This article was originally published at The Nerd Cave on January 4, 2014.
Ten Grand is the debut title of J. Michael Straczynski’s Joe’s Comics imprint at Image Comics. It is also the best title being published under the brand, combining elements of Hellblazer and Supernatural to create a pulpy, horror-driven detective story. The protagonist, Joe, is equal parts John Constantine and Sam Spade, driven more by grit and guts than his wits. Locked within that noir style is an intriguing premise and a love story that feels honest. All of this is brought to you life by the renowned art of Ben Templesmith.
Templesmith is best known for his work on 30 Days of Night and Fell, a gruesome vampire comic. His style is truly unique within the comics industry, aiming to create impressions, rather than imitate reality. He blends inks and colors in a blur that allows for the design of both beautiful and truly awful characters. His monsters, like the vampires in 30 Days…, are exaggerated messes of fangs, eyes, and outstretched limbs. They feel otherworldly in origin. However, Templesmith is capable of creating beauty as well: angelic sigils or the pure face of a lost lover that shines in the night. All of his line work is enhance by a limited color palette that typically relies on muddled shadows of red and black.
Templesmith’s style fits the surreal world of Ten Grand perfectly, making the avatars of heaven and hell blend into the everyday menagerie of Joe’s hometown. A normal city is turned into a place where demons may lurk behind every corner due to the looming shadows and strained sunlight. His ability to craft extraordinary creatures and terrains is obvious, but it’s in the construction of human characters that really enhances this comic. Joe is able to appear dirty and exhausted, the perfect noir detective, while his lost lover can appear ethereal in her beauty. This is largely due to the simplicity of his line work and contrasts within the coloring. Foggy browns bring out stubble while in the next panel a shining white enhances a purer character’s skin. The coloring acts as shorthand that reveals as much about a character’s nature as an issue’s worth of dialogue.
Unfortunately, due to scheduling problems, Templesmith was forced to leave the series with issue #5. C.P. Smith, best known for his work on New Invaders and Wolverine: Noir, replaced him. The change in artwork is a devastating blow to the quality of Ten Grand and it’s overall effect as a comic.
Smith’s work on New Invaders is admirable he combines a muted palette with photo-realistic drawings. Unlike many artists who use photo references in comics, his panels do not feel posed or traced. His work is readable and the compositions are natural. In that regard, he is more similar to Tony Harris than Bryan Hitch. Those same strengths also mark it as being very different from Templesmith’s work. While one focuses on feeling, the other attempts to capture reality. Both have relatively simple linework, but those lines are used in vastly different manners. The colors and lighting of Smith’s work are much paler in comparison to the passionate red and black hues found in Templesmith’s.
It’s that disparate change in style that causes Ten Grand to read like an entirely different book after the transition of artists. Joe’s stubble and haggard nature is almost entirely lost. The monsters transform from being grotesque abominations to theoretical physics experiments. The mood of the comic shifts from a dark noir thriller to a quiet ghost story. Although the latter may not be inherently bad, when placed next to the former, it is disruptive at best.
Briefly consider the appearance of Joe’s face in the above panels. In the first panel, from Ten Grand #1, shadows consume Joe. Only his cheekbone and nose are capable of reflecting the light of a streetlamp, while the rest of his face is immersed in shadows. The area around his eyes is almost entirely black with wrinkles and brow emerging like cracks in glass. This draws attention to the crease of his brow and the dark thoughts that consume him at this moment. His face is somewhat amorphous, capable of assuming a variety of shapes. The feel of Joe’s head is more important than its actual appearance.
In the second panel, from Ten Grand #5, Joe’s features and form are more prominent than light and gestures. He bears a square jaw and stiff upper lip, crafted by a few simple lines. His eyes are much clearer, defined by the pupil, iris and lid. Although it may not be considered realistic, all of the core forms of the human face are clearly defined. It’s a clear enough picture that if you were to encounter the photo reference, you would most likely recognize them. Unfortunately, this leaves the new version of Joe unrecognizable from the one seen before.
Imagine taking a classic novel and having it split between two distinct styles. For example, imagine if For Whom The Bell Tolls were started in the original prose of Ernest Hemingway, but halfway through William Faulkner wrote the second half of the same story. The plot might be the same, but the story would become unrecognizable with Faulkner’s more verbose stylings overwhelming the sparse language upon which the novel is founded. Although both of these American writers should be lauded for their unique prose, placed side-by-side as pieces of the same whole, it makes for a story that is, simply put, bad.
This is the same problem that is faced by Ten Grand and many other comics which replace artists in the middle of a story. Although new merits may arise to replace what is lost, when the comic is read as a whole it destroys the continuity of tone and style. No matter how good the replacement is, the change itself detracts from quality on a significant level.
That isn’t to say that changes in art are always bad for an ongoing comic or mini-series. Ales Kot’s Zero serves as a perfect counter-example, while series like Hawkeye and Prophet reinforce the point. Zero tells the life story of an American spy in non-sequential order. Each issue of the series tells a self-contained story illustrated by a new artist. The pictures below feature the main character, Zero, in 2018 and 2019, only a year apart. Yet the two drawings are significantly different. They reflect a change in Zero’s appearance and a significant change in his attitude.
However, this counter-example only helps to reinforce the central point. In Zero, each issue functions as a discrete unit of a greater whole. The changes in style do not break up continuity, but separate every issue marking them as unique points in a long-lived life. The breaks in art are purposeful, so the comic is not read as a single ongoing comic, but as a set of comics that can compose a greater whole. The changes in art reflect significant changes in time and character, making them purposeful choices, not accidental breaks.
This sort of effect needs to be considered by writers and editors when considering production schedules and changes in an ongoing comic. Writing is no more the heart of the comics form than art is. Only through the combination of these two pursuits can a comic even exist. Artists are no more replaceable than the writers that plot the story. To decide to replace an artist, especially in the midst of an ongoing story has a dramatic and disturbing impact on the story.
It is the sort of decision that separates mass entertainment from genuine art.