Quick! Who’s a better comic artist, Jim Lee or Alex Ross?

Okay. Some of you said Jim, some said Alex, maybe a few said neither, but I suspect most of you said, “They’re both great. They’re just different.” Fair enough, but what makes them different? Well, you say their styles are different. So, the question, as it applies to comic art, is why do we react to certain art styles the way we do?

Style, according to the gigantic Random House Dictionary I inherited from my Dad, is defined as “a particular kind, sort, or type, as with reference to form, appearance, or character.” In other words, the way it looks compared to other examples of the same type of work. But why does the style of one artist excite us, emotionally resonate with us, so we seek out other work by this artist and look forward to what they do next? Conversely, why does the work of this same artist leave someone else cold and may even generate an animosity toward the artist, even though they’ve never met?

This is a fascinating subject to me and I’ve studied it most of my life, but I have to confess I don’t have the answers to these questions. I don’t know that anyone has. But, while I don’t have answers, I have uncovered a few facts, or constants.

Fact One: Just because you don’t like the style of an artist doesn’t mean they’re a bad artist. You’re reacting to how they draw, not what they draw. A prime example of this can be found by firing up the ol’ Retrospectroscope and looking back to the early days of Marvel Comics. I suspect there were a lot of fans who denigrated the work of Don Heck during that period. But, really, what Mr. Heck was guilty of was not being Jack Kirby. None of us are. In fact if you look at Don Heck’s work, especially when he was allowed to ink himself, you’ll find he was a very stylish, solid storyteller. On top of that, when he inked Kirby’s pencils, he added a very pleasant veneer that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

You can find examples of this throughout the history of comics. If someone doesn’t draw like your favorite artist they’re relegated to the Dungeon of Bad Artists. Take a second look. You may be surprised.

Fact Two: The Devil is in the details. Whether we react favorably or not to an art style it’s usually because of the little things. Jack Kirby was, is, and always will be, The King of Comics. His contributions to the visual language of the medium cannot be overstated. Yet, there are a lot of fans who don’t like his work. When asked why they’ll usually say something like, “He draws those square fingers.” Or, “His anatomy is all wrong.” Or ,“He draws those random squiggles on arms and legs.” While all these things are true, they’re missing the Big Picture. Kirby created an illusion of movement on the page that very few have been able to replicate. His drawings are packed with drama and emotion. He made the comic book page seem larger that it really was and, for my money, he’s never been outdone in staging the most energetic, kinetic, action scenes in the history of the medium.

Another interesting fact about details: Most of the mainstream comic audience prefers art with a lot of detail as opposed to art that is cleaner and contains less line work. This detail could be the rendering style, or it could be the artist meticulously drawing each rivet in a machine or each building in a city block. Why? I have no idea, but a possible answer could be that the reader subconsciously sees this as the artist really earning his money. He’s taking the time to add all these extra lines and details. He’s working harder than the artist whose work is more open. Actually, both styles take about the same amount of time. Deciding whatnot to draw is as time-consuming as putting in all those extra lines. Also, the fact is that all those lines can hide a lot of drawing errors.

Fact Three (and my favorite): Many fans are repulsed by art that is “too cartoony.” This one I may have discovered a reason for. I think that maybe the more iconic, or cartoony, art is looked upon as making fun of the subject matter, not treating it with the respect it deserves. For so long comics had to fight for any small amount of respect it could get from the mainstream media, that presenting the art form in any way other than the gravitas it deserved was self defeating. Any art style that wasn’t completely serious in its intent was to be hidden in the corner, swept under the rug. No, really, comics aren’t funny anymore. This is serious stuff. We can address any subject matter any other artistic medium can. As long as our people are wearing masks and spandex.

The sad thing is the Publishers have bought into this, with certain exceptions. The DC line of comics based on Warner Animation tv shows have been around now for 20 years. I’ve spent about half my career working on those books and am proud of much of the work my colleagues and I have done in that forum. We entertained a lot of people. But those books are looked on as the ugly stepchild of the company. The animated books, as they’re known, won a lot of Eisner Awards, yet that fact wasn’t touted on the book’s covers, as it was on the covers of the Vertigo books that won Eisners. Today, the creators who work on those books receive lower page rates than the artists who work on the regular DCU books. Why? To be honest I really don’t know. It could be a very sound fiscal reason I’m not aware of. I do know that if you wanted to draw one of the regular DCU books in that style it would be discouraged, unless you were Bruce Timm (NSFW!!!) or Darwyn Cooke, or someone else who worked on the production of the tv series.

This reaction to cartoony art is why it has been so difficult launch a successful Captain Marvel or Plastic Man monthly. The Mainstream Comic Fans don’t want their heroes to be charming or whimsical or God forbid, funny. Unless, of course, they can do these things while being drawn in a “serious” style.

As you can see, art styles and how we react to them is a subject that could be discussed through the night and into the next day, but I’ve taken up enough of your time. Another thing I’ve learned is that if you hang around comics long enough, your tastes will change. You may come to embrace art from the past that you didn’t care for when you were younger. A style you were in love with ten years ago may not hold up well. I consider myself very fortunate in that I like a lot of different art styles and will be able to study them forever. I may never uncover why I like what I like, but then, The Journey is The Goal.

Until next time…

Rick