Pipeline

Tue, April 20th, 2010 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist
12

THE NEW RAGE: BI-MONTHLY COMICS?

With their C2E2 announcements, Marvel now has five different projects scheduled for bi-monthly publication this year: "S.H.I.E.L.D.," "Avengers: Prime," "Ultimate X," "Avengers: The Children's Crusade" and "Scarlet."

I'm not a fan of the bi-monthly publication schedule. It's a momentum killer. It works for the collections down the line, but as a periodical it's a dicey proposition. Pushing product out to shelves at such a slow schedule is done for a number of reasons, I'm sure. You don't want, as the publisher, to tie so much money up on a series by banking issues before publication to get things on a better schedule. As an editor, you might not want those creators or those characters out of the public eye for so long. Perhaps it ties into some larger editorial scheme that means the book must come out at specific times between other series' issues.

But you know what gets me? I'll bet you right now that half of those titles will be shipping late by their sixth issues. ("Avengers: Prime" is only scheduled for five issues, and it's Alan Davis drawing it. We can trust in him, can't we?) Usually, bi-monthly is code for "artist can't draw this every month, so we're buying him time." Those are the perfectionists most likely to use up all of that time and then some. We've seen it far too often in the past.

Look at the "Children's Crusade" mini-series and ask yourself: What's the last monthly book Jimmy Cheung did? Heck, what's the last book he did two issues in a row of in the span of two months? Researching that is very difficult, given all the credits he has for cover work in the last few years. "New Avengers: Illuminati" issues #1 and #2 came out in back-to-back months in the winter of 2007. Is that it? The last three issues of that mini took another 10 months to show up. The collected edition looks good, though, and that's the long-term seller, right?

At this point, though, I think bi-monthly publication is a hedge against artist lateness. Let's come back to this in a year and see what's up. I've already set the appointment on my calendar.

PHOTOTRACING, PART II

One of the great things about starting a debate is that it makes you think even more about the issue. That was true while I was writing the column in a vacuum last week, but it became even truer as responses started to roll in, post-publication. Lots of people don't like "phototraced" art. Others think it's just another tool in the artist's tool box.

I've thought a lot about why it is I don't like phototracing in the last week. Some of the reasons are fair, some are not. Some are reasons of personal aesthetics. Some might just be the "fuddy duddy" thing I mentioned in the original column. Let's bullet point them:

It's stuck on reality. You can't exaggerate anything. If the person in the photo you're copying isn't arching their eyebrow enough, you can't fix it. Everything is locked down. You, as the artist, are stuck with whatever your actor gave you. Too many phototraced images look like photocopies of bad actors trying to mimic faces of emotions they don't feel. It stifles the imaginations of both the artist and the reader. It's even worse when the photo reference isn't created specifically for the page the artist is drawing. That's the stiffness you see in the art, and it's only remedied by good ol' fashioned cartooning, not point, click, draw.

They don't look like the comics I grew up with. This is a common fan complaint, right? I don't think it exactly rings true here, though. I've finally arrived at the point where computer lettering doesn't bother me anymore. I like the fact that comics are done without the flat colors of the 80s. I like art with more detail work in it, but I also like work that comes out of the animation industry on the other end of the spectrum. Neither of those styles were present in "Captain America" or "Web of Spider-Man" when I was first reading comics. The art was starting to shift, as Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, et. al. came to prominence. But it wasn't anywhere near the degree of what we expect out of art today. And I came of comics age in an era where everything had a color gradient to it, including the caption boxes. I'm not longing for a return to that.

Personal aesthetic. It doesn't look good to me. Then again, I've enjoyed artwork shot straight from pencils when others rallied against it the way I rail against phototracing. There are artists who "Wizard" would put in their Top Ten today that I don't necessarily enjoy, and there are artists who get next to no credit in the majority of comics fandom that I think are the greatest things since sliced bread. So, yeah, everything is a matter of personal taste.

It's lazy/cheating. This is the part that might not be entirely fair. Maybe it's used as a shortcut to meet tough deadlines. Or maybe it takes just as long to take those pictures (or to find them on Google) as it does to trace them. Maybe the artist wants to be a movie director, so phototracing is the best way to showcase his art for his jump up the creative ladder. Maybe the tortured artistic soul needs the reassurance of photo reference to get over the mental hurdle that his art just isn't good enough otherwise. I don't know.

And, let's face it, "phototracing" is a loaded term. It might not be the best choice, but I like how you know immediately what I'm talking about when you read it. There's no doubt.

Marvel colorist Nathan Fairbairn showed up on the Pipeline message board and gave us a sample of his work, one where he took a black and white Mike McKone piece of art and made it look "phototraced" with his color work, in the absence of photo reference. Honestly, it's an impressive artistic (and technical) accomplishment. Being able to take a relatively simple comic art composition and turn it into something that so closely resembles "reality" is a skill.

