This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on January 12, 2016.
Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor 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…
Ishinomori : Scarves :: Villalobos : [blank]? Show your work.
I suspect that anyone who knows the work of both Shotaro Ishinomori and Ramon Villalobos also knows exactly where this question is heading. Filling in this blank is not a matter of opinion or cleverness; there is a correct answer. However, before I get to that answer, I’ll build out the logic for solving this standardized comics test question.
Let’s start by examining the relationship between Ishinomori and scarves. I’ll admit that I’m not as familiar with this creator’s work as I would like, but I know enough to at least see where you’re heading. For those that are still in the dark though, Ishinomori is a beloved manga artist whose fame is only dwarfed by the likes of Osamu Tezuka. He created series like Kamen Rider and Super Cyborg 009, which would later be developed into anime and live-action (or tokusatsu) adaptations. Work on these and other series helped to define the adventure genre in Japanese storytelling from the 1970s forward, and be easily recognized in famous American adaptations like Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.
This is all to say that Ishinomori is a big deal. I know enough to recognize that, but also still acknowledge my familiarity with his work isn’t anywhere near what I would like it to be. However, even a passing level of knowledge is enough to know that scarves were far more common on his heroes than they are in real life. Take a look at this poster featuring some of his creations below.
The most recognizable characters in that bunch are from the two series I just mentioned: Kamen Rider (top-left on the motorcycle) and the team of Cyborg 009 (centered). You’ll notice they are all wearing distinctive scarves in addition to their sci-fi or superhero genre costumes. It’s not a common accessory in adventure stories, and especially in these genres. Try to think of a popular hero at Marvel or DC or a recent sci-fi flick that prominently featured a be-scarved character. Maybe you did, but I couldn’t after two minutes, and that’s all the time I had for that particular exercise.
The point is that this piece of clothing stands out simply for its prominent inclusion in Ishinomori’s work. What’s more is the way in which he utilizes this element of costume design. The scarves are never forgotten within the work itself. They only leave a character’s neck if lost or destroyed, and are treated with as much attention as everything else on the page. That’s simply good craft though, and based on my understanding Ishinomori could be called a master.
What is even more interesting is how he continually uses the scarves to enhance individual panels and the action between them. Just flip through some of the previews of his work available on Comixology and you’ll see what I mean. These scarves are used to convey a sense of motion and direction. The way they float in the air shows a character falling and how they whip behind someone when they are flying. Also note how the direction and positioning of these scarves help to guide your eye through the page. They’re not just an affectation in Ishinomori’s work, but a tool.
So what is Ishinomori’s relationship with scarves? He favors them as an element of costuming, featuring them far more than his peers and rendering them with careful and intentional detail. Furthermore, he uses them to enhance his work as a storyteller, favoring them as a visual instrument.
Now what sort of thing does Ramon Villalobos have a similar relationship with? What item of costume or clothing does he favor? What does he show special attention to detail with that connects multiple works? What is sometimes out of place in superhero comics, but works for him? What enhances his storytelling as well as his style?
It’s shoes. The answer is shoes.
I’m not going to go into how and why Villalobos loves shoes either. The truth is that I’m not even a novice when it comes to appreciating this (or almost any) element of fashion and Rafael Gaitan already covered it far better in this interview. If you CTRL+F down to find where “shoes” pop up, it’s easy to see the passion and understanding present. These are two gentlemen, loosely defined, who know what they are talking about. They appreciate what shoes say about the person wearing them and how all the finer elements of define make any pair their own unique statement. It’s the kind of inspired conversation that makes you want to learn more about shoes and pay a little more attention to what’s on your feet.
Even as a relative idiot on this topic, the interest and exploitation of this single element has been clear to me for a while. It’s why I encouraged Raf to do the interview and opened up one of my own by asking Villalobos what sort of kicks Darkseid would wear. It’s apparent in a lot of his work, but I’m most recently a fan of what he did in Nighthawk.
Nighthawk is a series you should read for a whole lot of reasons. Villalobos and writer David F. Walker make for a killer team that combine ultra-violence and black humor into a brutal examination of urban violence and how individuals respond to their surroundings. It’s pretty goddamn great, and it’s a damn shame it was cancelled so early.
One small element that is worth examining in greater details are the shoes Nighthawk wears. I don’t know the first thing about shoes and fashion, as I’ve already stated, but I could still see these as an important part of the character and story. They speak to Nighthawk’s character as someone who stayed close to the streets, relies on his own athleticism to survive, and is ultimately interested in utility over style. Superman might be able to wear big, shiny boots, but Nighthawk isn’t bulletproof. He has to run and jump to dodge bullets, so a well-fitted pair of black sneakers is the perfect solution.
The tread on those shoes showed off his focus on inflicting violence as well. These aren’t standard sneakers, they are made to climb and tear off skin with a well-planted kick. Villalobos regularly highlights that with close ups of the character booting out teeth and fracturing ribs. Each close up serves the mixed purpose of focusing on the violence itself, showing how it is done, and spotlighting a key element of the character’s costume that reflects the character himself.
Simply put, it’s really smart storytelling in addition to scratching Villalobos’ itch for drawing kickass footwear.
This isn’t simply a random coincidence between two talented comics artists in different eras and on different continents. You could change up that Miller Analogy by replacing Villalobos’ name with that of almost any other comics artist with a well-defined style and ouevre in order to discover a different answer. Artists tend to fixate and fascinate on different elements of reality, whether they be based in clothing, anatomy, the natural world, or something else entirely. You could make an attempt to psychoanalyze based on that fixation, but I think it’s even more interesting to watch how that fixation is used.
Looking at Ishinomori’s scarves and Villalobo’s shoes, you see their craft distilled into simple objects. Within those objects you can recognize the way they draw and how they tell a story though. That sort of exploration seems very worthwhile, and I hope others seek to discover these stylish focuses in the work of their own favorite comics artists.