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!
Never read a graphic novel before? Haven’t read a comic book in years?
Here’s some brand new stuff coming out this Wednesday (tomorrow) that I think is worth a look-see for someone with little to no history with comics. That means you should be able to pick these up cold without having read anything else. So take a look and see if something doesn’t grab your fancy. If so, follow the publisher links or Amazon.com links to buy yourself a copy. Or, head to your local friendly comic book shop.
Disclaimer: Having not read these yet (’cause this isn’t Wednesday), I can’t vouch for their quality. But, from what I’ve heard and seen, they just might appeal to you.
Public Enemy Volume 1 – $22.99
By Chuck D. & Adam Wallenta
Published by American Mule Entertainment
A must have for any true Public Enemy fan!
To the general population, PUBLIC ENEMY is a world-famous, pioneering, revolutionary, HIP-HOP band that have toured the globe, selling hit records for over twenty years. Unbeknownst to most though, they are also members of a secret, global network of freedom fighters called the Underground Railroad, that help those in need and fight injustice, corruption and oppression wherever it may surface.
In this first story-arc, collecting the first five issues of the hit series, our heroes must face an enemy unlike anything they have ever experienced. The evil Executives and their New World Order are about to unleash their master plan for world domination. Before they can succeed though, they must eliminate a young boy named Vincent who holds the key to their ultimate secret weapon. Unfortunately for the Executives, Vincent is a Public Enemy fan and he has sought out their help to expose the evil plans of the Executives. In a desperate attempt to destroy their enemies, the Executives devise a plan that will eliminate Vincent, Public Enemy and their Underground Railroad allies in one clean swoop as they set out to take over the world.
In this epic battle for peace and justice Public Enemy and the Underground Railroad fight for their lives and the freedom of the world, as they are torn apart, imprisoned and hunted down by the government in a desperate fight for their lives.
A hip-hop group as super-heroes? Sure, why not? It worked for KISS. (Uh, not that KISS is hip-hop.) Truth be told this type of crossover attempt in comics rarely works but there have been a couple of fairly favorable reviews. Plus its co-written by the group’s lead rapper Chuck D, which is kind of an unusual level of involvement for this sort of thing. So if you or someone you know likes their music, it might be a fun thing to check out.
Walled In – $16.95
By Roger Mincheff & Denis Calero
136 pages; published by Ape Entertainment
The origin story of Malastraza, the brilliant, yet disturbed architect and sociopath in the upcoming feature film Walled In, starring Mischa Barton. In this chilling graphic novel of love, betrayal, and obsession the roots of his madness first take hold. From his humble beginnings as a precocious honor student in a Paris Academy, to his tutelage in the dark arts of occult architecture, Malastraza learns that many of the secrets upon which civilizations are built have been drenched in blood. When he is betrayed by his mentor and the woman he loves, Malastraza’s obsession to create the perfect structure leads him down a dark path where victims must be sacrificed in service of his grand vision.
Another popular crossover angle in comics: the comic book tie-in to a new TV show, movie, video game or what-have-you. In this case the comic ties into a direct-to-DVD film, which itself is based on the French novel Les Emmurés (translated to The Trapped] by Serge Brussolo. As above, the results tend to be mixed depending on the source material and the creators involved in the adaptation, but for horror fans out there, this could be worth checking out, even if the movie isn’t getting the best reviews. At the very least, there’s some appropriately moody artwork to enjoy based on this online sample. (I’m not sure, but it looks like this can be read on its own without having seen the movie first.)
Plan 9 From Outer Space Strikes Again – $3.99
By Chad Helder, Darren G. Davis & Giovanni P. Timpano
28 pages; published by Bluewater Productions
Rated one of the worst films ever, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space continues as Bluewater and Legend Films tell the story of what happens after the film! Fifty years after the alien invasion unleashed the unspeakable horror of Plan 9, a corrupt team of government scientists reactivate the zombie horde in order to lure the aliens back to Earth! Their sinister plan: steal the most hideous weapon known to intergalactic intelligence. Only conspiracy theorist, Eugene, and his mother, a former professional wrestler, can expose the shadowy agenda of the government as they fight off the growing zombie horde. This time, a new alien force invades Earth: the revolutionary followers of the martyred Eros. Eugene and his mother join forces with the last remaining heroes of a corrupt government. Together, they must thwart Plan 9 once again, with all life in the universe hanging in the balance!
Well this is just silly. I guess the goal would be to be as bad as the movie? Morbid curiosity I guess, but I imagine fans of Ed Wood ought to get a kick out of this. (OK this kind of breaks my rule for this list of not having read or seen anything else but it was such an oddity I had to mention it.)
A circus performer terrorized by mysterious powers from beyond… a jade idol of a monkey that carries a curse on a South Pacific island drives a man to the brink of madness… an art gallery haunted by paintings that come to life at night… a dictator who sees enemies around every corner, but who can’t see the threat right before his eyes.
For nearly twenty years, the comic-book series Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery wove stories of intrigue, suspense, and macabre drama. Hosted by renowned actor Boris Karloff, the comic featured contributions from some of comics history’s most well-known creators: Alex Toth, Joe Orlando (EC artist and editor), Mike Sekowsky (Justice League of America artist), Frank Thorne, José Luis García-López, Arnold Drake, Len Wein (co-creator of Swamp Thing and Wolverine), Al Williamson, Jerry Robinson (creator of the Joker), Dan Spiegle, and many others.
* Originally published by Gold Key and unavailable for three decades, more than thirty spine-chilling stories are compiled in a new collection.
* Features a new introduction by Boris Karloff’s daughter Sara Karloff.
Classic old horror tales. A bit pricy but I bet it’s worth it.
A fantastical adventure through the worlds we live in and the worlds we create.
From two masters of the graphic novel — Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese) and Derek Kirk Kim (Same Difference and Other Stories) come three magical tales –
The story of a prince who defeats his greatest enemy only to discover that maybe his world is not what it had seemed.
The story of a frog who finds that just being a frog might be the way to go.
The story of a women who receives an e-mail from Prince Henry of Nigeria asking for a loan to help save his family – and gives it to him.
With vivid artwork and moving writing, Derek Kirk Kim and Gene Luen Yang test the boundaries between fantasy and reality, exploring the ways that the world of the imagination can affect real life.
These two award-winning creators produce great work, so this is kind of a no-brainer. If you can only buy one from this list, this is the one I would suggest you flip through first to see if it appeals to you. And it probably will. As an extra incentive, here’s a quick glimpse at this release, by way of a video by Derek Kirk Kim’s thankless assistant.
Oliver Twist is the story of a young orphan who is subjected to ill-treatment in institutions in Victorian England. He falls into the clutches of the ghastly Fain and comes into contact with the seediest parts of London. The adventures of young Oliver are a story of fear, poverty and the darkness of the human soul.
This is the second book in a series of classic novel-to-comic adaptations this publisher has started to release. 64 pages seems a bit tight to adapt a 300+ page book, but I’d give it a try.
Following Eve, a dangerously seductive woman on the edge of her sanity, PHERONE weaves a dark storyline filled with espionage, mystery, and suspense. Armed with a killer body and a killer’s mind, the femme fatale must hunt down clues to rediscover her own troubled past, bringing violence and danger to anyone who crosses her path.
The art looks pretty stunning. Hopefully the story matches, as this could be a great suspense/thriller. Not for kids, though.