Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Unique Vs Generic Art - The Merits of Style

Comic art is something that has sparked about a million and a half conversations in my lifetime alone, from the artist dominated 90s I was born into, where artists controlled so much and sold books on name alone, to recent years, where an artist's unique style and skill can make or break a project, like a Skottie Young or JH Williams III. With another year that will surely be abundant with both beautiful and ugly art well under way, what better time could there be to talk about comic art? Or more specifically, to discuss unique art vs generic art.  Hit the jump as I break down what I think each means and argue the merits of unique art.

The guest poster for this article, Max Barnard, is a disillusioned comic fan and rambling aficionado of most things comics & manga. He posts nonsense on his own journal Comicflipper on a semi-regular basis and is always ready to moan about anything on his Twitter @comicflipper at the drop of a hat.

Unique vs Generic - A Definition of Sorts

To me, unique art is subjective, for the most part, but based entirely on a classic Mark Evanier anecdote that I'm sure you all know:
"[Jack] Kirby liked to innovate, not follow. His attitude was best summed up a few years later when he read that some new artist would be taking over on Captain America and hoped "to do it in the Kirby tradition."  Said Jack, "This kid doesn't get it. The Kirby tradition is to create a new comic.""
Whilst what King Kirby said applied to comics in general, when applied specifically to art, it rings truer than ever. Unique art is new, fresh and, most importantly, different from what has come before it. It can be good, bad, or straight up controversial, but the fact that the art is unique earns it more points from me than if it were to be generic art aping popular or contemporary styles that kind of blend together to the point you can't even tell which random artist du jour's work you are looking at.

Note that generic art is not necessarily bad art either. In fact, most of the artists I'm going to define as 'generic' here are incredibly competent and have earned the praise they've gotten over the years. The main issue that has brought about this guest post is that these artists could all be the same person for all we know due to what can be called the 'Image style'. You know what I mean, that identical art that comes from anyone inspired by those years of prominence for the Image artists like Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio or Marc Silvestri. 

Unique vs Generic - Compare & Contrast

Round 1: Batman - Frank Quitely vs Tony Daniel

Art from Frank Quitely's Batman and Robin

This example is almost a no-brainer comparison and admittedly more than a little unfair. Frank Quitely is one of the most celebrated artists of our time, with a style so recognizable that you can name the artist from just a glance at any of his work. He's inimitable in his crisp, expressive linework and, through the talented writers he's worked with, Quitely has managed to push the boundaries of how a comic book should look, evolving in ways he's both criticized and loved for. 

Art from  Tony Daniel's Batman: Battle for the Cowl

On the other hand Tony Daniel has a style that can easily be imitated, and routinely is, to the point that it's hard to tell who the original style evolved from.  It's mostly because of the fact that it's heavily based on the old Image style from the 90s, featuring high energy and 'dynamic' poses that get the job done, but don't do anything different to any of the other artists of that era (though his Batman work is admittedly far more identifiable than his old work on titles such as X-Force or... anything Image).

Neither of these two are anything other than great artists and both are connected by a common collaborator in Grant Morrison on Batman, but, if you were shown a random drawing done by either artist, the one you'd identify straight off the bat would be the unique stylings of industry legend Frank Quitely.

Round 2: New Avengers: Stuart Immonen vs David Finch

Art from Stuart Immonen's New Avengers

New Avengers has been a haven for artists over its 5-year run, thrusting them in the faces of tens of thousands of readers month on month, usually to some positive effect. From Frank Cho to Leinil Yu, appearing in New Avengers as an artist can lead to lucrative follow-up work. Surely, that means that the artists would all be worthy of note, yes?

For the most part, this is true with current artist Stuart Immonen as the prime example of this. His art has managed to stay both highly praised and unique over the majority of his works (let's all ignore the age old 'ROCK N ROLL' comics he used to illustrate), with New Avengers being no exception. His work is recognizable at a glance with a style all his own, whether it's cartoony as all hell, like his Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E., or the slightly more detailed work on display in New Avengers. It's the freshest the title has looked in a long time and will surely skyrocket Immonen into his deserved place as a comics legend in the coming years.

