One Fan's Opinion: Issue #4

Thu, September 1st, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

Erik Larsen: Yesterday & Today
"Your old stuff was better."

Ouch.

Twist the knife a little to the left while you're at it.

It's a time honored Fanboy catch phrase to be sure, but say it to any professional and you might as well be plunging an ice pick into their chest. Y'see, most pros hate their old stuff. They look at it and they see all the faults, all the missteps, all the crappy anatomy and bad hands and under or oversized heads and awkward compositions and compromises made because of a ticking clock on the wall that told them that the Fed Ex guy would be there any minute and it had to be in the mail then-- that minute.

Why can't you see it too? Why are you so blind? Why can't you see how much work has been done-- how much better everybody's become?

Why?

Because it's a lie.

Not always, of course, some old stuff is legitimately bad-- there are those early clumsy first steps, which were crude and unprofessional and awful. And then there are those few freaks out there that keep getting better with age-- whose old stuff really doesn't measure up-- but the rest?

No. Not really.

The fact of the matter is that for most professionals-- their "journey" is more visually interesting to most readers than their "arrival." Those awkward, clumsy attempts are more visually stimulating than the tired formula, which was ultimately settled on. I heard an old pro say that he'd never want to draw the Flash on a regular basis because he "only had one running pose." Well, whose fault is that? When he started out he didn't have "one running pose." At what point did he decide that "one running pose" was enough?

It's the missteps, the blunders, the experimentation and happy accidents, which make the work so damned fun to look at in the first place, bub. That's why your new stuff is so lifeless-- you might as well be tracing or cutting out panels from previous efforts. It's become routine for you and boring as hell for the rest of us. We've seen that "one running pose" and we saw it when it was raw and wild and full of life and it was a few steps away from becoming the formula, which it later became.

I don't draw the way I used to.

And it's because it would drive me crazy to do so. It would make me go nutty, repeating the same tired riffs over and over for the rest of my career.

But that presents problems as well.

There are those who want to see the old stuff again-- who don't like, want or welcome change-- that just want you to play that one hit over and over again. Changing is a risk. Changing means alienating your fan base and disappointing people who have come to expect a certain look-- a certain feel.

There's also a matter of difficulty. Coming up with a new solution to a problem time and time again is no easy task. Avoiding redundancy is no easy task. That face, that pose, that fist-- it's so easy-- so tempting to fall back on the tried and true, to follow the road most traveled. And besides, that "one running pose" was the best running pose you could conceive of. How can you improve upon perfection? Why would you intentionally do something less than the best? Why experiment? Change is so difficult-- staying the course is so easy.

But the alternative is slow death: death by redundancy, death by mind-numbing repetition, by stagnation. And how many times can a reader look at that "one running pose" before they tire of it? If every problem is solved by rote, where's the fun in that? If every explosion looks like every other explosion, if there are no challenges left…

Why bother?

"Your old stuff was better."

Maybe so. But I hope to do some more work and one day this will be my old stuff.

Things change.

There are creators whose work I hated as a kid and grew to love. Conversely, there are creators whose work I loved as a kid that I can't stand today.

Perceptions change.

The more I learn-- the more aware I become-- the more chinks I see in the armor. The work of the guys who were the fan faves of yesterday is no longer a mystery to me. I can see how it was done.

There are those who explain the attraction to many of the hot artists of the late '80s and early '90s as, "guys that drew the way fans would draw if they could draw." It was the ultimate fan art. Many Jane Watson had more hair, more lashes, bigger jugs, and wore less clothing than anybody thought possible in a book approved by the Comics Code. Characters had an impossible array of pads, pockets and weapons and nobody cared if things changed from one panel to the next or if there were two moons in the sky-- it was fan art and fan art was crude and crazy and busy as all hell.

This work repels me now.

The comics that came out from Image and especially those comics that came out from our competitors who were trying so hard to be what we were repel me.

What happened? Where did it all go so horribly wrong?

Steve Oliff showed everybody about the possibility of color and his legion of imitators over-colored the crap out of so many thousands of pages.

It's staggering.

I tell colorists now to back off. Well-chosen flat color is infinitely preferable to poorly chosen rendered color. Let me see the art. Let me see who inked that. Let me see the effect the artists had intended.

I love comics.

There's so much potential. There are so many things that can be done.

I've heard people say, "What can you do with a guy like Superman? Everything's already been done."

And I think to myself-- nothing's been done. He's fought a few villains-- had one, relatively steady girlfriend, job, life. We know nothing about him. We don't know how he feels, what he eats, if he goes to church on Sunday mornings. It's been sixty years and what do we know? What's really been done? No, really, because in a twenty-minute conversation with a stranger over a few beers I can find out more about their lives than I have about Superman in the last 60 years.

