Columnist Wayne Rée shares his discovery of comic books, from his start as a super-hero fan to his evolution into a believer of the power of the art form of comics.
Depending on your point of view, comics can either be seen as a 20th century art form—or a storytelling medium that’s been around since possibly the dawn of man.
However you slice it, the point is that comics have—to put it lightly—a very rich history. But a sense of history, I find, is something you grow into. You can’t really force it onto someone (as my teachers in school can tell you).
By the mid-00s, I’d reached that point where I couldn’t wait for my favorite creative teams to put out another book or I was starting to suffer from blockbuster superhero event fatigue. So, instead of looking forward, I started looking to what had come before.
Sure, I’d read and reread Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns like they were the bible, but everything before the 80s? Not really.
Finding Steve Ditko
Then came Jonathan Ross, a television personality in the UK and a massive comics fan. He was particularly obsessed with the works of Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and a couple of other superhero names that probably aren’t familiar to a lot of people, even some regular comic readers.
In 2007, he put together a documentary for BBC Four called In Search of Steve Ditko. The show focused on not just the man’s works, but also on his personality and beliefs. It talked about how he was a famous recluse and how he was a loyal follower of Ayn Rand’s philosophy Objectivism.
It was a thoroughly fascinating story; the kind you’d find being told in indie comics. I was hooked.
I started picking up more of the Essential Spider-Man and Marvel Masterworks Spider-Man collections, not just to familiarize myself with the early adventures of my buddy Peter Parker, but to enjoy Ditko’s distinctively claustrophobic and paranoid style. I picked up his Doctor Strange stuff and even ordered those Steve Ditko Archives from Fantagraphics. And, man, did I devour them.
I still recommend In Search of Steve Ditko enthusiastically, not just to comic fans, but anyone who appreciates a good story. But if we’re talking about the history of comics and good stories, well, then there’s another name that’s bound to come up—Jack Kirby.
Hail to The King
I mentioned earlier that Ditko co-created Spider-Man. Unless you’re living under some kind of pop culture-repellent rock, you’ll know that the other man responsible for Spidey is Stan Lee.
Up till their final issue together, Lee and Ditko produced some undeniably (pardon the pun) amazing comics together. Their partnership seemed like a perfect pairing in a medium that paired up words and pictures.
Then I read Lee’s Fantastic Four run with Jack “King” Kirby—widely regarded as the man who defined the visual dynamism of superhero comics for generations to come—and something just felt… different.
Yes, tonally, the FF was about cosmic adventures, while Spider-Man was about personal problems mixed up with superheroics, but there was more to it than that. When it came to the life of a down-on-his-luck teenage superhero, Lee’s dialogue really complimented Ditko’s quirky art. But when it came to larger-than-life adventures, would any words—even those of the deliciously hyperbolic Lee—really ever truly match up to the accordingly epic visuals?
The answer, for me at least, was no. Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four plots were incredible, of that there’s no doubt. But once the story started rolling, his dialogue just couldn’t keep up with Kirby’s seemingly unlimited imagination.
As writer Ivan Brandon put it in an op-ed piece from last year, “[Kirby] had a story to tell and that story was bigger than everything around him.”
… Of giants.
And this is all just the tip of the iceberg, really. I have so much more Kirby to digest and at least a bit more Ditko. I’m also not as well versed in Will Eisner’s body of work as I’d like to be.
Or how about Moebius.
Or Robert Crumb.
Or Dick Giordano.
Or Neil Adams.
Or… well, you get my point. Hell, I could probably create a whole separate column about trying to digest as much of comic’s history as possible, but I’m already late with one column as it is.
There’ll be more editions like this though. ‘Cause like I said earlier, comics have such a rich history—so why on earth would I not try my darndest to digest as much of it as possible?
Wayne Rée’s been writing professionally for about ten years. He’s worked in everything from advertising to publishing, and was even part of the team that created Singapore’s very first tattoo magazine. He dabbles in screenwriting and photography, travels way too much, and is currently putting together his very first short story collection.
Guest columnist Scott Shaw! brings his perspective as an experienced professional cartoonist and active participant in the comic book industry for more than 40 years. Get an insider’s look at the art form from someone in the trenches every day.
