Friday, April 24, 2015

Computers: When Good Artists Get Lazy

Seriously.  It was terrible when computers started doing all of the lettering and soon billboards, soda cans, posters, and signs in comic books, rather than being hand drawn, were left blank and filled in later with extremely poorly done computer fonts that often exceeded the space allotted or failed to fit the perspective of the drawing.  It was just terrible.  But then artists started to avail themselves of the capabilities of computer assisted drawing.  Sometimes, the results were amazing.  Sometimes the results were subtle and you would never know a computer had a digital hand in the art.  And then there are times when the computer was abused to a point where an otherwise truly amazing artist just got so lazy they became an embarrassment to their body of work. That might seem a bit harsh, but just keep reading and you'll see what I mean.

Salvador Larroca is a Spanish comic book artist who came into prominence in the early 2000's and made a big splash with his semi-comical, yet at times edgy style.  He was hot property for a good 8-10 years and in that time he really made his mark on the industry.  For my money he redefined the look of Marvel's First Family when he relaunched the Fantastic Four during the Heroes Return retcon.  Just take a look at this awesome cover from that run

Great stuff, yes.  So imagine my dismay when he would later have his turn at the Invincible Iron Man during the big, boring, yearly Marvel Crossover event "Fear Itself."  Dismay, you say?  Yes, dismay. Because somewhere between 1999 and 2011, the computer took control of Salvador Larroca and poisoned his work.  See, the computer allows you to easily do things that were once difficult and usually resulted in messy work.  Now, the same messy results can be achieved, but with significantly less effort. And when you are on a deadline and your editor is pushing you for pages, it can be all too seductive to just let the computer do the work for you.  This, in turn, can make a good artist lazy.  (All of the following images are taken from Sal's run on Iron Man circa 2011)

The most glaring evidence of this kind of unfortunate sloth is the repetitive image.  Why draw panel after panel of characters talking and doing things, when you can just draw one image and then copy and paste it into several panels?  That's the hallmark of good, sequential storytelling, right?

It's easiest to do this when one character is standing still, talking.

Ok.  To be fair, he added a couple of forehead lines in the second panel to show that he's determined, or something.

But what if people are talking and I need to add in a character?  Won't I have to redraw then whole scene?  Not necessarily...

With a little photoshop level magic you can just add in the new character and keep going.

Ok, so I can do that, but suppose I need that character later, not just in the next panel.  Surely the computer cannot help me with that?
Not so fast.  Just because you won't see the character until several panels later, or heck even the next page, doesn't mean you can't just copy and paste.  Take a look:

See!  Even though Pepper, drawn to look exactly like Nicole Kidman (indubitably the result
more computer help), appears here in panel three of the first page and won't reappear until panel 1 of the next page (with about 6 panels of action in between), doesn't mean we have to redraw her.  Oh no, we can just cut and paste and have the colorist adjust the lighting.  Then we can add the Sandman in the background and viola! a whole new panel!  What?  Are you saying it is highly unlikely that Pepper would be in the exact same position, particularly that hand, after several seconds, or maybe minutes, of action?  Pshaw!

Ok, ok.  So that's all well and good for talking heads, but the same thing cannot be applied to action scenes.  Those have to be drawn panel-for-panel every time.  You can't cut corners there.
But wait!  Yes you can!

In Sal's defense here, he is kind of going for a thing where Iron Man elbows Doc Ock in the head, and then we pull into the shot and are then shown an X-ray to demonstrate the damage caused by the impact.  But that's only a partial defense, because the copied panel is really unnecessary to pull off the device.  So, the copied panel is either filler to pad the issue, or it's just sloppy storytelling.  Either way, it's just lazy not to redraw the panel.  Pulling in closer to the action could reveal greater detail, if you redrew it.  Cut and paste just makes it a throw away.

So if you can cut and paste panel after panel with the help of a computer, you might only have to draw 8 or 10 pages of a 22 page comic, and then cut and paste the images wherever you need them. And if you are only going to draw 8 or 10 pages, you will be able to really knock those pages out of the park and make them amazing, right?  With all that time the computer is saving you, you can pour everything you've got into those pages and really wow the reader.  Right?  Well...

I'm not saying Pepper's legs, the pizza boxes, the bottles, and the entire background, are phoned in this panel (along with almost every background in every panel of the comic)...oh wait, that's exactly what I'm saying.  Come on.  That's just pathetic.

And then there's this:

Can anyone explain Tony's upper anatomy in this panel?  Maybe if he's Animal Man and he's channeling a dog of some kind, this makes a modicum of sense, but otherwise, what in the holy hell is going on here?

This is the same super start artist who did this X-men cover:
and these pages

and you are asking me to accept that this is the same level of work?  Not even close.  Not even remotely close.  And, it honestly looks like the computer is to blame.  While it can be a valuable tool, it can also be sorely abused and can result in really great artists coming across as extremely sloppy.  I still love Sal and I love his work, but whatever happened on Iron Man is not representative of his capabilities and I believe reliance on the computer is at least partly to blame.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

John Romita Jr.'s Iron Man

Iron Man #259, August 1990 was my very first Iron Man comic book.  I was a Spider-Man fan.  I had never really paid any attention to the golden Avenger, but I got this issue in one of those comic grab bag lots you could get from the Sears catalog back in the day.  My family knew I liked comic books, but had no idea how to shop for such a hobby, so every year at Christmas I would get this assortment of comics that I assume Marvel over-produced and undersold.  (It wasn't all bad, these mixed lots are where I got my first appearance of Gambit, and my first Jim Lee art on Uncanny X-men).  In that lot, among the issues of Groo and Double Dragon, was Iron Man #259.

