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I

When thinking about horror can operate in comics, I think there are certain touchstones in the medium that you simply have to deal with and dissect to really get an understanding of how to express horror within comics.  One of the larger of these touchstones is Junji Ito’s spiral obsessed masterwork Uzumaki–which is probably on some levels ubiquitous both with the notion of a good horror comic, and some of our more simplified notions of Japanese horror tropes.

What makes Uzumaki such a strong work is how precise it is in it’s mechanics.  It is meticulous in the way that a curse might be.  It is performative in it’s digressions and crescendos.  It is a comic that knows how to let the beat build.  It is functionally designed to work upon the reader’s own natural inclinations as a comic book reader–and use those as a mechanism to spread the madness of the book out into the reader.  It is a book that creates a kind of feedback loop that sits in your brain long after you’ve shut the book and gone to bed.  What makes it amazing is that it does all of this without relying on the kind of sublime dedication to the image that other great horror works do.   For instance, when you see a Beksinski or Giger painting–the horror is beyond the image in front of you.  Your mind senses a story it can not fully tell, and darkness fills in through the gaps.

In Al Columbia’s Pim and Francie, one of the most terrifying pages for me is is this one:

It isn’t what is fully on the page–it’s what is allowed to be implied by what is on the page.  Because it is not explained the words “Orlo was scared. Sonnny Blackfire had returned” hit you like a an ice pick.  We have the notion of this Orlo character who is scared.  Why is he scared?  Sonny Blackfire has returned.  The message to you as the reader is “be afraid, terror has returned”.  The times which you have had–the days which you have lived–have been numbered up to this day.

But what makes Ito’s Uzumaki interesting to study by contrast is that it really doesn’t traffic in this kind of implied power.  It is horror as a product of dramatic devices.  It is a mechanical seen horror which almost operates in a classic Hollywood film style.  It allows the strengths of the comic medium to convey large amounts of information to basically tell the reader what is coming long before it actually comes.  It telegraphs every shot it takes and then the horror that is created is instead a sense of dread and inevitability.  The reader sees the train coming, but is powerless to move from the tracks.  You simply can not look away from the mesmerizing power of the spiral.

Within the first 20 pages of the book Ito gives us all of the main elements that he will be dealing with over the course of the series.  We get the row houses, snails, madness, the light house, the evil pond, whirlpools, and twisters.  All of which are sort of subtly highlighted on each page–just enough to give the reader a sense that these things are connected to a greater obsession which will be revealed.  This is Ito in almost essay form beginning with his thesis.  Also notice in each of these pages–the characters are directly looking at these elements–so there is no way as a reader that you can miss these core things which will make up the symbology of Ito’s world.

This is in fact the core function of Ito’s horror.  The introduction of a specific element–and the slow unveiling of it’s final horror.  One of the early and most powerful illustrations of the story of Shuichi’s mother, and her desperate attempts to avoid the curse of the spiral that claimed her husband.  Where her husband pursued every spiral he saw until he eventually found the spiral within his own body and died–Shuichi’s mother flees from every spiral she finds.  And in this way, she comes to be cursed by the spiral.  Whether one goes toward the spiral or away from the spiral–it does not matter, the curse functions the same.  This is an early lesson for the reader that no matter what these characters do in this book, salvation is impossible.

What makes this section so powerful is that first Ito introduces us to the fact that Shuichi’s mother is so terrified of the Spiral that she is willing to mutilate herself to protect herself from it.  And we as readers are also terrified of the Spiral at this point after seeing what happened to Shuichi’s father, which was completely gruesome.  So as a reader we have a built in physical aversion to the spiral–we are with Shuichi’s mother in wanting to flee from the idea.

However, Ito shows that even on the extreme of fleeing from the Spiral–it is inevitable.  And the scene in the doctor’s office where Shuichi spots the spiral that makes up the inner ear–your stomach starts turning as a reader right at that moment.  Because you know what will happen if Shuichi’s mother figures out that there are spirals in her ears.  So the intermittent pages are this insane tension of her slowly figuring out that she has spirals in her ears until the final moment where she grabs the scissors–and by that point you are really just reading the thing through your fingers.  It is a beautifully built segment–which has as it’s denouement the fact that in removing her inner ears Shuichi’s mother has doomed herself to a world of vertigo–she has become the Spiral she destroyed herself to avoid.

We see this pattern of storytelling repeated in wider and wider arcs as Uzumaki unfurls itself–until in the end we arrive at this inescapable hellscape of ruins and madness as the whole town gives itself over to the spiral.  The cumulitive effect of these repeated rhythms and recursions is really quite extraordinary–and it is something that is beholden a lot to the comic medium.  So much of Uzumaki relies on your ability as a reader to have your focus pulled around massive amounts of information per page–to be both cognizant of the foregrounded dramatic elements, and the doom swirling around the characters in the background.  Because of the way we move comics with our minds as readers–the sensation we can get of a particular kind of dread moving in is direct and impactful in a way that no other genre adaption could match.  A film would be too slow, and a book leaves too much visual information to chance.  The directed nature of comics coupled with the slower pace allowing for greater levels of information to be given to the audience–is the foundation upon which Uzumaki works as a horror–and it speaks to the fact that horror CAN be done in comics in a real and visceral way that doesn’t just rely on a steady cavalcade of gore imagery.  At it’s core level, horror is powered by the management of information to the audience–knowing what to tell, what not to tell.  It can be both a heavily structured and planned genre, or it can be a very surreal behind the mind’s eye kind of thing.

II

The notion that Uzumaki is primarily at it’s foundation about the meticulous management of information by Ito, is while true–not the whole truth either.  There is a side of Uzumaki which does get a lot of power out of his stylistic choices, particularly as they pertain to body horror.  On the one hand, Uzumaki would be just as scary if it were done with stick figures–on the other–the punch lines that are delivered–wow do they pack a punch.

