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Good Walls Make Good Reading


(Soundtrack: Breeders–Pod)


I spent a few hours perusing Arlen Schumer’s The Silver Age of Comic Book Art yesterday. Neilalien has spoken very highly of the book, while TCJ-messageboarders were far less kind (I even got into the act–talkin’ through my hat, as usual!)…

Have to say, I think Neil is closer to the mark… As you know, if you’ve read this blog at all, my interest in superheroes is narratological, rather than art historical–still, a work cannot live by structure alone… you’ve got to put some meat on those bones, and that is indisputably the artist’s responsibility! I disagree vehemently with Gil Kane’s contention that “the only thing that makes [superhero comics] worth reading is the art”–but of course the interesting artwork is what attracted people in the first place, and made them care enough to donate their time and energy to the consensual narrative-building enterprise that my dissertation will explore!

Schumer won me over with these introductory remarks:

There has never been a coffeetable book celebrating their [the silver age artists’] work, showing the actual printed comic book art–with Ben-day dots on cheap newsprint–as it was transmitted to and perceived by the readership. Other books have been illustrated with the black and white original art, and as beautiful as that is, that’s production art, as far as I’m concerned. The recent spate of reprints, though they serve a noble purpose, remove the original coloring and replace it with garish colors on harsh white paper. Although most of the comics in those days were poorly printed with off-registration rampant there was something beautiful about them too.

You are correct sir!!!

There are chapters on Infantino, Ditko, Kirby, Kane, Kubert, Colan, Steranko, Adams. Personally, the only choice I take issue with is Kubert. Sure, he’s good, but I would have preferred to see Wally Wood in that spot, or Don Heck, or Nick Cardy, or Mike Sekowsky, or Ross Andru, or Werner Roth, or even Barry Windsor-Smith (if only for the immortal Avengers #66-67!)… Anyone care to explain to me why Kubert belongs with the rest of these guys? Schumer’s writing certainly didn’t convince me, and neither did the artwork in that chapter…

But this is more than just a coffeetable book. It actually makes an argument–and rather gracefully too: it’s all done through chapter arrangement; you don’t have to see it if you don’t want to… Unfortunately, it’s an argument I disagree with rather strongly!

Schumer begins with Infantino, describing his work as the acme of streamlined, suburban modernity… Frankly, I call that damning with faint praise. Infantino was more than just Curt Swan/Murphy Anderson-squared! I’ll admit that I’m prejudiced in this regard, and that I’m more familiar with the artist in his post-executive Spider-Woman/The Daring New Adventures of Supergirl/immortal “Trial of the Flash” phase, but I think Schumer is really overemphasizing the “slickness” of Infantino’s work. Sure, the settings (even the ones in space!) are suburban, but these backgrounds are there precisely to play up the dynamism of the agents that move through them! That’s how I see it, anyway (and I did have quite a few of the sixties Flash comics at one time…I loved them! even the “Flashgrams”, which were a far cry from the Bullpen Bulletins, I’ll tell ya!). To be fair, Schumer does allow Infantino to defend himself against the charges of gentility, by printing quotations like this one:

On covers, I felt that … one way to irritate the eye is by creating negative space with shapes. You can put things off-angle. Or you can put a large object in with a tiny object, and that would force the eye to look. And it would offend it, it irritates it a bit, but it takes you in… once you get the person in, you hold them.”

This sounds like Russian formalism. The aim of the artist is to defamiliarize. You take something the reader/viewer knows well (like 1950/60’s suburbia!) and “make it strange”… To me that’s a lot more interesting/challenging than taking a fantasy character like Green Lantern and rubbing his hyper-realistically rendered nose in squalor! Clearly, Schumer disagrees. Implicit in the structure of his book is an argument in favour of a qualitative progression (or, at least, a progression towards “seriousness”) from Infantino to Adams…

Schumer gives Neal Adams the last word on the Silver Age, and I think most of us understand that the “promise” he speaks of was, in fact, more like a prophecy of doom, and the “road” leads right off a cliff, with Jim Lee at the wheel:

You have to think of Kirby’s impact in a general sense. Kirby’s a phenomenon as well as an inspiration. But nobody says they want to draw as well as Kirby. His work is like this kind of wall; it will never get better, it will never get worse. It’s just there–it fulfills itself.

My work is more like a promise. My work says, ‘here’s the road Here are some of the things you can see along the road. And there’s no end to it’

My impact, I think, is on a very personal, individual level. If you do good work and you succeed, the things people take away from it are as individual as they are. The depth of the work was sufficient to reach different sparks in each person.

In a sense, my work said you now have permission to do great art in comic books. That if you think you’re only worthy of producing fine art or becoming great in another field, I now present comic books as potential. The challenge is, this is what I’ve done; what can you do?”

Obviously, Neal Adams’ project did, in a sense, signify the end of the Silver Age… But then, so did Steranko’s, and I have to say I would have preferred to see the book culminate with J.S’s design-revolution, rather than N.A.’s “gritty photo-relevance”. Isn’t a work of art supposed to be a “Wall”, i.e. unique, “Other”? Memorable for what it is, rather than for what it teaches? Gene Colan or Neal Adams? Who’s more interesting? Can there be any doubt? Who the hell wants to go to drawing school when they open up a superhero comic?

Still, it’s an interesting book and very much worth your time!


