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Tue, April 13th, 2010 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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ARTISTS: STOP TRACING. START CARTOONING AGAIN.

I'll come right out and say it: I loathe the rise of overused "photoreferencing" in comics today. I've had enough of it. What was once a "reference" has since become a "crutch" or a "shortcut." What happened to cartoonists with styles of their own? Has Photoshop corrupted an entire generation? Inkers used to be referred to as "tracers," but I see the "pencillers" as being more to blame today.

All artists use references. They have since the dawn of art. I can picture a caveman somewhere standing inside his cave, holding his thumb out at arm's length, looking very carefully at the subtle nuances of the local grazing buffalo, then scrawling his representation of it on the wall.

OK, maybe that's a reach.

But there's a fine tradition in art for using references. The Mona Lisa, for one example, is a painting of a woman who sat still for Da Vinci. A recently-published book, "Norman Rockwell Behind the Camera," is filled with the photographs Norman Rockwell took, displayed next to his final paintings. (It's also instructive to note that Rockwell wasn't tracing those photographs, and that his final paintings often differed dramatically from the photographs.) Disney animators rotoscoped "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" -- literally tracing over video of a filmed actress to get her movements right. Comic book artists are often encouraged to keep a mirror on their drafting table, just so they can look at themselves (their hands, head, etc.) to get anatomy right. This is part of the reason why you get things like Savage Dragon reminding you of Erik Larsen, or Youngblood's Shaft of Rob Liefeld, for two obvious examples. Artists look at themselves, first, for inspiration. They've seen themselves all their lives, so the impression is not to be underestimated.

"Morgues" were once common; They were filing cabinets of clipped pictures of random items an artist might need to draw someday. Images.google.com replaced that. Digital cameras make taking pics of friends for references a more immediate and deadline-saving task. Flickr thoughtfully includes key word tags to help.

Those who do this kind of work best are those that use the reference as just that: a reference. It's the bones of something that they then can abstract out to create a comic book. They're not trying to make their drawings look "real." They just want to make sure the anatomy makes sense at a given camera angle or during a specific movement. They're checking for lighting, so their black areas make sense. But when the reference is taken too literally and becomes the art, I have a problem. Characters become stiff. Artists, it seems, begin to doubt their own ability to draw and come to rely on the pictures to get through the pages. In an effort to have more appealing art, they use more appealing photo swipes, right down to "Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition" pages. It's a nasty downward spiral from there.

Besides, if you're not adding anything to your photography besides thin black lines around the areas of greatest contrast, then just do fumetti. There are plenty of fumetti comics around today, but those artists still get paid as cartoonists, sadly.

The best cartoonists know exaggeration. That's true of animation, where stretch and squash is the term given to how an object or character moves in an exaggerated style to better sell a motion. In comics, that exaggeration keeps the pages looking natural and fluid. Redrawing stock poses exactly as they are in a photo is not just lazy (or, perhaps, self-defeating), but also results in a final page that looks stiff. Will Eisner drew characters who had their joints and muscles in the right place, but who would overact, stand with a slight bend in their knees, and have a more iconic look that didn't try to convince you they were real. They were only real in your heads because Eisner told the story so well, through both words and pen-and-ink. It looked natural on the page because Eisner's lines were loose enough to throw enough energy on the page to make you feel that way. If Eisner chained himself to the drawing board and didn't quit until every possible line in every drawing he ever did looked exactly lifelike and realistic, we wouldn't have had half his graphic novels, and they would all look stale, anyway.

Let's talk about notable photoref-heavy artists.

Bryan Hitch likely started all of this popularity with "The Authority" and "The Ultimates." And while it does produce some stiff poses and some faces that glare right at you, dear reader, it is also matched by the surroundings. Every last detail is drawn on the Black Widow's costume, sure, but the same level of detail is shown in the rubble surrounding her. Every last inch of that building is drawn in meticulous detail, matching the people in the foreground. This keeps the common disconnect from showing, where the photoreferenced character stands in front of a Hanna Barbera repeating background. Hitch is more a consummate draftsman who likes to draw big wide panels in addition to doing photo reference to keep everything looking grounded. So he gets the Big Loud Detailed Scene down in addition to the Anatomically Perfect Human Bodies thing. It's also why my only complaint about his work is the occasions where it looks a little too posed or stiff. Close ups of faces is the most frequent issue, as it is with many of the artists named here this week. There are times when Hitch draws balloon heads floating up towards the reader, where you can almost picture the chibi body underneath.