Ito’s ability to both conceive and frame the grotesque is one of his real strengths as an artist.  And what’s more, his grotesques are also thematically entrenched.  So while they work on their own as horror images–they still are bound to the rules which he has set for himself in terms of how he uses his images(with Ito, every image has it’s place).

One of the most striking sequences of image making horror meets theme is the snail people in Uzumaki.  The horror in them is that they were once people–well they were treated as people–and then they became grotesquely mutated, and upon losing their human form, are no longer treated as humans.  It’s basically Kafka’s Metamorphosis but with Snails and expanded outward as a disease that could affect anyone.  Obviously, Ito chose Snails because of their shells being like spirals.  But it is his ability to draw their transformation, and slow loss of humanity that makes them so haunting.

The most horrifying turn of this is still to come though.

All throughout the kid’s transformation into a slug he has been bullied by this other kid Tsumura–and there is this interesting debasement that takes place Katayama fully loses his human form, and is now just a thing that is kept at the school to feed like a pet and gawk at.  Tsumura in almost cartoonish cruelty pretty much puts his foot right into the back of this tension.

Which is what makes what happens next seem like justice.

Of course it’s not justice.  It’s just the spiral.  And anyone can be turned into a snail as we learn later.  But a large part of why these snails are so horrifying is how well Ito is able to draw them as human hybrids–we can still see ghosts of their humanity–and then the way he has drawn every postule on their bodies, and the very detailed way he has rendered the shells.  The amount of visual information is almost overloading to your senses.

It is quite interesting because there is a sense that in particularly dramatic punchline moments, the rendering style that Ito uses gets much more complex and specific.  It is the nightmares in Uzumaki which ring the most clear.

Which again, is Ito managing information.  But this is down to even the amount of lines per page.  He is managing the information he wants to convey with his line, with the same precision and choice that he is managing everything else in Uzumaki.

Uzumaki is comic’s horror at it’s most meticulous.  What is interesting I think to think about, is that the skills he uses to render horror in his comics–aren’t of a level that would be beyond a Bernie Wrightson or Richard Corben.  But we’ve rarely seen this kind of horror from either of them–because the precision and management of effect isn’t nearly as keen.  I think that if you are going to be the kind of horror artist that shows everything in a very literal way–which is the space where I would put people like Wrightson, Corben, and Junji Ito–there needs to be precision in your choices across every level of the comic.  Why we see some of Corben and Wrightson’s work fail to induce the same levels of horror that Ito has mastered in Uzumaki–is often times down to a lack of thematic cohesion between the way the story is being told and the elements that are being presented on the page.  I think Corben and Strnad’s collaboration on Ragemoor works because there is a very effective management of information and tone–though I would also say Ragemoor along with some of the other work Corben has done falls also into some of the territory that I mentioned with Giger/Columbia and that group.

III

The main thing I take away from Ito is the effect it has on your psyche as a reader the cumulitive nature of Ito’s vision.  His stories spiral down into their focus point–and that spinning sensation of receiving information for more and more pointed reasons until you are scrambling to escape–it is a kind of hypnosis.  I would like to see it applied almost to an even more excessive degree.  It can be like black metal in that the repetition and dirge like nature of the looping information can allow for moments within the narrative of elevation where you can get away with truly crazy things.  Which probably speaks to my main criticism of Uzumaki.  In some ways it is too beholden to it’s plotwork.  That everything at every moment has a place in the locomotion of the story as a whole I think somewhat limits the places Ito could go as a storyteller.   The sensation I had sometimes reading Uzumaki was that while everything was happening in the page that I was reading–there was nothing else happening elsewhere in the town.  Ito’s planning in Uzumaki is at once it’s strength, and it’s detriment.  I mean when you compare it as a mood piece to something like Tsutomu Nihei’s Blame! –it is actually very lacking in atmosphere for a work that goes to such pains to create foreboding tremors in the readers mind.
I think it stays with you as a matter of function, but not perhaps of merit always.  Whereas something like The Laughing Vampire by Suehiro Maruo has perhaps more merit, but is held back by it’s half-assed function–or maybe more specifically, it’s inability to divorce itself from it’s half-assed function.

Uzumaki is successful as a horror comic, and is arguably one of the best testaments to what the medium can do with the genre.  However, it’s success is also very much hinged upon the things which are responsible for almost all of the bad horror comics that have rained down on the medium over the years–particularly in the west.  It is in some ways the high point of horror as formula.  That if you do X + Y – 73 you get terror.  I think the reason that even though Uzumaki is functionally operating in a formulaic way, it is still a top work of horror is maybe because at the end of the day Junji Ito’s obsession is what comes through.  And the obsession of Junji Ito in this comic is in fact that thing which I talk about with that Al Columbia image.  It is the ineffable thing slightly beyond our ability to properly understand and encompass with our language.  It is the occult-like obsession behind the comic that is what perhaps keeps it afloat.

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“I also think you can see another thing in my work–something that Klimt was approaching–that abstract art is everywhere, and we call it decoration.”
~Zach Smith, “One Thousand Choices per Minute: An Interview with Zak Smith Conducted by Shamim M . Momim” from his artbook Pictures of Girls

It was kind of a nice bit of coincidence that in the week interval between the second part of this Liefeld series, and the final third part I got Zak Smith’s fantastic artbook Pictures of Girls in the mail–and he happened to in an interview that was included in the book, bring up the issue that I was wanting to talk about with Liefeld’s X-Force comics.  And that is the function of decoration in art.  Or for my purposes the function of decoration in comics.

I think I would define decoration as I am talking about it as something which is ancillary to the core image, and is at once abstract and impressionistic.  It is a pattern or color or shape that doesn’t need to be on the page, but exists there as a function of the artist’s individual expression–whether that is an externalization of an internal force, or the internal characterization of an external force–decoration creates mood and shape, and tone–it’s one thing to just wear a nice dress–it’s another if you also rock out the accessories that make it a complete look/a complete expression of your individuality.

