Saturday, February 21, 2009

Panel Madness: On The Seventh Day

I have to admit I was somewhat taken aback with surprise when I was approached by Plok who runs the excellent Trout In The Milk blog (if you've not read it then you're missing out) to be one of the contributors to his daring exercise in blogging cross pollination, Panel Madness. The idea appeared to be a simple one, for a week six separate writers would do a daily entry each with the same theme, that theme being comic book panel art. That was all there was to it.

I deliberately didn't read anyone else's entry until mine was totally finished because I knew that if I did then I'd change what I'd done and throw it all out the window. That's the beauty of this project, none of the writers have spoken to each other, well, at least I haven't, and as such we've all got very different ideas. I have read all the other entries now and I hope mine comes close to be as entertaining and informative as theirs are. Go and read them before you read mine and you'll find the link on where to visit next at the end of my contribution. Beware, when you enter the Panel Madness you will be challenged and, at times, somewhat disturbed. It will be well worth your while...I promise!

The contributions so far are:
Sunday: Pillock talks Sci-Fi and Steranko
Monday: David Allison talks Criminal
Tuesday: The Fortress Keeper talks Kirby Challengers
Wednesday: Derik Badman talks Rubber Blanket
Thursday: Sean Witzke talks Paul Pope
Friday: Tucker Stone talks Leandro Fernandez
Saturday: well that's me...
---------------------------------------------------------------------
The only enemy of art is taste (Thomas Hoving)

Comic book art, despite the best efforts of a number of people, will probably never be afforded the same respect as other art forms. Too many people look at the art as being juvenile, an outlook that has nothing to do with the art itself, but more to do with the medium and the characters represented. The prejudice associated with characters such as Batman, Spider-Man or Superman run deep and wide, they’re characters that most people grew up with and generally grew out of as they got older. That the same characters can be translated into films that make hundreds of millions of dollars and can attract serious film-makers, indeed Oscar winners (Batman: The Dark Knight sported one Oscar winner, a two time Oscar winner, several nominees and has been nominated for an acting Oscar – something that would have been unheard of twenty years ago, not withstanding Jack Nicholson’s involvement with Tim Burton’s Batman) means very little to people who still see comic books as cheap children’s entertainment. Nothing anyone says, or does, will change that perception overall. However, as individuals, tastes can be influenced and changed as time goes by.
(THIS IS CALLED ART: Image taken from the essential 'Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein' site. On this site you can see several dozens of examples of Lichtenstein's art theft, alongside the original panels that Lichtenstein used as his source material. The original panel was drawn by Mike Sekowsky, the other panel is credited to Roy Lichtenstein)

(AND THIS IS CALLED 'SWIPING'. Feel free to tell me what the difference is...the first image is from Fantastic Four #149, drawn by Rich Buckler, the second image is from Fantastic Four #79, drawn by Jack Kirby)

The shame is that a lot of people who carry those perceptions often overlook the fact that some of the best art of the last century was created for the comic book medium. The same art snobs who decry comic book art will still gush over notorious art thieves such as Roy Lichtenstein, an artist who made millions by merely swiping existing comic book art and translating it into a pop art format. Unlike his contemporaries, such as Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein appeared unable to create an original piece of art and was almost too reliant upon the works of Jack Kirby, Bob Powell, Ross Andru, Jack Abel, John Romita, Joe Kubert, Mike Sekowsky, Gil Kane, George Tuska Dick Giordano, Vinnie Colletta and many others, artists whom Lichtenstein never gave credit to for original work which he stole, let alone paid, and artists who’s originality was beyond Lichtenstein’s capabilities. At least Warhol could create art from nothing; Lichtenstein could only create art from existing art. His ‘original’ art is limp, insipid and pales alongside the comic book art he routinely stole. Even comic book artists such as Rich Buckler and Rob Liefeld, both known for swiping, have created their own images over the years and are not entirely dependant upon stealing other artists work. Certainly Buckler, who, at times, is held in derision by some collectors and fans of comic book art as a master swiper, has his own unique and very dynamic style which was very evident on his own creation, Deathlock. Buckler has also proven himself to be a painter of fine arts and it is for the latter that he is held in high regard by European art collectors, although the majority has no idea what Buckler has done in his ‘previous’ life.

