Pipeline: Critiquing the "Art of Todd McFarlane"

Tue, November 13th, 2012 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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DRAWING OUT TODD McFARLANE

Due out in stores next week -- two years after its initial solicitation -- is "The Art of Todd McFarlane: The Devil's in the Details," an arto-biography of Image Comics' biggest star and Founding Father. It fares better as an art book than biography, though there's plenty of each to keep you interested. If you've followed McFarlane's career and his previous interviews, there'll still be one or two new pieces of information in here. For everyone else, you'll get to read McFarlane's Greatest Hits, reliving the editing of Shatterstar's sword, the not-so-secret origin of "Spawn," the beginnings of "Spider-Man," and the steady churn of blind submissions that started it all. It's a fun art book for an old time fan, done in nice large double-page layouts, but there are some choices made in its creation that keep it from being a clear and consistent experience. We'll get to those in a bit. Let's start with the fun stuff.

The book covers McFarlane's artistic career from a teenager obsessed with becoming a comic book artist to the multimedia empire McFarlane is today. Nothing gets skipped, although you might wish some parts of it were explained more thoroughly or had more history told to back it up. The best parts of the book are where McFarlane talks about the back office politics and the historical reasons for why some things happened the way they did. Why were his "Infinity Inc." pages so ornate? (To cover up his rudimentary art skills.) Was there any blowback to his "Spider-Man" redesign? (Yes, but he was stubborn and let it fuel him.) How did he get the Spider-Man gig in the first place? (Visiting the right office at the right time.)

There are a lot of little gems along the way. An early spread shows lots of sketches he did when learning to draw as a teenager, where it was obvious he liked to copy the works of Neal Adams ("Green Lantern") and John Byrne ("Alpha Flight"), amongst others. The hand written charts McFarlane used to keep track of his art submissions are included. (Keith Giffen didn't respond, the cad!) An early "Spawn" comic he did in high school -- 35 pages long -- is reprinted in its entirety. It's unfinished and the reproductions are small, but you'll get the gist of it when you see it. There are pages from an aborted project he was doing at DC with Roy Thomas, "Valda," that I had never heard of before this. You can see the original "Boof and the Bruise Crew" from 1983 during his college days. The first time any editor took him seriously was at DC, where they sent him a "dummy" script to draw a Batgirl story. Those pages are included in the book, as well. One two-page spread even gives us all the little UPC boxes he drew art for during his "Amazing Spider-Man" run.

Much of the earliest work, as you'd expect, is very rough. The bones are there, though. You can see certain tricks and anatomy tics that McFarlane would later use to his advantage. (I love the way he draws hands, for example. They're big meaty paws with well-defined fingers.) It's a good start to the book, since it's all new material.

One thing I wish we'd see more from by McFarlane outside of this book is his more cartoony style. He has a great friendly style for drawing things that aren't horror/superhero titles. I'd love to see him do a comic that might be easily translated into a Nickelodeon cartoon. He has a great flair for drawing kids and big footed/big headed people. He even has some skills at likenesses, which are rarely exploited. Both of those can be found sprinkled throughout the book.

While there's no art from his "Spitfire and the Troubleshooters" issue, you do get a couple of pages from his one-issue "Daredevil" and "G.I. Joe" fill-ins. ("G.I. Joe" was meant to run longer, but Larry Hama didn't like McFarlane's art and had him booted.) McFarlane did a fill-in issue of "All-Star Squadron" inked by Vince Colletta! Imagine how much of McFarlane's line work got erased that month! The "Quasar" cover McFarlane did is presented as large as can be in the book to show the amount of detail and cape is on that cover. It's a nice inclusion. There are a couple of spreads dedicated to McFarlane's issue of DC's "Invasion!", though it's never mentioned by name and the one paragraph introduction to it is vague and non-informative. I also think it's shown out of the chronological order the rest of the book is generally done in.

This is a strong page layout, with a nice straight line of equally-sized covers, and a double-page wide panel detail that shows off the energy of McFarlane's work

Of course, "Spider-Man" gets a large section, including all of his "Amazing Spider-Man" covers and samples from the adjectiveless book, including a full-page spotlight on original art from the Hobgoblin/Ghost Rider story. There are lots of promo images and magazine covers McFarlane did at the time in various places, including the "Marvel Team-Up" series. I would buy an art book just showing off the original art from those covers, particularly the X-Men guest starring ones. In other interviews McFarlane has talked about running out of things to draw on the covers (which explains why they got a little crazy at the end) and ultimately leaving the assignment. That doesn't come out here in this book.

