some early visual heroes...
my time with comics was relatively short... i bought new comics for two or three years starting in 1971, and after not really caring about them for 2 or 3 years, sometime around 1975 i got into comics again, mostly buying back issues from the 60's. it was during that second phase that i started to appreciate and know the names of certain artists i liked, and at that time i became obsessed with the work of jack kirby.
the two artists that had the most impact on my memory were neal adams and jack kirby. adams was the one i was obsessed with earlier on. my first comic, an issue of batman with cover and inside drawings by adams, was purchased for me by my grandmother in 1970, and that book was the beginning of my interest in both comics and adams' work. for some reason, i was particularly enamored of his work on several issues of green lantern that revolved around a drug addiction story (i have no idea why or how i was so into such a thing at age 8... but his cover art for green lantern 86 still kills me). adams style is tight, "scratchy" and generally feels very connected to classical life drawing - his lines are, at times, so fine they almost feel as if they were was etched into the paper. this is not to say the work wasn't exploratory, aggressive, and experimental... for it certainly was. but looking at his work now, i marvel at its technical brilliance, especially the way he drew the figure, and the work is unbelievably crisp. he was also a master of emotion.
an even more colossal figure for me, as well as tons of folks who read comics in the late 70's and early 80's, was jack kirby, and there is no disputing that his work was some of the most innovative and personal in the history of comics - certainly from the 60's forward. when i started digging through the childhood comics i had saved since childhood, a ton of them were drawn by kirby. his dynamic use of line is wholly unique, and when inked by the right inker, the work is unmistakably different than everything else. kirby, more than anyone - at least to my mind - was constantly building his own visual world like an outsider artist; who, rather than replicating a "brand" determined by a publisher, consistently created images through a language that was uniquely his own. sure, at times he towed a party line, or an inker tried to genericize his work; but for the most part, once you have seen kirby's work you can spot it a mile away.
graphically, his sense of space can be claustrophobic, and his linework aggressive and heavy (not heavy handed!). everything in kirby's work seems to have weight and gravity - not just beings, but his lines as well. his images of machines tend to be more interesting and inventive than most modern sculpture, and his style was always about vision much more than technique. he was the first and only artist experimenting with collage in the 60's, and the work always seems to be pushing things beyond what is already known and accepted. in truth, once kirby was allowed to not only draw, but also write his books, there has never been anything stranger (just look at the murdering misfit below!) or more personal in mainstream comics ever. everything about kirby's work completely slays me.
what is sad is that for much of his career, kirby was a genius working in an industry that reviled personal vision in the same way that contemporary hollywood approaches filmmaking - where creative decisions are generally made by committee in relation to what an executive thinks the public wants, rather than allowing the film or book to simply be the voice of a visionary. in the 70's kirby was able to do a lot of amazing things - mr. miracle, machine man, kamandi, new gods, etc. but one has to wonder how much more he could've done if the industry had acted less like an industry much earlier on in his career.
it wasn't until i started looking at my old comics again that i re-discovered gene colan, an artist who was anonymous to me as a kid, although like the books kirby and adams had drawn that i saved, a remarkable number of also-remembered images were drawn by colan... and i have recently been reacquainting myself with his work, which is incredible.
unlike the strong graphic presence of adams and kirby, colan's work rarely exists in a flat world. it always feels ephemeral and in motion. yes, the graphic qualities of his work are tremendous and similarly innovative (once you know his work, you can also spot it a mile away); but colan's strength, to me, is its dynamic, ephemeral and motion filled world. in a previous post, i reprinted an interview with colan in relation to his listening to films while he was drawing; and his pages tend to express a kind of impossibility of ever grasping the passage of time. the work doesn't rely on the sequential images, like a flipbook, as much as his perspectives, fragmentation, abstraction and agitated compositions suggest the instability of time and bodily motion. much of this is expressed in his unique approach to the shape or posture of a body within a frame, and for me, colan's work always seems alive. looking at these pages, they feel as if you return to one an hour later it would somehow be changed. where kirby's work approached the abstract through a graphic and mechanical presence, colan approached the abstract much more like a futurist, all simultaneous motion and flux.
sadly, just as i was beginning to re-immerse myself in these artists' works a few months ago, colan passed away. like kirby and adams, colan was certainly a visual genius, rarely producing identical approaches to the page like a machine, and consistently pushing the potential of the page and exploring different ways an image could speak. in essence, he brought the whole medium forward. if you look at graphic novels and recent comics you will see less and less traditional approaches to frames and panels, and i really think colan's work was one of the earliest to disrupt the frame in such a way - and particularly because his career was long, he has been incredibly influential.
from the few interviews i've read, colan seemed not only down to earth, but remarkably honest about his process. he was also a pretty darn interesting thinker. i can't remember reading an interview with a comic artist from the silver or bronze age period who was so articulate about his interest in trying to expand the language of narrative in ways that might intentionally confuse a viewer - and to use that confusion to expand a drawing's potential for interpretation. to achieve such a thing colan sometimes moved towards abstraction in his panels to suggest that a reader might have to look a little longer. as a kid who seldom read the words in comics, colan's images certainly allowed me to jettison the story and to fall deeply into the images.
here's another great bit of relevance from the same interview i posted a week or so ago (click here to read the entire interview):
COLAN: Well, the biggest complaint that Stan ever had about my work was that he didn’t have an easy time understanding what I was drawing. There’s a lot of confusion about my work. [Laughter.] And I meant it to be a little confusing. You don’t always understand what you’re looking at even when it’s a photograph. Like a room with many things on a desk. You can only identify a few of the objects but you can’t say what they all are. Some books might be there, an inkwell might be there.
RODMAN: It all lends to the atmosphere.
COLAN: But it all lends to the authenticity of what you’re looking at. In life, you don’t notice everything at one time. Certain things – and the rest you don’t know. You don’t even think about. So I try to do that. If there’s a fight scene, and it’s in the dark, I try to confuse it so that you see arms and legs but you don’t know who they belong to. A fight is a confusing thing to begin with. Tables and chairs are overturned. You shouldn’t be defining everything for the reader. The reader is not an idiot. He gets out of it what he wants to get out of it. And if it thrills him to see all these puzzling pictures, then I’ve accomplished something. At least that’s how I viewed it anyway, personally. Someone would say to me, “Yeah, but, who does this belong to? Whose leg is that?” I said it isn’t important. Put any connotation you want on it.