergoes her punishment resembles a figure from a classical painting. The movement of the woman with the whip is captured without the any visual trickery – no speed-lines or sound effects that you see in modern comics. Raymond keeps the background to a crisp minimum, using stray crosshatching and Dale’s shadow to convey the presence of the wall to which she is bound. The other reason is because of the obvious way in which it is constructed to appeal to its target audience. At that time, I am betting that the greater percentage of readers following Flash Gordon comics was teenage boys – and isn’t this image just a right mix of taboo and titillation? If I were thirteen and I saw this panel in my Sunday newspaper, I would make sure I cut it out and keep it safe before the newspaper gets trashed the next day. And I know I would look at it again and again, when I was sure there was no one around. When I saw this page while flipping through the book for the first time, I had to pause and stare, for quite some time. I have to admit that the scan above does not do the actual color artwork justice – not to mention the fact that Raymond’s actual inked pages still have it in them to make eyes of grown men pop with awe and disbelief.

Indrajal comics never printed these original pulp stories in India. They got the Dan Barry run, which is good as well; but it was Raymond’s run that laid down the mythology of Mongo and its inhabitants and stands on its own as a fascinating, self-contained bunch of space yarns. One cannot really call the somewhat-repetitive storylines worthy literature. A standard template of a Raymond Flash Gordon story would go this way – Flash, Dale and Zarkov meet a hitherto unknown tribe on Mongo, and one of whom is a hot woman who falls for him; a rival in the tribe first envies Flash and his obvious charisma, and then either repents or dies, and there is a final showdown with Emperor Ming who shows up to conquer the tribe but fails, thanks to Flash’s uber-Aryan combination of brains and brawn. But it would also be wrong to dismiss them as vapid pulp – there’s definite plot development, the trio even come back to to Earth and use Mongo technology in WWII, and Flash and Dale’s romance grows over the episodes. What’s most striking is the iconic artwork of Alex Raymond, whose brush strokes brought the fantastic creatures and landscapes of Mongo to life, and who fanned the flames of adolescent desire and imagination with his skill.

Checker Books has reprinted the complete run of Raymond’s Flash Gordon in seven hardcover volumes, and it’s well worth your time to pick them up if you can. My collection has five of the seven volumes – Book 3 is apparently out of print, and Book 1 was not available along with the rest in Odyssey, where my girlfriend picked them up for me in February.