Pipeline: Alan Davis, Savage Dragon & Hulk Ponderings

Tue, November 1st, 2011 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

DAVIS

There are, of course, different strokes for different folks. We're not all ever going to agree on any particular opinion. I find that slightly maddening, though, when I look at Alan Davis' art and realize that somewhere in this world there's someone who doesn't like it. That boggles my mind. For me, Davis is an artist whose work does its job so well because he's so perfectly suited to it. Davis can do kitchen sink drama and high superhero fisticuffs with equal aplomb. And while his characters' hairdos often seem bigger than modern times, I don't care. They look really cool. I can't get enough.

So when "Avengers Prime" presents itself to me in a handsome hardcover, I start to drool before opening the book. Does this mean I'm completely in the tank for a book before I even read it? Is my history with this creator's work so one-sided that I can't possibly be impartial to it?

We all bring baggage to everything we review. I'm just owning up to mine, in this case: I can't get enough of Alan Davis' artwork. Even when it's attached to a story I find lacking -- and that does happen, so I know I have some impartiality -- the joy of looking at over 100 new pages of his artwork more than makes up for it.

I don't care. Davis' "Excalibur" work left such an impression on me as a new comic reader two decades ago that I still can't shake it. Even with a character I don't give one fig about, like Killraven, I'll read it just for Davis' lines. There's a weight and a fluidity there that is unmatched. When you look at a page of Davis' art, you see characters in three dimensions, without red/green glasses or corny coloring techniques needed. His attention to his lines -- and especially when he leaves them out -- makes for a complete package that looks finished, but not overdone. Clothing has natural folds and textures. Hair often has a life of its own. Women's faces are simple and beautiful, while the male superheroes are strong without looking like musclebound morons.

And it never looks better than when Mark Farmer inks it, which is really every time these days. The careful attention paid to the line work in making the line weights vary from front to back and from texture to texture is wonderful. It shows up on the page, giving nice black regions that add weight to the page. Davis' art looks so smooth because Farmer's ink line complements Davis' pencils. It's not a contrast of styles, but a perfect synthesis. Give me more of those lush curved lines that meet up at just the right spot to define the shadows that sculpt the faces of the characters whose expressions have only gotten stronger and more Kevin Maguire-esque over time.

2-page spread from "Avengers: Prime"

So, yeah. "Avengers Prime." It has over 100 pages of Alan Davis' art, beautifully inked by Mark Farmer, and colored by Javier Rodriguez, whose style never overpowers the art or hides a line. That's all I needed to sell me on the book.

The story from Brian Bendis is set after one of those crossover events that Marvel is so fond of these days. To tell you the truth, when I started reading this book, I wasn't completely sure I knew which crossover it was. I knew it was post-"Civil War," but before "Fear Itself." I had forgotten "Siege" already. Wow, that was quick.

So Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor are still pretty pissy with each other over the whole thing. This is the mini-series meant to bring them back together. Bendis writes a great Robert Downey Jr.-esque Tony Stark to hold the whole thing together, combined with a slightly more serious Captain America, but not one who becomes a self-parody in his earnestness and naiveté or anything. (With that all black outfit and perfect coif of hair, Steve Rogers reminds me a lot of "The Prisoner.") In the end, Bendis accomplishes what he sets out to do, first by separating the three in another world, and then by bringing them together to fight a common foe while working out their differences. The patch is placed on the relationships relatively late in the game and is something we'll accept and move on with, but I'm not sure it's all together convincing. Sometimes, though, for the sake of plotting, we'll buy it and move on with our lives.

Did I mention that the Alan Davis art is beautiful, though? That's all that really mattered, anyway. Oh, yeah, and there was an Avengers-related story, too.

DRAGON

I was a bit removed from "Savage Dragon" #174, so it's only fair that I mention that the new issue, "Savage Dragon" #175, is more along the lines of what I'm looking for with the book. Yes, it trades on a certain amount of prior knowledge of the series, but doesn't dwell on multiple versions of characters making potentially confusing decisions based on which earth they're originally from and their two-world backgrounds.

Granted, there's a page of headache-inducing text to provide the background exposition dump necessary to bring new readers up to speed, but after that, it's a great issue. We're catching up to the original Savage Dragon as he wakes up on a spaceship of his people who are still searching for a new home. He's a bit out of it, though, and not sure what to believe, nor what to do. Larsen provides enough motivation and character to make Dragon's choice believable and hopeful.

As usual, the storytelling and artwork are clear as a bell. Larsen doesn't get as much credit as he deserves for his artistic storytelling. He has a style that's undeniably his, but that never gets in the way of telling the story. He sticks mostly to squares and rectangles, loosely in a grid, but without bizarre canted panels that so many long-term comic artists often resort it. Whether Dragon is walking through a crowded spaceship or reacting in horror to something happening just off panel, the story is completely clear. The panels are uncluttered. The angles are varied, with the "camera" being just below the subject as often as even with their eyes. Plus, Larsen is one of the few artists who can do very tight close-ups on faces without it seeming like a cheat to cut down on the amount of drawing the artist needs to do. It's a consistent stylistic choice to move the reader closer to the character as they make a sudden realization or declaration.

