Friday, April 01, 2011

A Life in Four Colors (Part Thirty-Two)

1965 was a year in which I learned that not all comic book writers and artists were created equal—at least, not in talent.

Prior to this year, I was pretty much a comic book omnivore. While there were some characters I liked more than others, I'd rarely pass up the opportunity to read any comic book, and I seemed to enjoy the mediocre and second-rate books every bit as much as the great stuff. But I had become more and more aware of styles as my comic book collection grew, and by 1965, I had begun to recognize a few favorites even without seeing their signatures or the credits.

The first artist whose distinctive style really appealed to me was  Steve Ditko. Ditko's art was quirky, his characters were often dismally plain and ordinary, and his action scenes lacked the raw vitality of Jack Kirby's or Gil Kane's. But the emotion, the moodiness, and the normality of his world vision appealed to me. Artistically, I came to love his heavy ink lines, his bold black shadows and accents, and his flexibly distorted anatomy. I came to recognize those distinctive Ditko hands, those contortiionist poses, those striking angles. I soon realized that I could even spot Ditko's inkwork over Jack Kirby's pencils, as in the remarkable Fantastic Four #13.

At the same time, I realized that some of my favorite war comics were drawn by the same guy who had drawn those great Hawkman stories in Brave and Bold (alas, he didn't stick with the book when Hawkman got his own series--and as much as I like Murphy Anderson's work, it never captivated me the same way). That artist was Joe Kubert, and he was the primary reason I fell in love with DC's war books.

Then there was Wally Wood--perhaps one of the best "linemen" in comics. His bold inks, his remarkably cinematic backgrounds, his alluring women--there was no one like him. Daredevil went from a second-string hero to one of Marvel's best when Wood signed on for a few issues. He made T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents every bit as exciting as the best Marvel or DC titles.

Carmine Infantino's clean, angular linework and distinctive architecture was every bit as distinctive as Ditko's, but in a totally different way. Where Ditko's art was rounded and fluid, Infantino's was angular and sharp-edged.  His Adam Strange epitomized all that was science fictional in comics, as far as I was concerned.

And then there was Jack Kirby. No artist captured more explosive energy on every page than Kirby. He truly defined the Marvel look in the mid-1960s, which was probably why Marvel brought Kirby in to illustrate the early issues of virtually every series they launched. If anyone could make a book a hit, it was Kirby. And I came to love his art.

And those were the artists I loved... but they weren't the only artists I came to recognize. Once I realized that not everyone drew the same way, I started looking for other defining styles, and I realized that there were other artists whose work was identifiable just by the way they drew. Gil Kane, Murphy Anderson, Russ Heath, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito (I didn't know who did what, but I recognized their collaborative work), Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Curt Swan, Jim Mooney, Mike Sekowsky--I could spot their work the minute I flipped through the book.

That was a real eye-opener for me. Until then, I had thought of comics as almost an assembly-line production; it never really occurred to me that different people might draw the same characters in different ways. But once I realized that there was a reason that Superman looked different in Justice League than in Superman, for instance,  I made my first significant move towards appreciating comics as an art form, not merely as entertainment.

And that awareness changed my life, believe it or not. Once I recognized the people behind my favorite comics, I wanted to know about those people. As I merged that awareness with my recent discovery of fanzines,  I was laying the groundwork for my future without even realizing it.

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