Not that I've been around for 60 years or read every issue, mind you-- but I've read an imposing pile of Superman comics I'll tell you.

I dunno.

There are days when the events in Aquaman's life really don't matter much to me.

With artists and writers coming and going and characters being revitalized, reinvented or given the ultimate treatment-- I just don't feel as though I know these guys anymore.

It's like watching a new James Bond movie. I'm not convinced it's the same dude anymore or even if it's supposed to be.

But I digress…

Thing is… I really do love comics when it's all clicking. When the art is good and the stories are compelling and I can feel something.

Andi Watson did this "Love Fights" comic for Oni, which was terrific. He really did a bang up job. Really terrific stuff. And I didn't read it and wish this guy was working on Spider-Man-- I read it and wished that readers would do themselves a favor and try something else-- something new and cool and original and compelling and thought provoking and yet-- a superhero book at heart just the same.

I don't yearn for more of the same.

I get tired. I get bored.

There are certain artists that I understand are quite good, but who have shown me all their tricks and I just don't see anything there that interests me. And then there are guys out there who keep stretching and moving and changing. I love it that Frank Miller keeps trying out new styles and sometimes it's as ugly as all hell and it looks as though he inked it with his cock and sometimes it's cartoony and often it's amazing and it's seldom the same. It's seldom predictable. And even though there are artists whose work has considerably more polish, I often find myself looking elsewhere.

I think Rick Leonardi is damned good. His work is quirky and weird. I can't figure out how he thinks. His work fascinates me.

I like Humberto Ramos. I like Claudio Castellini. I like Ashley Wood. I like Walter Simonson. I like Carlos Meglia. I like Darwyn Cooke. I like Pascal Ferry. I like Marc Silvestri. I like Carlos Pacheco. I like Bill Sienkiewicz. I like Bruce Timm. I like Jose Luis Garcia Lopez. I like Joe Kubert and Ovi Nedelcu and Tony Salmons.

And Jason Armstrong-- have you seen "Ferro City?" It rocks!

Where did Frank Espinosa come from? "Rocketo" looks amazing.

And "Grounded"-- Paul Azaceta kicks ass.

I'm not a retro guy. But I'm not an anti-retro guy either.

There are terrific comics from all eras. There were "Captain Marvel Adventures," "Plastic Man," "The Barker," "Joe Palooka," "Powerhouse Pepper," "The Spirit," "The Boy Commandos" as well as comics by Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, Mort Meskin and Jerry Robinson in the Golden Age-- there were the EC's in the '50s and the outstanding comics from Marvel in the '60s. And the '70s-- who can forget "Swamp Thing" by Wein and Wrightson? "Man-Thing" by Gerber and Ploog or "Tomb of Dracula" by Wolfman and Colan? Or Starlin's "Captain Marvel" and "Warlock" (which owe moreE than a considerable debt to Roy Thomas and Gil Kane's "Captain Marvel" and "Warlock")? "Master of Kung Fu" by Moench and Gulacy? "Incredible Hulk" by anybody accompanied by Trimpe? "The New Gods," "Eternals," "Forever People," "The Demon," "Omac" and "Kamandi?" Only Jack Kirby could deliver those goods! The '80s brought us the "X-Men" by Claremont, Byrne and Austin, "Thor" by Simonson, "American Flagg" by Chaykin, "Daredevil" by Miller and many more. The '90s brought us a burst of creative fire from those cats at Image - "Cyberforce" from the Silvestri brothers, "Pitt" from Dale Keown, "The Maxx" from Sam Kieth, "Spawn" from Todd McFarlane and elsewhere there was "Hellboy" from Mignola, "Sin City" by Miller and many others. The new millennium hasn't brought us nearly as many new characters as I'd have liked, but some good work nevertheless from Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Oemings' "Powers" to Brian's damned cool run on "Hellspawn" with Ashley Wood. I loved "Automatic Kafka" and I'm digging Casey and Sciolli's "Gdland." I thought the recent "Adam Strange" and "The Question" miniseries were bitchin' and there are hundreds of books I'm enjoying, have enjoyed or am looking forward to.

Comics are changing. The printing has improved-- colors are more vivid and there are more possibilities than ever before. We're getting a handle on coloring with a computer, we're stretching our wings and we're trying new things and I believe that great comics will be the result. I really think all of the pieces are in place for a new golden age.

But it's going to take some experimentation. It's going to take some innovation. And if you're going to take part in it-- you might need to come up with more than "one running pose."

We're not going to go to the future by dwelling on the past.

Years from now, people will look back on this time and say to us then what they've said since the beginning of comics, "Your old stuff was better."

And they might very well be right.

Let's make this the better stuff.

Who's with me?

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