Art from David Finch's Avengers

David Finch, however, isn't an artist whose work on New Avengers can be said to have actually stood out. The man has done some very solid work on a bunch of Image titles (where such art is incredibly well-suited) and his 8-issue run on Moon Knight is atmospheric and stands up there with some of my favourite art runs on any marvel comic. But the man is far too generic for the pedigree of Avengers. Not just that, but the style is so ill-suited to a team that be anything like the dark and gritty titles that an artist like David Finch should be stuck to.

In fact, Finch is perfect for a title like Batman, something that hopefully will happen sooner rather than later now that the man is DC-exclusive (a match made in comic heaven, I assure you).

Round 3: X-Men - Chris Bachalo & Humberto Ramos vs Marc Silvestri, Billy Tan & Scot Eaton

Left: Art from Chris Bachelo's X-Men; Right: Art from David Finch's Uncanny X-Men

A bit of a cluster of artists here, but with no other round would my point ring more true. Messiah Complex was one of the most high-profile crossovers in a long time for the X-Men line and with good reason - it took a tonne of notable x-people and threw them into a tense chase/investigation dealio after the first mutant birth since M-Day (something I won't say too much about because it has holes), all done across four titles and a one-shot. ALL of which had different artists between them.

The generic art quickly became a sizeable issue, however, when the first three issues of the crossover turned out to have incredibly similar, albeit brilliant, art styles to their names, which, whilst not really an issue in the singles themselves, quickly became a peculiar nuisance when the series went to trade. You could be forgiven for thinking that you just read one massive chapter with slightly inconsistent levels of buxomness or with one section having more crosshatching than the previous, but then you are suddenly hit with a striking change in chapter four. Note that this isn't as much an attack on the event or the artists, but if it weren't for the covers separating the issues there really wouldn't be enough to make you know when the next artist steps up to the plate.  Some could even say this is a boon to a crossover like this with having such similar styles for many of the artists and this is a failing of the unique styles from a marketing standpoint with a big event crossover.

Chapter four was, of course, when Chris Bachalo and Humberto Ramos began contributing to Messiah Complex's story. Both have styles that are so radically different to anything else being put out by Marvel comics, with every character they draw truly becoming 'their' character. Not that this uniqueness comes without flaws of its own. Ramos is considered one of the bigger acquired tastes of the industry, with hyper-exaggerated features that are so unlike anything else that, more often than not, people will look at it and be put off before they even read a page while Bachalo can be slammed on more than a few occasions for drawing things that don't really please people with his darker, moodier and slightly exaggerated pencils. But the point is that it's such a refreshing change in this 13-part event that they come out on top every time for me compared to the same ol', same ol' of the other artists whom I literally have to look up the names of on the covers of each issue to distinguish who is who. And that's really my entire argument in a nutshell.


So that's my argument in favour of unique art over generic art. To give it the full discussion it deserves would have taken a series of posts and countless hours of research, but then what am I actually driving at here? I suppose, if anything, it's that unique art should be hunted out and purchased whenever possible if only to support creativity in an industry designed around that exact concept. Not just that, but this argument could be a desperate plea to all 'generic' artists to try something new, to head out and surprise us all with a new approach to their work.

It's not an argument without faults though. People could easily throw examples at me where a unique art style was detrimental to the book, such as when Larry Stromann returned to X-Factor during Secret Invasion, which produced art that was so impenetrably exaggerated that the story being told fell apart, losing a large chunk of readership in the process.

So, I put it to you, oh dutiful reader, to find similar cases yourself for this argument, counterpoints to throw in the ring, or to just outright tell me how wrong I am and let me know if I should go back to my hovel and never guest post again.  At the very least, let me know where you stand on the generic vs unique art issue. 

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Brandon Whaley said...

