The unique advantage and appeal of the medium of sequential art lies in its combination of words and pictures. Well-crafted comic books and graphic novels blend engaging writing with appropriate art. But, lost in the enjoyment of ideal combinations of scripting and art, it’s easy to overlook the individual craft of each separately.
Appreciation of the writing in comics is not far removed from regular prose fiction or, even more closely, screenplays. A nice parallel can be seen in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which won last year’s Pulitzer Prize because he injected a honed craftsmanship into his words. Certain descriptive sentences and paragraphs, constructed from colorful strings of adjectives, evocative metaphors and realistic settings, stand on their own as art, apart form the plot and events of the story. Likewise, we can pause in comics and enjoy Garth Ennis’s realistic dialogue in Preacher and Neil Gaiman’s fantasy descriptions in Sandman. The writing stands on its own as fine art, though it greatly enhances the story when combined with visual art.
Likewise, individual pages and panels in comics can be drawn out of their stories and appreciated with the same criteria used by experts to appreciate fine art and illustration. Comics have created artwork much more individually-suited to their medium than their writing. While comic book writing hews pretty closely to other traditional forms of written storytelling, comic art is a relatively new and increasingly diverse medium. Though it takes effort, comics can yield greater enjoyment when we learn to examine the art on its own merits.
Comic book art is best known to the public for the straightforwardness of its earliest American decades. This art, almost universally, acted as a simple diagram to explain the narrative of its story. But as demand for more sophisticated stories burgeoned in the seventies and eighties, comic book art burst out of the confines of its relatively childish past. The rise of independent publishers in the U.S. and Britain allowed for a wave of newly creative and unique voices. These voices gradually infiltrated the mainstream superhero comics and other popular genres, gradually expanding the “fine art” aspect of sequential art. The art became more than an explanation of the story’s events, and came to stand on its own, thanks to the experimentation and development of several of its creative facets.
So the one obvious aspect that lets us evaluate comic art is how well it tells its story. But five other areas serve as broad classifications and starting points for enjoying the art on its own terms, divorced from the context of its plot.
1: Technical skill and extreme detail
The most obvious of these five artistic areas is technical skill and craftsmanship. How “good” a drawing is, is sadly often defined only by how closely it resembles our most straightforward perception of reality. This aspect of art is concerned with achieving likenesses of people, settings, and objects. It often involves a very patient, laborious method of working, and requires extensive planning and concentration.
All comic book artists must use this technical skill to some degree. If there are no likenesses whatsoever, the art becomes totally abstract, and narratives are impossible to follow. But several artists push this aspect of technical skill to its limits. The perfect example is Alex Ross, who shot to superstardom in the comics world with his realistic watercolor depictions of superheroes. Ross uses extensive photo references and models in his time-consuming process. To readers, this style of art is appealing because it seems to more closely resemble reality than the black outlined art of traditional comics. But as we shall see, sometimes the most appropriate interpretation of reality for a specific story may not be the most obviously “real” one. Realism can come in many forms.
George Perez and Phil Jimenez are also well-known for their technical skill – rendering extremely intricate figures and backgrounds with tons of detail, “cramming things in” to tiny comics panels. Gerhard, Dave Sim’s fellow artist on Cerebus, takes background detail to an end that has never been surpassed. Cover art often makes use of the realistic or detailed look to lure readers. Brian Bolland (Gotham Knights), Arthur Adams (Angel & the Ape) and Gene Ha (Superman) are three master cover artists that use complex cross-hatching to flesh out realistic people, clothes, and settings.
The human figure is the perfect subject matter to demonstrate this skill. It is readily evident when a person is “drawn well” and looks real … and just as clear when an artist is poor at drawing anatomy or likenesses. Comic books, with their emphasis on the heroic figure, offer the perfect showcase for realistic musculature and anatomy, and several artists are known for their figure drawing skills. Greg Land, Butch Guice, and Norm Breyfogle (coincidentally, all Batman artists) draw tangible, muscular people, though each have their own drawing styles. Bryan Hitch’s work on Authority and JLA epitomizes realistic figure drawing, facial expressions, detailed settings, and dynamic light and shade. Distinctive faces create unique characters, and musculature is emphasized with forceful action. Of course, this style draws from the revolution started two decades ago by Neal Adams, the innovator of dynamic, classically drawn figures in comics.