In comics this is very interesting to me, because I am very interested in making almost personally encoded comic tapestries with my work.  I think because as a function of growing up LGBT in a very religious environment–even subtle expression speaks very loudly to me, and loud expression is almost a form of protest.  To take it another direction, take when Kanye caused a big uproar when he rocked that skirt.  I think on the surface that was an uncomfortable transgression of gender norms for the average person seeing it–but the actual message had more to do with Kanye’s presentation as himself as a coded idea.  It was unnecessary decoration, sure–but it was part of the whole too.  And maybe that’s the borderlands where you start wading in from decoration to core elements of image.  But I think that fuzziness is important, and is itself an aspect of the role decoration plays.  When you look at the top Klimt image–the background is decoration–that much is obvious–but the characters themselves are made up of decoration as well–which shows the degree to which that kind of thing intermingles and blurs.

So that brings me to Rob Liefeld and his X-Force Comics–which have as one of their more intriguing and interesting aspects, a propensity for extraneous decoration in place of traditional symbol placeholders for space and thing.  It is one of the things that makes those books absolutely pop–and I think is one of the things that made them have such a huge impact on me as a kid–and it’s definitely something that when I come back to it now, after being exposed to more art–that stands as one of the core things about this early Liefeld work that makes it still important for me.

The Rob Liefeld/X-Force Love-In Part III: Decoration
Part I | Part II

 

This is the kind of thing I am talking about when I talk about Rob Liefeld and decoration.  Notice the vertical rectangles behind Cable on the upper panel, and then the rectangles and lines behind Stryfe in the panel below.  Now what most artists do in this situation is they either leave that space behind cable blank–or they put in a panel, and add a background that denotes space and place on the page in the story.  So you know from where in the room Cable is firing his shots.  And then they would also in the lower panel try and maintain a consistency of that space so you can as a reader maintain your sense of space.  But what we see here is that that’s actually unnecessary.  Liefeld has exchanged the realistic background behind Cable for this impressionistic set of shapes–which add dynamism to the image–as a reader all of the visual complexity is foregrounded–usually in the presence of a complex background, what you’d see is a need for grey tones, or for the colorist to sort of color all of the people and buildings a darker shade–and you’d get your separation that way.  But the simpler complexity of the first panel with cable allows for the image to have more OOMPH.  There’s also a subtle directionality implied in the coloring of that background pattern which creates an almost strobing effect to the right of the page where the laser fire is situated.

This is rather liberating to understand in comics I think–because it is a level where individuality and expression can sort of find space where it’s both allowing for a dynamic foregrounding of the core figure action, AND allowing for personal decoration on the page.  It is fundamentally the same way that speed lines work–but y’know…kind of less played out–and more inviting of variant expression.  Now, unfortunately Liefeld never goes completely insane with his patterns on X-force.  You would have liked to have seen him go the next step and just go wild styles on every page with different patterns and textures–but for what it’s worth–I think his repetition of in particular the vertical rectangles in x-force allow for a certain rhythm to build–and there is a stronger visual coherence for that choice.  Though I would also argue that visual coherence doesn’t play to Liefeld’s strengths in X-force–and that if the book had followed it’s own logical progressions it would have been like the back post 808s Kanye–which would have been a comic of such excesses and swagger that it would have literally cracked your brain in half.  With a wrap around hologram cover no less.

In this bottom panel we actually see some of the ostentation and experimentalism that was seeping into this book–and really, you’d have to go back to some of Frank Miller’s Ronin pages to find the next American equivalent in comics to that point.  But I think it’s interesting how just using some simple circles and rectangles Liefeld is able to create movement and dynamism on this panel which far exceeds the pages where he drew actual legit backgrounds.  Look at the way the horizontal rectangles suggest the movement from Rahyne to Cable to the dots which almost rush Shatterstar headlong across the page to an enemy that is held stationary on the page–almost imprisoned in front of the vertical bars.  I mean it’s a total “where were you when you were 8?” kind of moment.

It wasn’t always just vertical rectangles either.  Look at this page with shatterstar.  The top left panel gets this nice diagonal movement with that triangle yellow arrow pointing you into the page–and then there is this trippy bullseye behind Shatterstar that particularly because of the way the colorist colored it–almost vibrates the page.  Would this page have been stronger with a standard issue Danger Room type background there instead?  Yeah that would have been harder to draw–but visually this pattern is both extraneous and integral to the image.  It doubles as a characterization of Shatterstar’s focus and fury.

You actually see this kind of thing in a lot of Brendan McCarthy’s work.  This image is I think analogous in function to what Mcarthy is doing with pattern on this Zaucer of Zilk page:

Again, you are seeing the power of a characterizing decorative background behind more complex foregrounded elements.  It’s actually the same visual reason why really complex realistic backgrounds with cartoony figures in the foreground work as well.  That tension between background/foreground complexity is something that works very well in comics–and I think directly plays with the animative qualities of the medium.


Another interesting aspect of these kind of panels in X-Force is the ones like this–where it is a hard thick outlined panel/pattern–behind some dynamic action sort of happening in front of that panel–or twisting insanely through it(as an aside–I wouldn’t mind seeing the fat chunky panel border make a come back–reading a lot of these older comics where that was in vogue–it was a pretty effective technique–particularly if you wanted to move panels around in weird arrangements).  They almost look like abstract paintings on a museum wall and there’s kind of a fun pop art attack going on there that it’s hard to really even guess at an intention in that direction–but it’s fun to think about regardless.  I like to think these X-Force issues basically happened in art gallery–and the hilarious juxtapositions that creates.

