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A funny thing happens on the way to a printed comic book page…

 

The art gets less interesting.

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Now this isn’t a rant against inkers or colorists or computer effects (but seriously, motion blur?). It’s just a thought I’ve had since I was a kid and got my first look at original comic art and uninked pages. Admittedly, part of this is a matter of personal taste, and yet there is undeniably some vitality and pure raw energy that often seems to get lost in translation through the long process from pencils to print. Some of this is because until quite recently, it has been difficult to reproduce subtle line work and value in print. But I think there’s a larger conceptual problem at play for a lot of comics professionals, and it comes down to this:

Comic book artists don’t like to show their work.

I don’t mean that in terms of “body of work.” I mean it in the way your math teacher used to take points off if you didn’t write out the steps that led to your answer. And I also mean it in terms of “labor,” the actual physical process one undergoes to create something. There are notable exceptions of course, but there seems a desire in the vast majority of comics, especially superhero comics, to eliminate all smudges and scribbles in favor of an ultra smooth and shiny finish, as if each page was designed by a super sophisticated and efficient arting machine. It’s a strange quirk of the medium and one that derives from a number of factors – the aforementioned technological restraints, the inherent nature of massed produced images, and one particular philosophical issue that seems most pronounced in sequential storytelling specifically.

Because you won’t really find this weird impulse to minimize the human touch in favor of the polished and pristine in any other medium, at least not in the last century. I mean sure, the Impressionists caused a few stuffed shirts to pop out their monocles in shock and disgust, but that was in the 1800s. Nowadays, a focus on brush stroke and color over absolute realism is so accepted, it’s the go-to choice for hotel lobbies the world over. So why then are comics still stuck with a default desire to make things so uniformly clean?

It’s called the Treachery of Images.

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In 1926, René Magritte painted a picture of a pipe and then wrote underneath it “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – “This is not a pipe.” He wasn’t just being a smartass; he was making a point about how we view images. On the one hand, of course that’s a pipe…just look at it! On the other hand, of course it’s not a pipe…it’s a painting of a pipe. Duh!

Whenever we look at an image (painting, drawing, photo, whatever), we are observing two distinct things simultaneously. There is the subject or content – what’s being represented (in this case, a pipe). And there’s the process and technique that is creating that representation (oil paint on canvas, chiaroscuro shading to create the illusion of form, etc). Our brains can’t help but see both, but what makes the image “treacherous” is we seem wired to prioritize the content. We recognize it as a pipe before we recognize it as colored mud stuck to a piece of cloth.

What does this have to do with comics?

When it comes to sequential art, this treachery is even stronger than usual. That’s because we’re in the middle of experiencing a narrative. In Magritte’s painting, there is just one level of deception blocking reality. “Hey look, it’s a pipe. Oh wait no, it’s just paint.” In comics, there’s an immeasurable number of levels obscuring the truth of the page. Let’s look at that drawing again, taken from Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All-Star Batman:

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“Hey look, it’s Batman! He’s kicking a cop in the face! Oh man, look at the blood! This Batman’s a lot meaner than the Batman I’m used to! He’s actually kind of an asshole! Frank Miller’s really lost it since 9/11, hasn’t he? Oh wait no, it’s just ink printed onto some plant fiber.” Needless to say, most people don’t make it to that last thought, and that’s not even taking into account the words on the page that give the image context, and its overall place in the larger story that’s being told.

But so what? Do I really want readers stopping at every panel to ponder art theory? Well no, but the artists should.

Here’s what I’m getting at.

Jim Lee gets the script for All-Star Batman #6. In it, there’s a panel description that says Batman kicks through a cop’s windshield right into his face. Jim sits down at his drawing table and draws Batman kicking through a cop’s windshield right into his face. Jim Lee sees the word “Batman” and he draws Batman, the same Batman he drew in Hush, a miniseries with a vastly different tone starring a vastly different Batman. He sees the word “cop” and he draws a guy in a police uniform who, if not for context, could just as easily be Clark Kent, or Lex Luthor, or Bruce Wayne. He sees the word “windshield” and he draws a shiny polished police car because cars are made of metal and metal is shiny.

He draws all these things as only Jim Lee can – gloriously meticulous lines covering every inch of the page. Tight, dynamic poses and musculature, exaggerated to heighten the drama but not so much that it would break credibility. He even sneaks in a little sliver of skyline at the top to create a sense of depth, grounding the action and making that sick kick to the face seem even closer to the reader’s point of view. He does all this, but (and I’m speaking hypothetically here) he never stops to consider, “That’s not Batman kicking a cop through a windshield. That’s an illustration of Batman kicking a cop through a windshield. Duh!”