The paradox of extreme technical skill in art is that it is usually most admired by the viewing public and most scorned by the art world itself. Trained viewers understand that fine technical feats are possible without any true creativity, innovation, or risk, and so are skeptical of their relevance. Spontaneity is difficult to achieve when concentrating on this aspect of art. However, some of the best artists in history have concentrated on this, to great success – the Renaissance artists, as well as David, Ingres, Seurat, and Manet. Courbet went as far as to say that “painting is essentially a concrete art and must be applied to real and existing things...” The danger of technical realism lies in depicting nature ruthlessly at the expense of showing emotion, originality, and abstract thought.
The above artists are glorious not solely because of their realism but because they used their skill to convey other innovations and complex meanings. But it is easy, overwhelmed with the technical aspect, to miss the deeper achievements. Why does the American public, for example, love admittedly-skilled illustrators who focus on technical realism like Norman Rockwell and Leroy Neiman (“I think the way things look is the way things are,” Neiman has said) while ignoring much of the sparse modern art of their contemporaries? Realism is accessible to even the most casual viewer. It is unfortunate that most art gets judged on this single quality, while other aspects are easily ignored. Detail and realism are important, but they are not the only aspects of art that are. It is easy to forget that technical skill does not necessarily indicate artistic skill.
2: Painterly, expressive art
Probably the most under-appreciated aspect is what artists might call “painterly” or “expressive” art – what the viewer might call “chaotic.” In fine art, this is the passion of van Gogh compared to the order of Seurat, the broad strokes of a Goya portrait compared to a likeness by Ingres. We see this quality in the rough, unfinished figures of Rodin when compared to the polished gleam of Michelangelo’s marble, and more so in the chaotic flowing forms of a de Kooning statue compared back to a Rodin. This is a bold, loose quality. Even the casual viewer can recognize the passion and speed necessary for its triumphant application – but less obvious is that for technical detail to be omitted, it must first be mastered. These artists have conquered technical, polished realism and moved past it into expressive forms. In some ways, these works are more realistic than those that depict nature meticulously. They are stripped down to their most basic, underlying forms, and express the vitality, emotion, and power of life.
This more raw, natural art manifests itself in many of comics’ best artists. One distinct style uses a chaotic, crazy mess of lines – similar to the illustrator Ralph Steadman – to give texture and natural imperfection to action and emotion. Bill Sienkewicz, Eddie Campbell, and Klaus Janson are the best examples of this work. Janson, interviewed in Draw! Magazine, revealed that he uses any tools he feels will inject vitality into his inking – dry brush, spattering, white paint, “skipping” a razor blade, even painting with branches. His inkwork is characterized by daring blacks and quick, sketchy lines, and he is able to ink several pages a day.
I overheard a fellow comic fan refer to his own drawing abilities as “messy, even worse than Eddie Campbell.” But Campbell’s frenzied, impassioned linework is the only art that could have done justice to Alan Moore’s intense portrait of the bloody underside of Victorian London in From Hell. His draftsmanship reveals itself under closer inspection to be very organized. He manages to differentiate dozens of characters in From Hell, as well as accurately depicting exhaustive architecture and historical details, all intermixed with the grittiness and debauchery of the worst parts of the city and its denizens.
This painterly aspect of comic art is not restricted to chaotic, sketchy styles. Any work that allows brushwork to show through, rather than being polished into “finished” art, qualifies. Tim Sale’s work – on his various Batman series, Grendel, Superman For All Seasons, and more – is a great example. Sale varies the weight of his line drastically, creating bold dark patches and meandering, wispy lines. By inking his own work, he’s able to retain a lot of the freshness and vitality of his original drawings. His use of white space and layout of huge, expansive forms adds to the high-quality look of his work. This was especially noticeable in Superman For All Seasons, in which Sale left huge spaces blank for his amazing collaborator, Bjarne Hansen, to color.
More than any other artist, Frank Miller is known for his raw, bold, artistic style. Miller has always shown this expressiveness and artistic flair, but his technique slowly evolved from a detailed but sketchy style to a stronger, blacker style of simple, bold shapes. The Dark Knight Returns is a great example of extreme detail in a loose style (largely due to Klaus Janson’s inking as well), with only a few splash pages and large, bold shapes. But Miller’s more recent work in Sin City reflects a conscious effort to produce a film-noir crime style by emphasizing extreme amounts of blacks and silhouettes. In The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Miller has pushed his bold style farther than ever before. The book is a marked contrast to his earlier technique. But in all his methods, a painterly effect is emphasized, and the bold sweeps of his brush are visible. Though his layout and forms are tight and well-planned, flowing looseness is always allowed to show in his finishes. No one does bold and expressive like Frank Miller.
