This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on May 19, 2016.
Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
When an artist with a singular aesthetic arrives on the scene, comes to dominate the scene, the discussion of their art changes. People come to just think of it as “Kirby,” “Allred,” and, yes, “Cooke.” How do we talk about Darwyn Cooke’s art without falling back on meaningless descriptions such as “retro”?
Before I dive into your question this week, I want to take a brief moment to reflect how lucky we are to live in a world where you can ask it. In all seriousness, that we can banter about the work of someone like Jack Kirby fills me with joy. Anyone who knows me well knows that I adore “The King”, both as an artist and a human being. He was a genuine good guy whose output and impact on the comics medium is unmatched in the Western hemisphere. We’re still regularly talking about him twenty years after he left this earth, and I don’t see that changing at all in the future.
But we’re even luckier to be reading comics from modern greats as well. It’s unfortunate that sometimes it takes the passing of a giant like Darwyn Cooke to remind us of this. While Kirby built an incredible foundation of work within the medium, artists have only continued to build on what he did. We can look around at the artist alley of big conventions in San Diego, New York, and Chicago to see immense talents like those you mentioned, and others like Mike Mignola, Stan Sakai, and Jim Steranko all still with us. That makes me feel incredibly lucky.
Maybe all of that sounds like the most maudlin of spiels, but I don’t really care. Artists like Kirby, Cooke, and Allred have given so much to comics, and had a dramatic impact on countless lives as a result. It doesn’t matter when these creators came around or whether they’re still with us today, they deserve all of the respect and recognition we can give them.
Part of that comes in the form of writing about comics in criticism, columns, reviews, or any other format. It can be the smallest of bite-sized comments about a specific issue or a significant text based in scholarly research, either way it’s creating a record of response to the art form. There’s plenty of people talking about comics as a medium today. Despite it’s relative niche spot in culture, you can find loads of websites (most run purely on goodwill and passion), and more books being published and classes being taught every year.
However, there’s not a whole lot of training or formal education present in the discussion of comics art. While we all learn about concepts of narrative, character, theme, and the broad strokes of writing from our basic K-12 education, there’s often not much space reserved for art. What there is often becomes optional by high school and is focused on classical forms and projects in earlier grades. The concept of learning how to read artwork or appreciate aspects of design and composition, especially those that apply to comics, is unlikely at best. As a result we see a false divide between writing and art as two separate aspects of comics, and an overwhelming focus on the former over the latter.
That doesn’t make it right though, and it does a disservice to the creators you mentioned in your question who helped to make comics what it is today.
I think that a big part of the reason why people don’t write as much or as well about comics art as they could doesn’t just boil down to no one teaching them how though. I think a big part of it is also being scared to try and fail. Look at the comments on any film review and it’s apparent that pretty much everyone thinks they have an excellent grasp on story. We talk about it so often that everyone thinks they’re an expert, no matter how much evidence to the contrary there might be. Artwork isn’t the same way and that leads to a hesitance in speaking about it because no one likes being wrong.
That fear is misguided though. I’ve been paid to professionally write about, review, and edit comics for about two years now, yet I have no doubt that if you just looked at what I’ve published in the last month you could find plenty of statements about art with which to quarrel. I’m sure I’ve gotten something wrong recently. It’s not because I don’t try to write clearly or because I don’t research comics like a madman or because I don’t understand my own taste. It’s because discussing art, any form of art, can be difficult. That’s why we keep learning and writing, so we can get better at it. You learn from your mistakes, which is exactly why I’d recommend to those who write about comics to try and fail.
When someone looks at Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier and describes it as having a “retro style” and leaves it at that, they’re playing it safe. “Retro” is a broad word that means a lot of different things, but mostly just means old fashioned. While aspects of DC: The New Frontier could certainly be described as “old fashioned”, it’s a very broad brush to paint with for so complex a work. Maybe the first word that pops into your mind is “retro”, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best description or analysis of the comic. It’s a starting point.
Writing “retro” and moving on for an artist like Cooke, or doing the same with “bold” for Kirby or “cartoonish” for Allred isn’t trying. It’s lazy. I won’t say those adjectives are wrong, but they are definitely not helpful. It’s okay to look at the output of someone like a Cooke or a Kirby or an Allred and feel like you don’t possess the tools to do their work justice. You’re probably right. I still don’t feel like I possess the best toolbox in the world to do so. But the solution isn’t to take out your hammer and treat everything like a nail. You’ve got to start finding new tools and learning how to use them.