Then there's a lot of "Spawn" stuff, starting on page 199 and carrying through the next 100 pages. There are blown-up panels to show the amount of line work McFarlane put into his pages. There are examples of multiple re-colorings of specific pin-ups and covers. There's some pencil sketches leading to full pages. There's lots of examples of Spawn next to Batman, which look beautiful. There's even a large chunk of pages devoted to more recent McFarlane "Spawn" covers, which their homages to the likes of "The Walking Dead," "The Dark Knight Returns," "Youngblood," et. al.

Greg Capullo gets a few pages in this book, since McFarlane was inking over him during his lengthy run on "Spawn." It's funny to see art that looks like McFarlane's, just tighter and with better anatomy and storytelling. The artistic continuity worked well there. McFarlane also did a good job inking over Rob Liefeld's covers, a few of which are presented in the book.

After that, additional pages cover the music videos, the "Spawn" movie and TV series, the toys, etc. That's the part I'm least interested in, so I skimmed over it, mostly just looking at the sketches.

The problem with the book, though, is with its presentation. It's often repetitive. At the beginning of each chapter, there's a page of text to summarize what comes next. The rest of the chapter is made up of quotes straight from Todd McFarlane, often immediately repeating the introduction. Sometimes, it would happen twice in the same chapter. In the first 100 pages, for example, McFarlane tells the story about how he got to ink his own work for the first time on three separate occasions.

There's not that much text in the book, so I'd like to learn more from what I get. Honestly, I've learned more about McFarlane from what I've read in "Comics Interview" and "Comics Journal" interviews 20 years ago than I did in this book. Not everyone was an obsessive fanboy in the early 1990s, though; for them, this book will shed light on a lot of fascinating things.

The biggest problem is the lack of cohesion in the book. Is this a book about learning to draw comics and passing along those lessons? Is it a behind-the-scenes look at specific parts of the comics industry? Is it an honest look at how one artist's work has evolved and grown? "The Art of Todd McFarlane" goes back and forth between all of those things, by design. While bits and pieces of it can be entertaining and helpful, as a whole the book winds up feeling thin in the narrative. The "Art" works for the most part, though, so most people will still be happy with it. I just wish there was more in the writing. I don't need a full-scale autobiography, necessarily. It's just that the reading experience feels jumpy. McFarlane skips around a lot, emphasizing some parts over others in ways that feel awkward at times. I love seeing the rarities and all the covers, but some pages feel like they're showing art just to fill the dead space awkwardly left by a short write-up.

On this spread, the thumbnail covers aren't lined up, two nearly random panels are excerpted, the original art for the cover on the left page is floating in No Man's Land. The Hulk panels to the right are cut off early by another cover image overlapping it. A better grid-based structure could clean some of that up.

I wish McFarlane had been able to focus better on putting the text together with the art. Pick one approach and stick to it: Discuss the art in the book, or discuss career issues and the comics industry in general, or discuss the chronology of his career. By trying to smash them all together, it makes none of them effective enough.

The formatting of the book is also irregular. Oddly, the text occasionally changes size in a way that at first glance looks like a pull quote is coming up next. But it's not. It's just the next sentence or two presented larger for dramatic effect, I guess. They don't always seem like the most important part of the text, though, so that's lost on me.

There are also pages where the art seems to be presented randomly, like they were using every trick they could to cram in as many images as they needed to fit into a spread. It suffers from images overlapping and from images being smaller than you might like. I read the book in PDF form on a 27-inch computer monitor, so everything looks big to begin with. (The printed book, itself, is a good-sized 9x12 inch doorstopper.) I'd need to see the print book for a final analysis, but I bet everything will still be large enough to be readable and enjoyable. To be fair, this book is not alone. Every art book is a battle of compromises between what to include and what to ignore. Fitting it all in must be the toughest battle of them all. And I give this book credit for reaching beyond the obvious to collect all of the random one shots and one-off covers McFarlane did during his earlier career. That's a nice thing to include in a book like this.