3: Simplicity and gesture
Miller’s current work can also be categorized by its simplicity and use of streamlined shapes and forms. This attribute introduces us to the “less is more” school of treating comic art as design. As with the other attributes, this can be found in all good comic art, where layout and the use of blacks form coherent designs and interlocking shapes. But some artists make it their specialty. They streamline form into its simplest possible contours. When drawing the backgrounds and details, this emphasis on design treats the page as a way to effectively lead your eye through the story and emphasize specific plot points and visual shots. Of course, Jack Kirby was the master of using fundamental shapes and bold forms to treat comic book pages as exercises in innovative design. With only circles, squares, and big, thick lines, he created some of the most memorable characters, costumes and events in comics.
When depicting the figure in this style, details of musculature, wrinkles and flaws are sidestepped in favor of dynamic gestures. This is also a hallmark of animation. Out of necessity, animators are forced to create simple figures that are easy to animate. So comic books that are based on or tie into animation often have this look. Bruce Timm and his team pioneered the new age of streamlined animation in 1992 with Batman: the Animated Series. Timm created a style of fast-moving, pointed forms that were simplified as much as possible. His comics work maintained this style, as did the work in the Batman comics tie-ins by Mike Parobeck, Ty Templeton, and others. Some aspects of this new cartoon look harkened back to the design sense of Alex Toth, who had created the animated Space Ghost character, among others.
Meanwhile, former animator Jeff Smith was using his experience to create a comic that also used simplified art, but taken in a totally different direction. With Bone, Smith brought a crisp, clean animated art to comics for the first time since Carl Barks’ Scrooge McDuck comics for Disney in the ‘40s through ‘60s. Borrowing a combination of simplified cartoon characters and realistic pastoral settings from Walt Kelly’s classic Pogo, Smith’s expertise in this style is only rivaled in today’s comics world by Bill Watterson’s sorely-missed Calvin & Hobbes and Frank Cho’s Liberty Meadows. The style exudes charm and character, and works best in black and white.
A different form of simplified art has recently become prominent in dramatic comics that reference film noir with a heavy use of blacks and unadorned, inelaborate art. Michael Avon Oeming uses this to great effect in Powers, which probably looks more like a movie than any other comic. (Though much of the layout credit goes to writer Brian Michael Bendis, which is confirmed by the layout similarities to Bendis’s other books, like Alias.) Though Bendis’s dialogue and plots are detailed and mature, Oeming’s art is cartoon-based. Drastic panel size fluctuations and large black spaces add to a widescreen effect that forces the reader’s eye through the scenes. The joy of appreciating this style is seeing how few lines and forms are needed to convey complex emotions and events – how far can the artist simplify his design while still differentiating characters?
In the wake of Batman’s No Man’s Land, Detective Comics has taken a daring artistic step and delved into this streamlined style. The excellent results do Powers one better – Detective has a similar technique but adds a limited color palette to enhance its dimly-lit, moody police stories. Shawn Martinbrough has been largely responsible for this new art, but Rick Burchett and others have also carried it consistently. One of these Detective fill-in artists with a similar style is Phil Hester. Hester’s sharp linework is particularly striking, and has recently garnered him celebrity for his team-up with Kevin Smith on the relaunched Green Arrow, and soon, Brave and the Bold.
Two additional artists working in a simplified style demonstrate how work can easily cross into the other art categories described here. Chris Ware’s art is very clearly cartoonish, but his panels and figures are so intricate and labored that it is problematic to describe it as simple. Likewise, Tony Harris’s work on Starman uses a streamlined, woodcut-type style that is still very dense. While bold and simple, with the use of a lot of blacks, Harris’s work is textured and the very opposite of cartoonish. Both artists combine technical skill and detailed settings with simplified forms and bold, basic layouts, though in diametric ways. Clearly, the best work can rarely be pigeonholed into one category.
4: Texture and atmosphere
Texture as we usually conceive it is best seen in the rich, gritty artwork of a Sienkewicz or Campbell, mentioned above. But texture can refer to something even more important – layers of meaning and allusion. Not just lots of detail, but smart detail. These are the little touches in the backgrounds of panels that are not key elements of the plot, but add to the setting or to the mood. Atmosphere helps create a fully-realized world, which increases the sense of realism even if the setting depicted is not supposed to be of the real world. Smart details add authenticity to a work and convey the artists’ love of their subject, since the details are often optional and time-consuming to draw in. These fine points are meant to be savored, which is appreciated considering how many comics today can be breezed through in a few minutes.