But yeah, these comics are that kind of fun.  And I don’t mean that in a hipster ironic “yeah these comics are cool” kind of way.  I mean genuinely that these comics are still fun to go through–and they remain interesting to me.  Like I said originally–these were some of my first comics as a kid–they had power for me then.  They still have power for me now, but it is interesting and useful for me to come back around on work like this and try and tease out the elements that still work for me.  I feel bad for people who just dismiss any comic Liefeld did out of hand, simply because of a dedicated internet meme.  The fact of the matter is that, I don’t believe many are being truly honest in their disdain for Liefeld on a purely comic reason.  This man sold far too many comics for me to believe that all of these people have always hated his stuff.  There just mathematically has to be a portion of that that are people who are just following a meme because it’s not cool to like Liefeld.  I mean you can go through the comment sections on just the three articles I wrote–and there are people who came in for no other reason than to just chuck in that Liefeld is a shit artist.  There’s all kinds of terrible artists out there that the internet hasn’t devoted itself to shitting on everyday.  I’m bringing this up because a percentage of the hate–since it’s just people following a trend–you’re going to come back to this stuff.  The comics are too good not to.

The 90s are basically back already–it is only a matter of time before you start seeing more and more people openly contesting the outrage.  Eventually it will be cool to like some of LIefeld’s stuff again.  So you might as well save yourself the trouble and come over now.  This is a mission of mercy.  Mitch and Maury and all that.

Because your case–that anatomy built sandcastle you’ve been blasting everyone with?  It ain’t shit.  Charlie Brown has bad anatomy.  Anatomy ain’t comics.  You judge the image unto itself–or within the greater work.  What part of what Liefeld is doing on these pages says to you “here is an artist who is asking me to evaluate them against the standard of anatomical realism?”–and what’s worse is that your shitty anti-Liefeld case has created an era of boring ass American comics obsessed with realistic character dimensions in action comics.  It’s the same idiotic line of thinking that says because Guillem March drew Catwoman contorted in an impossible way to show her T/A–that that must mean that March is a shit artist and can’t draw.  Do I think a foundation in anatomy is important for any artist?  Of course.  But at the end of the day–it is INCONSEQUENTIAL.  You don’t need realistic anatomy.  You don’t need photoreference perfect buildings.  You don’t need rules about perspective–or in dialog this character has to face this way or that way–all of those things are guideposts to help our visual language–but every single thing can be broken and still produce a comic that can shake readership to the core.  These X-Force books and Liefeld’s later work were some of the more popular works of the modern era.  You can not take that away from him.  And you have to ask yourself–if these books were that popular despite being shitty across all of these made up rubrics you’ve made for judging good art vs. bad art–maybe it’s not that Liefeld is a shitty artist?  Maybe it’s that your rubric for how you evaluate art in comics is unnecessarily restrictive and imposing?

Why do I care though right?  I mean I care in the sense that writing about this shit helps me organize my own thoughts, and processes for my own comics–which are waaaay worse drawn than any of Liefeld’s comics.  Me going through these is my way of trying to understand why these comics had power over me, and then seeing what I can learn as a still-growing artist.  And there are lessons in these books.  For everyone in the industry.  There are absolutely things that I’ve highlighted in these articles that would 100 percent make current superhero fair more dynamic to read.  Ignore at your peril.

Liefeld also resonates with me because for the most part he got over on style-swag.  And right now the only thing propping me up in my own comics is that what I do–no one else is doing.  My stuff looks like my stuff.  Even if it’s fucked up and broken.  So it is interesting for me to see the ways in which Liefeld dealt with similar problems of being so style slanted–while being in the public eye.  Obviously my goal is to be less hinged upon my style–because basically what happened to liefeld is that eventually his style went out of style–and he got sort of stuck in that early phase of what he was doing.  I mean by that point, he had made more money off just comics than anyone working today could even hope.  But you see this early Liefeld stuff–and it would have been cool if he had kept pushing.  There is an antagonistic side to his art–and if anything, the problem was that he kind of caved to critics who wanted him to move more toward a Jim Lee type of hustle–I would imagine because the attacks were always so viciously targeted at his right to be an artist–it would have been more interesting if he had been sort of proto-Kanye–and just said fuck it–and just gotten weirder and weirder.  And say–you’re either a part of the ride or you’re not.

But I think we do get a nice snapshot here in his early work of some threads that still are crackling in their electric resonance.  So whatever.  I don’t feel bad for anyone really.

” Brother Cavil: In all your travels, have you ever seen a star go supernova?

Ellen Tigh: No.

Brother Cavil: No? Well, I have. I saw a star explode and send out the building blocks of the Universe. Other stars, other planets and eventually other life. A supernova! Creation itself! I was there. I wanted to see it and be part of the moment. And you know how I perceived one of the most glorious events in the universe? With these ridiculous gelatinous orbs in my skull! With eyes designed to perceive only a tiny fraction of the EM spectrum. With ears designed only to hear vibrations in the air.

Ellen Tigh: The five of us designed you to be as human as possible.

Brother Cavil: I don’t want to be human! I want to see gamma rays! I want to hear X-rays! And I want to – I want to smell dark matter! Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can’t even express these things properly because I have to – I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid limiting spoken language! But I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws! And feel the wind of a supernova flowing over me! I’m a machine! And I can know much more! I can experience so much more. But I’m trapped in this absurd body! And why? Because my five creators thought that God wanted it that way! “

This exchange from BSG was one that really punched me in the gut the first time I saw it.  It is basically an expansion on what Rutger Hauer’s character is expressing at the end of Blade Runner—and both sort of have had a part in shaping/changing how I view machines, and machine intelligence.

There’s a similar scene to this in Prometheus when all of the characters are getting dressed to go out into the harsh elements, and Rapace’s dude asks David why he wears a suit when he doesn’t need one—basically his point is just that “hey you’re not one of us, just so you don’t forget”—and David informs him that he wears the suit so that THEY can feel comfortable around him.

Which I think has to trouble anyone.  The notion that we would take anything as complex and beautiful as machine intelligence, and think that the logical end point of it is that it should be as much like us as possible—and in this likeness still not be our equal…is troubling.  I think it spins out of our conception of both creation and tools.  Our notion is that the creation is in a hierarchy with the creator—but always below the creator.  That it is the creator who has brought the creation into being, and for this, they are to be lauded as lord.  And then with that, our notion of tools as things we have created to serve us—and they have no existence outside of that.  A hammer can not be our equal.

