Pipeline: From Romita's Spidey to Moore's Violator

Tue, January 31st, 2012 at 12:58pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

JOHN ROMITA GOES LARGE

This is the first book I've ever reviewed for Pipeline that would have taken at least four passes through the scanner to construct a cover image. The pictures with this review had to be taken with a camera

The third in IDW Publishing's series of "Artist's Editions" books comes out this week, featuring six issues from John Romita's run on "Amazing Spider-Man." It was an eye-opening reading experience for me, both as someone who never got into that era of Spider-Man comics, and as a process junkie who enjoys looking behind the curtain. While it's not a book for everyone, I can't imagine the people who are planning to pick it up could possibly be disappointed. It's an impressive object that delivers a great reading experience.

For those coming in late, the "Artist's Edition" format is the brainstorm of IDW editor, Scott Dunbier, who also ushered in the popular "Absolute" editions over at WildStorm/DC. (Since the first one was for "Danger Girl," perhaps I should include "Homage" in that list.) This one-ups even the Absolute format by printing the art boards at their original size. In short, these books are huge. They're hardcovers, because there's no way a paperback edition could hold the weight and the size of these pages. It's the kind of book you carefully consider before opening up, cleaning off a space on a table before thunking it down to open up and read.

The pages inside are shot directly from the original art, and are presented warts and all. These are scans of the original art where you can see every blue line, many of the artist's notes to his inker and colorist in the margins, and every piece of tape or white out applied to make corrections. There's even a coffee stain or two.

It's the first "Artist's Edition" book I've held in person, which is why I'm trying to lay this out completely in case you didn't know about it, or have never seen one. Here, let me show you pictures for comparison. This is the book in the box it came in, lined up with a standard sized comic, as well as IDW's "Absolute"-sized "Parker: The Martini Edition." It dwarfs both. It's glorious.

IDW's "Martini Edition" of Darwyn Cooke's Richard Parker adaptations is about the same size as an Absolute edition. The Artist's Edition dwarfs it. For a more impressive sense of scale, here's an "Artist's Edition" book behind a standard-format monthly comic book.

There are six non-consecutive issues of "Amazing Spider-Man" contained here, #67-#69, #71, #75, and #84. There's a lot of Kingpin. There's Gwen Stacy. The Lizard looks awesome in closeup with the detailed ink work. Aunt May is sick. Spider-Man is fighting bad dudes. That's enough for me. I'm not an expert on early era Spider-Man or John Romita's work as a whole. You can get that in better context elsewhere, I'm sure, though I am tempted to giggle at Stan Lee's "hip" dialogue of the time, particularly for the, er, students of a minority disposition.

Let's, instead, talk about the packaging and what it does for the art.

One of the problems I had with "Absolute Danger Girl" was that the larger page size showed some of J. Scott Campbell's storytelling/page layout shortcomings. Your eyes wandered over too much of the page haphazardly, searching for the next panel, or going in circles to read the story. John Romita's art doesn't have that problem. It's basically two or three tiers of panels. And in this case, the larger printing helps enlarge the strengths of Romita's art. It's not that you're suddenly seeing art in three dimensions, but I can see the depth put into the drawings better than I ever have. When Spider-Man swings across the city or walks down the side of a building, Romita's art puts you there, right behind Spider-Man, with the rest of the city in the far background and the perspective jumping out at you. It's vertiginous. I couldn't believe how often a panel popped out at me like that. It's just a simple two-dimensional drawing, but seen at full size seems to give it added dimension.

Seen at a much larger size, John Romita's art can place the reader more effectively on the side of a skyscraper. It's three dimensional without the glasses.

Jim Mooney's inks show up particularly well, too. Anyone who's unsure of what an inker can add to the art needs to see original art pages. The varying weight of ink lines is easier to see when shown at full size. The separation between planes in the scene, as well as the roundness and contour of anatomy is best seen inked and very large. You can also see where he slavishly followed and didn't follow the original blue lines from Romita. It's not that Romita did anything wrong, but that the inker didn't feel the need to painfully trace every line. These re minor adjustments that add up, but never overwhelm the art. Often, it's just a nip here and a tuck there.

When the inks get heavier, the results can be somewhat mixed. Sometimes, the whole page starts to look like a mush of inky blackness and you want to scream for daylight. Other times, the bolder choices of solid black areas pop off the page, such as when Romita uses silhouettes. There are a couple of silhouettes in the book here that jump off the backgrounds like something out of a shadow box.

