Photo-Reference and the state of comics.

by alphamonkey on June 25, 2007 · 8 comments

in Comics!

I’ve recently returned to dabbling in various comic books*, and one thing that’s struck me in my comparisons regarding the style of my youth and today is how each decade or so has a very specific look which, while seeming super cool at the time, kinda sucks in retrospect (I’m looking at you McFarlane and Lee.) Currently the industry is awash in in a kind of neo-realism that’s heavily informed by photo-reference.  I’d say blame/credit could mostly be laid at the feet of uber-referencer Alex Ross, whose photo-referenced painting style ushered in a then unheard of level of illustrative beauty in the mid 90’s with the landmark Marvels and Kingdom Come mini-series (along with his beautiful covers for the wonderful Astro City series).

Jump ahead 10 years and it seems that manga, retro, and photo-reference have taken over as the predominant styles.  I’ve no real love of manga, and I adore the retro style, but I just can’t make up my mind on photo-reference.  While Ross’s work remains as the top-tier standard bearer, so many others have seemingly traded iconic movement for jarringly static and neutral posing, and while there’s a guilty glee in Ross casting an aged Gregory Peck as Bruce Wayne in Kingdom Come, the now seemingly ubiquitous trend of basing characters off of living actors and models rips me right out of the comic and into the world of ‘why is Bruce Willis in this comic?’. 

That’s not to say there aren’t stand-outs. British artist Bryan Hitch (The Ultimates, The Authority), and French illustrator Simone Bianchi (Detective Comics, Wolverine Volume 3) both turn in consistently solid work, but mostly I keep running into the one-man wall of Greg Land, whose work on Marvel’s Ultimate Fantastic Four and Ultimate Power (along with cover work for various X-titles) just drives me insane with it’s focus on cheesecake and vapid expressions.

Land is an artists whose work is a pretty steady game of ‘what is that taken from’, as his propensity for exact traces of existing work is pretty well documented, but his real crime lay in how incapable he seems to be in giving his females characters expressions that don’t look like their O-Face.  These two articles (1 & 2) detail Land’s much-maligned artistic shortcomings using his seemingly T-1000 approach to drawing Sue Storm from panel to panel.  I will say that Land is smart for aligning himself with his long-time colorist Justin Ponsor, but I’d be willing to wager his fan-favorite status has a lot to do with the amazing color work Ponsor brings to the table.(If you haven’t guessed, the post image is one of Land’s, taken from the opening splash page of Ultimate Power #1, in which each character has a bafflingly different level of detail (some more, uh, noticeable than others), in addition to the fact that not a single character is looking in the same direction as the others.  My favorite bit would have to be the loving adherence to the Rob Liefeld theory of anatomy, with all the missing limbs, displaced hims, and seemingly randomly pointed feet that don’t jibe with the rest of the body.  Apparently boobies negate all other anatomical issues.  Quality stuff, and the just the kind of thing that makes me feel assured that my daughters will be able to read comics without developing crippling body image issues!

I’ve no doubt that 10 years from now this style of photo-referencing will look quaint and antiquated, and I’m really hoping that the trend of using real-life celebrities as the physical basis for heroes will be long dead (not to mention appropriately maligned), but for now I’ll just have to bear through it on the hopes that it, along with the lingering traces of Jim Lee’s influence (Michael Turner, etc) will be long gone.

*Mostly because I rarely have the time to read anything longer than 22 pages, and there’s only so much baby/parenting stuff I can read without having to stab my own brain out with a binky. Also because, as my wife has correctly surmised, I’m a little gay for Spider-Man.

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  • BADD

    Where to start!  Where to start!

    My god you hit it on the head!  I despise comic art today.  Correction.  I have despised all *popular* comic art post 1949.

    Why?  Because hair brained star clones suck! 

    Also, I hate the modern inking techniques.  Could we please stop inking with a god damned computer!!!  What happened to the traditional style?  What happened to respecting the pencilers lines?  What happened to the sharp stylized individuality of the hand inker?

    Gone I tell you.

    I really liked when coloring with photoshop became popular.  I have a deep respect for guys who can paint in lighting and form that aligns perfectly to what the penciler and inker had in mind.  Now I see so many corners being cut it makes me sick.

    I know what you all will think of me when I say this, but I loved the way The Sandman series was done.

    Artists came in and out of the books.  You were exposed to style after style.  Some were great, others were a bit lacking, but at least you were never bored reading the story.