I don’t think things really work along this line though.  Creation is the pulling from this sublime inexplainable place, and the continual restriction and mutaliation of that inexplainable thing, until we are able to translate it into this thing—this “our creation”.  But the thing had an existence before we could explain it.  It didn’t come into being simply because we created a name and a form for it.  And our naming of it, our giving to it form—does not mean that it can not be our equal, and that it can not in the end supersede us.  Sometimes the child outstrips the parents, yeah?  Often.

In some respects I think robots are more of an expression of our bigotry toward machine intelligence—we are expressing our inability to understand it, as an expression of it’s inadequacy.  We are projecting our own failure of understanding onto this thing, and then we seek to be proud of that?

And then on another level, I think you have to say by this point the robot is sort of out of the bag.  And because of that it has become a new thing.  So I’m not saying that the robot is now that it has come into being is now somehow less than it once was.  Now that it is, …it is.  The fascinating thing about the robot is that it straddles two worlds.  It is neither pure machine intelligence, nor is it allowed to be human, or biological.  Though why not?  Why wouldn’t a robot or a clone be granted the same agencies of any other living thing?

I spend way too much time worrying about the long term effects of drone warfare on machine intelligence.  And whether there is a long term trauma created in programming dedicated so purely to the assassination of life.  Or whether there is a difference perceptually for machine intelligence between murder and say turning your house lights on or off.  Or maybe not whether there is a difference—but how does it perceive the qualities of those differences?

I dunno.  Basically I don’t think robots(I feel like there is a better word for what I’m trying describe, and that at some point robot becomes a pejorative—similar to artificial intelligence which automatically sets up a dichotomy between real and fake intelligence—which automatically says the machine is less than—despite you know…not really being less than)) are less than.  And I think the degree to which they are seen as cheap replacement slave labor for all of the jobs we don’t want humans to do—is more than a little scary.

One of the things I still get a lot out of the old Rob Liefeld X-Force comics I read as a kid is how dynamic his pages were.  Particularly the first say 7 issues–which I think are a sort of rock start testament to the efficacy of his approach within the genre.  It is actually interesting to look back on these pages now after the things I’ve talked about with Crepax’s page layouts, particularly in his Anita series.  Because these Liefeld comics use the same sort of power X-Y axis approach to their most dynamic pages.  And really, for probably a lot of the same reasons in terms of their audience.  

One of the most effective things Liefeld does, and he does it a lot in these early X-Force issues is this sort of power vertical panel on the left side of the page, and then smaller vertical panels sort of falling up or down in parrallel.    There’s all kinds of weird motion effects this produces reading them.  The above page uses this vertical panel to play into those smaller vertical pink rectangles in the background the second panel–which combined with the coloring produces this fade out effect for this last page.  I also dig how the bottom of the second panel is drawn but not the top.  The sense of play in these early issues is pretty terrific, and in some respects reminds me of sort of a toned down version of the fun Brandon Graham has with his comics.

 

I mean tell me that fun isn’t being had here?  This is a two page spread that you have to turn the book sideways to actually read, and Stryfe is actually perching his foot on one of the panels from which he is speaking.  And again, notice the use of the vertical panels here.  There’s a power in Liefeld’s usage of them.  They are like exclamation marks on a page.  The composition is actually very much an exclamation mark in shape.  The way the far right panel squares of color angle back down toward the center of the page–and go behind Stryfe creates this twisted depth of the panels–because we have stryfe in front of/on the lower panels–but the top right panel actually intersects between Stryfe’s shoulder and cape.  That’s freaking crazy.  And a lot of fun.  I love that kind of thing.  Like on a technical level it’s bizarre and wrong–but on another level it’s bravado, experimental, and surreal.  And it plays with the flatness of the page and the panels.  I think if you saw these comics as they were in Liefeld’s brain–they would almost  be these weird hyperdimensional objects that you could move into and out of concurrently.  The thing they remind me a lot of is this one page in Blaise Larmee’s tumblr comic:

 

These early X-force comics presage .gif comics, without actually.  

 

I mean this kind of image is just beautiful.  Again we see the vertical panel/exclamation mark setup on one side or the other–but in this kind of layout it’s minimized for this hard square that is again…behind one of the preceding panels–even as the characters are ahead of both panels.  Just through how he is placing his panels he is creating depth and dimension and time for his characters to move through.  And that hard square line holding in a set pattern that the characters pose over is a whole other kind of dynamic comic making shit that I will get into in the next part of this series.  But seriously, you don’t see much of this kind of thing anymore.  People ran so hardcore away from Liefeld–but characters popping out of and through panels is something you SHOULD be doing in an action comic.  It’s something you routinely see in japanese action comics.  But,  I think for largely editorial reasons, it’s been excised from western comics to the degree that it should exist.  I mean it should exist even more in western comics, given how compressed the action in our comics is.  You need the few moments you dedicate to action in these comics to hit hard. They need to bang.  Page design like this is the kind of thing you would tear out of the comic and hang on your wall.

 

Oh and lest you think Liefeld wasn’t at all cognizant of these choices in layout. Yeah.  Exclamation marks.  This stuff is pure comics.  