And there are cityscapes where, at the larger size, you can see that those smudges of inks on the rooftops are really meant to be people. It's extraordinary the small details you can pick up on here.

Here you can see the title pages that separate each reprinted issue. And you can't see it from a small scan, but you can pick up on the people on various rooftops behind Spider-Man here.

You will need to go back to read the book a second time, though. There's so much material now on every page that it can be distracting. I tried to enjoy the stories as written on my first read, planning on going through the book a second time to pick up on the margin writings and the editor notes and the details in the inking later. It didn't work out that way. I have no such self control. I couldn't help but look at the pasted-in indicia and the way the month and issue number would be pasted in on top of it. Watching where the letterer whited out areas of art to fit the balloons in or to make lettering corrections is fun. It's a small education in comics production to read the notes from the editor correcting the lettering, or the notes from Romita to explain when a scene is at night or in a dark room so that the colorist could get the job done right. In the assembly line of comics, those notes are necessary to make sure everyone was on the same page. It wasn't as easy back then to facilitate such conversations.

Not all of the margin notes are present. Most of them, in fact, are half cut off. IDW didn't print the entire page; they shaved off the outermost edges that aren't germane to the story. At times, you can make out what the notes say, but most of the times they're lost and you'll need to move on. They don't impact the quality of the art and the storytelling, so I imagine most people won't notice it so much.

The stories collected here include some late-60s Empire State University politics, as the students at the school protest for cheaper dorm rooms. Robbie Robertson's son plays a big part in this storyline, and Romita is left drawing people who aren't white. It's almost funny to see him draw arrows to those people from the margins to let the colorist know not to use the peach crayon to color those kids in. It's also a sign of the times that he refers to the "negro girl" in one margin note. We can quibble over exact dates, but "African-American" as a term didn't hit big until the 1970s, replacing the increasingly out-of-favor "negro," which replaced "colored." Romita was using the phrasing of the day, so don't read anything into this. End of history lesson.

It's doubly ridiculous because, even in black and white and at a relatively small size on the page, it's obvious that the woman he's pointing to isn't white. The afro is the first tip-off. . . But I suppose the safe assumption in comics of this era is that everyone is white unless told otherwise.

So, you might be asking yourself, what are the negatives of this book? Well, there are three pages they couldn't find the art from, so they used the linework from that page in black and white instead. On the positive side, it helps show you just how yellow original art can get by comparison after 45 years.

But that's it. It's completely understandable and it's not anything I'd criticize the volume for at all, except for the fact that I have nothing else to say.

It's nice to see Marvel licensing out a book like this. It's nothing they'd probably want to do -- expensive book, low print run, low sales, using editorial overhead they can't afford, etc. -- but the perfect project for a smaller outfit with an editorial team with a passion for the material like this. It presents Romita's artwork in a way very few have ever seen, and has given a younger whipper-snapper like me a new appreciation for some classic Marvel art.

Oh, and the best bonus of all with the book? That smell of fresh Chinese printing. I love that smell, don't you?

"John Romita's Amazing Spider-Man: Artist's Edition" is out in comic shops this week for those lucky enough to have pre-ordered it. It is, for sure, a niche product catering to a niche crowd, but that's OK. It's a wonderful piece of bookmaking for the crowd it's aimed at. And it can be had soon for $100.

The series will continue soon with Wally Wood EC work, followed by a planned Will Eisner "Spirit" volume later in the year. If they ever decide to do a Tim Levin's "Batman Adventures" volume or Victor Bridges' "Freak Force" book, I'd be happy to start scanning for them.

No, I'm not holding my breath on that, either.

SECOND LOOK: VIOLATOR (1994)

When you think about Alan Moore, you likely think about his heavier, "important" works. You're picturing "Watchmen" and "V for Vendetta," to start. Maybe "Batman: The Killing Joke" or "Promethea" or "Swamp Thing." "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" is a serious piece of fan-fic. But what gets forgotten sometimes is his wicked sense of humor, particularly in his wordplay. It leaks out in his dramatic works, but it's not the center of those pieces. The best known of his humorous works are probably from the ABC books, particularly with "America's Best Comics" or maybe "Top Ten," if you wish to simplify that book down to its humorous contents.

