Nicholas Goodchild

Historic and Pared Down

Joe Kubert

26 August 2012 by Nicholas in Comics

Joe Kubert died on August 12th, 2012. He was a highly influential comics artist, but has also written and inked comics as well as setting up a school for aspiring artists bearing his name.

I have to admit, I personally don’t care much for Kubert’s art. I find his finishing to look very rough and it detracts from the structure. I can see that he has all the fundamentals right, but it is not for me. When he inks I find that he overpowers the underlying art and makes it less appealing.

But his school has been incredible. A lot of artists have come through there over the last 25 years or so, including Joe’s sons Andy and Adam, Bart Sears, Lee Weeks, Alex Maleev (although he left early having been told they had no more to teach him), Tom Raney and Adam Warren. That’s an incredible list (and only a small selection of the people who have entered the comic industry from the school.)

Bart Sears, as rightfully maligned as he may be, is one of my main influences. He wrote a drawing column for Wizard Magazine that I have nearly all of. Thankfully his influence no longer comes through in the way I do faces but it probably does in terms of musculature and posing.

Adam Kubert is a great superhero artist. I first noticed him on his initial Wolverine run but he has had runs on other X-Men titles, notably the launch of Ultimate X-Men. He combines great use of light and dark, kineticism and expressionistic faces with sheer energy. I love his stuff.

Andy Kubert is arguably the more successful of the two brothers. I don’t care for his work as much, everyone looks to have the same face. He was the regular artist on the adjectiveless X-Men title for a great number of years and now gets high profile jobs at DC. Some of which I end up getting because he gets teamed with Grant Morrison.

Lee Weeks was the artist on Daredevil when I started buying it regularly. He is a traditional superhero artist who did great work but sadly never seems to have achieved a high profile and whose work is too sporadic and rare.

Adam Warren is a guy who brought Manga influence to American comics before it became fashionable and during and after the backlash against it. He has a different sensibility and is one of the few artists whose work I will always buy.

Tom Raney is another string superhero artist, who also worked within the X-Men offices for a while and did some issues of Stormwatch with Warren Ellis before the Authority direction. His work is always attractive.

Alex Maleev is fantastic. He joined Brian Bendis for some of the best Daredevil comics ever. For a long time I had a piece of his art as the background on my desktop. He is another guy with a strong sense of light and dark who manages to make very beautiful and naturalistic art.

Batman: Year One

28 July 2012 by Nicholas in Comics

Batman: Year One, is my favourite Batman comic. It features Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli producing their second best work. David Mazzuchelli is the single most underrated superhero artist and as good as anyone else the genre has ever produced. Frank Miller, on his day (which, sadly, seems to be nearly 3 decades hence), writes operatic and mythic superheroes like no other. Together they created the best Daredevil comic ever and the best Batman comic. And the one that forms much of the basis of Batman Begins.

Batman: Year One is the story of Batman before he was the Batman, as he becomes the Batman and his first interactions with the denizens of Gotham. The great scene in Batman Begins where Batman is beseiged by the SWAT team before escaping under the cover of bats. Except it’s done even better in the comic.

In the comic we see Bruce returning from years away to work out how to utilise his training to fight crime in Gotham. He tries but makes a mess of it, eventually coming face to face with a bat and deciding on his new identity.

As he sets about fighting crime he allies himself with the DA, Harvey Dent (another event utilised by Nolan throughout his trilogy) and a police captain called James Gordon. It is through Gordon’s eyes we see much of the comic, with him providing the human counterbalance to the insanity of Gotham and also the mythic introduction of a masked vigilante. It is Gordon’s mistakes, failings and successes that provide much of the emotional heart of the story. And it is this iteration of Gordon that I most clearly see in Gary Oldman’s portrayal of the character.

As well as being inspirational, the comic is brilliant in its own right. Miller is a master of efficiency throughout, using different character’s voices and creating a world of pervasive corruption where hope and nobility are in short supply. His Batman is still learning and his Gordon looks for redemption. But, more than this, he knows when to let Mazzuchelli tell the story without any words.

David Mazzuchelli uses a slightly paired down style here, with a deceptively simple line. There is an economy in his work that is incredible, but also a level of thought and craft that I am only now coming to appreciate. The pacing is slightly unusual in superhero comics, which is largely down to panel placement and shot selection. He marries traditional superhero proportions and techniques, with brilliant pacing and storytelling and something akin to Alex Toth’s finishing. It’s breathtaking work and would carry the comic all by itself, even if it wasn’t brilliant to begin with.

