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PG Tips No. 20:

Art Books On Comic Art

In a PG Tips special edition, Paul reviews three new books of and about the art of comics.

Comic Art Now
edited by Dez Skinn
Harper Collins, $29.95; Ilex Press, £20
Behind Rian Hughes’ sultry, three-toned, Chandler-esque cover with spot-varnished logo and lipgloss, this 192-page, square-format hardback artbook is the sort of comics equivalent to those portfolio-style illustration annuals and directories, giving businesses, agencies and customers a handy catalogue of assorted illustrators to choose from, complete with their contact details. Former House of Hammer, Warrior and Comics International publisher and editor Dez Skinn selects and organises 90 artists, the majority British, into seven thematic sections: Heroes and Villains, Science Fiction, The Dream World, Horror, Humour, Comic Noir and Back in the Real World. Skinn gives some artists a single page or spread while a few get up to five shots to demonstrate their versatility. Their samples range from textless single images - pin-ups, posters, covers, enlargements - to multiple panels and comics pages, all accompanied by concise captions and occasional quotes from the illustrators on their theories and media. Varied page layouts and complementary and contrasting pairings of artworks really enhance the impact of each spread as they build into a parade of themed samples. There’s a definite British emphasis here which partly ties in to the current wave of adaptations of Shakespeare and others by new publishers SelfMade Hero and Classical Comics and their artists are prominently spotlighted, notably Paul Duffield and Kate Brown. It’s certainly proof that "Britain Has Comics Talent!"

In his disingenuous foreword, name writer Mark Millar semi-joshes, "The honest truth is that the artists do all the hard work." Millar has a point that the scriptwriter needs only a fraction of the time and effort to write the most challenging, if not impossible panel description compared to the time it can take for the artist to attempt to draw it. He’s also right that first impressions of any comic are always visual. We look before we read. But we do eventually read and it’s not uncommon to find a superb-looking graphic novel lets you down completely because of its abysmal script. Comics are not solely images, but stories and storytelling, sequential art, narrative art. For Millar to declare "It’s all about the art and always has been. Anyone who thinks otherwise is only kidding themselves" makes for an amusing intro to his paean to his favourite comic artists, past masters and present collaborators, but anyone knows that without a story, their own or someone else’s, there would have been nothing for them to draw except pretty pictures. Although we remember what we see in comics, however evocative and arresting their effect, we remember more what images and words we read, where they take us and how they make us feel. The caption commentaries here give only occasional insights into these essential qualities.

Still, I’m sure for many in the buzzy commercial world looking for an off-the-peg cool style to fit their or their client’s brief, this will provide useful leads to these artists’ more extensive online portfolios. And why not blow the trumpet for our numerous homegrown talents? Inevitably, there are so many more stunning approaches to comics out there, in Britain and beyond, than can be fitted into these pages. A reference like this deserves to become an essential industry annual with twice or three times the contributors at least.

Out of Picture 2
by The Artists of OOP
Villard, $26
"Look! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a great big cool flying fish!" That "blue sky" cover image and several more inside please the eye, that’s for sure. Fourteen artists centred round New York’s Blue Sky Studios come to comics fresh from the demands and skills of animation: storyboarding, character design, layout, sculpting, art direction, illustration, concept art and, as cover artist Daisuke Tsutsumi says in his C.V., "painting pretty pictures." All of them have these tales they long to tell that won’t fit within their day-to-day duties in cartoon blockbusters and so they have to sideline them as "out of picture" and complete them in their own time. Admirable as this may be, with one exception - David Gordon, a children’s book author and illustrator - these contributors are overwhelmingly picture people (the book is subtitled "Art from the Outside Looking In"). Significantly Gordon stands out as the most, if not only, memorable storyteller in this bunch. Gordon’s The Rupture reflects on when "the beginning of the end" comes by counterpointing major historical turning points like the first A-bomb test or 9/11 with lesser, but equally meaningful moments in his mouse-headed mortals’ lives - a married couple’s last, brittle, unfinished lunch "five months after they last had sex" or a boy who loses his elder brother in a plane crash.

Everyone else here knows how to do what animation does and serve up some gosh-wow eye-candy and skilful draughtsmanship in a variety of media. Look a bit deeper, however, and their cumulative spectrum of drawing is quite narrow, most of it fitting snugly within the familiar "caricature lite" charms of pretty much all recent American animated movies they’ve worked on. I so wanted to be swept away, soaring on that flying fish, but the flimsy stories, some mere snatches of mild low-text amusement or dazzle, barely take off or sputter and peter out. Benoit Le Pennec cleverly collides and spoofs Giraud’s Blueberry and Hermann’s Comanche, though this winds up being a Hollywood Western movie shoot. Jake Parker‘s Antler Boy is a giant-killer folktale round the fire, but it ends weakly with the witch returning and we have no idea why. Daisuke Tsutsumi attempts some profundity about a reluctant Japanese warrior, a government-built killing machine, who tries to start a new life with a sweet "granny" as a farmer. Unable to hide from his violent past, he renounces anger, gives himself up and as he faces execution dreams of being reincarnated as "a vegetable in Granny’s garden." Right.