Back in 1994, Moore produced a small three issue miniseries that today is a footnote in his bibliography and that most people probably scoff at. It's "Violator," produced through Todd McFarlane's corner of Image Comics, and starring the little monster runt with the clownish human form. It's a funny book that fits the mold of the "Spawn" Universe, even if it does peter out about halfway through and stumble to the finish. But that first issue or issue and a half? It was laugh out loud funny for me. Sure, it's drenched in blood, guts, and monsters, but what would you expect from 1994 McFarlane?

The plot, basically, posits that the Violator has four brothers who are embarrassed by how he's acted. Violator's depowering is a mark against them, and so they want to take him out now before he embarrasses them any further. At the same time, mob boss Tony Twistelli (no relation to some hockey player, maybe) is out for revenge, hiring the Admonisher to take out the Violator for the murder of his operatives. The Admonisher, a shirtless Aryan buffoon covered in guns who likes to dress down his opponents verbally, takes on the job.

When Violator's brothers get involved, the Admonisher has no problem pointing his weapons at them, too. The more, the merrier. Picture the Punisher meeting Sledge Hammer and you'll have a pretty good idea of who this guy is. What he is, is hilarious. He has the perfect mix of deadpan slapstick and cute wordplay. He's not a three dimensional character by any means, nor someone Moore will ever be remembered for by anyone but me, but he is fun to watch and steals every panel he's in. In fact, this series holds one of my favorite comic pages of all time. Here it is:

High art? No. Hilarious, entertaining, and memorable? You betcha! If that original art were on eBay today, I'd have a tough time not bidding.

The book functions as an origin story for the Violator, with much of the second issue composed of Violator spilling his story to the human head that got stuck on his arm after he punched his hand through the victim. Yeah, you can see why this book was likely a "Wizard" Top Ten seller. Unfortunately, telling that story stops the book dead in its tracks about halfway through, and the rest is limping to the finish. Some of the wordplay gets a little repetitive, and the violence and action is less creative, more blood-and-guts. It's not without its moments, such as this one where The Clown kicks Spawn off a rooftop like someone out of a bad "Peanuts" homage.

Art in the first two issues is by Bart Sears. If you remember his "Brutes and Babes" columns from that era, and if you've seen his "Justice League Europe" work just before that, you'll have a good idea of what the book looks like. This isn't yet the Sears who changed his style completely for "The Path." This is respectable and appropriate muscles-and-violence art that fits the story. Sears disappears for the third issue, which is drawn by Greg Capullo, still new to the Spawn universe at that point. The bones of Capullo's style are clearly on display, though the heavy, early-90s inking style covers it up a bit.

For at least the first issue, Alan Moore provided thumbnails for his artist to work from. They're much better than the stick figures you might immediately imagine. Sample pages are shown in the back of the first issue, and show that Sears stuck pretty closely to what he was given.

The two consistent parts of the series are the colors from Steve Oliff and Olyoptics, as well as the lettering from Tom Orzechowski. The coloring is beautiful, particularly earlier in the series, when there's slightly less demonic hellspawn violence and you have pages with colors other than red and orange. I love the subtle gradients and the brighter colors used on skin tones and in the mall scenes. Orzechowski gets to develop a few new lettering styles to match the brothers of the Violator, and does his usual beautifully monospaced lettering throughout the rest, with flashes of the "Uncanny X-Men" stylings creeping in here and there.

"The Violator" has a bit of a bad reputation as being exemplary of the style of its time, and a lost and forgotten piece of Alan Moore Is Cashing It In trivia. I think, however, that it deserves a fresh look. While it does suffer a bit down the stretch, I think there's plenty of entertainment to be gained from the three issues in this miniseries, that I don't think have ever been collected anywhere before. That's a shame.

In the light of all the new Extreme relaunches, let's take a look at an ad from the miniseries for 'Bloodstrike.' Art by Jae Lee.

IN CONCLUSION

I had promised two possibilities for review this week, and covered neither. It's been a good year, with lots of reading so far already. I keep losing track of where I am. So I'll just promise more reviews next week and then see what comes out.

I've revived the photoblog linked below, so check that out for regular updates once more.

Here's where I am on the web:

AugieShoots.com || VariousandSundry.com || Original Art Collection || Google+ || Twitter || E-mail || Pipeline Message Board

TAGS:  pipeline, idw publishing, marvel comics, john romita, spider-man, alan moore, todd mcfarlane, spawn, violator

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