I agree on most everything you said. Actually, I agree on everything, but I would like to point out that Quitely's art on Batman and Robin really rubs me the wrong way. In fact, his art just annoys me period. I know I'm committing some kind of nerd-sin here, but he's just too sketchy for my tastes.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

Bernard, my boy, you've done it. That was one wicked as hell post. Comprehensive with some interesting examples posted. Must have been a right bitch to work out completely. Well in, mate.

I'd love to do a Daredevil art comparison over time. Maleev and Lark have a style that, I think, perfectly suits the book. Whereas Scott McDaniel did not, in my mind, have the right stuff, though nor did Quesada completely grab me when he teamed with Kevin Smith, whereas Quesada's Father mini looked brilliant.

It's so true, art can really make the difference. Hell, I might just run off and scan some DD images and see what sort of comparisons we can draw.

Andrenn said...

I've always come out in favor of unique art as opposed to generic art. Typical boring 90's style bugs me as it's so...well boring! DC seems rather fond of it though which is why I love it when they get real unique artists like Dustin Nguyen on board.

Some nice comparisons and I'd agree with unique art in most of them.

Anonymous said...

Bachalo from the early 2000's was nigh incomprehensible, I still have no idea what was going on in some panels of Ultimate War.

Kirk Warren said...

@Anonymous - I like that about many unique styles - seeing the growth they make over the years. Many generic styles seem to stagnate and remain static for decades. Some start out frantic and almost have an energy that leaps from the page without any borders or constraint. Others begin timid and barely pushing any boundaries. Seeing them progress, for good or for not, is always a fun journey.

CasinoGrande said...

You bring up "generic art" in regard to crossovers, but I think Captain America is the biggest example of intentionally using generic artists to get a similar visual take throughout the book. Frank Quitely is a fantastic storyteller, but he wouldn't be appropriate on every book. Following Steve Epting or Luke Ross with Butch Guice works far better than having Quitely follow.
One has to consider tone when picking collaborators, and sometimes a "generic" look might best fit the work.

Kirk Warren said...

@CasinoGrande - Re: Captain America artists - Luke Ross actually changes his style to match up more with Eptings and Guice. He's got a much more cartoony style based on past Spider-Man art. At least, I assume he's trying to pass it off. It's conceivable his style has changed that much over the years, but unlikely.

CasinoGrande said...

Also, I find it amusing that you picked the artists you did. I've searched for and bought things almost exclusively because they were drawn by Quitely, Immonen, and Bachalo, though I'd say Immonen is my favorite of those listed.

Anonymous said...

@Kirk - The Luke Ross Spider books you are referring to were done over a decade ago. Many well known artists have drastically altered their styles in less time. Examples: Greg Capullo from his long run on Marvel's Quasar to his work on Spawn. Keith Giffen, right in the middle of his original Legion run. The aforementioned Chris Bachalo and his work on Shade and Death, and everything he has done since. I could go on and on.

I am not sure whether it is naive or arrogant to decide someone changing their art style a lot in the space of a decade is be unlikely.

Kirk Warren said...

@Anonymous - It's not unlikely for an artist to change their style in a decade and I don't rule it out for Ross. The thing that made me question his 'change' is that it has changed in such a way that it magically matches the style and tone of Epting and Guice on their Captain America runs.

It's a skill to match another style, but I'm willing to bet his natural style is more in line with the work he did on Spider-Man, Meridian, Firestorm and Green Lantern or some extension of it.

With so much work over the years pointing in another direction, that is the only reason I say it is unlikely for his to have changed to the point it is his natural style used on Captain America.

Tyler said...

I agree, Couldnt understand Bacchalo's art earlier on some old Gen X wasnt really my thing, but ever since he took over X-men with Mike Carey and on the spider-man book earlier this year, Hes become one of my favorites. Philip Tan, who did some art on Uncanny back when Chuck Austen was writing it, was absolutely just unintelligible to me but hes definitely grown since

Space Jawa said...

Would I be an odd man out to say I don't have a preference one way or the other? Granted, I may prefer one art style over another, but in a different way (A more comic-like or cartoon style over realistic or 'artsey' images). But so long as I can enjoy the story and characters, I'll take either.