Upon my wall I have several paintings by Norm Breyfogle. I recently showed scans of those paintings to a work colleague who gushed over the composition and textures of the art, but whom then appeared embarrassed when she realised that the art featured Batman. Another Breyfogle painting, that of musician Bob Dylan, was embraced, but the original cover painting to the Batman one shot, Birth Of The Demon, a stunning image with lush greens and yellows, made her uncomfortable when she realised the main characters in the painting, that being Batman and Ras Al’ Ghul in a battle to the death. My response was that the images should not influence her enjoyment of the art overall and indeed if I enjoy a piece of art it matters not what the subject matter of that art might be. If it’s good then it’s good. Art does not need to be painted by Rembrandt in order for it to be publicly displayed, but, sadly, unless the art has a ‘serious’ connection, such as Art Speiglman’s Pulitzer Prize winning (and brilliant) Maus or works by Will Eisner and R Crumb, comic book art isn’t taken all that seriously by either the art world at large or the masses.

Over the years I’ve made my admiration for artists well known. Like most people I admire certain artists and can’t stand others, again personal preference is in effect here and in my own way I guess I’m just as much an art snob as those who adore Lichtenstein. The difference is that I can admire art by artists whom I’d not normally care for, as long as the art is good. I do find it difficult to see past imperfections in art, such as Liefeld’s exaggerated anatomy, or Frank Miller’s rushed chicken scratching, but that says more about me than the art itself. So what art would I say moves me? What art has made me sit there and gasp for breath and why?

Too many images. Far too many. The medium is full of artists who, if they’d not drawn comic books, could have easily made a career as commercial artists or fine artists. Jack Kirby, the King, was an artist whose vision surpassed anyone. As John Romita once told me, “You’ve got to remember, this is a guy who created a living planet as a villain.” No-one had done a character on such a scope before, and those who have done it since have clearly followed in Kirby’s footsteps. Kirby was the man who laid the bedrock for those to follow, and there’s quite a few artists, and filmmakers, who have made millions of dollars from the bank of characters either created or co-created by Kirby (while Kirby died, not poor, but nowhere near wealthy), not only mining those characters but also the poses and images. John Byrne has made a cottage industry out of re-creating Kirby’s classic cover for the first issue of the Fantastic Four. Steve Ditko, an expressionist in the making. Frank Robbins, an artist who was often compared (and fairly I might add) to Milton Caniff, but an artist whom several other artists I’ve known and still know admire above Caniff. I discovered Caniff via Robbins and I still prefer Robbins. Alan Weiss, who has told me that he never undertook a regular series due to boredom and the fact that after one or two issues he’d said all he wanted to say about a character, yet an artist who’s fine ink line makes great artists look spectacular and ordinary artists look great. And let’s mention his pencil art. Alan is one of those rare creatures, an artist who doesn’t have a library of stock poses, can create the most incredible art and is still surprised when others praise him. There’s so many others, Jim Starlin, Ross Andru (who created art between panels, and always wanted to capture the action between the standard shots), Steve Leiahola, Norm Breyfogle, Frank Brunner, Gene Colan (shadows and light), Don Newton, Bob Budiansky, Jim Aparo, Michael Netzer, Neal Adams, Bernie Wrightson…the list is almost endless.

With that in mind selecting several dozen images, let alone one, is nearly impossible. Still, if it has to be done then it has to be done. I’ve chosen two images, one is what I consider to be a near perfect page of art, the other is what I’ve always considered to the most chilling image from any comic book, a perfect marriage of art and writing, totally within the story and, both in or out of context of the story, is nothing short of terrifying. The perfect panel from a perfect collaboration.

I first became aware of Dave Gibbons as an artist via UK magazines such as 2000AD and Tornado, although I only became aware recently that the man known as ‘Big Ed’, who kindly gave me a free three-sided boomerang as a kid, was also Dave. Live and learn. I loved his work on Dan Dare, Tharg’s Future Shocks and Dr Who and as such was very aware of what he was capable of before his work began to appear in comics published by DC. Gibbons was then, as he still is now, a stellar artist with a style that is as unique as most non-American artists are. Citing influences as varied as highly detailed and rendered English artists like Frank Hampson, Don Lawrence, Frank Bellamy, and Ron Turner along side Americans such as Wally Wood and Will Elder, Gibbons' style is a mesh of the realistic and the heroic. As such there isn’t much Gibbons can’t draw and make believable. Via Tharg and 2000AD I was also aware of his writing partner, or, at least the man who I believed was his main writing partner, Alan Moore. If you’ve read this far and have any interest in comic books then you don’t need to read the next bit, skim over it and come back in a paragraph.