Alex Ross came before Hitch, of course, and models himself more after Norman Rockwell, coming from an advertising background. He's never hidden the fact that he's a painter in the traditional mold, using his stock band of models to stand in for specific characters. At least he draws the actors freehand before painting them in. He's not painting on top of pictures. He's a remarkably good artist when it comes to redrawing what he sees. The photographs give him the lighting cues that too many artists don't pay enough attention to. I give him credit for that. His major sin is that, after a while, you know who his repertoire of actors is. They pop up in "Astro City" and then a Dynamite cover and then you see the person in the background of a "Kingdom Come" issue or something.

Tim Bradstreet used photo ref for his "Punisher" covers, but it doesn't bother me so much. Those covers are so heavily influenced by his design sense that the photo ref becomes secondary. He does a lot of work to the covers even after taking the pictures, which helps to hide them away better, eventually. Plus, there's a big difference between the "acting" seen done by phototracers versus the "design" of a Bradstreet single image cover.

Is Sean Hannity really Foggy Nelson? ("Daredevil" #109)

Michael Lark does it right. To my eye, it looks like he's drawing comics, but using well-lit pictures to reference. While his character work can sometimes be a little "stiff," I think it's a fine line he walks between that and merely "realistic." He definitely has his own chunky ink line style of drawing that comes across the page. It isn't merely his attempts at drawing every wrinkle and every lump of flesh from his models into the comic. He also pays close attention to lighting, to give his work that noir feel when it's needed. There aren't characters staring at me when I read one of his comics that look like a bad freeze frame off the latest Blu-ray release on Best Buy's shelves.

Harris draws something that looks ripped from the archives of iStockPhoto.com. ("Ex Machina" #39)

Tony Harris had a nice slightly angular style in his "Starman" days that's now been replaced on "Ex Machina" with a cast of actors whose pictures he outlines. Given that "Ex Machina" is a lot of talking heads and is intended to look "grounded," it works for the comic. It's fitting. It's not a superhero slugfest (usually), so it plays more to his strengths. Plus, when you squint just a little, you can still see Harris' style blending into the art.

Still, there are some stock poses that scream "fumetti" when you look at them, no matter how many textures the colorist adds on top of the art, or how solid the ink line is.

Then things start falling apart, and hard:

Fly the friendly skies, but take a point and shoot with you for backgrounds… ("Invincible Iron Man" #3)

Salvador Larroca's photo reference habit is par for the course these days. Characters appear perfectly anatomically correct and completely unimaginative. But what really bothers me is how often he uses photography for backgrounds, in lieu of actually drawing something. He must spend half his month going around taking pictures of the sky for Iron Man to fly through later. How close are we to the pen-and-ink tracing of the actor playing Tony Stark picking up a picture of a mug for his morning cup of coffee, in lieu of actually drawing the damned mug?

He did well on "Fantastic Four" with Chris Claremont, and I even enjoyed the direct-from-pencils look of his "X-Treme X-Men," though I recognize I was mostly alone on that. Some of that, no doubt, used photoreference, but it wasn't as heavily traced as his "Invincible Iron Man" work is today. Maybe I just need to wait for his next major monthly assignment to see what major reinvention he pulls next? Maybe that one will work out more to my liking?

Sometimes, it's enough to lightly trace the outlines of your reference picture, and just let the colorist drop in the pic, with a slight opacity. ("Invincible Iron Man" #10)

Larroca's art isn't even trying to hide the photographs underneath it. It's sad to see. Look at this face, where it looks like he took a thin black line to draw over the points where there is slightly more contrast than others. Your digital camera looks for such contrasts when attempting to auto-focus. Photoshop can detect those lines naturally, by the way. In Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, the "Clarity" slider strengthens or weakens those contrasty spots.

It almost looks like the original photo has been dropped on a new layer just underneath the black and white line art. The coloring is almost too perfect.

