It happens to everyone at some point: You’ve been chugging along, engrossed in your favorite title for months and, suddenly, you open up the latest issue, and everything has changed. Sometimes it’s a subtle change: figures look slightly off, shadows are heavier, proportions, perhaps, are slightly odd…but sometimes its radical. Maybe the photo-referenced, realistic look you have grown accustomed to for the last 20 issues is suddenly supplanted by wide-eyed manga characters and primary colored backgrounds. Either way, if you read comics for very long its going to hit you: the big switch. It’s the downside of the incredible diversity of visual styles present in comics today, a sort of aesthetic whiplash that has less to do with artistic quality, and more to do with what a person has grown accustomed to. Artists are constantly shuffling between titles, and as publishers have mostly abandoned the concept of a “house style,” a unified look for characters that artists must attempt to follow, when the big switch comes, to a fan, it can feel a lot like a game of Russian roulette.
Some cases are more drastic than others. For instance, Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy, has ping-ponged between the traditional George Perez/Neal Adams flavored pencils of Brad Walker and the wildly expressive, manga-meets-C.C beck art of Wesley Craig.
Some would argue that story is king, and as long as the art isn’t flat-out incompetent, they’ll stick to a book. Still, the wild stylistic shifts that today’s artistic diversity enables can leave a fan pondering a quintessential aesthetic question at the root of graphic storytelling: at what point does wildly different art, mean a wildly different story experience even when the same people are actually writing the scripts? How would we evaluate Watchmen today if it would have been penciled by Bill Sienkiewicz, or George Tuska instead of Dave Gibbons, or if the art would have been shifted to say, Dave Cockrum, around issue #6?
Inconsistency has been the bane of fanboys long before Kirby passed the reins to Romita in Fantastic Four. In prehistoric times when an especially skilled cave-painter got swallowed by a saber-toothed tiger, there were probably fur-clad fanboys whining about the line weight of his successor. Nevertheless, today’s hand-offs seem more troubling in nature than what fans of the past have grown accustomed to.
Decade-long artist runs on mainstream titles have been a rarity for quite a while, but one cannot deny that with the death of the “house style” the ramifications of an artist switch can be immense. Now, when the switch comes sometimes fans have to face not just a shift in artistic subtleties, but a re-building of the artistic foundations of the whole visual world. When the change comes fans have to wonder, will the torch be passed to an acolyte of Adams, or a modern minion of Mignola? A super-detailed Alex Ross realist, or an artily stylized member of the Bachalo brigade?
Its an odd conundrum to argue against artistic diversity, but open minds can be shut pretty quickly when a reader opens their favorite comic and finds that the whimsical, manga-eyed cartoons of one artist have suddenly been replaced by, a gallery of over-hatched McFarlanesque thugs.
As publishers increasingly lean on synergy to develop their respective universes, this sort of artistic diversity brings up interesting dilemmas. As inter-title events like “Dark Reign” or Blackest Night increase in duration and breadth, encompassing time spans of years and crossing dozens of titles, how much attention should publishers be paying to inter-title consistency in terms of broad visual styles? Likewise, how important is consistency of vision in a “family” of titles. If you are trying to sell readers of Mighty Avengers on Dark Avengers, what is more important: giving each book its own distinctive style, or establishing visual unity to make cross-over readers welcome?
Wesley Craig Art, Guardians of the Galaxy 19Digging into the stacks of comics from the mid-to-late 80’s, it certainly seems like there’s something to the idea that the increased diversity of art has fractured the shared “experience” of the interconnected comic book universe. Flipping through the early 200’s of Uncanny X-men, about the time John Romita Jr. left the title, for example, there’s a good deal of artist swapping, but no real instances of stylistic whiplash. Barry Windsor-Smith has a more roughly sketched style than Mark Silvestri; Silvestri packs more detail in the panel than Jackson Guice. However, things like basic anatomy, and degree of ‘realism’ seem pretty constant artist to artist. The biggest departure in this time-frame comes in issue 219. Penciller Bret Blevin’s fondness for slightly elongating his faces and penchant for subtly exaggerated anatomy sets the issue apart, but the gulf is still not as wide as recent switches.
Comparing Uncanny with issues of X-Factor from the same time, the transition still seems pretty smooth; The reader is simply going form place to place in a consistent visual world. Stylistic subtleties aside, the New York of Uncanny and the New York of X-Factor look like the same place. Crossover reading was seldom jarring, even if quality varied form title to title.
Likewise, Amazing Spider-man #283, published about the same time as the aforementioned X-men issues, features a tie-in with John Buscema’s legendary “siege’ story arc from Avengers. Back in ’86 if you were interested in why The Absorbing Man and Titania were so hot to get out of Manhattan, you could easily pick up the corresponding issues of Avengers and dig in to the action without having to get acclimated to things like a wildly different sense of perspective or level of detail in the art. Once again, different places, different artists but all the same coherent “look”.