Good afternoon friends!
Dave

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9 comments

  1. your interest, as you stated before, is more in narratology (which visually finds its complement in the arrangement/juxtaposition of panels, something which steranko–who during his brief tenure in the comics medium was not a master draftsman–had reached the pinnacle of innovation. his appeal is in the exploration of arrangement and in the awareness of the larger world of graphic design which he brought to his work. adams’ work, on the other hand, though still experimenting with odd panel shapes is not as concerned with narration and more concerned with the infra-panel (as opposed to inter-panel) impact of his images and the area in which he excelled was primarily in representation of the human form. in that sense you’re right in tracing the lineage of image artists back to adams, but surely he can’t be responsible for the void of formal illustrative concerns which inform the work of the later artists. in “mainstream” superheroics there are very few people who picked up the ball from steranko (exceptions being frank miller and uh…frank miller? although without the pop sensibility. there are others i’m sure, but he’s the one who comes to mind. there are people who pursued formal narrative innovation but they tend to exist outside the “mainstream” and in general i think are hindered by their lack of skill/interest in depicting the human form. personally, as an artist and an audience, i like seeing the human body represented naturally (i’m not sure which word to use actually. “classically?” “realistically?” i.e. not as icon). There are a few artists whose skill in iconography is sufficient to keep enthusiastic about viewing their narrative (chris ware) but most just can’t hold my interest. i desperately want complex stories ouside of the superhero genre but also desire a realism in representation which excludes most of the

  2. “alternative” companies, like fantagraphics/drawn&quarterly/topshelf etc. getting back to my thought, steranko is really an exception in the mainstream (and we are discussing the mainstream when we talk about gold/silver/bronze ages) and he showed a possible direction that was not taken in favour of the conservative school of visual narration of which adams was the most skilled exponent. actually thinking about it, maybe we should see adams as the first artist of the modern age, not the last of the silver. (he has also made the point about being generationally unique, younger than the last generation of artists and older than the next generation, coming into the field at a time when the popularity of the industry was down and the slots were all filled by veterans. am i making this up? probably a little.) okay that’s it. i was motivated to respond just to say “i want to go to drawing school when i open up a superhero comic” but then, i am in drawing school.

  3. You make some good points, Horatio,especially about Neal being the first of the “moderns”, instead of an authentic “Silver Ager”… However, I think you can make the case that, where Adams’ work constitutes a radical (reactionary?) break, Steranko’s project does develop more organically out of the Kirby/Ditko/Infantino/Wood/Colan traditions…

    As for modern successors to Steranko–well, I would say that Simonson might fit in there, the early Giffen, along with McFarlane (having just read his Infinity Inc.’s I can tell you that they’re pretty interesting to look at), Erik Larsen, etc… most of these never approached the heights that J.S. reached with SHIELD (although I do like some of Simonson’s stuff just as much!), but they were very much concerned with design!

    I don’t want people thinking I hate Adams though–I like his X-Men quite a bit!

    Dave

  4. You make some good points, Horatio, especially re: Neal being the first of the “moderns”, instead of an authentic “Silver Ager”… However, I think you can make the case that, where Adams’ work constitutes a radical (reactionary?) break, Steranko’s project does develop more organically out of the Kirby/Ditko/Infantino/Wood/Colan traditions…

    As for modern successors to Steranko–well, I would say that Simonson might fit in there, the early Giffen, along with McFarlane (having just read his Infinity Inc.’s I can tell you that they’re pretty interesting to look at), Erik Larsen, etc… most of these never approached the heights that J.S. reached with SHIELD (although I do like some of Simonson’s stuff just as much!), but they were very much concerned with design!

    I don’t want people thinking I hate Adams though–I like his X-Men and Kree/Skrull stuff quite a bit!

    Dave

  5. you’re definitely right about steranko stylistically, but his design sense is so far beyond any of the work being done by them (maybe most indebted to eisner which is not to say that he actually takes it from eisner, just that eisner did similar compositional work) i think it definitely constitutes a new aesthetic being introduced into the genre. you’re totally right about simonson, i was looking through some of his work when i got home and wished i had added him. although i like it less than some of his earlier stuff, his ff work reaches toward some of the same ideas (i wish it reached farther, but that’s another point). someone else to note would be howard chaykin (obviously all of these gentlemen have had extensive contact in which to exchange influences) whose work can be much more pop!-oriented than any of the others, especially (with ken brunzenak) in his use/awareness of text as design element. basically, i think the difference is really a difference in inclination–some motivated by the aesthetics of graphic design, most by illustration. i’m always appalled at how little most people in the comic field seem to be aware of the last, y’know, CENTURY of graphic design work. ashley wood, for example (i just bought the new issue of popbot) has nothing to say and cartoons even his painting, but his work is beautifully designed and i can spend quite some time looking at it. there are obviously people like dave mckean who incorporate both disciplines. it’s actually most apparent when you look at people who have superlative illustration skills which of them are also design-influenced. (not jon muth/kent williams/george pratt, yes dave mckean, bill sienkiewicz.)

  6. you’re right about todd mcfarlane–his most compelling qualities as an artist is his sense of composition because god knows what is being composed is not terrible compelling.

  7. another artist to add to the discussion is bernie krigstein. eisner, krigstein, steranko, miller/simonson/chaykin–all very interested in the mechanics/design of comics as well as the content.

  8. Horatio:

    on Eisner/Steranko: Schumer does play up that link, convincingly I think–you might want to check out the book!

    Dave

  9. Haven’t read all or any of the comments about Arlen’s book, but can only say that I enjoyed it greatly. As to why Kubert was included in this book, I’m of the opinion that he, Kubert, is as good as anyone on the list, I’m looking forward to arguments why he didn’t belong in the book. It’s all opinion, mostly, which is why I no longer enter into arguments or make lists of the top ten artists, for example. There are just too many good artists. Which is why Arlen needs to prepare a sequel.

    Allen Smith

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