Alan Moore is easily the best writer to ever venture into the comic book world. There’s not much that can be said about Moore that hasn’t already been said before. He’s won almost any and every award known in the comic book industry and is one of those rare people who can dictate his own terms, but rarely does unless his trust is breached. He’s a man who can pick and choose who he works with and what he does. The beauty of Moore is that he is uncompromising to the extreme – this is a man who has turned down massive amounts of money in order to maintain his own personal integrity. A person should earn in a lifetime what Moore has refused in a year. Even people who do not read comic books are aware of Moore, be it through his writing or by seeing his name associated with movies such as From Hell, League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V For Vendetta or the soon to be released Watchmen, all movies made without Moore’s participation (and indeed without Moore’s credit, by his own demand) but movies that make people seek out the original source material, be it the dense and powerful From Hell with Eddie Campbell through to the still amazing, and relevant, V For Vendetta with David Lloyd. Alan Moore is as close to a genius as the comic book world has ever had as a writer. On his best day no-one touches him. On his worst day he’s still better value than 99% of the other writers out there; such is the power of Alan Moore.

Moore and Gibbons landed at DC during the now legendary first ‘British Wave’, which included other luminaries such as Alan Grant, John Wagner, Alan Davis, Paul Neary, Simon Bisley, Brian Bolland and several others. As an interesting aside, artist Norm Breyfogle was also often identified as being part of this influx of creators, such was the individual style of his art, although it was quickly established in the pages of Detective Comics that Breyfogle is indeed American. At that stage in my life I was excited beyond words to see artists and writers whose work I knew and admired gracing the pages of Batman and, no offence to talents such as Jim Aparo, Don Newton or Gene Colan, making the books so utterly different and exciting. When Moore and Gibbons were paired, again, for a Green Lantern back-up story, I was almost beyond myself. Then Moore and Gibbons offered up the 1985 Superman annual.


‘For The Man Who Has Everything’ is possibly the single best Superman story of the 1980s, indeed the only story that comes close to it is the Moore penned ‘Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?’, a story where Moore was paired with Curt Swan, George Perez and Murphy Anderson. ‘Everything’, exquisitely drawn by Gibbons, remains just as fresh today as it did over twenty years ago, the art leaps off the pages and Moore shows that there’s more power in writing by not overloading pages with exposition, a common flaw of American comic book writers such as Roy Thomas and Chris Claremont, amongst others. The book builds through two plots, both running concurrently and both related to each other. In short, Superman is having his birthday. Three guests arrive to celebrate this occasion, Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman. All come bearing gifts only to discover that a foe of Supermans, a creature named Mongul, has already captured Superman in his own private trap. From there it’s all downhill as the reader discovers Mongul has power which is second only to the God-like Superman and is intent on not merely crushing the world, but also the universe. It’s a classic story and full of several iconic panels and pages. The energy that Gibbons gives to Moore’s script is evident in every pen stroke. Indeed Gibbons recently told me that, “…the Superman story was a lot of fun to do, which is probably why it turned out well.” That’s understating it somewhat.

The best panel, in my eyes, came towards the end of the story and shows why Moore and Gibbons were, and are, considered to be amongst the best there is. However, allow me to explain the story behind this panel. As any long-time reader of Superman is aware, the character operated for decades with its own moral code – to stand for truth, justice and the American way (I’d hate to think that ‘American way’ also included such practices as racial segregation). Superman would never kill any living being, no matter how evil they presented. This restraint allowed for characters to keep coming back, ad nauseam, as the reader knew that no matter what happened, even if the villains killed innocents, Superman would never retaliate. Generally a writer would explain this away by having Superman enter into a long argument with himself, resulting in the character explaining to the villain that he’d, ‘taken an oath never to take a life’. I’m not sure about anyone else, but if I were battling Superman then that information would cheer me no end. No matter what you’d do, he’d only lock you up to escape again.


Moore and Gibbons didn’t bother with this clause. They knew it existed and with that knowledge managed to create the most chilling Superman panel of all time. By the end of the story Mongul has explained himself to Superman, taunted and tormented him. He has given Kal-El his hearts desire and exposed it as a lie. The expression that Gibbons gives Superman is as evil as the villain itself. Finally Gibbons let’s loose – his Superman is now void of thought and is acting upon pure hate and anger. The facial expression is one of pure loathing and vengeance. Mongul has Superman where he wants him when Superman’s eyes go blank and he utters one word, “Burn.”. It’s not a scream, or an exclamation, it’s a statement of fact. In that one panel, with one word, Moore and Gibbons have decided that the ‘oath’ Superman has taken means nothing now. He doesn’t fight for a planet, he doesn’t fight for truth or justice, or indeed even the American way, he is fighting out of hate for Mongul, hate for the violation that has been forced upon him. Superman is no longer merely fighting Mongul, he wants to kill him. This is a character with the powers of a God (my common problem with the character) finally unleashed in a battle to the death with a villain who can fight him to a standstill. That one panel still rocks me to the core. People can argue that there are stronger panels and sequences in that story, and they’re possibly right. However, in context, that is a panel that tells you all you’ll ever need to know about the man within Superman. Push the right buttons and all concepts of right and wrong, all morality, all lessons learnt, go right out the window. Superman will not fight for the betterment of the universe, he’ll not fight to stop Mongul; he’ll fight to the death for himself. This is not Superman as drawn by Curt Swan or Murphy Anderson. Finally.