By Scott Shaw!
Back in the late 1980s, when he was drawing such titles as DC’s Doom Patrol and Marvel’s Punisher, I ran into Savage Dragon creator-to-be Erik Larsen at a San Diego Comic-Con, where I complimented him on his “cartoony” drawing style. But instead of accepting my kudos, Erik – never the sort of person to mince words – made a sour expression on his face and said something to the effect of “Actually, I’m trying as hard as I can to dump that style. It’s costing me work!” Fortunately, Erik eventually changed his mind, and that’s why Savage Dragon is one of my favorite funnybooks – even when it’s deadly serious, it’s delightfully outrageous, exaggerated and somewhat ridiculous looking. It’s just what I dig in a superhero comic, which in my opinion should look outrageous, exaggerated and somewhat ridiculous – just like the concept of brightly costumed flying men, super-strong women and wall-walking whatchamacallits.
I recently had dinner with a fellow cartoonist whose work I’ve admired for a long time, Joe Staton. Joe’s one of those rare cartoonists who has drawn everything from Green Lantern to E-Man to Scooby-Doo and all with equal expertise. We discussed our styles, both of which share a humorous bent. He explained that his current gig, drawing the syndicated Dick Tracy comic strip written by Mike Curtis, was the perfect assignment. Not only was Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould his original inspiration to become a cartoonist, but Joe was also getting more than a bit tired of dialing back the cartoony-ness of his style when drawing superheroes and the like. The audience for those comics apparently prefers a darkly photorealistic approach over “light ‘n’ fun”. With Dick Tracy, Joe can get paid for drawing what he loves to draw – and he does it damn well, too.
Both of these stories about cartoonists whose careers both included stretches in which they were forced to draw much “straighter” than they’d have preferred — have happy endings. And those just don’t happen nearly often enough, at least not often enough for the funnybook industry. But then, I’m a cartoonist.
Back when I was growing up, nearly all comic books and comic strips were drawn in “cartoony” styles, no matter how dead serious their storylines could get. Here are just a few my favorite cartoonists who drew “straight” material in decidedly less-than-serious styles: Dick Sprang (his square-jawed, Dick Tracy-esqe Batman and giant typewriters); Ross Andru and Mike Esposito (of their work on Metal Men, Wonder Woman and “The War That Time Forgot” in Star Spangled War Stories, cartoonist Evan Dorkin once observed that Andru and Esposito’s characters all looked “insane”); Jack Cole (his Plastic Man was equal parts superhero and humor strip while his crime and horror stories were only slightly less outrageous); Steve Ditko (The Amazing Spider-Man, “Dr. Strange” in Strange Tales, Blue Beetle and The Creeper – all cool, all weird, all cartoony as hell); Ramona Fradon (her “Aquaman” in Adventure Comics was cartoony but warmly beautiful, her Metamorpho was the only version that worked visually); Jack Davis (his style was as much at home on straight horror in EC’s Tales From The Crypt as it was in Mad); Mike Sekowsky (his Justice League Of America featured the widest Superman ever); Marie and John Severin (this sister-and-brother act was known for comedy but produced Marvel’s wonderful Kull The Conqueror together); and Jack Kirby (whose resumé spanned every style and genre – from Captain America to “Earl The Rich Rabbit” – while always remaining uniquely himself).
In fact, I’ll never forget the smile that spread across Jack’s face, sometime during my first visit to his home, when I told him that he was my favorite cartoonist. And to most of us who turn blank pages into stories and artwork, “cartoonist” is the label we prefer. After all, we write and draw cartoons. I’ll even bet that Hal Foster – whose Prince Valiant syndicated Sunday strip was about as realistic as any famous funnies pages feature ever – referred to himself as a “cartoonist”. (Hey, Foster was a dues-paying member of the National Cartoonists Society for many years.)
But then, in the mid-to-late 1960s, Neal Adams came along. Although Neal’s first published comic book work appeared in an issue of Archie’s Joke Book, he had a background in the sophisticated comics-format ads of the fabled Johnstone and Cushing ad agency and the Ben Casey syndicated comic strip. After drawing a slew of Superman-related covers for DC editor Mort Weisinger, Neal went on to stellar gigs on “Deadman” in Strange Adventures, “Batman” in Detective Comics, X-Men and The Avengers. Suddenly, everyone was raving about how “realistic” Neal’s style was. By the time Jack Kirby’s first “Fourth World” comics debuted at DC, the “King Of Comics” found himself sharing his position of industry importance with Neal Adams.