There are both fun and dramatic uses of this texture. In some comics, it plays a vital role. Sandman and Watchmen both dictated this detail in the art since it was a key part of the writing (Neil Gaiman’s use of allusions and history is also clearly seen in his excellent American Gods.) Without even examining Sandman’s eclectic interior art, Dave McKean’s covers stand as a lesson in conveying a mood using texture and detail. McKean’s work set the tone for the entire series, and practically for the entire Vertigo imprint. His Sandman covers (beautifully collected as Dust Covers) use a wide variety of materials and techniques that mimic the broad range of Gaiman’s stories. McKean used scraps of materials and objects that might not have been the most important parts of the story within, but often acted as a metaphor for the mood of each issue. He conveyed overwhelming complexity with a blend of horror and fantasy references. Using photographs made the everyday elements intriguing in their combinations. McKean used a subtly different style for each story arc, tying issues together with design. His interior work, for books such as Signal to Noise and Violent Cases, reaffirms his consistent ability to render texture, atmosphere, psychological drama, and human details more convincingly than anyone in the business.
Dave Gibbons injected a totally different form of texture into his work on Watchmen. It’s surprising to see the number of details and allusions worked into his artwork, which looks deceptively simplistic. The art is better understood as clean and uncluttered. Every element plays a key role, whether it is fleshing out a minor subplot, highlighting a character trait, or adding to the realism of this extrapolated universe. Many of his panels are laid out to allude to a previous panel, or foreshadow an upcoming event. Several artistic motifs are repeated throughout the book, especially the famous marred happy face, which is referenced on every cover and in many other spots. In one particularly daring experiment, an entire issue is mirrored in its design, with the first page reflecting the last and the each panel mimicking their counterpart in design, color, and meaning. The story can be greatly enjoyed without even noticing this effect, but it adds to the pleasure of re-reading the book and helps mark Watchmen as the Mona Lisa of the sequential art world.
Another way of infusing extra life into a regular story or piece of art is with homages to past comics. Since comics’ readership is small and loyal, self-reference is enjoyed by both the artists and the readers. Brian Bolland’s recent covers to Flash, for example, evoke the fun, innocence, and two-dimensionality of Silver Age art while still being contemporary and exciting. Allusions and homages can refer to art outside the comics world as well. Tony Harris created Starman’s Opal City as the epitome of the coolest art deco of the early twentieth century. The reference to times past is a key part of Starman’s personality as well, and the city is so unique and vibrant in its architecture that it becomes a fully developed character in its own right. Without such a textured and well-thought-out setting, the mood of the Starman books would be significantly lessened.
In-jokes also provide a lot of extra “bonuses” that increase the gratification of studying comic art. Kingdom Come provides hundreds of examples of these, as does Top Ten. Both feature obscure superheroes hidden in the backgrounds of panels, so that astute readers will appreciate finding and identifying them. Similarly to Top Ten, Planetary references figures from past comics as well as mythology and popular culture. But instead of just fitting in characters in the background, artist John Cassady works in the references directly, in the main characters and events that are uncovered. There are characters that look like Wonder Woman and Green Lantern and monsters out of old Japanese movies. These innovative and exciting stories stand on their own without these creative references, but these throw in an extra punch by giving readers something to look for and try to figure out.
Some artists take the concept of fleshing out settings and details to the nth degree. You get a totally immersive concept of each comics’ world in any single panel of both Darren Robertson’s art on Transmetropolitan and Geof Darrow’s work on comics such as Hard Boiled. The two artists share a Hieronymous Bosch-like love of squeezing totally absurd throw-away gags, obscene comments, and gross accidents into every panel of their art. Not coincidentally, Darrow has done covers for Transmetropolitan, too. Like the other examples, these rich textures and allusions are an added bonus when great art already fulfils the other aspects above.
5: Innovation and personal style
Innovation is the most difficult quality to define here. All the other aspects, when done well, are innovative in themselves. But this aspect can be broken apart when it refers to a distinctive “voice” as well as breaking new ground. Every artist, save the worst plagiarists, has a natural voice and technique. What’s important is whether or not they recognize their own gifts and push their art in that direction, or wander without a distinctive style. Is the art distinct and recognizable? Is it honest to the artist?
