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!
Comic books, graphic novels. They’re all the rage! Have you read one recently? There’s lots of stuff out there. Why not check out some of these new items that are getting released tomorrow?
Since I don’t live in the future, I can’t guarantee the quality of the below items, but based on word-of-mouth, early reviews, buzz and other intangible factors, I think these are safe bets. They should require little to no previous knowledge. You ought to be able to go into these stories cold and enjoy them just fine. Get yourself a copy by following the links below (the Amazon.com links will give a little to the “Help Corey Do What He Loves” Fund) or head over to your local comic book store.
If you pick any of them up, let me know what you think?
Archie and his friends have forever been stuck in the latter portion of high school, but now, after many long years, the story of how “the gang” all met up is finally being told in this, the first edition of “The High School Chronicles!” This pioneering storyline, captured in issues #587-591 of ARCHIE and now again in this graphic novel reprint, brings us the beginning of the “eternal love triangle,” the introduction of Mr. Weatherbee as principal of Riverdale High, the formation of Moose and Midge’s relationship (and Reggie’s subsequent schemes to split them up), and other Archie staples! It’s all brought to you by fan-favorite writer Batton Lash of “Wolff & Byrd” and “Archie Meets the Punisher” fame, along with popular Archie Comics artist, Bill Galvan. So get your Homecoming dress, pack your brand-new backpack, and pick up your school map to find your way to the biggest Archie story of the year!
Some simple and clean fun with an American staple.
This one-shot features the United States’ latest First Lady, Michelle Obama. A mother, political force, and now, wife of the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, it’s obvious that Michelle Obama has lived a life many have only dreamed of. Continuing Bluewater’s examination of strong female figures in politics, this visual biography will examine Michelle’s life in detail to help find her context in modern history.
This one is recommended with some reservations. I’m always glad to see comics explore non-fiction genres like history and biographies but I can’t say I’ve heard much response to the publisher’s previous issues on Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin beyond, “Hey look! Comic books about modern day politicians! What a novelty!” Hopefully it’s a biography that actually digs in a little, but I don’t know if that’s possible in only 32 pages.
No one ever said being a smuggler was easy!
Before they ever met Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia, Han Solo and Chewbacca had already lived a lifetime of adventures. In this action-packed tale, Han and Chewie are caught between gangsters and the Empire, and their only help is Han’s former partner — who may be worse than either!
Star Wars Adventures is a new series of graphic novellas designed for readers of all ages!
I can’t say I’m a big Star Wars fan. Sure I enjoyed the original three movies and have a healthy amount of disdain for the prequel trilogy, but that’s kind of the extent of it. I realize there are many people not like me. And come on. It’s classic Han Solo and Chewie. It’s probably a safe bet if you liked those characters and want more without a huge boatload of overwhelming mythology to weigh it down.
A comic book classic with timely resonance. Blazing Combat was an American war-comics magazine published by Warren Publishing from 1965 to 1966. Written and edited by Archie Goodwin, with artwork by such industry notables as Gene Colan, Frank Frazetta, John Severin, Alex Toth, Al Williamson, Russ Heath, Reed Crandall, and Wally Wood, it featured war stories in both contemporary and period settings, unified by a humanistic theme of the personal costs of war, rather than by traditional men’s adventure motifs. As one letter-writer in the third issue put it, “Do you seriously expect to make money with a war magazine that publishes nothing but anti-war stories?”
While most stories took place during World War II, they ranged in settings from the 18th century to the present-day. Some dealt with historical figures, such as Revolutionary War general Benedict Arnold and his pre-traitorous victory at the battle of Saratoga, while “Foragers” focused on a fictional soldier in General William T. Sherman’s devastating March to the Sea during the American Civil War. “Holding Action,” set on the last day of the Korean War, ended with a gung-ho young soldier, unwilling to quit, being escorted over his protests into a medical vehicle.
What proved to be the most controversial were stories set during the then-contemporary Vietnam War, particularly the classic short “Landscape,” which follows the thoughts of a Vietnamese peasant rice-farmer devoid of ideology, who nonetheless pays the ultimate price simply for living where he does. While writer Goodwin evenhandedly portrays the North Vietnamese Army’s brutal summary executions of village officials, and a well-meaning U.S. Army fatally bludgeoning its way through the village in a counterattack, the story caused key distributors to stop selling the title.
Fantagraphics is proud to present a deluxe, hardcover edition, magnificently printed and bound, of these stories, superbly reproduced from the original printer’s film negatives.
Considered by some to be the best war comic. Or is it the best anti-war comic?
Mister Universe – $3.50
By Vassilis Gogtzilas & K.I. Zachopoulos
32 pages; published by Image Comics
Everybody needs Mr. Universe -– the superhero whose adventures ring throughout the cosmos! Day and night, he watches over the city, offering help to the helpless! Without the luxury of a secret identity, unable to remain invisible among the crowds, he continues to fulfill his duty! Mr. Universe! The restless superhero! At least, that’s what Tommy thought…
There probably won’t be too many super-hero comic books in this column because most of them require a lot of knowledge about their world and history, which is frequently near-insurmountable for casual readers and of mixed quality. But every so often the people that make comic books remember that super-heroes don’t have to be done that way. I really hope this is one of those.
Jess is a novelist without a novel. John is a photographer running away to New York. Though it lasts only a moment, their brief encounter in Stansted Airport will transform both of their lives.
How do you measure the distance between satisfaction and settling? At what point does wishful thinking take on a life of its own? In Second Thoughts, the clean, emotional ink-work of Swedish newcomer Niklas Asker guides two characters, in two worlds, through modern city life and love. Reality and fiction overlap in this haunting, deceptive, and inspiring graphic novel about the lives we imagine for ourselves, the lives we imagine for others, and the lives we ultimately must live.
Top Shelf Productions is accurately named. They consistently put out high quality material.
Fascinating and often bizarre true stories behind more than 130 urban legends about comic book culture
Was Superman a Spy? demystifies all of the interesting stories, unbelievable anecdotes, wacky rumors, and persistent myths that have piled up like priceless back issues in the seventy-plus years of the comic book industry, including:
· Elvis Presley’s trademark hairstyle was based on a comic book character (True)
· Stan Lee featured a gay character in one of Marvel’s 1960s war comics (False)
· Wolverine of the X-Men was originally meant to be an actual wolverine! (True)
· What would have been DC’s first black superhero was changed at the last moment to a white hero (True)
· A Dutch inventor was blocked from getting a patent on a process because it had been used previously in a Donald Duck comic book (True)
With many more legends resolved, Was Superman a Spy? is a must-have for the legions of comic book fans and all seekers of “truth, justice, and the American way.”
Not a comic book but an entertaining and informative book at those wacky comics and the even wackier stories behind their creation. Plenty of the content is brand new, but a percentage of the book collects favorites from Brian’s column Comic Book Legends Revealed. Some of it might be too enmeshed in the convoluted super-hero mythologies for newcomers, but it should be great for anyone returning to comics.