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

Collectible-lust: The Rocketeer Artist’s Edition

To people familiar with the independent comics boom of the eighties, the name ‘Dave Stevens’ is synonymous with dazzling artistry. Stevens’s most famous creation is The Rocketeer, a throwback to the pulp movie serials of the 1940s. Fans and industry professionals alike swooned over his lush yet delicate brushwork, the seemingly effortless way his storytelling not only paid homage to the past, but created something that was unique and contemporary, a heady mix of cheesecake nostalgia and crackling adventure. Even though Stevens never managed to complete the story he had started – the reasons being a mix of delays caused by his painstaking perfectionism, his professional commitments outside the comics industry and in the later stages of his life, a battle with cancer – his limited body of work includes a number of comic covers and movie production art. A cover drawn by Dave Stevens, regardless of who wrote or drew the content within, or the quality of the comic itself, would sell extremely well, people cherishing the chance to view another example of this man’s sublime talent.

I became familiar with Stevens’ work through ad inserts for The Rocketeer in other Pacific comics that I bought in the mid-eighties. Getting issues of Pacific Comics Presents (the comic in which the character appeared for the first time) was tough – I didn’t manage it until 2007, when I found copies in a comic-shop sale in Mountain View, for 50 cents each. But the funny thing that I realized later was that I had seen Stevens’ work a long time before I heard of the Rocketeer. This image, in particular.

Yaaaaaa! Sheenaaaaaaa!

This is one of Stevens’ most iconic works, and was used without credits or permissions to grace a 3-D comic called Jungle Ki Rani published by Diamond Comics. Diamond Comics ( not to be confused with Diamond Distributors)  is an Indian company that started off publishing Chacha Chowdhury, Pinki, Billu and Tauji – somewhere down the line, some of its titles became thinly Indianized versions ripped off from American comics. Some issues of Mahabali Shaka were panel-by-panel copies of Phantom and Tarzan stories from the sixties, a title called Chimpu had a story that was a shameless remix of Tintin and the Black Island and Tintin in America. And anyway, Jungle Ki Rani. Don’t believe me?


And hell, I loved this image. I think I even wanted to buy a copy just for the cover, but my father got me something else instead probably because it was too risque.I finally read the complete Rocketeer on scans, sometime around 2004-2005. I was not so impressed, probably because I had outgrown the swashbuckling men’s adventure genre by that time. No doubt I would have been completely in love with it had I read it 10 years ago, but it felt a little dated, a little too innocent.

Stevens passed away in 2008. In late 2009, IDW Publishing released a collection of the complete Rocketeer stories, recolored by award-winning colorist Laura Martin (Planetary, Astonishing X-Men). This was the first time all of Stevens’ Rocketeer work – published over 13 years by different comic companies, including Pacific comics, Eclipse and Dark Horse – was collected in one volume. I was in LA during the release party of the book, but it was a weekday evening and Golden Apple Comics, the store where the party was being held, was on the other end of the city. Apart from the standard paperback, there was also a deluxe hardcover edition, with 100+ pages of bonus material, including unpublished sketches, script excerpts and original art scans, limited to 3000 copies, all  of which sold out in a matter of weeks.

But editor Scott Dunbier – a Stevens fan and an avid art collector – had more plans in mind. Comic art aficionados love Stevens’ work; the few pages that the artist sold are in offer-proof collections, most still reside with his estate. Dunbier came up with the idea of an Artist’s Edition of the Rocketeer, aimed at the same art-collecting crowd that paid extra money to get an insight into Stevens’ creative process by buying the Deluxe edition. One could argue that this was like finding excuses to make money off the same body of work, but then again, the end product was a complete labor of love. Dunbier, before he left DC/Wildstorm and joined IDW, was the guy who came up with the idea behind DC’s Absolute Editions, oversized, special-feature-laden archival hard-cover versions of series like Planetary, Watchmen, Sandman, and The Dark Knight. To call him a marketing genius would be selling him short – the man knows his shit inside out. He sold art to Graham Nash and Stephen Stills, for god’s sake!

The idea behind The Rocketeer Artist’s Edition was this – every page was scanned directly from Stevens’ artwork, at the same size as the original pages, making the book a super-sized 12 by 17 inch item. Some people said that Stevens the perfectionist would not probably like the flaws in his work to be laid bare. But there was no denying the fact that if there was an artist who deserved a release like this, it was probably Dave Stevens. And for a comic collector who does not have the means to own one of Stevens’ original pages, this is a brilliant way to pore through the intricacies of a master draftsman’s sequential art. The idea is not original – there have been similar projects in France, where legendary artist Franquin’s Spirou books received a similar treatment, but it’s a novelty for the American market. It was also a gamble for the fledgling company, because comic fans are notorious for not putting their money where their mouth is.  1200 copies were printed, and Dunbier talked about it on forums and comic sites, noting that the experiment would also be a worthwhile way to find out if other books could get a similar treatment as well, if this one sold well.  And boy oh boy, it sure did. The release at Comic-Con this year saw a large percentage of the books sell even at the hefty price-tag of 100$, while a glowing forum message by inker Scott Williams ensured that the remaining stock sold out by the end of the next week. I was in two minds about buying a copy for myself, I was on a book-buying hiatus, and shipping charges to India would bring the price to 150$. But it was Williams’ message, and the fact that Madhav was in the US at that time that helped me make up my mind. I think I probably picked up one of the last few copies from the site.

The binding on the book is surprisingly sturdy. Each page is printed on high-quality paper. The pages still contain pencil markings, splashes of white-out where the artist corrected aspects that he did not like. Yes, they are in black-and-white. But even an art-luddite would be awed by the magnificence.

Some pictures:

Though the book is technically out-of-print at the IDW website, you can still get copies, though at a small premium. eBay USA sellers are asking for anything between 140-200$ ( shipping extra). Online retailer Reed Comics is selling copies at 125£ in the UK.