But it's not one I want in my comics. The more I thought on it, the more I think I discovered the problem. And I'll bring up those two points in a minute, but let me get back to the colorists first:

I sat in on a comic convention panel once dedicated to the art of coloring. It was very instructive, but one of the things discussed on the panel was the use of photo reference. A slide showed a real world example of photo reference that an artist used to draw a building (identical, down to the bricks) and the final coloring that was generated from it. The colorist took cues from the picture, but also made sure it fit into the larger color scheme of the book. Perhaps I extrapolated too much out from that incident. It was an unfortunate part of the column that suggested colorists could only replicate a real world look if they had the photo reference to copy from. There are colorists working in comics today who are fine painters in their own right and know how light works and how colors blend, without referring to photo references.

Again, that doesn't mean I like the work. It doesn't mean that the colorist isn't a major factor in giving "phototracing" that horrible look. It just means that I inadvertently took a swipe at a colorist's skillset that was unfortunate. I wanted to apologize for that -- where applicable.

Now, onto the last two reasons for not liking phototracing, and I think they might be the most important after the aforementioned "stiffness" in the art:

It's a return to the Uncanny Valley. Phototraced art lives there, halfway between meticulously detailed and anatomically perfect black and white line work, and cinematographically correct lighting schemes. It's like seeing the world in front of you with a lot of black lines around the edges of everything. It's weird. It's off-putting.

Pick a side: Do fumetti, or do black and white line work. What's the old line about working the middle of the road? The only thing you find there is yellow stripes and dead skunks?

It's probably also why "motion comics" don't work for me. They're neither full animation nor sequential drawings. They're an uncomfortable inbetween. Again, maybe I'm an old fuddy duddy and the generations after mine will accept them as the norm and think I'm silly. And those future generations will be wrong, but that's "progress" for you.

Consistency. Derrick Fish brought this up on the Pipeline Message Board over the weekend and, I think, nails it pretty well. So let's just quote him:

"What always pushes me out of the book while looking at Mike Deodato's work is that the close up "money" shots of characters are clearly taken from a frame grab of some actor, the long shots and random panels are clearly not. His regular comic book action scenes are drawn with traditional cartooning skill that he clearly possesses, but they don't mesh naturally with the over-referenced "characters casually talking or interacting". It's the comic book equivalent of watching "T.J. Hooker". Sure, it's Shatner in all the close up, talky scenes, but then the camera backs off to 100 feet away so the stunt double can do all the action and it's still clearly NOT Shatner. The contrasting sequences just look drastically different in their construction.

"I think Bryan Hitch's work, by and large, is FAR more adept at making every shot appear seamlessly connected and in the same reality. If I had to pick a nearly PERFECT example of an artist that uses photo reference seamlessly blended with his own cartooning skills it would be Jerry Ordway. Particularly his adaptation of the 1989 "Batman" movie. Sure, he had a decent amount of photo reference for the lead characters and key scenes to work from, but those shots flow effortlessly with the shots that were purely out of his own head."

I remember Ordway's "Batman" adaptation well, and Derrick's right. It's a great piece of cartooning, using photo reference appropriately given the subject matter, but being strong enough to stand on its own.

I don't think I could possibly elaborate on a "T.J. Hooker" analogy, so I'll leave it at that.

I finally ran across the panels that started this rant off last week. I thought I had lost the source, but James Hunt's review sparked my memory. It's "Iron Man Legacy" #1, drawn by Steve Kurth. I remember his work back in the "G.I. Joe" days at Devil's Due. I don't remember it being this heavily photo-influenced. Maybe he just didn't have the time to render all the fine details. Maybe he was still learning. I won't ever fault an artist for evolving his style over time. That kind of thing happens.

Right now, though, Kurth's art looks heavily referenced to a very distracting degree. He's somewhat consistent about it, at least, particularly in his texturing with the ink line. His armor shots are beautiful and well constructed. But it's his faces that throw me off. Take a look at a couple of examples here:

This isn't an entirely new style for Kurth. I'm looking up his past Marvel work through CBR's "Previews" archives and can see it's been building up for a while. I just don't remember it in his earlier career.

The second example also brings up another bugaboo of mine: Too many color holds. Why is the tip of that woman's nose red, when everything else drawn on her is black? Is she supposed to be an alcoholic? Are we trying to show a minimal depth of field for a woman with a protruding probiscus? It's just weird.

I hope all of this helps to clear up some of the issues you might have had in last week's column. Admittedly, some of it is personal choice. But I also think there are very valid concerns about this method of creating art that robs its potential, and weakens the artist. It's too easy to become reliant on reference material. It's difficult to make such tools nearly as lively as what a more traditional cartoonist can create. And it occupies an uncomfortable space in the comic art spectrum. Maybe someone will get it to work someday. I tend to doubt it, but progress always marches on...

I'm not done with "phototracing" by a long shot, but I'm not going to devote another whole column to it anytime soon. At this point, you know what I'm thinking. If you'd like to challenge any of it, head over to the Pipeline Message Board and let's all chat about it some more. Or, drop me an email.

Post script: I've been reading the "Invincible Iron Man Omnibus" recently. Salvador Larroca didn't use Tommy Lee Jones as his Norman Osborn model, and it confused me. Marvel needs a website for its creators to keep their photoreferences straight. Is there a website out there that catalogues which characters are modeled after which actors? Sounds like a Tumblr site, if ever I've heard one.

In my spare time: I'm podcasting. I'm Twittering, photoblogging, and blogging.. E-mail me!

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