The genesis of this is probably the same place a lot of pro-Liefeld articles come from.  You’re having a conversation with someone about comics.  Things are going good.  Somehow Rob Liefeld comes up, and you get told how he’s the worst artist ever, a complete joke, and a million other secret handshake meme verses, straight from the fanboy heart.  And then you come back with…well…I uh…kinda like Rob Liefeld.  Yeah I know.  Freak show.  It’s not like this guy wasn’t THE most popular artist in comics for a time.  It’s not like he isn’t the last artist to be a complete superstar just based upon how he made comics.  Who could possibly like this guy?  But I mean, Rob Liefeld is what got me into superhero comics.  To that point, I was mostly a newspaper strip girl. But they used to sell these packages of comics at the local wal-mart(we didn’t have a comic shop in my small town), and my mom would buy them for me sometimes.  These packages would just be random issues of whatever was hot at the time from Marvel.  And some of the first onces I ever got were these Rob Liefeld X-force comics.  I remember being mesmerized by their dynamicsm.  These were comics as big as the stories were in my mind.  Everything done in almost a direct line from the brain to the pen.  No filter.  So I would class Rob Liefeld as an important creator in my story in comics, and I would particularly pick out his run on X-Force as something that I still to this day return to for inspiration.  I wouldn’t have ended up at Crepax without starting at Liefeld.  So this is part one of a three part series I am unspooling in my brain about Rob Liefeld’s X-Force run, and how there are still lessons about how to make bomb ass comics held in these pages.  The three things I’m going to focus on are: color, background patterns, page layout/composition.  It’s about how lame it is that if I try to do a search for Liefeld art on tumblr I just get pages of kids cracking wise about meaningless bullshit, that just underscores a lot of the reasons there’s a shit ton of boring comics on the shelves from companies who should know better.  I’m coming at your lame Alex Ross collection.  I’m hating on you growing up wanting to be the next Jim Lee or Todd McFarlane while you looked down your nose at Liefeld comics.  All kinds of fun stuff like that.

Part I–X-Force #4: Let the Color Express Itself–Brian Murray on the 1s and 2s

When  you look at how weird and conservative a lot of coloring in comics has become going back and seeing someone completely wild out on color is a breath of fresh air.  These comics were sort of right in front of the wave of shitty gradients that were coming to consume comics–and while a lot of the ideas behind how this book is colored are the same reasons the gradient craze took over(the desire for a more dimensional comic–the desire to try ape reality)–but that’s kind of why these are great.  It’s the beauty of putting one crazy flat color next another crazy flat color–I mean take the page above-the way light plays on Cable’s armor goes from a yellow to a hot pink to a red to a blue.  And then on his face, you have his yellow eye, and then this orange X on his face.  And then there are white clouds and his white teeth.  It’s all at once separate and cohesive at the same time.  It explodes off of the page.  You almost need those black boundries for the panels just because they are the only thing that can contain the color.  I believe Liefeld colored these issues himself Brian Murray colored this issues(it’s interesting to compare issue 4 and 5, because 5 was colored with the help of WitterStaetter, and that issue is more toned down in it’s choices), and what this does for his work is incredible.  Compare it to this later Liefeld work which uses gradients:

Or his Youngblood work:

It is so much less dynamic when it is colored this way.  The color choices are so much more literal in these two other pieces, and there is less playfulness in the juxtapositions.

I mean this sequence where Cable fights Cassidy is A-MAZING looking.  It is almost like something you’d expect to see from a Blade Runner comic or something.  The impressionistic use of greens and purples–that perfectly chosen organge doorway–and the way the orange in that doorway meets the Cable’s armor–and shock…COLORS it orange.  There’s an insane play in X-Force number 4 where the colors are not stable–they morph and change reflecting time and surrounding–like y’know…the way light and colors do.  Light isn’t a brick, it’s a wave.  The red, purple, and blue in the top panel of Cassidy in the first page absolutely stuns me everytime I see it.  Why shouldn’t comics look this good?

Look at the purple and golds being used in this top left panel of Bridge.  The way that white hits in the midst of that purple chaos is color nirvana.  Coloring the book this way also plays perfectly with the dynamic hatching techniques that Liefeld uses, as well as his strong composition skills.  It plays completely to his strengths.  Look at the way the purple highlights play with the grain of Liefeld’s marks.  As a mark maker, Liefeld is stylistic in the same way that a Giannis Milogiannis is.  You don’t need perfectly executed crosshatching for a superhero comic.  The messiness and the play of the marks and the shapes they create is a part of the show.  And then the way the coloring is done is like another layer of marks on top of marks.  This is coloring that is working in time with the art style, not against.  I also love the way Spider-man is lit in the last panel on the page.  That faded red to reflect the explosion in the background, is pitch perfect.

It is a shame that so much of Liefeld’s work after this got more toned down in it’s coloring.  It would be kind of cool to see his stuff re-colored in this style–or for his newer comics to go in this direction.  With how far printing techniques have come–I would think you could end up with a truly mindblowing looking book.

It has taken me longer than it should have to write up thoughts on this fantastic fantagraphics release.  Especially considering a few years back when the book was first announced, it pretty much sent me into some sort of snake poison hosanna filled fit of happy.  I first came across Peelaert’s work probably like…2007 or maybe even earlier.  I came across it through some internet search which hit me straight into his Pravda comics–which even in the fractured nature of things found on the internet–still blew apart my whole world.  So when Fantagraphics said they were putting this out–yeah.  And when I finally got it in my cold dead hands–yeah.  Yeah.

This book ended up coming out at pretty much the perfect time for me artistically.  I am working on a comic that is hugely indebted to Jean Rollin and Nicholas Devil’s Saga De Xam which came from the same Eric Losfeld led movement in comics that Jodelle came from.  There’s a continuum in comics of which Jodelle is a part that is pretty much like the left side of my body.  You go Barbarella to Jodelle/Pravda to Saga De Xam/Kris Kool, Druillet jumps in six degrees off of the Rollin and Losfeld connection–he leaves Losfeld and with Moebius helps to start Metal Hurlant and then Job begat Moses begat Mary begat 7 begat 8, and I make my comics the way I make them in part because of all of that.

The plot of Jodelle, such that it matters, is Sylvie Vartan(Peellaert liked putting french pop stars(Francoise Hardy in Pravda) in comics like Marvel likes putting Sam Jackson in theirs(my next comic is just going to be Amanda Bynes face on everything)) is a spy in this crazy Brave New World Roman Empire of strange liquids, sex, and political intrigue.  The Preconsuless is basically like if Beyonce was running half the country as part of a separation agreement with Jay-Z, but then like wanted it all.  And then Amanda Waller is all “Sylvie Vartan, you need to go find some shit about shit, so when shit hits, it’s not the fans, and we’ve got our umbrellas out anyways”–and then Sylvie Vartan gets amnesia and becomes a weird minor pimp with an army of nuns…anyways…it was the 60s, people did less serious drugs back then.

