Jun 14, 2010

Top Ten Most Influential Comics Artists: An Afterthought

Now that the list of top ten most influential comics artists is done, I'd like to share a few thoughts on the matter.

I think it's very telling that influence can be very detrimental when it comes to mass market production.  Seven of the ten artists I listed can actually be blamed for many trends in comics today that I consider detrimental.

Bill Sienkiewicz paved the way for a lot of digital and mixed media comics that seem to exist to be pretty, or abstract, or distorted, and not really in the service of a story (though there are some gems out there, I'll give it that), as if people tend to overlook the fact that Bill Sienkiewicz could tell a story using these things.

George Perez proved you could put together a lot of characters all at once. Sure, Secret Wars came out before Crisis on Infinite Earths, but it was Crisis that really put the companywide crossover on the map. Such events have been the lifeblood of the DC Comics and Marvel Comics for years. You literally cannot go to a comic book store now and not see a poster advertising a big event. From Infinity Gauntlet to Genesis to Civil War to Secret Invasion to Siege to Infinite Crisis to Final Crisis to Blackest Night, it's all about these big stories that would be blockbuster movies if Hollywood had the money to produce it. People tend to forget George's considerable skill in drawing more intimate, human stories as well.

Even Jim Steranko, as the Professor has pointed out, could be blamed for the "Let's make every other page a splash page" trend that really took off in the mid-90s! Although this one has probably more to do with ego and being able to sell pages at cons.

Neal Adams used photorealistic art as a basis, but exaggerating when he could to show gesture and emotion. But since he made it clear that it was okay to use photos, we then get things like this, with people just taking the very superficial bones of Adams's influence, without actually looking at what made it work.

Robert Crumb, of course, proved that you could let a reader into your world, but also paved the way for a lot of slouching, defeated, misanthropic personalities, most of whom are neurotic people you wouldn't want to spend time with, and semi- to autobiographical stories about artists who are depressed. Thankfully, I'm seeing less and less of this as time goes on.

Jack Kirby, of course, saved the genre from itself, but then made sure that superheroes were once again the dominant genre in the American market. People tend to forget or overlook that he pioneered and contributed to so many other genres. Of course, these days, Hollywood is just now learning how to replicate Kirby techniques on the big screen, and inventiveness from most comics artists today don't match Kirby's. Content to copy Kirby, it seems that most of these people are resigned to the fact that they won't be as innovative as Kirby. Will Hollywood 40 years from now learn how to replicate the techniques of modern artists?

Osamu Tezuka's influence on the manga market was so huge, that no one can even come close to touching him in terms of influence. Note that I had to debate which order my top nine American artists went in, but there's only one Japanese artist on the list. I think that's very telling. And no matter what some people might think about other manga techniques permeating American comics, I can't really forgive decompression. Decompression works in manga because manga comes in smaller, thicker, black and white formats. Therefore, they have the time and the space to devote to setting a scene using multiple panels. American comics, in color, go for an average of US$18.00 for something like 200 pages. When setting scenes gets around three pages each, it becomes a really quick read. For example, in the Ultimate Spider-Man example that I discussed in the Tezuka article, the origin of Spider-Man lasts for five issues - 110 pages. That's 94 more pages than Spider-Man's origin as told by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko! And while I understand the desire to elaborate on the origin, making it more emotional (which it didn't need, Ditko's art was perfect) and giving the readers more time to get to know the characters (specifically Uncle Ben, before he died), it certainly did not need to go for five issues. Decompression may not seem like a big thing to people with a good amount of income to buy maybe ten comics a month, but for those of us with limited budgets who have to be selective when it comes to buying what we buy, it makes a huge difference.

Of those on the list, only Will Eisner, George Herriman, and Winsor McCay (and yes, Steranko) can be credited with no negative influences. I think a part of it is that a lot of their influence is less tangible (experimentation with layouts, making comics pretty, making comics move) than that of the other guys (group shots, decompression, mixed media, photorealism, neurosis, blockbuster paneling), so there's less to ape and more to emulate.

It's too bad, really. Everyone here is an excellent artist, and they should be learned from holistically and the spirit of their work should be emulated. Instead, with few truly outstanding exceptions, the market today is flooded by those who would rather imitate rather than emulate. Perez did it better; Kirby did it better; Adams did it better. They pushed the boundaries of the form to show that it shouldn't end there, but for a lot of artists, it seems, it does.

Here's to more pioneering!


For those curious, the ones that I was considering for the list but didn't end up making it for various reasons are the following:

  • Steve Ditko (co-creator of Spider-Man)
  • Carl Barks (Donald Duck)
  • Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates)
  • Hal Foster (Prince Valiant
  • Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon)
  • Alex Toth (Space Ghost)
  • Frank King (Gasoline Alley)
  • Charles Schulz (Peanuts)
  • EC Segar (Popeye)
  • C.C. Beck (Captain Marvel)
  • Wally Wood (EC Comics, including MAD)
  • Bill Elder (EC Comics, including MAD)
  • Walt Kelly (Pogo)
  • and Jack Cole (Plastic Man)
If there's enough interest, I can write features on these guys too!


Peachy said...

I'm frankly disappointed that Rob Liefeld didn't make this list.


Duy Tano said...

I'm sure there's someone out there who can make a case for Rob Liefeld being influential; I do, however think that on the whole, anyone who may have been influenced by him realized just how bad he was.

Edwin said...

The list of writers you chose are fascinating pieces! When it comes to the list you provided, I would love to read about the artists that did Newspaper Comics, which, based on the list, are Walt Kelly, Charles Schulz, Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, Frank King and EC Segar (maybe Carl Barks too, but I don't recall him doing comic strips).

Thanks for reading.

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