"Spider-Woman" #7 cover

Alex Maleev is the genius of the group. He's clearly taking pictures of (nearly?) naked women, removing their nipples in post, and then painting them in Spider-Woman's "costume" colors. What clothes do you think the model for this "Spider-Woman" #7 cover was wearing? Didn't "Wizard" used to hold contests for this kind of thing, trading in on the popularity of taking porn star pics and coloring their skin in superheroine costume colors? (It's a copyright-infringing two-fer! Er, sorry, it's a "mash-up" and "new media" and ought to be protected.)

To my eyes, "Spider-Woman" was the first fumetti book Marvel has published in quite some time.

Mike Deodato must spend a lot of time at Best Buy grabbing copies of Tommy Lee Jones movies, if only for "Dark Avengers" and Norman Osborn. Then he passes those frames onto his colorist to make sure nothing is lost in the translation from movie to comic page.

Mike Deodato draws Tommy Lee Jones ("Dark Avengers" #3)

You know what I think the world of comics is due for? A return to comic adaptations of movies. They've been out of vogue for years now, mostly due to the ubiquity of home media, DVD players, etc. Why buy a comic when the DVD will be out by the time the last issue of the adaptation hits store shelves? But, today, with all the artists who clearly rely on famous people to model their art after, we should make honest artists out of them. Give them the movie they're freeze-framing their way through for "character reference" and just have them drawn the accompanying comic. At least then there will be a reason for all their hard work.

Can we start with Greg Land drawing "Bound?"

Greg Land is the saddest case of the lot. He's always used photo reference. Looking back at his early "Birds of Prey" works show me that. There was always his own style on top of that, though, that kept things grounded. The poses weren't awkward. The characters would be realistic, but would still have their unique quirks. But something happened during his time at CrossGen. By the midway point of his run on "Sojourn," his characters were looking more like photographs and less like drawings. His working method must have changed, because he came out of that a photo tracer, one whose work is so obvious that the internet lights up with each issue, picking out all of the catalogues and, uhm, adult videos that his characters might be referenced from. Nobody, by the way, has ever shown a single example of those adult video references. It's just assumed to be the case when you look at the open-mouthed look so many of his women have while in battle, often while rolling their eyes, pointing their feet, arching their backs, and -- Excuse me, I need a cigarette.

Here's a two-fer in one panel. ("Uncanny X-Men" #515)

Look, the swipe file type blog posts have been done to death. While it's always forehead-smacking just how straightforward some of the swipes -- er, photoreferences -- are, we have to realize that it's a problem with the modern comics machine. And it sells. Look at the Top 20 comics any month and I bet half of them are drawn from a series of movie and publicity stills. It's disgusting and sad, but there you have it.

So, rather than dwell on the negative, let's look at the positive. Let's celebrate those artists who are still capable cartoonists and producing work every month that don't scream "Reuters/AP Posted This On Flickr!" or "Which Electronic Press Kit Did This Come From?" or "Freeze that DVD!" or "Guess Which Catalog Arrived in the Artist's Mailbox Today?" I have no doubt that these artists use Google Images or a morgue file or something to make sure they draw things correctly, or have the anatomy correct in a certain dramatic angle. But they're not beholden to photographs. They're not photo tracers. They're cartoonists, still capable of drawing comics out of their imagination.

Let's celebrate Stan Sakai. Stuart Immonen. Ryan Ottley. Darwyn Cooke. Amanda Conner. Michael Avon Oeming. Mark Bagley. Ed McGuinness. Patrick Scherberger. Art Adams. Paco Medina. Lewis Trondheim. Guy Davis. Skottie Young. And artists of that ilk.

Those are the types of artists whose work I want to read more of. Their work is vibrant. It's filled with energy that can't be found in books that are hamstrung by their creators' over-reliance on photography.

The sad thing is, it took me way too long to compile that list of names. And they're not the best-selling artists in comics today, either.

So, yeah, this whole argument is likely about me being a fuddy duddy.

UNINDICTED CO-CONSPIRATOR

There's one person who never factors into this equation when people on-line kvetch about the photo tracers, though I've mentioned it multiple times in this column. That's the colorist. Without that person, the art would just look bad. It's only with the proper modeling on the artwork that it starts to look like the original picture, and not just a bad tracing that's bland and flat.