Grant Morrison’s Batman

26 July 2012 by Nicholas in Comics

There are two main schools of thought about Grant Morrison. I’m firmly in the “Grant Morrison is a genius” camp. And, when it comes to his superhero work, nowhere is this clearer than how he handles Batman.

When Morrison rejuvenated the JLA he did so partially by showing the value of Batman to the team. Initially the sole human on a team with people with the powers of gods, he was the character to work out who their foes were, what their weaknesses were and to defeat them pretty much single handedly. Batman the detective. Batman the genius. Batman the fighter. Batman the man who never, ever, gives up. This is the Batman I recognise: the one who should be redundant in a world of gods yet raises himself up to a point where he is not just their equal but their actual superior. Through sheer force of will.

Years later Morrison took on the Batman ongoing title. Now, over the years, Batman has had some decidedly odd adventures. For a long time he was dreadfully miscast in adventures against comedy aliens and in stories with ridiculous gimmicks. What any sane and normal writer would have done is to ignore these stories completely. Morrison, however, is utterly and completely mad and manages to craft stories that have the reader voluntarily embracing drug logic and hallucination and suspending their disbelief to a point no other writer can manage. He started with some mad ideas and got progressively weirder and stranger, incorporating disparate stories into a rich tapesterial whole.

During his run he showed a Batman who is prepared for everything, even the unthinkable and the very loss of his own sanity (a homage to a dreadful comic from the past and the utterly illogical logical conclusion of Batman’s propensity for planning and preparation). He also showed the value of Batman as an idea and brand, franchising crime fighter using his own animal based totem across cities, countries and continents.

He had Batman die, travel through his own past, appoint his successor and engage with his enemies while challenging his very convictions and presumed history. It’s been a mad ride through crazy worlds navigated with the utmost understanding of the core character and simultaneous disregard for, and reverence of, his rich continuity. He seems to be easing off a little now, having set up a richer status quo that allows for everything that has come before, and is merely content to create brilliant comics full of invention and innovation. And Batmen who are utterly recognisable and distinct as the characters that they should be.

Kingdom Come

24 July 2012 by Nicholas in Comics

As much as The Dark Knight Rises takes a flawed premise and creates a great story, Kingdom Come takes the perfect foundations and somehow crafts a story that is less than the sum of its parts.

Kingdom Come is a painted mini series that was published by DC Comics in 1996 and written by Mark Waid. The real driving force behind it, however, is Alex Ross. Alex Ross is primarily influenced by Norman Rockwell and Andrew Loomis, and crafts superheroes that look real in worlds that are believable. He can sell you on almost any idea and has created some truly incredible art over the years (especially with his covers).

Kingdom Come features a large ensemble cast but is really about Superman. His limitations and his failure. Rejected by a population that finds him out of touch and ineffectual, he retreats from the outside world that has taken more pragmatic and final heroes to its bosom and rejected what it sees as temporary solutions. However, Batman has remained committed to his mission because Gotham needs him.

Batman has had his back broken, his secret identity made public and his home destroyed. None of this matters to a man with a single minded purpose. Throughout the comic he is proven right, time and time again. He is also the real victor, whose aims are most clearly realised by the eventual climax of the comic. It’s a Batman I have absolutely no problem recognising and believing in. He feels so utterly right.

Superman, too, is close to where I believe he should be: a being of great power who somehow never managed to make real or lasting change. More useful as an icon and symbol than a leader or decision maker. Able to change the course of a mighty river but carried along by the merest of tides. He’s the anti thesis of the Batman and truly lost at the start of the book. He also makes a series of poor decisions, exacerbating the very situation he tries to avert.

The climax of the comic is a pitched battle between different factions, with Batman coming in to prevent and contain the battle rather than to anoint a victor. It’s also heavy on biblical imagery (as is the whole story) and features a really, really strong moment that Ross and Waid sell perfectly. And the immediate aftermath is one of the great pieces of Superman imagery.

Overall, though, Kingdom Come is a comic that has too many characters and probably features the wrong character as its protagonist. The real hero is the Batman, and arguably Superman is as great a villain as any other within the pages. But it looks beautiful and has some great sequences.

The Dark Knight Returns

22 July 2012 by Nicholas in Comics

The Dark Knight Returns is the comic that the Dark Knight Rises will almost certainly be most linked to. It’s one of the most important superhero comics ever made, and was published by DC Comics in 1986, written and drawn by Frank Miller and tells the story of an aged Batman returning to Gotham City when he feels needed.