For true innovation, honesty is as important as bravery. There has to be a balance between trying everything new for its own sake and remaining true to what the work requires. But sometimes a story is so unique that what it requires must be necessarily innovative. Much of Will Eisner’s work was this way. Wanting to tell realistic dramatic novellas, but not having an appropriate outlet in the existing sphere of comics, Eisner created the graphic novel form with A Contract With God. He pioneered many new artistic tricks and styles, such as treating a page as a whole layout rather than dividing it into panels. Eisner’s style of detailed settings, rich atmospheres and slightly caricatured, distinct people are perfectly suited for his tales, and uniquely his own.
There is currently a rich well of artists who are innovative yet consistent. Their skill lies in fitting their styles perfectly to the stories they are illustrating. Steve Dillon’s work on Preacher is a prime example. In many ways, his art is straightforward and unassuming, certainly not too innovative. But his uniqueness lies in his voice – a perfect voice for Preacher, intentionally straightforward and no-nonsense, just like Jesse Custer. Sticking with the series for its entire run creates a solid piece of work that does innovate with characters that look perfectly distinct and humanly flawed, and archetypal American landscapes.
Eduardo Risso’s meandering lines in 100 Bullets are also creative, consistent and reliably cool to look at. Risso’s characters are quirky, attractive, gritty and mysterious. Every wrinkle and flaw flows in a winding line from his pen. The rawness of his cities and attitudes of his background characters enforce the grim, modern urbanity of the book’s intrigue and crime tone. Frank Quietly, known for The Authority and now X-Men, also has a unique line that doesn’t hold anything back. He pushes the envelope of shocking scenes and fleshy, marred characters that can surpass even Dillon and Darrow in sheer grotesqueness.
Several recent, lesser-known books also touch upon a unique attitude and a personal artistic style. Philip Bond’s work on the Angel and the Ape miniseries is quirky, fun and sexy. He combines a manga-esque simplicity with neat, angular linework and bold character designs. It has just the same amount of seriousness as the story – not much, which is perfect. His bold, thick lines are similar to Jim Mahfood’s. Nabiel Kanan’s graphic novel Lost Girl uses an analogous style to a startlingly different effect. His sparse, thin linework expresses symbolism and emotion. Evoking Gauguin’s and Klimt’s paintings, different patterns of lines and ink become very stylized, almost like patchwork quilts of pattern and design. The book’s emotion comes through Kanan’s use of subtle, subdued form and line, creating inconspicuous and seductive art that goes well with the psychological implications of the story. And Steven Parke’s and Stephen J. Phillips’ work on I, Paparazzi pushes the boundaries of what is known as sequential art, using photographs and digital manipulation rather than hand-drawn art. Again, this work is perfectly suited for the story – it can be argued that the book could not have worked, as an exploration of paranoia and celebrity, with any other art.
As a final example, Joe Sacco’s comics journalism also presents a unique and appropriate style. In Safe Area: Gorazde, Sacco combines caricaturish people with intricately-detailed weapons, landscapes and violence. He draws dozens of distinct and realistic people, with all their idiosyncrasies. Depicting himself as he reports from war-torn Bosnia, he doesn’t gloss over his own flaws, which helps the viewer trust his reports. Nothing conveys honesty better than not flattering yourself. The innovation of his work lies in his ability to conceive of exactly what is needed, and portray it without wavering from truth or unfortunate events. The horrors of the many sides of a complex conflict are depicted without favoritism. Maps and landscapes that need to be realistic are drawn so, while events and people that emphasize fear or violence are drawn to evoke these emotions. Sacco’s work becomes accessible to a wide audience thanks to his ability to blend different levels of realism with his own unique voice.
All of the comics listed above are merely examples to illustrate the rough sections I have laid out. Since in many cases they represent the best that the comics world has to offer, most of the examples can be grouped into more than one category. The greatest works, like Watchmen, fulfill aspects of all of them.
The categories above are oversimplifications designed to inspire more deliberate
examination of the art in comics. Any page or panel can be taken apart and appreciated
for its own merits. So stop and savor your comic art! Look for allusions and
details you might have missed on a quick reading. Go back and re-read your old
comics – and don’t just skip from dialogue box to dialogue box.
It is too easy to take for granted the immense amount of time and effort that
artists put into their works. The best comics art can certainly stand on its
within the world of fine art and professional illustration.