Monday, September 26, 2011

A Look at Comics History: Art in the Modern Age

Okay. Here we are. This subject is the first of two that started my desire to run through comics history as I' done in the last week. Before I dive into the meat of this, though, I feel it's important to preface what I say. As I've mentioned before, I want to stay positive on this blog. This all comes about through a love of art and comics, especially when they come together. Sometimes, though, we have to look at failings and identify just what went wrong so as to know how to avoid those problems in the future, for the good of the medium. This is going to get into some fairly negative things and strong criticism on the artistic end of things, and I feel that is necessary and important.

But, and this is a big one, any and all critiques are about the art, NOT the artists. I hate that I feel the need to state that, but it's vital and my years of art school taught me that all of us, myself included, can have trouble separating art from artist when it comes to criticism. Good people make bad art and bad people make good art. That's life, and I'm not here to judge people, only to talk about art.

This leads into one other important bit that many people, artists and non-artists alike, have trouble accepting: While art is subjective, all art contains objective elements that make them up. There are objective qualities with which we can judge all works of art, simple things like use of line, shape, and perspective, etc. Now, this does not discount someone from LIKING a piece of art or a style that fails on those levels. Everyone has a different taste, and that's perfectly fine. I'm not out to judge taste, and I want to make sure that is as understood as the last point.

On that note, I want to put in a bit of honesty to back up the point. Jack Kirby is the king of comic book art. American comics owe everything to him, both stylistically and in the way stories are told. Everything about how he handled the technical aspects of art are damn near perfect and he knew exactly how to lead the eye across the page without error...not to mention the man had one of the greatest imaginations ever. But, for years and years, I looked at early comic art, especially Kirby's, and could not understand why it was good. It looks blocky, formless, and just primitive to my younger, untrained eye. After a few years of college, both making art and studying the masters of history, and I came back to see Kirby's art was shockingly greater than I had ever dreamed. Before this, I couldn't understand how composition truly worked, why he deconstructed forms in the way he did, or why I should care about the art when compared to modern art that was, on the surface, prettier and flashier, but not nearly as effective 90% of the time. I've heard this same story from many other young guys that are interested in comics, and I think it goes to show how much deeper art can be beyond simply whether you like something or not. There are fundamental reasons why some art works better than others, and understanding those can really open a person's eyes.

So. Comic art. Before I can dive into modern art, I have to, yet again, hit a couple things to back it all up and give it some grounding. Though I briefly ran through the different era's of comics through the past century, I didn't really focus on art styles and how they changed too much, but it's important to understand that a great deal has happened to art in comics through the years. Styles have evolved and changed to the point that, today, we have a mix of wonderful retro styles that emulate the best of the Golden Age creators, crazy stylized art that looks like almost nothing else, hyper-realistic art that most people never imagine could be in comics, and, of course, everything in between. Comic are is shockingly diverse today, and everyone is the better for it. But some things have been left behind because they were bad or just not as effective. That's how a medium evolves.

Artistically, the Modern Age of Comics started out very similar to the Bronze Age. George Perez's art on Crisis on Infinite Earths wasn't altogether different than what had come before. This isn't to say it was bad, as the style is wonderfully effective at telling stories, but Perez's art is much more what could be classified as 'traditional' comic art. One of the biggest breaks from this style to something more unique was thanks to Frank Miller in the previously mentioned Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Miller's art is heavy, filled with blacks and thick lines that help the mood of the book wonderfully. There's really nothing pretty about his work, with everything purely dark and hardened. It's exactly what the book needed. But Miller's style is very much his own, and though some have emulated him, it hasn't ever really caught on as a style.

Which leads right into a style that did catch on. As I talked about last time, the early 90s saw the rise of literal superstar artists: Jim Lee, Tod McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Erik Larson, and Marc Silvestri are the ones I see as the main guys to look at for defining the art, and, interestingly enough, all were founding members of Image Comics. This is, of course, just a small list and I'm likely to only talk about the first three, but the interesting thing is that all of these artists shared many similarities in style.

In some ways, it's hard to define what exactly makes the art of the 90s so different. Usually, it's easy to identify the second it's seen, but describing a trend is harder to do, so apologies if this comes out as nonsense. On the whole, though, the art sharpened. Literally sharpened. Lines tended to all come to points, and everything was given a sharp feel, on the whole, from everything to how forms were put together to lines used to shade an object and give it depth. The art of the 90s is heavily focused on line, almost to the exclusion of all other elements. It has the effect of making all of the art much more aggressive, and this fit the tone of the stories of the time fairly well.

This isn't an inherently bad thing for art, but it is distinct. I grew up on Jim Lee art, and though my tastes have shifted, his X-Men will always be my X-Men when I first think of them. While that's definitely nostalgia talking, to a point, I do think that Jim Lee is one of the best and defining artists comics has ever had. To me, this image here is the quintessential Jim Lee for me, and I expect many, many others. You can see the heavy, distinct use of line here without having to look hard. But this heavy focus on line starts to break down when it comes to the construction of form. It's a pretty heavy trait of 90s art that the men are huge and muscled while the women have tiny, tiny waists and giant chests, and most of that can be seen here, though not to an insane degree. The real problem here that really sticks out at me and is a pretty serious trouble in comics these days, still, is the way the women pose. None of that, save for maybe Storm's flying forward, looks at all comfortable or natural. There's a feel of posing for the reader, and that's a trouble comics still struggle with greatly, especially with regards to female characters.