That’s why you don’t stop with “retro” and move on. You question what you mean by retro, and start to dig into your own head. You go to the library or Google and pull down books that have this sort of “retro” art style, and add some new ideas to the mix. Then you start to write about Darwyn Cooke and give it everything you’ve got, not just what you know you already had. Artists like those we’re discussing deserve to be discussed and understood, and that can only happen if we actually work on our understanding.
That’s probably a lot less intimidating when talking about your run-of-the-mill comics though. Want to chat about a recent issue of Marvel’s infinite stream of Avengers titles? Unless you’re tackling Ultimates #6, what’s on the page probably won’t seem overwhelming to you. Yet when we talk about legends (living or passed), the bar seems that much higher. When you look at the work of Kirby or Cooke, you know it’s great. Detailing why and how that is is something of a challenge though. They’re the iconic makers of comics and it helps to have some starting points to consider just how to consider their work.
So for what it’s worth, I’m going to throw out a few brief ideas on how to start discussing comics art, no matter how imposing it may seem. I don’t want to write a manual, but if I’m going to tell people to try and fail, I ought to at least not walk away without providing one or two pieces of advice.
A great starting point is to consider what you are reminded of when you look at art. Do you recognize a panel layout, a style, or a pose? The story of art is one of generations and peers, where everything that came before and everything is currently happening is impacting everything else. Artists do not operate in a vacuum; they are consumers as well as creators. You cannot look at the work of Darwyn Cooke or Mike Allred and not detect the DNA of Jack Kirby (although this is true of almost all superhero comics to some degree).
This doesn’t mean you should try to describe artists in terms of other artists either. Discerning what influenced someone’s work can help you detect the focus and goals within it. You can’t break down art like a chemistry experiment with different amounts of specific influences. Ultimately each artist is creating something that is completely their own, even in an homage. Yet knowing how they got to their own creation is helpful in discussing it.
Perhaps the most obvious piece of advice when it comes to discussing comics art is to simply describe what you see. That doesn’t mean to create a carbon copy of what is on the page with your words, but to detect what is notable to you. When you look at something like Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier, what leaps out at you?
For me it’s the simplicity of his line work. The way in which he uses only a few precise strokes to craft a recognizable and easily distinguished face that is capable of conveying a wide array of emotion with only slight adjustments. There’s never any doubt how his characters feel and that emotion is rendered as simply as possible. This beautiful simplicity is carried into his broader designs and the layout of the very pages. The manner in which he depicts a dinosaur or fighter jet resemble the fundamentals of these concepts. He distills each object and setting into its essence without being so minimal that they have no character to them. The very layout of the comic projects this as well based on a 3-panel grid in which most panels are projected wide across the page to allow readers to be immersed in carefully chosen moments.
Once you recognize what stands out to you in the artwork and where it comes from, you have a better ability to relate the most important aspect of all: how it impacts you. Everyone sees something different when they look at a page of comics art. Everyone feels something different too. There’s no such thing as an objective review or analysis; your relationship with the art is important. Your ability to help others understand that relationship is based in how well you can discuss the art itself though.
So looking at DC: The New Frontier one last time, here’s what I can say (in short). It’s clear to me that Cooke is calling on early comics influences and his time in advertising. You can see the bold heroism of Kirby’s forms and the crystalline distillation of concepts found in classic ad work. It calls back to the look and feel of the 1960s. His line and character work bear this out too. He is interested in showing characters who clearly represent their identities, so those identities can be borne across the page. Hal Jordan’s steel-jawed resolve is apparent, as is Martian Manhunter’s thoughtful, slump shouldered pondering of Earth. Even more quiet characters like J’onn feel important and big thanks to his design of the page though, showing them in great, wide panels.
And all of this hits me with the feeling of importance. When I read DC: The New Frontier, I see characters who are both aspirational and reflective. They show me traits that I admire in incredible moments and contain humanity in the slightest of changes. I see myself and my best self in Cooke’s artwork. So as he tells a story of an impossible threat and the ability of courageous, determined people to overcome it, I find their strength in me. His ability to pull me into his stories allows this comic to paint an incredible portrait of hope for the future that makes my heart sing. That’s what Darwyn Cooke’s art in this comic does for me.
And I think that’s a better description than “retro”.
So my parting advice would be this: As you read comics and turn around to discuss them with your friends or write about them on the internet, don’t be dissuaded or discouraged by self-doubt. You know what you are looking at and you know how it makes you feel. You can always speak to those things and learn about both artwork and yourself in turn. Only by trying to discuss art and studying it can you improve.
Doing that will not only allow you to better understand art and yourself, but to celebrate the artists who inspire you to do all of this in the first place.