That’s the one panel, and story, that I continue to show people how good comic books and their artists can be. And each and every time people have come back saying how impressed they are by the work of Moore and Gibbons. From there it’s a simple step to Watchmen and from there the world is their oyster. That is the power of comic books. That is the power of the artistic skills of a visionary, as opposed to a copyist such as Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein and his own copyists might have made more money, but they don’t have the imagination or application to create art of such high standard.

Roy Lichtenstein would have loved to have laid his hands upon this panel. There isn’t anything he could have done to improve it though, it exists in it’s own right and it exists as part of a concept that clearly Lichtenstein and his followers could never understand; sequential art. It’s one thing to take a panel, blow it up, apply some Ben-Day and poor colours, add an insipid text balloon and pass it off as original work; however the true creator of Pop Art is the original artist. Dave Gibbons is the true artist here, not the copyist. Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore created a butterfly out of thin air, Lichtenstein and his contemporaries merely pinned moths to walls. Lichtenstein might have made more money out of that panel than Gibbons might make in his life, but mere expense is no indicator of good art. It has often been said that taste is the enemy of art, in the case of Lichtenstein this is right, he had the taste to pick the best panels to steal, in that regard he was one of the greatest enemies of art.

That’s what separates the artists from the copiers. Dave Gibbons is one of the many hundreds of thousands of reasons why comic book art isn’t merely good, it’s spectacular! It is art that should be proudly displayed in galleries and museums across the planet, to be celebrated and not shunned. Pick up a book, pick up a page and share it with the world. You’ll feel better, trust me.

I hope you've enjoyed this Panel Madness week as much as I have. Now back to Plok.

-----------------
Many, many thanks to Lyndal Beer, Norm Breyfogle and Chad Eglinton for their input and assistance to this article, and Plok for making it happen.

5 comments:

plok said...

Danny, a terrific entry! Whatever you do, don't change the link to me at the end...I'm using it for something, a hosted contribution that just fell into my lap...

More in a moment!

plok said...

I'd certainly say that to ironic-ize that panel would've really been the height of Lichtenstein's method...but yeah, he couldn't've done it, could he? It would've looked beautiful, but unfortunately it seems to defeat all abstraction: this panel means what's in this panel, and nothing else...the possibility for arch commentary is non-existent, this is not found art, this is art itself, in service to story. Can you imagine the reaction, if this were hanging in a gallery somewhere?

"What's this one from? Is that Superman?"

"It's Superman."

"Well, what's this all about? What does it mean?"

"Ah! You see, it's a reflection of the cultural..."

"No, idiot, I mean what happens in the story...!"

It isn't an "iconic" image, this one; it belongs to something.

Good show!

Anonymous said...

Surely by the same reasoning one could say that any Mills and Boon story is just as good as War And Peace?

Danny said...

It'd depend on your overall point of view. Personally I akin Lichtenstein to Mills & Boon and Gibbons/Moore to War & Peace, that is if we're going to accept that W&P is the higher quality product.

Holly said...

Oh I do love this Panel Madness stuff. I'm nobody special, dragged along for the ride, and enjoying the hell out of these posts.

You're making what I think could be a tricky point very well here; while anybody with a sense of fair play would scowl at what Lichtenstein has done, it's easy then to say that comic art must deserve being doomed to "juvenile" status -- that it cannot be exalted to the level gallerygoers would appreciate as art.

So if you can't hang it in a gallery, how's it art, eh?

Despite the conceit of talking about a single panel here you manage to bring in everything about the story, the writer and artist, and the context, all of which are necessary and which pretty much guarantee that, as Plok pointed out, this'd never work on a wall, ripped from its story.

And therein lies its power, or so I believe after reading what you've written here, and there too its worthiness as a subject for Panel Madness Week -- however counterintuitive that seems when I thought I liked best the completely self-contained panels I saw at the beginning of the week, but you've made me stop and think and reconsider.

For which I couldn't thank you enough! I love it when things make me do that.