Compare this sort of unity to something like Marvel’s cosmic-relaunching Annihilation, where a consistent style cannot even be maintained within a single story event. The visual cacophony of traditional art, illustrative, photo-realistic art, and even graffiti-inspired art all collide from segment to segment. Reading trade collections nowadays, especially struggling titles, or cross-over events, is often like participating in some unintentional game of artistic “exquisite corpse”. The basics visual underpinnings of a world can transmogrify completely in the space of one fill-in issue.
Diversity may invigorate modern, graphic storytelling and liberate it form the conformity of old, but the whiplash effect is still a very formidable thing. The aforementioned back-and-forth between Walker and Craig in Guardians of the Galaxy is a great example.
Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s writing on Guardians, with its cunning blend of tones, is a finely tuned machine, like a robot walking a tightrope. Guardians is a book with lots of sight gags and one-liners, but it’s also a book populated by borderline psychopaths like Drax The Destroyer and Gamora. Background jokes co-exist with mass destruction and close-up wetworks. Balance is everything in the title. When art styles volley back and forth, that balance is almost impossible to maintain.
Fill-in Artist Wesley Craig is very talented, with a singular visual style, and a knack for creating expressive, elastic figures that are reminiscent of both the manga school of comic art and the aesthetic of post- Bruce Timm animation. To work effectively in the style Craig has chosen definitely takes skills that artists in the more traditional American comics vein never develop. Yet, craftsmanship and talent aside, Craig’s art has an unbalancing effect on the equilibrium that makes a book like Guardians work.
With its use of exaggerated facial expressions and highly stylized backgrounds, there can be little doubt that Craig’s art pushes the tone of Guardians further into the realm of the humor book. Admittedly, the disconnect between Craig’s style and the look of series regular Brad Walker was exploited quite cleverly in issues 11 and 12, a two-part story which has Phyla-Vel and Drax exploring the realm of the dead. Craig’s pencils, combined with some deliciously moody coloring by Will Quintana, really put the reader in new frame of reference. The art created a perfect and surreal change in atmosphere for a story that was relatively self-contained and unfolding in a wildly divergent setting.
Brad Walker Art, Guardians of the Galaxy 20Perhaps the editors were hoping for the same sort of effect in the recent “Lost in Time” arc. Nevertheless, when Craig took the reins to illlustrate this tale of the Guardians bouncing between alternate universes in the wake of the War of Kings, the effect was quite different. Once again, writers Abnett and Lanning seem to be trying to exploit the dichotomy of styles for effect. The problem is, the “Lost in Time” arc is not as self-contained as the previously mentioned two-parter. The “Lost in Time” stories have had a major impact on the title, and a the arc, with its nostalgic crossover with Jim Starlin’s original Guardians, is one that was hinted at since the earliest issues of the title. The reader should not be disconnected from the story in any way, even if the disconnect is an intentional and artfully calculated one.
Craig’s minimalist flair and fondness for manga-style wild-takes really sells the comedic moments of the arc. Beats in issue 19 like Star-lord’s premature aging, or Mantis’s inconvenient moment of nudity, pop off the page. But there’s no grit in Craig’s style, especially as colored by Nathan Fairbarn. Abnett and Lanning pen some of the wittiest post-modern gags in comics, but they also conceive galaxy-shaking, world-annihilating action juxtaposed with moments of uncompromising violence. Craig’s art makes it all seem like fun and games, even when the Guardians are traipsing through a genocidal post-apocalyptic future. At the arc’s conclusion, when magus starts skewering guardians on swords, the interactions of the plastic figures plays out like a Warner Bros. cartoon. Magus might as well be whacking people with a giant mallet. Guardians is a funny book, but it’s not a funnybook. That makes all the difference. The end result is that a paradigm-shifting storyline plays out like a lark.
None of this has anything to do with Craig’s level of talent. It’s simply a question of style.
That’s the real kicker of the diversity dilemma in comics today. Fans end up resenting talented artists not because of the quality of their work, but because of where editors put them and when. It’s not fair when Craig gets beat up by fans on message boards, but beneath the shortsightedness and proclamations of who “suxx” and who “rulz”, there’s a valid grievance. Comparing Craig to Walker and making some sort of subjective pronunciation of who is the better artist is the old fallacy of comparing apples to oranges. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that an apple and an orange are two completely different fruits, and if you’re baking an apple pie, you’d better buy apples.
Perhaps it is all on the readers. Maybe it’s their obligation to be more flexible, roll with the punches and just appreciate that they live in a time when there’s more to comic art than endless variations on Milton Caniff. Or maybe writers need to step up and tune themselves into incoming artists more, (of course, this presupposes a writer knows when the big switch is imminent). The solution may lie in the hands of publishers and editors, but there’s a slippery slope there as well. In a lot of ways, the death of the “house style” has been an unequivocally good thing. After all, the alternative of going back to the days of dictatorial editors and stringent style limitations is likely unappealing to most artists.
Regardless of the solution, the big switch is probably around to stay. Enjoying comics today means no matter how great your favorite book is, eventually, things will change.