Never really been one to buy comics for the pictures (though they DO make them a lot more fun)...

Anonymous said...

@Kirk - So how do you explain his Jonah Hex, which predates his Captain America? Did he change his style in the hopes that he would get a job at some time in the future where he needed his art to be similar in tone to Eptings?

In fact go look at much of Eptings pre-Captain America work. Judah Macabee: Hammer of God, Avengers (here his art looked like his inker Tom Palmer), Bishop: XSE, or Aquaman. None of it looks much like what he suddenly started turning out when he went to work for Crossgen. Suddenly his art looked like it was from a completely different person.

Ivan said...

God, I hate Humberto Ramos' art. Just hate it.

Daryll B. said...

To each, taste is their own...I just hate the snobs on both sides of the argument who hate just to hate. Example: I like Oeming's art but only for a Powers type book because he can handle mood and drawing in shadows really well...I like Jim Lee but only for superhero type books because he can handle the bright and beautiful superpeople really well...

Anytime this subject is brought up you tend to get one side attacking the other which gets me turned off on other fans. Kudos to the commenters for mostly approaching this in a rational manner.

My tastes are subjective but so are all of ours. Too bad people don't open their minds to recognize that all the time.

Ivan said...

Geez, I just said I personally don't like the guy's art. I'm not saying everyone else should hate it too...

If you need a reason, I think it's just waaaaaay over the top. I would bother me no matter the medium or genre.

Tromeritus said...

First off, can we please dead the "LOL, Image" crap that I see way too often? Last time I checked, the kind of bland, uninspired artwork that gets criticized not only originated from MARVEL in the first place, but most of the Image founders were pretty damn good, if not unique (McFarlene & Larsen in particular). Most comics went through a rough patch in the 90s due to following trends. Image has since began putting out some of the best comics out there, and have even revamped old grimmy & gritty/cheesecake series (Kirkman's run on Youngblood, Marz on Witchblade, Paul Jenkins and Phil Hester on The Darkness, David Hine on Spawn, Larsen's own steady improvement on Savage Dragon).

Anyhoo, I also prefer more distinct art to generic work. However, I do sometimes wish for conformity in times when a much more distinct artist does cover art that does not match the inside artwork at all--even in tone-- or when one artist's (or in cases, several artists') in-canon interpretation of a character (say, BEAST for a big example, or Luke Cage being drawn as a random black guy...) looks completely different from others, causing confusion as to what the heck the character is supposed to look like.

Kirk Warren said...

@Tromeritus - Calling it an Image style is not the same as "LOL, Image" insult. The original Image founders started at Marvel and DC and branched off and formed Image.

They sparked a revolution with unique styles and fresh ideas. The people that were inspired by their work are the ones with the generic styles simply aping the originals and are to whom we are referring in regards to the Image style.

You could make an argument for many people in the SIlver Age trying for a Kirby style and if this was written back then, that's how we'd probably refer to them.

If you look at a Finch or Daniel, et al, they are clearly modelling their work on the Image founders. That's why it's called Image style and as there are so many artists following in their footsteps, it's why many of us are referring to it as Image style and calling it generic - there's no way to really tell one from the next at a glance. Some are great storytellers and do a lot with their work. Some could be argued as being better than the original Image founders to him they are compared. But int he end, they are still Image styles.

Daryll B. said...

Ivan, I wasn't pointing my mini rant at you, I was just relating what has happened to me on similar boards when this subject is discussed. My bad for any misunderstanding....

Ivan said...

It's ok Daryll. I just felt quoted with all the "justs" and "hates", lol.

Flip The Page said...

@tromeritus kirk kinda hit this on the head for me already, but calling the generic art Image-style isn't an insult. It's just that the Image artists all have a distinct style that is aped by many of the generic artists we have nowadays.

Anyway, Thanks everyone for the constructive, insightful and brilliant comments and indeed for reading my crap.