Michael Knapp‘s Under Pressure does develop a moody eco-fable, with contrasting palettes of browns for the mechanised surface world and blues for the natural world beneath, but those glowing white doves and a single feather in the last panel creak with cliché. The seductively hued The Missive by Peter Nguyen builds an intriguing scenario about a cursed family but I can’t understand why, once found, the father, who has never seen his daughter, now in peril from the curse herself, waves the messenger goodbye and, as far as I can tell, leaves him to fly a plane back with the doctor to cure her. Without a strong editor on hand, all this indulgent artistry can’t rescue such unclear, unresolved endings and emotional disconnectedness. There are a few fun visual frissons, for example the giant fish and chicken tethered to the tail of a plane and both on the menu, but what do we learn from over 40 pages of "development gallery" sketches? Overall, this anthology is sadly not so much "out of picture" as "out of story."

Studio Space: The World’s Greatest Comic Illustrators At Work
by Joel Meadows & Gary Marshall
Image Comics, $29.99
First, please don’t be put off, or misled, by the photographic front cover. The two snaps of a deserted, unidentified artist’s desk, cluttered with the tools of the trade, don’t convey the dazzling portfolios within and may suggest that this is more of a practical, hands-on manual than it actually is. Secondly, comparisons are bound to be made between this new book and Todd Hignite’s In The Studio, out in paperback last November from Abrams. Both weigh in at a chunky 320 large pages and invite the reader behind the scenes into the private studios, working methods and influences of key contemporary comics creators, all of them male. Whereas Hignite covers only ten, every one North American, alternative and a complete writer-artist, British writers Meadows and Marshall, co-publishers of Tripwire magazine, now a handsome hardy annual, survey twenty (12 Americans, 7 Brits and one Italian), most of them working in the American mainstream and about half of them mainly or exclusively illustrators of other people’s stories.

There’s no denying that M&M have gathered an impressive A to Z of big-name favourites, almost a fantasy wish-list or wet-dream for comic book fans: Brian (Judge Dredd) Bolland, Tim (Punisher) Bradstreet, Howard (American Flagg) Chaykin, Steve (Preacher) Dillon, Tommy Lee (Star Wars) Edwards, Duncan (Hellboy) Fegredo, Dave (Watchmen) Gibbons, Adam (Wonder Woman) Hughes, Joe (Tarzan/Tor) Kubert, Jim (X-Men) Lee, Mike (Hellboy) Mignola, Frank (Sin City) Miller, Sean (Criminal) Phillips, George (Enemy Ace) Pratt, Alex (Marvels) Ross, Tim (Heroes) Sale, Walt (Thor) Simonson, Bryan (Alice In Sunderland) Talbot, Dave (Batman) Taylor and last and probably least known, Sergio (1602) Toppi.

Entering their studio, we are granted only one opening black-and-white photo portrait, mostly at their drawing table. I’m not the only one who’d have liked to see more, ideally. From there, each illustrator’s section is structured around a three-part interview, in which all the authors’ questions have been removed to leave only their subjects’ responses. In ‘Getting Started’ we hear about their formative years and career breaks, then in ‘Studio Space’ we find out about their workplaces and techniques, at times in considerable detail, concluding with a look through their major works accompanied by some brief comments.

With more limited space per artist than Hignite, M&M have no room to give samples of the many influences cited by these creators, aside from a charming and incongruous 1988 British girls’ comic, Judy, in Phillips’ section. Still, there are some graphic delights here, from Phillips’ oil paintings, one of them a striking quadruple self-portrait, to a non-PC, raunchy advert strip for men’s fragrance Dior Homme by Chaykin which, not surprisingly, never saw print. There is a good amount of technical information in the ‘Studio Space’ parts, although those readers wanting further practical visual clarification of how these talents craft their images and stories may be disappointed as there a very few step-by-step explanations or how-to sequences here. While we get to enjoy a few roughs, sketches and layouts, some before-and-after pairs so you can compare the changes from pencil to inks or inks to colour, and one focus on the stages of a self-portrait painted by Fegredo, the majority of the pictures shown are finished, perfected and inspiring, if not rather intimidating, to any wannabe novice.

The secrets behind how they arrive at these stunning images remain largely undemonstrated and secret. Guillermo del Toro comments on this in his introduction: "And tell you they will, all that they know about themselves and their art or the world. And perhaps you may catch a glimpse of what makes them special, what makes them tick… But the rest, you will find, is a mystery even to them." Perhaps finally this process and its sources are inexplicable.  But I wonder if these mysteries could be unlocked, if not by the artist himself, then by a particularly perceptive biographer, critic or fellow artist, or, who knows, perhaps even by a professional profiler, graphologist, art therapist or psychoanalyst? Let’s hope for further visits and visitors to these studios, these inner sanctums nurturing extraordinary imaginations. Someone might yet unlock their mysteries of comic creation.

Posted: July 13, 2008


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Featured Books

Comic Art Now
edited by Dez Skinn
(Harper Collins, Ilex Press)

Out of Picture 2
by various

Studio Space:
The World’s Greatest
Comic Illustrators
At Work

by Joel Meadows
& Gary Marshall
(Image Comics)