One Fan's Opinion: Issue #13

Thu, November 3rd, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

If I was asked to draw, say, President Bush, there are certain parameters I'd have to stick to or you wouldn't get who it was that I was drawing. If I was drawing Charlie Brown I couldn't stray far off model before he looked like some young cancer patient. Try drawing Dick Tracy without painfully copying his face line for line from a Chester Gould drawing-- he won't look much like the guy. Ditto with Archie Andrews (although the Chester Gould reference isn't the way to go with him).

The point I'm getting at is that these are people and characters with very specific visuals. If you interpret-- if you deviate-- you're lost.

Now try Bruce Wayne.

Nothing specific comes to mind.

After 60 plus years, Batman's alter ego (or is Batman Bruce Wayne's alter ego? I always get that confused) has never settled on an iconic, specific face. Who looks like Bruce Wayne?

Dunno.

Years ago, fans were all bent out of shape when Michael ("Mr. Mom") Keaton landed the role of Batman. "He's too short." fans protested, "He doesn't look like Bruce Wayne" others said.

Well, who does?

In the realm of superhero comics, very few characters have specific faces. There was a while where this wasn't the case. When I was drawing the "Amazing Spider-Man," editor Jim Salicrup sent along a page of photocopies with a John Romita drawn Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. It was a number of head shots-- showing a range of expressions and whatnot. I learned not to define Peter Parker's cheekbones and to remember MJ's arched eyebrows, dimples and the cleft in her chin. There was a time when "Romita's Raiders" (and the "Jazzy" one himself) routinely redrew faces which were deemed "off model" in Marvel comics of all sorts. Hell, Johnny Romita even did corrections on faces drawn by Jack Kirby of Captain America-- a character Jack himself created! These days-- it seems-- anything goes and creators seem more concerned with "putting their stamp" on a character than they are with making that character actually look like that character!

A bit of a digression here-- in the "Spider-Man" movie, Tobey Maguire played the lead character and the traditional Peter Parker haircut was ditched for a standard Steve Rogers "Ken doll" cut. I found that a bit annoying-- more times than not, Peter's distinctive doo is ditched for the "Ken doll" cut when Spider-Man's in a cartoon or TV show-- but in the extra footage that came along with the DVD release, Tobey Maguire is sitting around chatting and his hair is swept back in the tried and true Peter Parker fashion and-- somehow-- he looks less like Peter Parker than he did in the movie! I'll be damned if I can figure that one out!

For years Fawcett's Captain Marvel (later acquired by DC comics) was one of the few characters who had a distinctive face, which was indistinguishable from all other characters. These days, the guy is almost unrecognizable. He hasn't looked like Captain Marvel in years (and he hasn't acted like Captain Marvel for half a century-- bit I'm digressing...)

Look at "Sin City," most specifically Marv. Look at his distinctive silhouette. You can cast his shadow on a brick wall and it's immediately recognizable. Try doing that with Bruce Wayne or even Superman-- and it's not so apparent.

So, who cares? And what's the point?

The point is that making these characters distinctive and iconic makes them easier to recognize. Batman's shadow cast over a villain makes an effective cover-- Superman's shadow doesn't. If Bruce Wayne had a distinctive, specific face, readers would immediately recognize him when he appeared in a panel or entered a room. In a crowd scene you can pick out Commissioner Gordon, but not Bruce Wayne, and that's messed up! There are times when Mary Jane Watson appears in a panel or two without being identified and she's indistinguishable from any other female in the book. Hell, there are times that the colorists don't know it's her because the lettering is added later, done on computer, and the artist hasn't drawn her "on model" enough to make MJ look like MJ to them, the guys working on the book!

But wouldn't keeping characters "on model" restrict the artists' creative freedom?

I dunno. Is it too much to ask that an artist doing a caricature of George W. Bush make it look like George W. Bush? Is it that restrictive to ask an artist make the character they're drawing identifiable? Shouldn't there be something about these characters that makes it easier for us, the readers, to keep track of who's who?

I dunno.

I can see both sides, I guess. If you're going to hire Jim Lee to draw Batman, you want to see his Batman, not Jim trying to draw like Dick Sprang or Jerry Robinson or Bob Kane or whoever else has been deemed to have drawn the definitive dark night detective. On the other hand, Captain Marvel hasn't looked like Captain Marvel in years! The thing is, it's supposed to be the same guy! It's not as though he's supposed to be somebody else!

In "Batman: Year One," artist David Mazzucchelli based Bruce Wayne on a young Gregory Peck. In "Kingdom Come," years later, Alex Ross seemed to have one the same, using an older Gregory Peck as his model, to begin with, but later in the book he looked like another actor entirely. Had all artists drawn their best Gregory Peck when they drew Bruce wayne maybe, just maybe, you'd be able to pick him out of a crowd when he walked into a room.

And don't get me started on the Thing. There was a time-- a long time-- when Ben Grimm was shorter than Reed Richards! Jack Kirby made the Thing as a little, cigar-chomping tough guy, but these days you're more likely to find him towering over basketball centers than just shy of 5'9".

I'm not saying that I want to see cookie-cutter artists forever trying to imitate each other or the return of Romita's Raiders, redrawing faces whenever somebody strays a bit far from the established models, but it would be nice to see these characters be at least moderately recognizable.

Besides, I miss MJ's dimples.

But maybe it's just me.

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