    I know.  I know.  I am a snob now.

    Anyway.  I will refuse to read any comic that is not well written.  That to me is paramount. The art is a very close second however, since bad art can make it hard to experience the story.

    Now to set off another argument…..

    Are comic books art?  Discuss.

  • .alphamonkey.

    Only very rarely would I say an individual issue qualifies as a true work of art.  There are individual panels and pages that, were you to remove them from their context in the story and hang them on the wall, yah there’s art in there.

    But really, anything post-1945?  What about the amazing work in the late 70’s and early 80’s from guys like Perez, Adams, Neary, Davis, etc?  What about Jim motherfucking Steranko? Hell, I’d even qualify John Byrne before every single character became a clone of Cap or Superman. Ditto for John Romita, Jr. (who’s style has become a weird parody of itself) Oooooh, what about Simonson’s run on th e FF or Thor?  Mike Zeck’s run on Kraven’s Last Hunt?

    Obviously, I’m displaying my deep 70s/80s bias.  I started to hate comic art when everything became either a watered down Art Adams ripoff (McFarlane and his fetal-alcohol-syndrome child Leifeld) or Jim Lee’s bizarre ‘Why bother with a background’ approach.  But thankfuly, guys like Hitch make me appreciate what’s going on nowadays.

  • .alphamonkey.

    I’ll give you two examples of what I consider true works of art in comic books:  J.M. DeMattis & Jon Muth’s ‘Moonshadow’ limited, and Muth and Kent Williams work on the Havok & Wolverine: Meltdown limited.  Holy shit, those are just as beautiful today as they were when they debuted.

  • BADD

    Well I guess we now know who are the comic geeks around here……

    I personally think everything Will Eisner did after the Spirit was art.  He was waxing poetic about his experiences in New York, and all of the Dropsy ave. stories deserve a gallery showing.

    Steranko pushed the envelope into pop art, and i have to admit I loved it.  He brought a new fresh idea into comics (at the time) and I have to respect the hell out of him for doing it.

    I’ll tell you a little secret.  I have met Todd Mc Farlane more times than I’d like to admit.  Not really a bad guy, but he gives me the impression that he hasn’t held a cohesive thought in his head for more than 5 seconds in his whole entire life.  I can’t argue with his success, but he did help bring the art of comics to an all time low, when he joined Image.

    Can all of comic books be defined as art?  I say no.  Comics use art to help convey the story.  I have a more technical definition of art.

    Art is 2 or 3 dimensional images that invoke a feeling or idea without descriptive words.

    Now the reason I say “descriptive words, is because I have seen art that was made up of words, yet the words were not used conventionally to describe anything.

    Also I see Comics as a craft, or more precisely a team effort.  Many people work very hard to create a comic, and sometimes, it disheartens me when people speak only of the penciler or writer of a comic book.

    Having met some extremely talented inkers, colorists, and printers of comics, I have a pretty skewed perspective on the whole thing.

  • .alphamonkey.

    I agree that comics is primarily a craft.  It’s only on rare occasion where all the elements gel to create a end result that is artistic on every level. Lichtenstein showed that you could remove comic panels from their context and elevate them into unrelated art, but that’s still a question of taste.

    And oh yah, I’m a big comic geek.

  • BADD

    I have 1602 sitting right in front of me ATM. 

    I am a Neil Gaiman slut if you haven’t figured that out yet.

  • .alphamonkey.

    My dirty confession: I never got into Sandman. I loved Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing.  I loved Hellblazer for a while, but I could just never get into Sandman after the first few issues.  When I went back and read the complete, mostly I was struck at how often I found myself playing ‘name Gaiman’s obscure literary reference’.

    Though Good Omens is one of my favorite books, ever.

  • BADD

    Yeah it can be frustrating to try and place everything he is conveying, but I saw it as half the fun.

    I had a more natural progression with the book, as I did not get to read the complete series until years after it was done, and in bits and pieces.

    Alan Moore is the best writer in comics.  That is why he has an ego the size of Nebraska.

    I fear the Watchmen movie.  I don’t know if I will be able to stand it.  I know it won’t be able to do justice to one of the most complicated, and well rounded series ever conceived. 

    I thought From Hell was a great interpretation of his comic, but it was a different voice than his.

    V for Vendetta missed the point in my eyes, and lets just forget about League of Extraordinary Gentlemen shall we?

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