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.