Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Changing the Eye

At some point in his career, Gary Frank decided to draw everyone like they have been dead for two days with sunken cheeks, lipless smiles and bulging eyes. The man can still draw an incredible action sequence, and his line is as clean and flowing as ever, but those faces are just a little bit disturbing.

Frank is still a fine artist, but his style has evolved out of the boundaries of my tastes. He has produced some stellar work, right from his brief stint as the launch artist on Motormouth, Marvel UK's worst idea ever. (Which is saying something.) Maybe he just isn't suited for super heroes and the stuff he has produced for non-spandex stories has been very good. Frank would kill on a horror book.

But he's just moved on, and it's impossible to hold that against him. Evolving their style is just something artists need to do, and I'll take an uncomfortably radical new direction over creative stagnation any day.

After 30 years of weekly comics, 2000ad has seen some of its stable of art-robots go through some stunning changes. Artists such as Carl Critchlow and Clint Langely have gone far past being dodgy Bisley impersonators and truly found their own unique artistic voice, with Critchlow's scratchy exaggeration giving strips like Lobster Random and the odd Dredd tale a fantastically different vibe, while Langley's fumetti-by-way-of-Frazetta work is something unique in modern comics.

And then there is Mick McMahon, who went from one of the most solid artists in the earliest days of the comic to big-footed brilliance on Dredd before turning in something truly extraordinary in his Slaine artwork, which looked like it had been carved into wood before being slapped down on the page. His style continues to evolve to this day, with a long digression into the world of Sonic the Hedgehog leading him to produce strange, angular and harsh art that sings. McMahon has always been an acquired taste, and while somebody like Gray Frank has moved into directions that leave me cold, the appreciation for McMahon only grows with age.

In the American market, many independent cartoonists could switch from style to style on the same page, and never cease to experiment. These are balanced by a notable few who have achieved the perfect style for the type of stories they like, and craft a hugely respectable career out of iconic images.

In the mainstream pool, George Perez has maintained his status as the most reliable artist in comics and you always know exactly what you're going to get with his art. John Byrne has evolved and slipped back a couple of times, but can still try his hand at something new when he feels that rare inclination.

Matt Wagner and Frank Miller have reinvented their style more often than is immediately obvious, and Mike Mignola took a couple of years to find his comfort zone, and since then has carved the most respectable of niches. Brian Bolland (along with fellow brit Dave Gibons), perfected his immaculate eye almost 40 years ago, but still goes off the ranch with work like Mr. Mamoulian.

Once again, in all these cases, while the initial change in style can be incredibly jarring, the reward is worth any breach of the comfort zone. Unfortunately, sometimes a change in style is less for artistic reasons, and more for financial and productive reasons. These days, it's easy to look at Rob Liefeld's early work and laugh, but at the tail-end of the eighties, it showed enthusiasm and joy that overshadowed any anatomical shortcomings.

His art style almost disintegrated under business pressures and a misplaced confidence, and eventually becoming a sad industry joke. There is still hope that one day Liefeld may be able to still claw back vestiges of an artistic reputation, but it seems pretty unlikely.

But in general, moving onwards, moving on up has got to be treated with respect. Some artists fail and fall, some achieve new heights, some move back to what works best for them. But we can't expect to drag our favourite artists down to our level of stagnation. Let them find their own path, and the destination will be all the richer.

Even if they do all look like zombies.


M.Emery said...

gary frank always struck me as steve dillon lite, gotta agree with the mcmahon call, i wasn't a fan as a kid but now cant get enough of whatever he does or has done.

Bob Temuka said...

I was going to mention Steve Dillon as somebody whose art has changed a lot more than I had realised, but I'll save that for a separate post on the glory of Dillon.

I'm embarrassed to admit how disappointed I was as a kid when I cracked open a new 2000ad and saw McMahon on Dredd. Compared to the sublime cleanliness of Brain Bolland or the kid-friendly gooey action of Ron Smith, McMahon just looked ugly.

Man, if I could go back in time, I would give my eight-year-old self such a slap. I could look at McMahon's art all day long now, finding more to enjoy in his craziest moments.