The story takes place fairly early during the Armor Wars II event.  Maybe not the best place for a new reader to jump in, but this was back in the good ol' days of comics where every issue was treated like someone's first and editors were not afraid to reference back issues so you can go catch up.  John Byrne was the writer and while this outing wasn't as strong as his legendary run on Fantastic Four, it was still pretty good and contained a solid story with bigger picture storylines that built interest in future issues.  Sadly, that wouldn't be in the cards for me as the gas station where I bought my comics didn't carry Iron Man...

But it wasn't the story that stood out to me.  It was the art.  I was familiar with John Romita Jr. from his work on Spider-Man in the 80's.  At that time his style was still heavily influenced by his father's iconic work, but his work on Iron Man was very much unlike his earlier stuff.  He was starting to really come into his own. Look at the incredible composition of this splash page.  It echoes the action of the cover, but trades some of the spectacle and ramps up the drama.  Iron Man is trapped.  The Titanium Man (or his ghost) looms over him, dominating the panel and crushing our hero in the bottom left corner of the panel, the most submissive placement in the panel.  In what little room is left behind T-Man, darkness threatens to close in on both characters.  This single panel does an incredible job of setting up the next several pages of the comic.
While the hatching that would become his signature is at work here, it is put to good use predominately on the villain and the background and contrasted with the sleeker "shine" lines on Iron Man's armor.  It's striking work and it is clear that JRJR is at home drawing big guys in metal suits.

Here's another page from later in the issue.  Iron Man has escaped the Titanium Man's ghost and has lost track of him.  However, he has also woken up three days later in San Francisco with no idea how he got there.  This particular page is nothing new.  It's the classic "putting on the armor" page that is almost required in an Iron Man comic and one that Romita Jr. would do nearly once per issue during his run.  But look at how well he does it.  He loves it.  He takes one of the most chiche pages in comic book history and just takes it to the next level.  The key is the simplicity.  Something that gets very lost in his later and current work.  He doesn't complicate the backgrounds, he keeps them clean, only adding motion lines to the final panel as Iron Man takes off. The close-ups in the first four panels are smartly done.  It's understood that he is putting on the suit, so JRJR pulls us in close so that we only get snippits of the armor building to the reveal in panel 5. Again, not much new here, but it's so well done that it deserves mention.  There are scant few straight lines and virtually no hatching.  Instead, Romita Jr. uses blotches of black to indicate the shine as the light plays off the armor.  Without a lot of line work, the colors are bolder and more striking and the overall impact of the full suit in the last panel is as good as any splash page.  Most importantly, Romita Jr. is able to take something that Iron Man does every issue, sometimes more than once, and still make it an exciting and awesome moment.

The final page of the issue is another splash page. It wasn't uncommon at this time to open and close with splash pages, particularly when there was a big reveal.  It wasn't abused like it was in the early aughts when artists were almost required to load a comic with splash pages to fill out an issue that was extremely light on story.  This splash page reveals the true identity of the Titanium Man's ghost to be the Living Laser.  The scene just before this takes place in a massive room filled with mirrors, where the Laser blinds Iron Man with a barrage of light.  When the glow recedes, there stands the Laser in his moment of triumph.  I like this page, again, because of its simplicity.  Due the very nature of the Living Laser's physical manifestation, you cannot shadow him.  He is pure light, so Romita Jr. is required to reduce his line use to the absolute minimum.  The Laser's pose is dynamic and JRJR takes liberty with his anatomy to make him just a little more bendy than an actual human might be.  The use of Kirby Crackle as the only background helps put all of the focus on the reveal and keep the page clean and simple.

Unfortunately, I only have one other issue of JRJR's run on Iron Man, issue #265, but it's a winner too.  Another striking cover with interiors to match.  Hopefully, I can fill out this gap in my collection and one day marvel in the full glory of what I feel is the height of John Romita Jr.'s work.

Later in his career, JRJR began to rely much too heavily on his hatching work and pretty soon everything looked like it was made out of spaghetti or coils of rope.  His style also began to skew more blocky and this human anatomy began to look like "gooey cubes."  (imagine a perfect cube, then round off all of the edges).  His work on books like Uncanny X-men, Avengers, and later the Amazing Spider-Man exemplify this unfortunate evolution in his style.  Gone is the economic line use, the blotchy black shadow work, and the simple panel layout.  Even something as simple as a hooded sweatshirt features more lines and folds than seem reasonable.  At this point, JRJR's work is nearly a parody of itself and a sorry departure from his absolutely incredible work on Iron Man.  I used to get very excited to find that he was going to be working on a comic I was reading, but now I almost dread it.  I've seen the heights to which he can soar, so it's hard to hard to look at something that is less than his best.