Jun 13, 2010

Mixing Styles: Promethea, Batman, and Shazam!

This post is about a connection between modern master, JH Williams III, and a technique used over half a century ago by Fawcett Comics!

In his career-making comic book, Promethea, written by Alan Moore and where he was inked by Mick Gray, J.H. Williams III showcased the adventures and trials of the premiere female superhero of Moore's America's Best Comics (ABC) Universe.

Until issue 26 of that issue, there had been absolutely no crossovers between the various ABC properties, and some readers (myself included) were wondering if they took place in a shared universe (with mixed reactions - on the one hand, it would have been cool; on the other, the books were so good that I feared mixing them would be disastrous).

So, in issue 26 of Promethea, they brought together the various ABC properties, Tom Strong (usually drawn by Chris Sprouse), Cobweb (Melinda Gebbie), Jack B. Quick (Kevin Nowlan), Splash Brannigan (Hillary Barta), Jonni Future (Arthur Adams), and Greyshirt (Rick Veitch). This is what it looked like:

Notice anything? Unlike most other companywide crossovers, the artist didn't just draw all the characters regularly. No, J.H. Williams III drew every character in a different style - in fact, he drew them all as if their regular artists drew them!

Just to emphasize, here's a Hillary Barta Splash Brannigan, followed by the Williams version:

Here's Cobweb by Melinda Gebbie followed by Williams:

And Jack B. Quick by Kevin Nowlan and followed by Williams:

It's a tricky technique, and one that I can't properly ascertain the visceral effect of, but it does give the feeling that these characters just walked off their own series; it emphasizes the sense of a shared universe rather than one that revolved around Promethea.

A few years later, in a Batman story called "The Club of Heroes," written by Grant Morrison (Batman 667-669), Williams did it again!

"The Club of Heroes" was based on a Golden Age story called "The Batmen of All Nations," in which a representative of several countries and locations idolized Batman and sought to fight crime in the most stereotypical manner possible.

With the exception of one story for the Knight and Squire (England's Batman and Robin), none of them had appeared since that first Golden Age story. So when they reappeared, all new and revamped in 2008, J.H. Williams III gave them new looks, and drew them all in different styles to - by his own admission - give us the feeling that they have their own history, even if we hadn't seen it. So he emulated a lot of styles. For example, the Knight was drawn in an Ed McGuinness-type style:

Chief Man-of-Bats emulated Steve Rude:

Dark Ranger emulated Chris Sprouse:

And Gaucho emulated Howard Chaykin:

While Batman himself is realistically rendered, giving the effect that he is indeed on a different level from them:

(You can view the full list and explanation at Chris Roberson's Web site, whom I am thanking for the information.)

The interesting thing is that I thought that this was a technique that was exclusive to Williams - I'd certainly never seen anyone do it, and more, I didn't think anyone could pull it off (I seem to be saying that about a lot of things J.H. Williams III is doing these days, though), but the Professor pointed me to a story done in 1942 that was employing the same technique - the first appearance of Mary Marvel, sister of Captain Marvel, and the only female to wield the power of Shazam! (originally published in Captain Marvel Adventures #18)

The Shazam! mythos were unique in so many ways back then, but one thing that really stands out to me is the sheer difference in tone when you compare Captain Marvel with his sidekick-but-not-really, Captain Marvel Jr. Captain Marvel was full of whimsical stories with cartoony art by C.C. Beck (where the main antagonist was a Dr. Sivana, a bald mad scientist):

Captain Marvel Jr., on the other hand, had stories that were darker in tone and in art, drawn by Mac Raboy, (and his main enemy was Captain Nazi, by nature a more serious villain than a bald mad scientist):

So when Mary Marvel was introduced in a story that credited Marc Swayze for the art, what happened? Well, see for yourself:

That's right, both Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. were drawn in their individual styles! In case you don't see it, it's more apparent in panels where Billy and Freddy are together (which is fitting, since Shazam! stories are more about their secret identities than their hero identities):

And if you'll notice, Mary is drawn in a different style, too!

Neither the Professor nor I can decide if this is a Marc Swayze innovation, or if C.C. Beck and Mac Raboy were ghosting for their respective characters, but the effect is the same - it feels like a bunch of people with their own magazines coming together. Even the ending feels like it! (Golden Age metatext??)

So what do you think, folks? Ghost artists or did Marc Swayze pioneer a technique that J.H. Williams III would use over a half century later? Does it matter?


Sail said...

actually, just to clarify, Batman isn't digitally painted. Williams does all his work on board with markers and ink.

Duy Tano said...

Sweet, thanks for that!

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