Friday, 26 October 2012

My Two Marvels

Or a case study in the effects of fill-in artists.

This age of double shipping each comic every month at Marvel puts a terrible strain on the wrists of artists. As a result, most titles are going to see multiple rotating artists. As often as not this switch is done in a way to maintain the visual tone of the book: a noiry artist filling in for a noiry artist for instance. Sometimes, though, you get artists with radically different styles which produces  radically different issues of the same comic series.

Captain Marvel recently had such a radical shift when Emma Rios filled in for series regular Dexter Soy.

For those of you who aren't reading Captain Marvel, it's a great comic focusing on Marvel's it's-stupid-she-isn't-a-bigger-deal superhero Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel. She flies, is super strong and durable, and can absorb and project energy blasts. She is also a former airforce fighter pilot with her share of demons and a connection to Cosmic Marvel. Under the writing duties of Kelly Sue DeConnick we see her defined by her strength of character and by her identity as an aviator. Actually, these first several issues of the series sees DeConnick kind of create a retroactive origin for Danvers that ties her to the history of women in aviation. It's a great hook, a great way to contextualize and ground the character, and honestly a pretty great story in itself. I highly recommend this book on the merits of the writing alone.

Captain Marvel #1: Art Dexter Soy, Words Kelly Sue DeConnick

The book has a great regular artist in Dexter Soy. He has this epicly-epic painted style that punctuates the strength, power, and majesty of the superhero genre. If being a geek becomes a religion this is the guy who needs to paint the ceiling frescos (also Fiona Staples). I guess what I'm saying is Soy renders some pretty amazing fight scenes and does a pretty solid job dealing with kind of surreal/horror and cosmic themes as well. Under his brush Captain Marvel just feels, well, EPIC. The comic is brash and... expansive, I guess, and seems to play to his ability to render naked power. It's a distinctive look that is integral to the identity of Captain Marvel.

(At the end of Captain Marvel 4 another fill-in artist pencilled the final few pages and it felt... not like Captain Marvel.)

Captain Marvel #2: Art Emma Rios, Words Kelly Sue DeConnick
Which is why when Emma Rios fills in it feels like a very different comic book. Emma Rios is another stupidly talented artist, but one with a radically different style than Dexter Soy. I'd describe her as a "cartoonist"... in that she uses pencils and inks instead of painting and she doesn't focus on the photorealism of a more traditional "illustrator". The result is this super charming and frenetically animated style. Her characters pop with emotion  (wry looks, sly grins) and seem to careen around the page with movement... until all of a sudden brutal, terrible violence is carried out. Rios' expressive characters can act and emote with the best of them, as well as bring the amazing action. (I mean look at the example). Under Rios, Captain Marvel is a bit more playful and whimsical without sacrificing tension and action. It feels like a much more character driven experience when compared to Soy's Captain Marvel.

So between these two amazing artists we get two very different captain marvels. With Soy we get this darker feeling, epic adventure driven book and with Rios we get a more manic and character centric feeling book. And this is with the same writer (who I'm assuming writes tonally similar scripts for each artist). 

I think this Soy/Rios switch is a perfect example of both the strengths and weaknesses of using fill-in artists. 

This artistic switch can be a weakness because it disturbs the visual tone of the book (especially when the artists have radically different styles) which can alter the overall feel of the book. In this case Rios' artwork is almost a 180 degree shift from Soy's which changes the book from epic adventure to a more expressive, character driven story. The result is two comics that, despite a common writer and protagonist, feel like they come from different series. Being a fan of one does not necessarily make one a fan of both and can really mess with the consistency of a title.

But then again altering artists and styles can also be a strength in comics storytelling as artists with distinct visual styles can be matched to scripts with complimentary tones. For instance a fun, cartoony artist could draw a comedic story arc, and a creepy, disturbing artist could be matched to a horror story arc without the shift feeling inorganic or merely the result of production limitations. To some extent, the Soy/Rios switch is a good example of this.Soy's epically-epic art was a perfect fit for a Sci-fi and Horror infused World War 2 adventure comic (Issues 2-4). Similarly, I can't picture the story of Carol Danvers competing and working with a young Helen Cobb (as seen in issue 5) drawn by anyone other than Rios: she just brings so much moxie to a story defined by it. So maybe these comics were better for the artistic switch.

So I guess what I'm saying is that fill-in artists, while still not my favourite practice since it messes with consistency, can actually be a boon to story telling. Especially if their names are Dexter Soy and Emma Rios.

Also, everyone should give Captain Marvel a try: there are at least two great versions now for you to choose from.
(Also, also: holy crap am I excited for Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios. If it is anything like Captain Marvel #5, it's going to be fantastic!)

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