The artist must be sending in their original reference files to the colorists to show them how the "real world" lighting looks, so that the colorist may attempt to reproduce it as closely as possible. If it's not reproduced correctly, then the art won't look right.

So count this in as another strike against the three dimensional modeled sense of coloring so prevalent in comics at the Big Two or Four or Five today

One last thought: Alex Maleev colors his own work on "Spider-Woman," so I wonder if there's even a separate stage between drawing and coloring for panels like this one from "Spider-Woman" #2. Might as well add a "blue" filter over the picture in Photoshop, darken the edges, and call it a day,eh?

REBUTTAL IN ADVANCE

I was very careful in choosing that list of names at the end of the previous section. The last thing I wanted to deal with after this column's publication is the inevitable emails that I'm a hypocrite because so-and-so uses photoreference, too. So please let me repeat some things now, and further clarify them before you write your emails.

1. Yes, as mentioned, all artists use photo reference. It's not a bad thing in and of itself. It's a bad thing when it goes too far and is used as a crutch. The overall look of the art suffers for it, most often looking stiff and posed in the same way fumetti comics are laughable. When you're looking at a superhero leaping into action and all you can see is Brad Pitt staring back at you with his weight shifted on one foot in a screen grab from "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," then the artist has relied on his or her photoreference too much.

2. Yes, my natural inclination is towards more stylized or cartoony art to begin with. I'm biased in that direction. That's part of my job. But it's only through self-denial that you can't see the impact modern technology has had on comics, and how so many artists use this technique of developing their art in a way that's not so much fun to look at.

3. I can appreciate some of the heavily photoreferenced art we see on stands today. Heck, I even think it's appropriate in some books. Street level books are one such place. Crime or detective books make sense. Alex Maleev drawing "Daredevil" was at times distractingly photoreferenced. It didn't help when he once pointed out a hole in a panel he had and asked message boarders to send in a picture of themselves at that angle so he could "draw" them into the book. I like a certain separation between fact and fantasy. Yet it worked very well for the book, overall.

It worked well for Hitch on "The Ultimates," because so much of the point of the series was a real world feel and modernity in team superheroics.

I'm on the fence with "Captain America," where heavy photo reference on The Red Skull and MODOK feels a little weird. Steve Epting came out of that same CrossGen compound that led Greg Land so far astray, after all.

My complaint, once again, is that it's gone too far. I'm almost convinced there are people working in this industry who really can't draw. (I'm not including any of the people mentioned above here. Those aforementioned have proven in the past that they're capable cartoonists. They've chosen to walk this new less-attractive path.) They're proficient in Photoshop and Google and can trace around it.

One more for the road, from "The Siege: Captain America" #1. More less-than-stellar cartooning in action. Hey, at least the hair is well-textured! Art by Federico Dallocchio.

For personal projects by writers who know they can't draw, it's a legitimate way to get your writing out there. But enough is enough from the major publishers. Before someone who owns a copyright on one of these redrawn images discovers you one day and sues you (and Disney or Warner Bros.), let's knock it off. I thought we all learned something from Amy Grant 25 years ago, or the King of Spain five years ago. The latter case led to an editorial dictate against copying from photographs that doesn't seem to have done much good.

You could very likely get away with all the tracing if you added enough personal style to it, and had enough know how of comic book storytelling to exaggerate things to tell the story. I'm tired of people awkwardly standing in comics, looking off in the distance, and being perfectly proportioned. I want more personal style, more energy on the page, more interpretation for the reader.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, "First thing we do, let's fire all the tracers."

Hey, why can't I do it, too? I see the beginnings of a great webcomic here…

Photo tracing is everywhere, like "Sparta" #1. Scroll down a bit. Heck, just do a search on "Sparta" to get there. Abhay loves to write and we love him for it.

Also, Act-I-Vate is starting up an actual fumetti (on purpose) webcomic this week: Seth Kushner's Culture Pop. He now qualifies for a job at Marvel/DC/Image.

Next week: An example of a recent comic where a photographic technique is misapplied.

And in my spare time: I'm podcasting, both in audio and slideshow format. I'm Twittering, photoblogging, and blogging.. E-mail me!

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