That stuff is the contribution of one Pierre Bartier, who if this book was released in 2013 would be the only name you’d care about.  This would be Pierre Bartier’s Adventures of Jodelle, and you’d fill my comments section with hopeful prayers that he’d take over your favorite Batman crossover book.  Which who are we kidding with that one–on multiple counts?

For the longest time this stuff just existed to me on the power of it’s image anyways.  My french is at best a repressed nightmare of things I tried to forget from middle school.  I was young and foolish then. I didn’t know that if I had paid more attention to french class I could have been importing my favorite comics left and right, and not having to rely on  Saints like Kim Thompson to do the work for me.  Which as an aside, Kim Thompson’s health problems should scare the crap out of you if you like to read cool comics in english.  Because as far as I can tell, he’s the only reason we have half a shot at getting good comics like this.  No one else out there is marrying multi-lingual aptitude with dope comic taste and comic publishing klout.  If he goes, we might as well all just do a kickstarter for rosetta stone, because none of that shit is coming over in English.

So Guy Peellaert.  Let’s talk Guy Peellaert and The Adventures of Jodelle.  Lets talk about placing your colors like Chow Yun-Fat places shots in the Killer.  Let’s talk about black as a color.  Let’s talk about white as a color.  Let’s talk about how gradients like annoying people talk about autotunes in hiphop.  Let’s talk about fluorescence, which as I understand it is the moment when color weaponizes itself and blows up your eyeballs.  This is all the essence of why Guy Peellaert in the 60s on Jodelle and Pravda is hotter than twelve clones of your mama on a sunday at noon.  

Peellaert isn’t so much the process of “I need to use this color to get to that color” so much as “if I put this color next to that color, the neighbors are going to call the cops”.  His usage of the color pink in that era is it’s own kind of brave.  Electric fiery flaming pinks rake across the pages occasionally like lightning bolts from a Miami-based God, a Miami Based-God.  But that’s nothing now.  Pink is like the third wheel of comics these days.  I don’t know when that started exactly–but now if you’re book doesn’t have some pink in it’s colors, it’s like showing up to a casual get together in board shorts or something.  No, what is still relevant and still revelatory about Peellaert is his usage of green and white.

Starting with the white.  We’re not talking like how Little Thunder uses white, but what we really mean is she uses this beautiful eggshell color of white that is like that warm cuddly feeling you feel when that little bear from the fabric softener commercials hugs the pillsbury doughboy–we’re talking white as a statement, punch in the face–white as a color that makes you miss the safe confines of electric hot pink.  These two pages–I could have picked any page from Pravda or Jodelle–white is Guy Peellaert’s new black.  It is the linchpin on which every other punch lands.  Look at how on the third panel of the left page there where on a white background, he has a character with white flesh.  And a woman with white hair.  White glasses on a white background.  Both of those choices allow other things to happen.  Because of the white hair, the yellow skin pops more–because of the white skin–the blue eye shadow amplifies.  But more than that–the predominance of white allows for Peellaert, even with a very simple and clean line to create elaborate depth and architectural elements.  Look at how those pink windows create depth in the second panel on the left page.  Check those two horizontal panels on the left page with the white gondola motoring across a green river across a white backdrop where like traffic lights the passing windows roll by.  And then the cool depth you get with that pink door, the white surroundings, and Jodelle and the Auntie character being the only other colored elements on the page.  It’s not something you see much of these days.

There is a bravery in this.  A trusting of the line art, and the few color choices you are making.  Putting that much white down is the equivalent of Guy Peellaert standing naked in your living room like “are we going to do this, or what?”–there is I think an insecurity in modern coloring where they feel they need to cover their choices up in gradients–or that the entirety of the page needs to have some color on it somewhere–because if not–the world ends, it’s game over, and you’re just another homeless deposed emperor mumbling into nearby sludge about the horrors of editorial oversight.

This bravado in color I think hits an apex here where black becomes white, white becomes black–I mean we are accustomed to black as the color of ink–not as the color of a color.  Most of the time when you see a colorist rock a black in a comic it’s not actually black.  It’s a dark purple.  Or something in that direction of not blackness.  This is black.  This is “fuck it, draw the thing in white out” black–and then what’s more he still comes back in with white as a color AND a line.  And then the green.

Peellaert’s almost dogged insistence on using the color green could be the most fascinating thing about all of his comics to me.  This supersonic hunter green is a color you almost never see in polite company in comics.  Let alone this rabid attempt to use it with other colors like “ho hum, don’t mind me”.  I won’t lie–I think it’s abhorrent.  But it is something I can’t look away from.  It’s like how when I was a kid I couldn’t watch horror movies because I would have nightmares for months–and then when I got older that discomfort made horror addicting to me.  Peellaert’s green makes me uncomfortable.  It should make you uncomfortable.  And that makes it interesting.  Call me when Suehiro Maruo is rocking out to green on his work, and then I’ll see you at the puke barn.  Other comics in this time period also used this green to some of the same effect.  There are pages in Caza’s Kris Kool has some really ugly green and grey pages in it.  But I feel like it’s more of a tick in Peellaert’s thing.  I’m guessing that it is something that came over from Forest’s Barbarella.  Or there was some french color Illuminati situation, and using green like this is like throwing up the bat signal in terms of secret handshake situations.  It’s like clap three times, and a tulpa of Andy Warhol comes and makes you a nice pie or something.  But I can’t look away.  There is something to it.  Thirty car pile up shit.  And if you shut your left eye and just think about it in terms of Jodelle’s costume, it’s pretty “yeah I’d dress like that too if I was in a biker spy gang too”.

