Discussion & Analysis

Pool of Inspiration

Sometimes in the middle of a project I come up with a bunch of theories, questions, concerns, and self imposed rules about how to visually treat comics. The solutions are almost always right in front of me, as if I had this backlog of information that I’m subconsciously ignoring. All it takes to unlock this stuff is to actually read some comics. So I want to break down a few of the things I’ve been wrestling with by going through some of the comics I’ve had around, artist by artist, and briefly talk about what excites me about their work and how it relates to my own thought process.

First up is 90s era Larry Stroman. I dug up some old X-Factors because I had the impression that Stroman’s art was pretty odd for its place and time, odd in the way that didn’t quite fit the pre-Image mold. Hindsight is weird, though. Sometimes the impression you have of something is more potent that the thing itself. I’m still not sure if that’s the case here.

Stroman’s art is still pretty interesting. He draws people’s faces, not generic comics book version of faces. His style is clearly his, but I can see how he added 90s staples to his work: speed lines, large panels of faces/bodies doing nothing, and arbitrary panel arrangements. For all of his design sense, Stroman makes a flashy layout at the expense of clarity.

I actually like a lot of these nutty layouts, but they don’t lead the eye anywhere. The story is mostly told through balloons, the art is window dressing. There’s no marriage of art and words here. This other page makes little sense even with the dialogue:

I came to a few conclusions in re-reading these X-Factor comics:

— Stroman’s sense of narrative and pacing isn’t his strong suit. His storytelling chops are subservient to his energetic rendering. On top of that, the characters are usually too busy posing than actually doing something, “acting” they call it. And yet, it’s fun to look at.

Al Milgrom inked this stuff superbly. I usually don’t like Milgrom’s heavy handed & sloppy brushwork but he started using rulers here, and a thinner line. Milgrom really anchored Stroman’s hyperactive style.

— Stroman excels at drawing background characters. They all have their own personality. I like when full crowds are drawn instead of made up of bland, almost faceless people.

Ah, background people. There are folks that draw one giant anonymous glob for a crowd while others draw every belt buckle and strand of hair. This Spider-Boy Team Up comic features the latter, with Ladronn at his dizzying peak as the prince of detail porn. They say that “less is more”, but this level of detail plays a different kind of trick on the eyes. The art remains remarkably clear (major credit should be given to his inker Juan Vlasco, I’ve never seen the pencils for this job so I can’t determine what Vlasco contributed, but it’s still one hell of a job).

Ladronn’s backgrounds are littered with all sorts of stuff that can easily slow down the reading experience, the kind of stuff that nobody ever, EVER looks at… but it enriches the overall look of the scene if you stop and take a look, that is. I sometimes get into this love for noodling in my pages, just adding details where there doesn’t have to be. Sometimes I want to go overboard but 1) I try not to let it be distracting, so it’s mostly background I do this with and 2) I get anxious and just want to move on.

This panels’ amazing, but my favorite part is that fire hydrant for some reason.

Ladronn gets a little less Kirby here (less so than his Cable run, at least) and more Japanese while still embracing the Moebius school of random futuristic machinery. It all works for Ladronn, but it may have been too much of an undertaking to juggle such distinct influences. A fine example of “fusion”, but Ladronn hasn’t done anything like it since. He went and got his own style, but a few more comics as good looking as this wouldn’t have hurt.

On to the next. I was blown away when I saw this Deny Cowan cover on the stands:

It’s a pretty a huge departure for Cowan, I think. Previously, his whole thing was a stiff combination between early Miller and Toppi (I can’t hate on Cowan too much; he drew one of the earliest Batman comics I ever read and loved). But about that Joker cover… look at those teeth, that nose, those creepy little eyes miles apart form one another… I bet fans hated this.

Cowan has always been a consistent and solid storyteller, but this issue is out of this world. I have no idea who he was looking at to inspire this stuff (Feininger?) but it’s as demented as Cowan has ever been. Is this what he’s striven to be for years? His inker, John Floyd, usually inks in this super slick superhero style, so I was surprised to see this level of grit.

I gotta say, I like when Cowan inks himself, but this stuff is beautiful (I also dug those old Question covers inked by Billy the Sink). I’m more interested as to how Cowan arrived at this level, instead of the level itself. Was it just trying out new things? Was it boredom with the scripts? Was it the distance between assignments? I know I sometimes come to an interesting conclusion as a result of frustration. His new Captain America/Black panther stuff looks good, too, but this Joker stuff is as grotesque as mainstream comics get.

And who cares if the fans hated this or not? They don’t buy comics for the art anymore. THAT much is obvious. So if they’re not really paying attention, why not get more artists to go nuts on a project? Overworked and underpaid? Fuck it, let them draw on rice paper with their elbows. Chances are we’ll at least get some interesting looking stuff.

Finally, I was looking at the last issue of Haywire (tell me you remember Haywire). Vince Giarrano was the series’ penciller who got to ink himself on this final issue. I don’t know if he penciled differently because he was finishing the job (as opposed to drawing for series inker Jose Marzan Jr.), but Giarrano gives scope to every scene he draws. His linework is very sparse and his camera always zooms out, yet it never reads as too distant. Such simplicity is usually filed under “deadline art”, but there’s something half primitive, half sophisticated in the way Giarrano draws a room in just 3 lines.

Oh, look. Here’s a building.

Not the same as a Ladronn clusterfuck, obviously, but there’s something very appealing about both sets of values. One thing they have in common? The narrative is clear and the story flows well, moving forward without a problem.

I cannot fail to mention the amazing coloring job by Bill Wray. It’s the standout of this issue. Wray boldly uses pinks and greens and blues to great effect. It’s almost daring the editor to call his minimalist bluff.

The enormity of having a blank page to fill with something, anything, is almost too much for a cartoonist to handle. I still naturally and stubbornly plow through whatever page I have in front of me while trying to retain all of the information I’ve just discussed (which is barely a droplet of things to consider when creating comics). I can combine these parameters or discard them completely, but the point is that having all these options to consider is what makes comics equal parts maddening and inspiring.

As for the stories themselves… well, I was less impressed with them than I was with the visuals but that’s hardly surprising. They weren’t bad in a sense. The words made sentences and the sentences sometimes led you through a series of bubbles within images that ultimately told a story.

What it comes down to is that sometimes you just gotta read comics for the art.


11 replies on “Pool of Inspiration”

Awesome Fiffe – very insightful. I had a similar opinion of Stroman but looking back on those pages he doesn’t seem like he’s doing anything too much of a departure for his time. I think it was the covers – the covers always looked pretty insane / design-heavy.

That’s the thing, he was a pretty traditional storyteller before this era (with Alien Legion), but then he started doing this 90s approach, except it was a little quirkier than most. You gotta hold it up against Lee, Liefeld et al. Stroman’s work may now look like a product of its time, but he was still doing his own thing and it placed him apart from the “hot” artists.

I’m happy to know you Fiffe. You draw my attention to the beauty in things that I’d otherwise pass right over.

He may have dabbled in a few issues here and there in the past few years, but nothing recent or consistent. As for that Sidebar interview, Leland, I’d say it was instrumental in rekindling my interest of Stroman’s work. Thanks, fellas!

And thanks to you, Kiel… the feeling’s mutual.

THat Cowan cover has stuck to my mind ever since I saw it on the racks. But looking at the other pages, I just realized how much I see of Eric Canete in this, which I had never thought of before. That last B&W page, pure Canete.

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