Also I should probably add to @casinogrande that Captain America is one of my favourite series art wise just for keeping it's generic style consistent throughout its run. It's nothing to write home about but it's suited and incredibly atmospheric.

Tromeritus said...

Alright Kirk, FTP---I get what you mean. I was mistakenly getting this POV mixed up with the fanboy bashing on anything Image. Hell, my current LCS cashier told me he hates Image, even though he buys Luna Bros. comics and was interested in Cowboy Ninja Viking...

Flip The Page said...

@tromeritus it's such a shame that it's a trend now. It's all based on that typical comic fanboy thing of having to hate Liefeld to be legit (weirdly I'm enjoying his art a fair bit atm), ignoring that Image is STILL putting out some of the most creative stuff in the market.

Eric Rupe said...

FTP, Tromeritus - For every Orc Stain or Chew that Image puts out they still produce comics like Spawn and Haunt so it's not an entirely unfair position for people to take. Not to mention that they promote those books over their more creative stuff most of the time. I mean, look at the Image First line up, the majority of which is made up of the very comics that people complain about and still view as the bulk of Image's output to this day.

Even if, overall, Image does have a lot of great and creative comics, they are still doing little to promote that fact. I mean, there two big pushes recently have been for Image United and Haunt, two very stereotypical 90s Image comics. Sure, Chew was a big success but most people probably see that as an exception, not the rule, of Image's output these days.

Henrik J said...

Interesting article, but i have to disagree in the part where you compare Stuart Immonen and David Finch.

For me Immonen is a completely generic artist and i dont think there is anything that makes his art stand out, it is nod bad it is just mediocre generic looking. Finch is not Unique in the way that is discussed here, but you can look at his pages and tell that it is made by him.

Henrik J said...

I am a little mixed in this discussion, when i first saw some preview pages from one of Quitely's New X-men, it had been some years since i read comics last (the 90's got me like so many other people) and i really disliked the art since it was so different than what i was used to back when comics interested me. I picked up New X-Men, loved it and came to really appreciate the art although i still feel that his style doesn't work on everything.

On the other hand i am not a fan of Chris Bachalo & Humberto Ramos, the whole exaggerated anatomy thing is a pet peeve of mine and a comic would have to sound very good in order for me to buy it with either one as the artist.

All in all i think being Unique in itself is a good thing, but that doesn't mean i will like the art, and ultimately that is what it comes down to when looking at a comic, do i like how it looks?

Matt Ampersand said...

@Henrik J

I might be a bit biased because Immonen is one of my favorite artists, but he has a very recognizable style, specially with facial expressions and body languange (at least his current style, his older one was more generic). Look at the Crisis on Infite Arts I just did a couple of days ago, that featured the double spreads for Nextwave, to really get a handle on what his style is like.

Flip The Page said...

@Eric touché. There's not much I can say against that other than that I hope one day Image tries less to shoot itself in the foot with stuff that promotes the stereotypical view of itself.

@Henrik J I have to take the opposite stance here, in that I look at Immonen and can recognise him off the bat (even when he did *shudder* rock n roll comics), yet half the time when I see David Finch stuff I just assume that it could be anyone from the range of 'Image style' artists. Though I say that, he's done some interesting covers over time that spice it up a little.

Also don't look at the discussion as me hating on what I consider generic art, or even saying that the unique stuff is quality (this article was going to have a strong counterpoint about how damaging Larry Stromann was when he returned to X-factor for secret invasion, but i couldn't make it gel with the rest). people can dislike Bachalo, Quitely or Ramos. In fact a LOT of people don't like Ramos (I'm not one of them, I thrive off most of his stuff outside of that crappy Runaways material). I'm just saying that there's such a notable benefit to a series or artist having unique art.

.... WAit I'm just recapping my own post, sorry. I'm a broken record who's kinda lost himself somewhere in this comment.

Matt Ampersand said...

Yeah, I'm one of those that dislikes Ramos. I usually like that kind of stylized art, but I hate seeing his art on most books.

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