Although I think it is a great comic, I do think it is overrated and that there are other, better, Batman comics out there. However, it does a great many things right and is hugely enjoyable. It was apparently written by Frank Miller as a reaction to the realisation that he had grown older than his boyhood hero (Batman) and gave us, at once, an ending to the Batman story and a Batman that has entered middle age in a world of much greater complexity.

He also created a sequel, called The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It’s a dreadful comic that did much to destroy his reputation and should be avoided. Let’s ignore that and try to pretend it never happened.

The main problem I have with the Dark Knight Returns is that the Batman would ever abandon a world that needs him. As much as his return makes the hairs on my neck stand up every single time I read it, I have a hard time reconciling it with my view of the character. This aside, the story is great and crams a lot into a relatively small space. Batman experiences his origin again, the echoes driving him almost insane and convincing him that he needs to return.

As he returns he is both the man he once was and aware that he never can be. We know that he can’t continue down this path indefinitely and also that the world he is in is not necessarily one that he is suited to. His former allies have grown old and deserted him, the world has moved on and his enemies changed and vanished. However, they soon reassert and return, as if drawn back by an interconnected web of dependent psychosis.

The comic has a lot of great moments. As much as I have problems with some of the underlying characterisation there are many great points that emotionally connect with me. And it shows that the Batman, with enough time and planning, can defeat anyone. Even Superman. Even the rigours of time.

The art is strong throughout, tending to an iconic level of abstraction that sells the mythic tone and makes everything readable. Miller was, and is, a master cartoonist who understands comics like few others. And this is one of the best examples of his art.

The Dark Knight Rises

20 July 2012 by Nicholas in Comics

As a superhero fan it has been an exceptionally good summer: we’ve had the Avengers and now we have the Dark Knight Rises. Spider-Man was ok, but I doubt I will ever seek it out to watch it again. The Dark Knight Rises, however, I had incredibly high expectations of. Expectations that it either met or surpassed.

When The Dark Knight wasn’t nominated for any real Oscar categories I was aghast (and what I think of Slumdog Millionaire has neither mellowed nor improved with time). If the Dark Knight rises is similarly snubbed, despite my cynicism, I will be apoplectic. The Dark Knight is not just the best film of the trilogy, it’s a great piece of film making regardless of pedigree and genre.

As good as the Avengers is, and it is a truly excellent film, it doesn’t really have much in the way of metaphor, subtext and theme. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t just a film, it is a meditation on the power of myth, on symbolism, desperation, freedom and anarchy. If you thought the Dark Knight was cerebral, Rises builds on it (and, oddly, moreso upon Batman Begins) to actually say something while reflecting the mood of the times and creating something that is primal and likely to become timeless.

The film opens with Gotham no longer needing Batman, having found security and order on the back of a lie born of the events of the last film. The Mayor is milking it for all it’s worth, Gordon is ill at ease and wrestling with his own conscience, and Bruce Wayne has retreated from the public eye to live a half existence in his mansion. There are strong echoes of the Dark Knight Returns, but this retirement feels logical and emotionally satisfying. The main players have adapted (or not) in different ways because they have had to.

When he believes that there is a need for Batman to return Bruce relishes in the moment in a way that makes perfect sense in both the movie milieu and with nods to the comics. There is a foreshadowing of the horror to come, but it is a stirring and resonant resurrection. We want him to be the force he once wants, but a large part of the film is actually about how he can’t be and the sacrifices he has to make in order for Batman to be a force for good in a world that has grown more desperate.

Gotham itself is soon far more unruly than ever before, its villains more pervasive and entrenched in the fabric of the city. The city is nearly pulling itself apart and it seems as much as the Batman and his allies can do to prevent its complete destruction, rather than returning it to status quo. It’s an end to a legend in much the same way as the destruction of the round table or Hood firing his last arrow from his death bed. But it isn’t just about the legend of one man, of the myth of his actions, it’s about something more fundamental and more universal: it’s a film about humanity trying to survive in general.

There are other themes too, of the importance of legacy, of abandonment and of family. Of duty and sacrifice. It’s stirring and emotionally resonant, with the action incredible not just because of the spectacle but because of the stakes and motivation. The film elicits far more than mere excitement.