So, what is “realistic”, anyway?
Well, it sure ain’t Neal Adams’ drawing style. Neal’s art is impeccably executed, but it’s an idealization of reality as seen through a perspective from Madison Avenue. The work of the great Russ Heath is certainly a bit more realistic, but Russ’ approach to drawing – even at age 85 (!) – is still too fastidious to be considered realistic. I suppose Alex Ross’ work is about as “realistic” as comic books get… but his dynamic poses, staging and compositions are anything but everyday. And isn’t “realistic” supposed to reflect the “real world”? But one thing’s for sure: ever since Neal Adams entered the world of comic books, the ability to draw in a “realistic” style has been the goal of many – in my opinion, too many – comic book artists. (Please note that I avoided using the word “cartoonist”.)
A few years ago, I displayed my work at the Long Beach Comic-Con and the pro set up at the table next to me was a talented young guy named Joshua Middleton (NYX, Superman/Shazam: First Thunder, many covers). I’ll admit I was unfamiliar with his artwork, but after witnessing the rabid demand for his originals, I studied up on Josh and his approach to drawing comic book art. My impression is that he shoots specific photographs that relate to the scripts he illustrates, uses PhotoShop to trace them, adds backgrounds and props, inks the tracings and, with his impeccable color sense, paints each image digitally. If that’s not accurate (and it may not be, considering my aversion to technology), I apologize to Mr. Middleton, but the final result is some very impressive “realistic” art, even if the pages of original artwork that Josh was selling hand-over-fist to an eager following did resemble extremely well-drawn coloring book art.
Here’s the big issue I don’t understand. How come the average person out there is resistant to reading a “straight” comic book like Watchmen, Marvels or The Rocketeer but loves humorous comic strips like Peanuts, Calvin And Hobbes or Mutts? And how come faithful comic book readers’ tastes seem to be the opposite, flocking to the straight stuff yet shunning the funny stuff like the plague? (I’ll never forget the year that Keith Giffen, J. M. Matteis and Kevin McGuire’s Justice League Of America received an Eisner Award nomination for “Best Humorous Series”. Sheesh!) If the world of comic books paralleled the real world, Bongo’s Sergio Aragonés Funnies would be America’s best-selling comic book – and deservedly so, since it’s written and drawn by the World’s Best Cartoonist – instead of being a mere niche title!
Are the vast majority of modern comic books going for a dark and/or photorealistic approach to storytelling because their publishers think they’re competing with the various live-action films? Or instead, are they trying to attract the attention of live-action filmmakers?
Fortunately, there are a few cartoonists left who “get” it. Kyle Baker (The Bakers, Special Forces and Deadpool Max), Roger Langridge (The Muppet Show, Thor The Mighty, Snarked! and Popeye) and Darwyn Cooke (DC: The New Frontier, Richard Stark’s Parker and now, Before Watchmen) – and the aforementioned Erik Larsen and Sergio Aragonés are all delivering comic book stories with a much welcome (for me, at least) cartoony touch.
Maybe some of them can answer this question better than I can: since when was a flying man any more “realistic” than a talking duck?
Next up: “Why I Don’t Dig Superhero Movies!”
Scott Shaw! — yes, that exclamation point has adorned his name since junior high school — currently writes and draws comic books starring the Simpsons for Bongo Comics, The Adventures of Captain Rochester for Rochester Electronics, and his autobiographical comic strip, Now It Can Be Told! for Act-I-Vate, as well as performing his live Oddball Comics show. He just finished storyboarding four episodes of Cartoon Network’s Annoying Orange animated show, is finishing a new 8-page Now It Can Be Told! story for Dark Horse Presents (“I Covered Myself With Peanut Butter To Become… The Turd!”) and will be drawing an upcoming Mark Evanier-written Garfield comic book story for KaBOOM!