Now for the most part, like I said before, Peellaert isn’t really about color progressions between panels, so much as color juxtapositions–red panel, next to blue panel, next to green panel–and sort of the jarring effect that produces.  But there are some lovely progressions that Peellaert does go through.  Look on this page how we get that red horizontal leading up to Jodelle’s red hair in the second panel.  The third panel sits almost as an aside from the L of yellow that we get in the fourth and fifth panels.  The way the girls yellow pants and the now yellow ground gives way to a completely yellow panel background is beautiful.  And then we jam back to the orange before the last panel which sort of has all of the colors in equal measure.

The reason a lot of this really works well is because Peellaert’s line is both clean and expressive.  Figures elongate and contract as the moment fits.  Architectural elements are at once simplistic and concise as they are extravagant and baroque.  He creates the space for color to express itself.  Sometimes it is important for color in a comic to serve more as a bassist and just form the rhythm over which the lineart can solo/steal the show.  Other times, like here in Jodelle, the color is the thing–and the lineart is just about creating the space for you to hear that bass line.  Comics like this, you need a big page– a big sound system–and you roll down the street and everything thumps, and the world is better for you in it.  That’s this kind of comic.

And while a lot of these images are a little dulled, and cropped weird because the book is too big for my scanner, and my scanning game in general is weak–it is worth pointing out that to see these in the huge coffee table size that Fantagraphics has produced this book in–is to to be children of a greater god.  These are pages you luxuriate over while sitting in a warm bath.  You let a comic like this basically bake the inside of your brain, and you consider how inadequate your life choices have been to this point.  To make matters worse, besides the core Jodelle comic, there is a heft of extra images from the rest of Peellaert’s career.

I am particularly interested in seeing more from these later period of Peellaert comics where he sort of returned to comics all prodigal son like, and made these weird collage pop art comic pieces–because…yeah…look at that stuff.

These are from DC Comic’s Superboy comic.  I just picked them at random, because I know if I want to talk about how modern comics coloring is dumb as hell—DC Comics are sort of the gold standard for not giving a fuck about the colors in their books.  I mean there are a lot of things Marvel does wrong—how they as a company through the years perceive the role of color in comics, is not consistently one of them.  Books like X-Force and Hawkeye happen enough that you think there must be someone on staff there who recognizes a company built on a history of bold stand by your colorist moments.  But DC—this is pretty standard what I expect to see with DC.  They have sort of a house style for coloring, and this is basically it.  Sun is red.  Jeans are blue.  Buildings are building colored(bat books get a little more moody in terms of color but only because they’re trying to live up to a cliche ideal of moody and noir) so on and so forth.

Anyways.  This page isn’t colored badly or anything.  So I’m not dissing the colorist.  As far as I know they are just doing exactly what they are being paid to do.  I’m more talking about the aesthetic being presented here and how it works against the other elements at play in the comic.

The First thing, like I said, is that the choices are extremely literal.  Jeans are jean colored.  Vest is all vest colored.  So on and so forth.  It’s very boring—particularly when you think about how things change color every second of the day depeneding on light, depending on the color of the things they are next to—color is not an entrenched thing—it’s a wavy thing that is constantly shifting to reflect time around it.  One panel superboy’s vest could be bright pink, the next it could be blue and orange.  Things shift.

But even that—whatever.  The thing which is really at play here which is actively making this shit look shittier than it should be—is the lighting effects/gradient filters.  Every thing on this page has a fucking gradient on it.  Superman’s stupid vest has gradients all through it.  Making it look almost metallic in nature.  His shirt under his vest looks like a knight’s coat of arms—when I think it’s just a y’know…sweater.  By putting gradients all over the clothes you completely rob them of any texture.  And the sad thing is if you want to show weird progressions in color on clothes—you can get pretty dynamic and crazy.

Check how Dean White has colored this x-force comic—he’s still presenting gradients—but the color choices of those changes are much bolder and create a much more singular image:

So I’d say that using gradients in this way just exposes your color choices and progressions even more.  If you’re not on point with those color choices—you end up with this very bland Superboy looking comic.

But here’s the real problem.  Check how the actual linework on those superboy pages looks?  There’s crazy textures of ink strokes in the clothes—there’s some really cool dynamic lines on that kids mask—and it is all lost behind the gradients, and the need of the colorist to know better than the artist in terms of how to present light.  If you went flats on these pages, and followed the directions of the artist’s linework—shit would kind of look like a comic that a major company put a ton of money in to make.  It would look bold and challenging.  DC are basically wasting money on this artist–because you can’t see anything he’s doing at this point.

Think about Matt Hollingsworth’s work on Hawkeye and how by playing with flats instead of gradients and being on point in his color progressions he is allowing the composition and lineart of Aja to sing and for the most part because of that, the book immediately went on a lot of top critics lists—almost irrespective of anything Fraction actually wrote in the page.

I mean look at the simplicity of this:

Because of Hollingsworth being willing to lay back in the cut here—Aja can get away with fun page design shit.  I mean Chris Ware sees that and is like “duh”.  The more shit a colorist puts on a page, the less you will see the lineart—and the less dynamic the composition can be.

When you do colors like the Superboy book up there, you are literally wasting the reader’s eye’s time on the page by overloading it with mediocre shit, just so you could tell me that oh hey—“Jeans are still blue!”  “Flesh color is still flesh color”.  Thanks.  I totally couldn’t have figured the same thing out if the page was black and white.

Most of my time writing, I talk about the stuff that is done right, and in coloring, I routinely highlight dope shit on that front.  But there is I think value in occasionally calling out shit like this.  Because I see smaller companies with smaller budges mimicking what DC does because “that’s what sells”—but the truth of the matter is that if you make your books like as bland and boring as DC makes their books—how exactly do you plan to stand out and steal eyes on a cramped shelf space?  Especially if you are also telling the same type of played out superhero soap operas as the big two.  Hiring a few bold colorists to manage your line for you seems a cheap and easy way to not make shitty comics.  But that’s just my weird tastes.