What makes comic art good?

For anyone who has been following this blog, you surely have noticed the recent surge of comic reviews. I’ve been graphic novel bingeing lately. It is a medium that I’ve always appreciated, but I would still consider myself under-read in the genre.

Over the last month, I’ve been struck by the question of what makes comic art good? Awards such as the Eisner’s recognize artists for selected works. Various reviews on social media outlets and retailers also comment on the skills or lack-thereof of particular comic artists. Is one to follow the masses in estimating the value of the art in a particular comic? After all, art is subjective. Isn’t it?

Of course art in the broader sense is subjective. Near-absolutes do exist —  few would argue that Billy Joel is a better pianist than Chopin or that Dan Brown is a better writer than Shakespeare. Art, however, is perhaps even more challenging to judge than music or literature. “Realism” may impress the most amateur of viewers, but just because a painting looks realistic doesn’t make it good. This is especially true in comics. Scott McCloud, in his book Making Comics, writes that “no matter what style of image you choose, your pictures’ first and most important job is to communicate quickly, clearly and compellingly with the reader.” I agree with this wholeheartedly and to judge the art of a comic, we cannot simply just look at the pictures.

I recently read two graphic novels by Matt Fraction: Hawkeye and Invincible Iron Man. I enjoyed both comics, yet the art of David Aja (Hawkeye) and Salvador Larroca (Iron Man) are quite different. Both artists receive praise for their respective works in the blogospheres; however I find Matt Fraction’s artwork to be superior in its ability to communicate quickly, clearly, and compellingly with the reader. Let’s look at a couple of pictures:

screen-capture

Above we have a shot of Tony Stark doing one of the things he does best — acting the playboy. The artwork is stunning in its realism and I’m sure the balding forty-five year-olds teenage boys reading this comic are quickly turning the pages to see if his lady friend undresses further. Maybe you happened to catch the panel below. The lower panel is awful in terms of communicating. Both Stark and the kid in the left look in pain and if Stark is going to be contemplative, he should be gesturing such instead of maintaining his stoic pacing down the hallway. His inner thoughts are sacrificed for realism.

screen-capture-1

The scene above shows Ezekiel Stane (Iron Man’s nemesis) talking literally through his teeth. Don’t ask me to tell you what the expression is on his face — all I can guess is that he’s constipated.

Don’t get me wrong, I would kill to have half the talent of LaRocca and he does some really cool things in the action sequences, but in many panels, the art has left a lot to be desired in terms of communicating emotion and mood.

I think back to the biography of Stan Lee I saw on Netflix (With Great Power) and Sean Howe’s book, Marvel Comics: the Untold Story. Both accounts explain how Stan Lee would demand that his artists overemphasize the action to leave no doubt in what is being communicated. A fist pounding on the table should thwack hard against the flat surface. A punch should send its victim airborne. It takes such a great level of artistic skill to show subtle emotions and even if they are perfected, they could still be lost on the reader. Stan Lee understood this and his storytelling and ability to communicate is what has made him THE name in writing comics (of course, being paired with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko was perhaps equally important).

So now that I’ve unduely ripped on Fraction/LaRocca’s  take on Iron Man (it’s not a bad comic), let’s look at Fraction’s most recent work, Hawkeye. Artist David Aja takes a minimalistic approach to the art, but is extremely effective in communicating with less.

hawkeye

This is a fantastic page from the comic. In the top panel, Clint Barton (Hawkeye) maintains casual conversation, but remains focused on his target. Then, as he takes careful aim, we get a sequential moment-to-moment portrait of Kate Bishop watching him loose his arrow. The art works wonderfully in communicating the mood of the scene. Barton never shifts his focus, and Kate Bishop slowly shifts her attention from chit chat to Barton’s action at that moment. I also am a huge fan of the the bold pen lines that manage to keep proper anatomical proportions. Minimalist art is common in manga, but Aja doesn’t tread anywhere near the style of the large-eyed caricatures portrayed in the Japanese style.

Let me show just one more awesome page from Hawkeye, that takes artistic liberties once again, but still communicates to the reader.

hawkeye2

Once again, we have Aja’s broad-stroked lines that convey so much. The top panel shows Barton with a single-raised eyebrow and smirk as he proudly leers at Bishop. She coolly sits on the stool reading the paper and then looks up with a friendly smile, holding her Hawkeye mug as if she is posing. The next panel shows this pose being captured in a self-realizing black-and-white newspaper shot, followed by a semi-eye-rolling glare in the final panel.

I make no claims at being a connoisseur of art in any form, but I enjoy artistic creativity, economy (conveying a lot with minimal brush strokes), and the artist’s ability to communicate emotion. Aja nails all three of these in Hawkeye and the vision that Fraction and Aja portray is lock-step the whole way through. Like prose, art is a tool for communicating and in many instances, simplifying people and settings does more to tell the story than rendering a photograph-like rendering of the scene.

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