The cast, to the last, is excellent. Bale is as good as ever, Morgan Freeman sly and funny, Anne Hathaway is an absolute revelation as Selina Kyle and Marion Cotillard takes what could have been a simplistic role and infuses it with subtlety and nuance. The stand out, however, is Michael Caine. With an earnest, simple power he is the emotional heart of the film and shows the effect on humanity of the events in the film.

Nolan seems to bring out the best in everybody he works with. Throughout his career he has teased out incredible performances. More than just his people skills, he crafts and tells stories of complexity and texture. He also films with an epic sweep married to a clarity that makes the events seem more real and more akin to a documentary than the camera tricks of other directors. He presents us a truth of believable visuals and complex people and events. It makes for a persuasive and engaging whole and is yet another reason that the film is so good.

It’s a truly great film, one I can’t wait to see again. And again. I just dread to think what it will lose to at the Oscars.

Adam Hughes

22 February 2012 by Nicholas in Comics

Adam Hughes did 3 pages of interior art for Fables recently, and it looked gorgeous. The backgrounds were largely design elements, ornately crafted to look like swirls and rendered to show the foreground characters at their best. What little information he does show in the backgrounds actually communicates a lot: the trees in the initial panel show that the characters are in a wood or forest, the bushes show that they are strawberry bushes and low hanging, the axe and house later on tell you that this a woodcutter’s hut and the bathroom is beautifully realised. Economical and beautiful, Adam Hughes sells you on the settings.

But the characters, especially the women, are the selling point of Hughes’ art. It is as is Mucha has done sequential art. Hughes has always had an Art Nouveau influence, especially Mucha, but it is incredibly apparent here: the hair, especially, is painstakingly rendered and looks like Mucha’s art. Contour lines are thick and distinct, but interior lines are coloured according to the areas of colour within them. The colour, in general, is non primary and features more muted and secondary tones. It’s subtle and beautiful.

Hughes has also been providing the covers for the Fables spin-off The Fairest. It again showcases his technical ability, but there is less of the Art Nouveau influence on display. His art brings to mind classic pin up artists of the 1940s and 1950s, albeit rendered with markers and thick lines rather than oils or gauche. Hughes has a style that somehow suggest realism and idealism, without straying too far into realistic territory. There is a lot of stylisation that shouldn’t really work that he somehow pulls off. He uses thick contour lines and his eyes tend to be abstracted beyond the point they should be convincing. But he does everything so skilfully, so well, that he sells you on whatever he is drawing and makes it look so beautiful that most other art pales in comparison.

Batwoman: Elegy

18 February 2012 by Nicholas in Comics

Batwoman: Elegy, is a trade paperback of a story that originally ran in Detective Comics and was written by Greg Rucka, drawn by J H Williams III and coloured by David Baron. Both David Baron and J H Williams have Warren Ellis links: Williams drew the first (and only completed) arc of Desolation Jones and Baron sometimes coloured Planetary. They combine beautifully on Batwoman and Williams is one of the best artists in comics.

Williams excels on Batwoman. He creates distinctive characters who you can tell apart, everyone looks real and his art has solidity and tells the story. But, more than that, it looks gorgeous and has some incredible panel layouts. And even more than that: he completely changes his art style for some flashback scenes that I would have sworn blind were by a different artist. Even as I read them, I was sure they were by a different artist and it was only upon discovering that they weren’t that I could see any of Williams’ style on them. And that was when I was closely looking for it.

Baron, too, deserves credit. He doesn’t harm the art, I know that sounds like damning someone with faint praise, but I am coming to realise how rare that actually is. He sets mood and helps sell Williams’ art. Pages are designed, drawn and coloured to fit together and work as a whole even as they work as individual panels.  The pallete used and hues evoked set mood and suggest era. It’s a really good job and deserving of praise.

The story, too, is good. We get a lot of information and are sold on the idea of a secret group of zealots running around Gotham with their own internal politics and breakaway factions. The action is mainly interesting (the supposedly climatic fight is oddly unexciting, but sets up an emotional climax later on) and conflicts and actions stem from characters’ personalities. We get a sense of who Batwoman is and her relations to everyone else, how they view her and what drives them.

Rucka writes great women. Kane is principled, tough and stubborn. She is honest about her sexuality, even when it causes offence and makes her life difficult. She has to choose to be true to herself over her dreams and does so, in a way that is believable and admirable at the same time. The supporting cast, too, are well written and characterised, even if Batwoman’s stepmother comes across as nothing other than indulgent.

Batwoman: Elegy is a great comic that is well crafted and written and elevated by some incredible work by the artist and ably assisted by the colourist.

