One Fan's Opinion: Issue #66

Fri, December 15th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

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Erik Larsen in 2004, Age 41.
I just turned 44.

Now, that isn't, for most, a monumental occasion. It's not as though turning 44 stands out for most folks - it isn't a nice round number like a 40 or 50. People don't dread turning 44 or look forward to turning 44 - to most people turning 44 is pretty much the same as turning any other age.

But I'm not like that.

Y'see, I tend to associate certain numbers with certain other numbers. I can't help think of the number 337, for example, without thinking of "The Mighty Thor" #337 - the issue where Walter Simonson started writing and drawing Thor. I can't help but think of the death of Gwen Stacy when the number 121 is mentioned or my first "Hulk" comic whenever I see a 156. When I had just started drawing "Savage Dragon" and just up until issue #102 of "Savage Dragon," I couldn't help but think of the previous record-holder for consecutive issues by a single creative team on a superhero comic book - "The Fantastic Four."

Which brings me around, again, to 44.

The age Jack Kirby was when he started illustrating the world's greatest comic magazine - "The Fantastic Four."

What I find particularly remarkable about that is that Jack, at age 44, still hadn't settled into what would become his eventual style! There were no squiggles or square fingers of crackling Kirby dots to signify everything from energy to water. Kirby's buildings were relatively normal - the crazy random shadows were nowhere to be seen and numerous other details that we've come to associate with the king of comics were still waiting to be utilized. And it was several years before he found and utilized many of those things.

At age 44, Jack, along with writer Stan Lee, began populating a universe with colorful characters and he didn't really hit stride until he was nearly 50!

There's hope for me yet!

After nearly two and a half decades of drawing comics, I still don't think of myself as having really found my style yet. I still look at what I do and see the components. The bits of Jack Kirby and Gil Kane and Walter Simonson and John Byrne and Frank Miller and Steve Ditko and Bill Sienkiewicz and Herb Trimpe and Terry Austin and Klaus Janson. There's not a lot there that I can point to as being unique to me. The best I can say is that there are pieces where I'm trying to pull off something and I'm falling short.

Neal Adams (or at least it's been attributed to Neal) said that, "your style is everything you do wrong." The idea being that if you had no style, your art would be photo-realistic and that anything less is your style.

I don't know that I'd go that far, but somehow turning 44 makes me very hopeful and eager in a way. I'm anticipating great changes - perhaps some kind of creative breakthrough.

Jack Kirby didn't get to be Jack Kirby by imitating Jack Kirby. That much I know. And I'm hoping that that's the case with me as well.

I haven't really written a long spiel about Jack and I've always meant to, but this isn't going to be it.

I've been thinking a lot about getting older. I've been thinking about the comic book industry and how things have changed over the years and how it can chew up and spit out creators. A lot of guys don't make it to 44. A lot of guys are shown the door years before they reached the age Jack was when he was just getting started, it seems.

I'm the youngest of the remaining Image partners, but at this point I'm one of the old guys. I'm no longer a kid. The vast majority of the folks in this industry are years younger than I am.

Some guys are having trouble getting work. A lot of really talented artists have found themselves out of work, replaced by younger artists. I know of a few creators that have shaved off beards or dyed their hair in an effort to look young, convinced that the reason they're not finding gainful employment in the funnybook field has more to do with their crow's feet and less to do with how ink comes off of their crow's quill.

In the '50s and '60s, creating comics was not a young man's game. Comics were created by adults that had wives and kids and mortgages and responsibilities. Comics were work. Comics were a way of putting food on the table. Creators weren't especially proud to be associated with them. Often writers and artists would even use pseudonyms ("Stan Lee," "Jack Kirby" and "Gil Kane" were names taken by Stanley Lieber, Jacob Kurtzberg and Eli Katz) rather than sign their real names to their efforts. It was not a glamorous gig.

Artists and writers were paid by the page and the pay was miserable so they had to churn out pages at a furious pace in order to eke out a living. And pages had to be good in order to insure that readers bought the books and editors kept them working. Readers had no idea how old creators were. There were little or no clues given. Sure, a reader that had been around a while might piece together that a certain artist must be in his 40s because he's been active for 20 years, but guys like Joe Kubert and Jim Shooter could throw them off track because they started work when they were children themselves.

There were no pictures printed - no Internet - no conventions or comic book stores or signings and few fanzines (and those that existed were not widely distributed) and the vast majority of readers had no way of knowing how old creators were. There was no line of communication - readers could only guess that the writers' failed attempts at writing hip beatniks may have been due to them being hopelessly out of touch with the kids at the time, but there was little else to go by. Most comics didn't have letters pages until the '60s. They just appeared on newsstands with no hype or fanfare. Comics were created by adults for kids.

But times change.

These days the pay isn't too bad. And creators are anything but anonymous. There are pictures of creators printed and distributed far and wide - the Internet has made access to creators commonplace - and there are more fanzines and comic book news and information magazines than ever. Creators have websites and blogs and Myspace accounts and readers can converse with them at any point. Creators go to comic book stores and conventions and do signings and make appearances. It's difficult for a creator to stay anonymous. Even camera-shy Steve Ditko has his picture posted in his Wikipedia entry.

And as readers have gotten older, creators have gotten younger. Creators these days go to shows to party with readers and pick up girls and hang out. As pay has gotten better, creators have cut back. Few creators draw more than a page a day. Some barely manage a page a week and it's possible to make a pretty decent living just drawing covers or doing commissions and selling them on eBay.

In days of old, pencillers would put down the raw information needed and inkers were required to work for their pay. They were expected to pick up the slack - tighten pages and embellish by adding details and textures and spot blacks. Inkers were artists and they had to be able to draw in order to do what they did.

With the rise of the superstar pencillers, that is no longer the case. These days most inkers are glorified tracers. There's little evidence to indicate that they have any drawing ability at all. All that's required of them is that they lay down a slick line. Years ago, a rush job inked by ten guys would look like it was inked by ten guys. These days, the inkers blend seamlessly from one to the next. Pencils are so complete and tight that inking can be (and occasionally is) skipped altogether. Inkers are worried about their possible futures and it doesn't surprise me. If one inker is so interchangeable with another that the reader isn't aware when one inker replaces another, there's little incentive for an editor to give work to one guy over another. If the company can save a few bucks by jettisoning a cranky old coot and replacing him with a pretty young face, there's little reason not to.

But I'm not sure that these changes have resulted in better comics. Certainly there have been a lot fewer characters being created at the "big two" than there was when Lee and Kirby and Ditko were in their prime. Creators seem content to rehash the same old stuff again and again. There isn't as much of an exciting buzz about new characters. It's more of a case where readers get fired up about writers and artists playing musical chairs and shuffling from one book to another.

Somebody said once that the "Golden Age of Comics is 12." And there's something to that. At age 12, it's all big and bright and new and exciting. But fewer and fewer 12-year olds are reading comics. More and more, readers are getting into it later and sticking with it longer.

Reading comics is no longer a young man's game. Comics are too expensive and too complex and mired in continuity for a 12-year old to follow. A friend of mine talked to a group of kids not long ago and none of them read comics. When pressed for a reason why, one answered that it didn't seem as though comics were written for him.

Comics in the days of old had a lot less rape and crying.

But that's a topic for another day. At this point, I'm feeling optimistic. "Savage Dragon" is back on a regular schedule and doing well. More creators are bringing their projects to Image Comics and the books just keep getting better. It's a great time to be doing comics. Things are looking up. I just turned 44 and I'm just getting started.

There's a lot of life left in these old bones.

Watch and see.

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