The Jack Kirby and Walter Simonson references are obvious, but Larsen definitely knows his own way by now, after an amazing 175 issues. The influences are there, but they never take over. Pair that with simple, bright colors from Nikos Koutsis and Mike Toris to make sure the reader can see all the art without ever losing focus on the subject of it at any given time, and you have a real winner here.

Oh, and did I mention Tom Orzechowski lettering the whole thing? Do I need to say anything about that other than "Friggin' awesome?" His is a style that may be often imitated, but the original still shines through more brightly.

Yes, if Tom Orzechowski were to hand letter Alan Davis' work again, I would be first in line to buy it.

After #175 and a few ups and downs, I still love this series. It takes some directions that I enjoy more than others, but I think Larsen has more than earned the right to follow his muse like that. And even when the story isn't spot on, there's always the eye candy on the page to hold my attention.

On a personal note, Erik Larsen doesn't sell his original art pages for this series. Somewhere in his house, there's a closet filled with something close to 4000 art boards drawn for "The Savage Dragon." That's one impressive store room.

BUYER BEWARE

The January 2012 Marvel solicitations revealed that Marc Silvestri's run on the new Jason Aaron-penned "Hulk" title is over after a mere three issues. I thought I was being overly cynical when Marvel announced the project at Comic-Con International in San Diego overly the summer and I guessed Silvestri would only last six issues. Finish off that trade and move on, right? Silvestri's history of long-term runs in monthly comics is pathetically sparse. "Wolverine" and "Uncanny X-Men" are really it. Nothing since then has lasted terribly long or stayed on schedule.

I thought maybe that even with a background assistant and three inkers, Silvestri would be able to maintain the schedule and keep going with the book for longer than three measly issues. But Filip Sablik confirmed to me on Twitter that Silvestri was only ever going to be on the book for three issues. Good for Silvestri for not over-committing, but shame on Marvel for pulling the rug out from under the feet of fans.

I dug back into the summer reporting on the news and found that, sure enough, there was never any promised time frame for Silvestri's term, the wording and the interviews very carefully dancing around any estimates. Jason Aaron spoke of Silvestri working on the first two issues and being happy drawing monsters, but never said anything about, "And wait till you see what I have him draw in his grand finale third issue!" Or "sixth issue." Or anything like that.

You'd think Silvestri would want to stick around longer. In an interview at Marvel.com, he talked about how this book excited him as much as working with Grant Morrison on "X-Men" a decade ago. That sounds like an exciting opportunity for an artist, one he might like to enjoy for longer than a fiscal quarter.

Even with the lack of details in the "Hulk" announcement, I appeared overly optimistic in Pipeline at the time (emphasis added):

That might make for six fun issues to read. Silvestri has such a great track record, after all, with monthly series. The last long form monthly book he drew was Grant Morrison's "[New] X-Men" title, and that was, what, four issues? (He did six issues of "Hunter/Killer" last decade, but it took a year and a half for those to make it out.)

I'd like to get excited about a book like this, but we know it's only a tease, just enough to grab attention and get your interest before a succession of other artists fills out the title and sales slowly slide into oblivion. Most likely, Silvestri will be replaced by a series of artists trained at Top Cow or Aspen, so we can get a second generation Silvestri-style artist to smooth over the rough edges of transition.

Whilce Portacio is the new "Hulk" artist. While not necessary a Top Cow studio artist, his style is close enough to Silvestri's that I'll call it a push.

Let this be a caveat emptor: that creative team you so enjoyed in the first issue of the new on-going series you bought into last week had already changed in the production pipeline before that issue hit shelves. And nobody said anything about it. This three issue run was never a surprise. It's passive bait and switch. "A new artist on an on-going series" doesn't mean the same as "an on-going artist on a new series," I guess.

A NOTE FROM THE ORIGINAL MARVELCUTION

Jim Shooter's blog reprinted a great article about the original 1996 "Marvelcution" event, which helps to put things into perspective. Perelman laid off 175 people on that fateful day 15 years ago. The dozen or so people laid off two weeks ago pales by comparison. But the money quote from the article is this one:

"Marvel has alienated readers by stretching plotlines over as many issues as possible. And stories too often cross over into other characters' books, so fans have to buy more issues to figure out what's going on."

The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?

That's followed by a nasty little anti-Marvel quote from one Jess Nevins, best known today for chronicling Alan Moore's references in "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" series.

CODA

I have a photography blog, AugieShoots.com, where I'm posting circus shots this week! And with the redesign of Google Reader, I expect I'll be more active on Google+ in the weeks ahead. VariousandSundry.com hasn't been updated in a little while, but that's where I go to vent on all the other topics in my life.

Twitter @augiedb || E-mail || Pipeline Message Board

TAGS:  pipeline, marvel comics, incredible hulk, marc silvestri, erik larsen, savage dragon, alan davis, avengers prime, brian michael bendis

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