Uncanny X-Men 4

24 January 2012 by Nicholas in Comics

Uncanny X-Men was published by Marvel Comics and written by Kieron Gillen and featured art by Brandon Peterson. It was a single issue story telling of the confrontation between the Cyclops led X-Men team and a member of the Phalanx.

Now, I love Brandon Peterson artwork, and have for a great number of years (I bought Mystic on the basis he drew it, and think his work on Medieval Spawn/Witchblade is beautiful) but I found his art oddly static in this issue. I know that he uses a computer to aid him a lot in his art these days, but it has led to a loss of fluidity and a lack of a sense of motion. His line width, too, seems to be too unchanging and sometimes too thin and skeletal.

Kieron Gillen seems an able writer, he does some quite clever things and obviously gives  a lot of thought to what he writes. His run on Uncanny, so far, has been enjoyable. But he is guilty of trying to cram in too much exposition here. His initial pages of the Phalanx regrouping and rebuilding itself was full of exposition that was arduous to read through. I think, perhaps, because it was accompanied by some really quite boring panels. Perhaps the Phalanx would have worked better as something that was more unexplained and had much of its back-story left as a mystery. However, the climax would have had to have been different if this had been the case.

The climax also highlighted another problem with this issue: the X-Men themselves were hardly in it and nothing of interest particularly happened to them. The only one to have anything approaching a character moment was Storm, who is only there by editorial contrivance and is largely at odds with the ethos of the team and would be opposed to many of the personnel. Colossus, who traditionally would also be opposed to the team, shows signs of succumbing to his more base urges in his power demonstration moment and Magneto has a moment of stating how powerful he is only for the threat to find a way to neutralise his abilities.

I think that is my main problem with this comic: it exists to show how powerful this group of X-Men are and has to spend about half the comic explaining what the threat is and what motivates it. It then wraps everything up in a few pages at the end having tried to escalate the threat level by a few power demonstration sequences that the antagonist shrugs off. To my mind the comic should be about huge scale: if you have Magneto as a team member then you should have huge power displays and action sequences that carry on for pages. Humanise things, yes, but only as counter balance to a huge great action scene.

Overall, this felt a little like a misfire from some creators whose work I know can be much better. And this team of X-Men really doesn’t appeal to me much

The Punisher

21 January 2012 by Nicholas in Comics

The Punisher has recently been relaunched as a core Marvel Universe comic and is written by Greg Rucka ably assisted by a couple of very good artists. It’s yet another relaunch for the character that has been around for about 40 years, and has been overshadowed by DC’s recent line wide relaunch and Marvel’s own X-Men relaunch following Schism. This is a pity as it is a really excellent book.

Although it is set in the mainstream Marvel Universe, and uses continuity in order to aid the telling of the story, it never really seems like a standard superhero comic and these elements are largely ignored. One of my problems with the Punisher, going back to when (I believe, I don’t have it to hand to check) Mike Baron was writing it and (this I am sure of, as his work is very distinctive) Klaus Janson was drawing it was that it had the same structure as a superhero comic with a slightly darker edge as the Punisher killed rather than incarcerated his antagonists. He still happened across criminals and crimes by accident, as would a Spider-Man web swinging across the city.

Rucka has taken a much different approach. The Punisher is reliant on information, which he gleans from supporting characters who have their own agendas and distinct personalities. In most ways this book is about the supporting characters, and the Punisher gets very little of the actual spotlight. Fortunately the supporting cast is interesting and what is happening to them is much more interesting than a generic shooting. The two detectives investigating the Punisher and the aftermath of his presence have distinct personalities and both drive the story in very different ways. They interact with each other and with other characters convincingly and their actions have actual ramifications for the Punisher and the stories as a whole.

Rucka also writes excellent women. Typically his women are strong and capable, but also face subtly different challenges from men and also act in a way that is understandable but also distinct. This is something that has consistently been noticeable in Rucka’s work and the new characters he brings to the Punisher are all excellent, especially the women.

The weakest part of the book so far has been the most conventional: the Punisher fighting with a supper villain. It’s a poorly choreographed sequence that the resolution of has to be explained in the dialogue rather than shown. I think this may be the fault of the artist or it could be that it has been deliberately left ambiguous.

Overall, though, the Punisher is a surprisingly good read given the limitations of the main character and is full of people I actually want to read about and find myself caring about. Even if it sometimes skirts the Marvel Universe and some of the elements that may be incongruous in a book like this.