Guest columnist Wayne Rée shares his discovery of comic books, from his start as a super-hero fan to his evolution into a believer of the power of the art form of comics.
It’s pretty safe to say by now that everyone, their grandmothers, and their grandmothers’ cats (all of whom, I assure you, are named Mr. Muffins) have watched and love The Avengers. Personally, I find that so cool. As a lifelong Marvel guy, it’s nice that more people are starting to see why I adore this universe of characters so much.
And, really, if we’re going to go through my journey as a comic fan, there’s no better place to start than with my love for this pantheon of colorfully garbed heroes. Well, two of these colorfully garbed heroes in particular actually, for two pretty distinct reasons.
Get by with a little help from my webs
I was introduced to Marvel — and as I mentioned before, to the comic medium itself — through one Peter Benjamin Parker, better known as The Amazing Spider-Man. Since picking up that aforementioned hardcover, I’ve followed the webhead’s adventures—sporadically at first, but with increasing regularity—for the past 24 years. (First one of you to make a crack about my age gets decked, I swear.)
A lot of people say that the appeal of Spider-Man is that, under that mask, he’s a regular guy with regular problems. I agree—but I’d take it a step further. Pete loves the Beastie Boys (respect to Adam Yauch). Dollars to doughnuts, he’s also a sci-fi, Monty Python, and Looney Tunes nerd. And, yeah, sometimes he’d rather be alone, but at the end of the day, he’s still someone you can count on.
I’m a Spidey fan, not because he faces the same crap as me, but because, when all that crap’s done, there’s no one I’d love to hang out with more than ol’ Peter Parker. I can’t tell you how often I’ve felt utterly miserable after a terrible day’s work, only to be cheered up by the latest issue of The Amazing Spider-Man.
Pete’s been through a lot over those 24 years, but the one thing that’s never changed is that he’s not just a fictional character to me; as corny as this sounds, he’s a friend. (First one of you to crack wise gets decked too.)
The real men without fear
The other guy who reaffirmed me as a Marvel fan was a blind lawyer named Matt Murdock, who spends his night jumping around Hell’s Kitchen’s rooftops as the costumed crusader Daredevil.
Well, OK… that’s not entirely accurate. It was more than just the character of Daredevil, you see. Unlike Spider-Man, I wasn’t initially drawn into the charming Mr. Murdock’s world because he felt like a friend. I actually started picking up the series when writer-director Kevin Smith took over the creative reigns with artists Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti.
Now, this was pretty new to me at the time. I’d been reading comics for about ten years and I’d never thought of this as a medium driven not just by these iconic heroes, but by the people behind them as well.
Since then, almost all of the different creative teams who’ve worked on Daredevil — from Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev to Mark Waid and his rotating roster of artistic cohorts — have reinforced and nurtured that subtle shift in my thinking: that the creators are just as powerful as these creations.
Face front, true believer!
A lot of snooty types tend to scoff at Marvel and mainstream superhero fare in general. They say that the genre doesn’t stack up against other, supposed literary comic works. I, however, respectfully disagree. (Actually, I’d be slightly less respectful, but Corey asked me not to be such a potty mouth. Count yourselves lucky, snooty types.)
Marvel Comics have given me characters that continue to remain very dear to my heart and have also inadvertently imparted upon me a more enlightened mentality about creators that’s led me to an even greater world beyond the capes-and-tights set.
Wayne Rée’s been writing professionally for about ten years. He’s worked in everything from advertising to publishing, and was even part of the team that created Singapore’s very first tattoo magazine. He dabbles in screenwriting and photography, and travels way too much. And, yes, that is a Steve Ditko-illustrated Spider-Man cover tattooed on his right forearm.
While DC Comics is working through a gender controversy, Marvel Comics has taken a step forward in representing racial minorities in their super-hero comic books. On Tuesday it was announced in USA Today that Spider-Man would now be a half-black, half-Hispanic teen named Miles Morales (right).
The story is not being told in Marvel’s flagship Amazing Spider-Man (where Peter Parker is still swinging through New York City, white as ever), but instead in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, which starts with a new issue #1 by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli (yes DC, a woman!) in September. The Ultimate Comics imprint is set in a younger alternate universe, apart from the bulk of Marvel’s comics. Since the licensability of Marvel’s big characters, which date back to the 1960s and ’70s (and some to 1939), is dutifully protected in Marvel’s main line of comics, the Ultimate Universe allows creators just a bit more leeway. This is easily the best example of that leeway, and could be a refreshing signal of things to come for that imprint.