In many ways, Todd McFarlane's art of the time is similar and there isn't too much different to be said. Instead, I really want to use his art to focus on another thing that became a big deal in the comic art of the time. The extreme use of line had a habit of just getting out of hand. Lines are just everywhere, and in some ways it feels like an indecipherable mess. There are many images where I feel bad for the colorists trying to determine what is what, as the glut of lines just leads to confusion. What's odd is that this became a way to tell if an artist was 'good'. For some reason, the idea seemed to be that, the more lines one used, the more detailed and stronger an artist was. The idea of implied line was lost and any subtlety was gone in an instant. The real beauty of much of the older comic art, especially Jack Kirby's, is subtlety and expert use of line...and where not to use line. The art of simplicity just disappeared entirely with the superstars of the 90s, and this harmed the medium greatly.

So now we get to a name I expect many reading this that know comics have been waiting for: Rob Liefeld. He is equally reviled and adored in comics today, and there are enough people out there tastelessly bashing the guy for his art. I'm not here to do that. And no, I'm not a fan of Liefeld's art, but that doesn't require me to come across as a complete asshole in the hopes of getting hits here. It is actually possible to discuss art one doesn't like in calm, intelligent terms without being a complete jerk, and that's my goal. So...

Liefeld's art essentially takes the stereotypes of how we seen 90s art, huge men and tiny women, etc, and expands on them ten fold. One can go on an on about those subjects, and others already have and, if you want to read them, you can find them pretty easily with a google search. All the points that I could really make about his art I've made in my generalizations already, just that he really took them in his art and pushed them further. So why not take a different direction and look at WHY these seemed to work, when on almost any artistic level, they're just bad?

I think it works and sold for some simple reasons that I hit on last post. In the 90s, comics became all about flash and no substance. It was all about ultra-violence, blood, guts, swords, big guns, and insane plots that really were just excuses to have cool, dramatic splash pages. Liefeld's art is all of this. The quality of the line work, the way the shapes just fail to actually look like what they should, and the problems with perspective that are there didn't actually matter to the readers of the time because Liefeld's art had what they wanted more: Violence, action, and guns. What does it matter if a figure doesn't have feet if, right there on the page, a guy's head is being chopped off? But that's the real problem. Art takes work, even comic art, and somehow, the industry was caught in a phase where the quality really stopped mattering and the content, as ridiculous as it was, really dominated. As much as some people look to the comics of the Golden Age and Silver Age as 'bad art', this is untrue and an uninformed opinion, whereas the art of the 90s really, as a whole, did active harm to the industry and the medium while really holding no value of its own.

Essentially, I think Liefeld's art tends to epitomize what went wrong with comics in the 90s, though it wasn't WHY things went wrong. That confluence of troubles I've already talked about, and the art is only a single part of that. To blame all of it on Liefeld or any artist in particular is stupid, when the companies themselves were happily releasing these books, speculators were eating them up, and so were fans...creating even more demand until it all just tanked and nearly destroyed everything. The fault is on everyone, but that doesn't mean we can't learn, and I think the medium has.

In all honesty, I think it's pretty clear that I'm not a fan of the 90s and comics. This was my first introduction to the medium and I didn't stay for long thanks to the art, and looking back I find that, unlike with other eras, I still don't find much with any merit. I could a great deal more negative than I have been, and maybe even more positive, but the former leads to coming across like a jerk and the latter would mostly be untrue. I've tried to at least be as objective as possible here, and if that makes it feel like I've just skipped over large topics to hit on here, well...I do apologize but it's likely I can't say much without devolving into angry ranting and...well, the internet has enough of that.

As I've said, if you look at comic art now, there is a diversity of styles that is unequaled in the past. It's almost as if all the years were building up to a huge artistic and sales crash in the 90s, just so we could come out of it, as a medium, wanting something more. Today, guys like Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld are still working, and that's great because they have fans that want exactly what they do. But the world of comic art is no longer dominated by just one style. Now there are men and women like Chris Samnee, Skottie Young, Amanda Conner, Marcos Martin, Sara Pichelli, Emma Rios, John Romita Jr., David Aja, Francis Manapul, and countless others out there creating art, all in a variety of styles that cover so many angles that there really is an art style for everyone.

So maybe we needed the insanity of art in the 90s. Maybe that homogenization of sharp, odd art that didn't really succeed at anything beyond being flashy and in-one's-face was the kind of wake-up call to artists and readers that diversity is good. So hey, maybe the 90s weren't all that bad.

Not that I suggest you go read Spider-Man's Clone Saga. Whew, that's still a mess.