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Is Lee’s delicate precision draftsmanship really a good fit for the grim ‘n gritty tone of All-Star Bats? I’d say that the initial pencil drawing up top captures this scene way better than the final product. And yet every effort has been made to remove the literal grit and rawness from the page, to uphold the illusion and focus solely on the subject.  And the effects of this subject-focused line of thinking stretches beyond technique. For instance, if Gotham City is meant to be a seedy corrupt cesspool filled with seedy corrupt cops, why are their cars so shiny? Why are they so handsome? Jim Lee sees words like “Batman” and “cop” and because he is thinking solely in terms of content, he draws what he pictures as the subject “Batman” and the subject “cop” and moves on and this is how everything ends up looking the same.

Now I don’t mean to imply that Jim Lee sucks at his job. I actually think this drawing is pretty damn awesome. But understanding that this is not a pipe, that an illustration is a phony malleable thing and not just the sum of its content, could make it even better. You see, Magritte presented the Treachery of Images as a conflict, but it can just as easily be freeing. None of this is real! Things don’t have to mimic reality. And approaching a drawing with this mindset can enhance an image, making the awesome even awesomer.

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Ah, Kevin Eastman. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love how before I was able to articulate any of the art theory I just spewed out, I already knew all of it by looking at your gorgeous drawings. I love the suffocating way those buildings are arranged.  I love those particles of splatter all over the page. You can almost smell them. Look at that sky! I love how those clouds look more like an old scratchy blanket and how that could be the moon, or it could be an old tennis ball that a dog’s chewed up. And I love our charmingly psychotic hero, every bit as grimy and stinky as his surroundings, laughing at it all. Now this is how you draw a seedy corrupt cesspool!

Here’s the crucial point: all the stuff I love about this drawing are things that break the illusion of content, that bring attention to the fact that it’s just a piece of paper with ink spilled over it. And all those elements absolutely make this a better comic page.

Isn’t this supposed to be about DKIII?

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Yup. Mini-comic #3 has the most interesting art to come out of The Master Race so far, and serves as a great counterpoint to the sometimes overly polished issues of the main series. Its visuals are handled by two decidedly unpolished artists, John Romita Jr. on  “breakdowns” and Frank Miller on “finishes.” Romita can be hit-or-miss, his loose sketchy pencils working well for scrappy irreverent books like Kick-Ass, but an awkward fit for more conventional fair like his recent work on Superman. Here, his layouts complement Miller’s inks perfectly, and their matching sensibilities (along with their mysterious credits) make it difficult to tell where one’s work ends and the other’s begins.

Miller’s art has become more cartoonish and minimalist over the years, with an increasingly greater emphasis placed on line and shape. And while in an ideal world every line an artist draws should be interesting, this becomes all the more true the fewer lines they draw. It thus comes as no surprise that Miller takes to the role of inker splendidly, making the most of each and every stroke of his pen.

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Romita has an unapologetic quirkiness to his figures and poses, but has an interesting way of keeping things firmly planted in a believable space. Hal Jordan’s simple green and black spandex flattens out into bold simple shapes here, reading almost more as an icon of the Green Lantern than a three dimensional form, yet I can still sense exactly how those white gloves must feel against his fingers.

And pay attention to the shapes of people’s heads, both the green aliens’ and the hooded women’s – each different from one another, each an interesting combination of angles, curves, and line weight. Those scratchy, hairy clouds we saw in Eastman’s art are back here too, unifying the image with a texture that has nothing to do with reality, but carries the eye smoothly across the page. And those panel borders!! It looks like Miller etched them out of a fucking piece of wood! You can almost feel the tactile motion of his pen nib scratching across the surface. It’s a move that draws attention to the physical work of making art, emphasizing the human touch instead of seeking to erase it, and making a connection with the reader at the moment of creation. It’s exciting!

 All throughout the comic there is this dynamic push and pull between form and abstraction. Romita and Miller are giving us only the essential bits of information needed to follow the narrative and leaving the rest at the mercy of their stylistic whims. It creates a dream-like feel to the mini-comic that is mirrored in Hal’s cosmically shifting point of view and the Kandorian women’s idle philosophical musings. What makes a god worthy? Or a hero? Should the mighty be subject to the ideologies of the masses? These are abstract ideas being pondered, and they’re illustrated in a way that reflects that detached, immaterial headspace.

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The content and technique are working in tandem here, form following function. Most importantly, it’s really fun and interesting! It’s strange, it’s different, it’s imperfect, and it has the marks of Romita and Miller all over it. Literally!

I enjoyed mini-comic #3 so much, I instantly wished the entire series could look like this, or at least be executed with the same sensibility and care. But the subject-focused perspective that dominates so much of comicdom, that underlying force that works to eliminate the artists’ touch and moves all things towards slick and shiny saminess, makes this impossible.

Treacherous indeed.

 

 

More DKIII:

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DKIIITitle3

 

 

 

 

 

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