The first appearance of Miles Morales as Spider-Man is in the just-released Ultimate Comics Fallout #4, which itself spun out of the recent “Death of Spider-Man” story.
Bendis told USA Today, “Even though there’s some amazing African-American and minority characters bouncing around in all the superhero universes, it’s still crazy lopsided.”
He’s right, but this helps. Of course there have been plenty of foolish reactions, from anonymous internet posters trying not to sound too racist to Glenn Beck‘s weird conspiracy theory. Fortunately, cooler heads prevail, and have been celebrating what was unthinkable even five years ago. Why unthinkable? Because comic books with black leads have historically been a tough sell. The Black Panther, comics’ first headlining black hero, has had intermittent series since his debut in 1966. Todd McFarlane’s Spawn is the only comic book series to star a black or African-American in the starring role to last so long (although Al Simmons was replaced with the white Jim Downing last year). Heidi MacDonald at The Beat explores this issue and more in this well-written piece.
I was trying to figure out what comic strips were running in The Boston Globe when I started reading the comics section as a young lad. I know there was Garfield, probably the Amazing Spider-Man strip, Peanuts most likely, For Better or For Worse probably, but I can’t really remember what else. I think I started regularly reading the comics pages just before Calvin and Hobbes started, as I remember that being “the new strip”. So probably around 1984? I would love to have that information.
I was hoping I could find a scan of a random page from the ’80s to help refresh my memory. You can find everything online, so I figured this might take some clever Googling but should be doable. Well, apparently not. (Or I’m just not a very good Googler.) I did an image search at “the Google” for said random scan but no such luck. Then I did a search of all the internets, every single one of them, hoping for some ugly GeoCities fan site created by an obsessive-compulsive Globe reader who had cataloged every comics page, preferably using HTML tables and yellow font on a gaudy background. Maybe a dancing Calvin & Hobbes gif to really seal the deal? Well, GeoCities is gone, so maybe it took this hypothetical site with it. Once again, no such luck.
So this got me thinking. This is something that should be out there. All of the major newspapers with comics sections: The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune – it would be a great historical resource to know which strips ran in which papers when and for how long. (Last night on Twitter, I mistakenly included the New York Times in my initial wish list, but they don’t have a comics section.) Getting smaller papers would be great too but at least the major papers initially. And this information undoubtedly exists. The syndicates surely have extensive records of this information and more, although they probably have little motivation to provide it. So it will likely fall to the people to collect this information. So come on, everyone, let’s head to our local library‘s microfiche and get this going!
As I’ve mentioned in the past, not everyone takes to the language of sequential art instantly. Some need to ease into it. One possible solution probably isn’t really a solution at all, but it makes for a unique way to read some early comic books.
In the 1970s, Power Records released a series of vinyl 45′s of a fully produced performance of comic book stories, complete with voice actors, sound effects and music. A couple of years ago, a crafty YouTube user, noielmucus, put these recordings to an edited presentation of each issue included with each record so that the dialogue and captions being spoken appear on screen. A great way for kids to read along. The pacing is kind of slow for today’s audiences and some voices are just plain weird (like the weird sped up effect on Mr. Fantastic’s voice when he uses his powers) but others are actually quite good. It definitely makes for a fun curiosity.
The Marvel Comics records gave a performance of three classic issues, so it’s a unique way to experience these stories of the origin of the Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk, and one of the earliest adventures of Spider-Man. But the DC Comics ones appear to be original stories made just for these records (although I can’t identify the creators). They feature Superman against the inter-dimensional imp Mxyptlk, the Joker making his own utility belt to fight Batman and Robin, and more complete silliness.
Apparently this collection of 10 are just the tip of the iceberg. Over 90 LP records and 45-rpm singles were created. A modern version of these for young readers might be worth looking into by some enterprising company. (If you need any voice-actors, let me know.)
Amazing Spider-Man #1 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (1963) parts 1-5