While the book has its shortcomings as an autobiography, I think it works well as an art book and is something that any Todd McFarlane fan will enjoy. Seeing all of this art together in one place is worth the cost, and you'll enjoy the trip down memory lane. I'm reviewing this from a PDF, but I can't wait to see a paper version. At its larger page size, this will be the largest we've ever seen most of this art.

McFarlane mentions in the book that he hasn't sold his "Spawn" original art, though he has given some pieces away to family members. Wouldn't a "Todd McFarlane's Spawn Artist's Edition" book through IDW be an awesome sight? It sounds like it would pass the biggest hurdle: availability of original art.

One last note: This book reprints a lot of work McFarlane did at Marvel and DC for the first 200 pages. I think that every cover he ever drew there is reproduced, with plenty of examples from his interior work, too. I don't know what kind of deal was cut behind the scenes to allow for this, but good on everyone for making it happen. The biggest doubt I had about this book when it was first announced was that McFarlane would be able to publish any Marvel or DC stuff, let alone this much. According to the credits section at the back, though, all of the Marvel and DC work in the book was "Used with permission." That makes me feel good about the world today.

There's one other credit I'm sure you'll all be looking for, so I'll reprint it here for you, with the emphasis being mine:

Spawn, its logo and its symbol are registered trademarks © 2012 Todd McFarlane Productions, Inc. The characters Angela, Domina, Tiffany and all other Heaven’s Warrior Angel characters are TM and © 1993-1996 and 2000 Neil Gaiman. All rights reserved. All other related characters are TM and © 2012 Todd McFarlane Productions, Inc. All rights reserved.

DAVE SIM'S LETTERING FOLLOW-THROUGH

Something Dave Sim talked about on the Inkstuds podcast last month resonated with me. He talked about acting out his comics to figure out how to letter them. That's something you don't hear too many creators talking about today. Yes, artists take photo reference of themselves or friends to nail a panel. Often, those pictures are so awkward that they never see the light of day. Some writers talk about reading a script out loud to see if the dialogue "feels" right to them, though it might be a wasted effort since you can't control how the reader reads the script. Still, having a writer do that or having a friend read it to see how it comes off is always a good thing.

But letterers? These days, they're at the end of the food chain on the lowest rung. They get a day to copy-and-paste a Word DOC into an Adobe Illustrator file. Make the words fit in balloons that fit as much in the negative areas as possible, push it to the production team, and then move on to the next one. There's not too many chances to get creative. There is no time for creative experimentation when your deadline is in hours. Some letterers have specific styles or recognizable fonts that they use to set themselves apart, but where's the real innovation? I've seen enough of the colored caption boxes with little icons in the corner and fancy lines around the edges. It's played out.

Then there's Dave Sim. As best as I can tell, he's won one Eisner in his lifetime, and that was in 1994 for "Best Graphic Novel" on "Cerebus: Flight." He never won for lettering. That's as big an indictment of the Eisner Awards as anyone could ever make. (Sim did win for Best Lettering at the Harveys in 2004 and in the Squiddies in 2001.)

Dave Sim recorded all of the dialogue for all of the speaking parts of "High Society" for the forthcoming Kickstarted "Audio Digital" project. It sounds bat-crap crazy. Who'd want to listen to an author do funny voices for hours on end? Of a comic book? Sim had a colorful cast of characters with unique speech patterns, so if anyone could get away with it, it would be him. But he talked on the podcast about how he read the voices out loud as he was lettering the book to make sure he punched up the right words. It was important to him that the reader see how the words should be read. Larger letters would be emphasized. Smaller words might be whispered. The work he did while reading the words out loud directly translated onto the page.

Does anyone even think about that anymore? Besides Paul Grist, whose lettering is clearly in the Sim mold?

It also reminded me of all those times you learned in sports to follow through on something. If you want to hit a baseball properly, you don't stop your swing at contact with the ball. The same holds true in golf. The best way to get the first half of the swing right is to get the second half -- after the ball is off the club -- to be straight and true. It's all about the follow-through. It's that seemingly unnecessary part of the process that, if practiced, will pay the greatest dividends.

Dave Sim followed through on his lettering. I wish more people would notice.

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TAGS:  pipeline, todd mcfarlane, spawn, dave sim, cerebus

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