Friday, November 30, 2012


Doug:  Back on the 12th of November, Inkstained Wretch commented on the Eternals #1 post that Jack Kirby's art had declined noticeably over a rather short period of time.  He said:

It is amazing to think this was only six years after Kirby was doing his classic work on Fantastic Four, Thor and Captain America. His art on those around 1969-70 was some of his best ever. What happened during his tenure at DC that caused it to change as it did?

Doug:  I think we can all for the most part agree with this assessment, and that brings us to today's question -- can you name other writers and artists smitten with a similar fate?  For my money, "Exhibit A" has to be Don Heck.  Just earlier this month he was in many a'commenter's list of favorite Captain America artists due in large part to his run on the Avengers in the early Kooky Quartet era.  Yet, by the dawn of the Bronze Age all fluidity had left his figures and had been replaced by stiff characters that resembled cardboard cut-outs.  His mid-70's work at DC on titles such as Wonder Woman, Teen Titans, and Batman Family is the stuff of anti-legend!  I offer a couple of original art samples below.  The first is from Avengers #17 (June 1965) and the latter is from Avengers #112 (June 1973).

Doug:  So, who can we (regretfully) add to the list?  The point is not necessarily to denigrate the professional, but merely to observe the change in the quality and/or aesthetics of their output.  Thanks as always for your thoughts.


dbutler16 said...

The most glaring example to me of art gone downhill is Keith Giffen. His work on the Legion of Super-Heroes with Paul Levitz in the 70's was great stuff, but when her returned to the Legion in the late 80's, his art was (to me) absolutely atrocious, and almost ruined my interest in my favorite DC comic. However, I think this was an intentional stylistic change on Giffen's part rather than an erosion of skills, though I have no idea why he'd change to such a dreadful style. I guess I'm not a big fan of stylistic art, but when every character looks related, with the exaggerated wide features and short hair, not to mention some of them look like they've gained 50 lbs, well, you can count me out.

humanbelly said...

Gosh, this could get to be a pretty substantial list, since so many artists do seem to lose their muse as age overtakes them (o'course-- many others don't, so who can say? Joe Sinnott's 1000 years old, and can still crank out a legitimately fine sketch when called upon. . .).

My contribution will be bittersweet-- my own sentimental favorite, Herb Trimpe. As most anyone 'round here knows, I LOVED his run on the Hulk for pretty much its entirety, even while I could recognize his quirks and weaknesses as a penciler. But at his best-- and with a very helpful inker (John Severin, Sal Trapani, himself early on, Joe Staton later on)-- his work was fantastically dynamic and almost unprecedentedly cinematic-- "breathless" would be a good description.

But, he always had a bit of trouble with proportions (splash page of #122-- those hands!) and scale (late in issue #111-- jumping off of a landing starship), and symetry (especially w/ eyes) was a perpetual hang-up for him. Once he left the Hulk and started bouncing around to other books, his work tended to become flat-looking-- his sense of perspective seeming to diminish. And his figures took on a stiffness that we would also associate with Al Milgrom or the later Don Heck. And then in the 90's he-- oh lordy-- turned himself into a Liefeld clone (doing so pretty credibly, I must admit). He has always maintained that he absolutely loved that style, and jumped into it whole-heartedly. But, geeze, it just came off as shameless craze-jumping.

Herb's personal/professional story is an interesting and compelling one. He too was not treated well by corporate Marvel during the tough times, and he went through a huge, well-documented professional mid-life crisis. And there's clearly some ego there (as I suppose there must be with any artist)-- but he's always come across to me as an interesting and personable guy, and someone who had a unique perspective on the industry as sort of a top-tier guy of the B-list artists.


Edo Bosnar said...

Doug, I'm not sure the pages you posted really do a good job of contrasting the 1960s Heck and the 1970s-onward Heck. I have to say, even though Heck's work did lose some of its quality as the years went by, he always produced solid work.
To address dbutler's point about Giffen, I think it was indeed a matter of an intentional change rather than any loss of skill. Also, that more comical style he adopted worked perfectly in his various Ambush Bug stories, to say nothing of that Heckler series.
My own contributions to this discussion would be Frank Robbins and Carmine Infantino. Back in the '40s & '50s especially, Robbins had a really tight, rich style (similar to Milt Caniff) that came to the fore in his Johnny Hazard strips. By the 1970s, his drawing talent definitely seemed to have eroded. Same with Infantino - I'm not the biggest fan of his work in any case, but his earlier work at DC, especially in those Adam Strange stories, is rather nice. By the 1970s however, his style got quite rigid, and he seemed to rely on a lot of stock poses and facial expressions.

david_b said...

My only contribution here would have been Milgrom, but he was never a good artist to begin with, so there's really no 'Erosion' to speak of there.

Seriously, it's typically down to inkers for me. Sinnott is an unquestioned legend, no argument there at all. But even he couldn't make Milgrom's Avengers stint look interesting. Some nice covers, but the interior work was terrible.

Another example, I liked some of Bob Hall's stuff (like on the WCA Limited Series, inked by Brett Breeding), but other Avengers work..? Just as flat and uninspiring as Milgrom's tenure.

HB, good comments on Trimpe. I too LOVE his early Hulk series work, but didn't follow him much later on.

William said...

I think that John Buscema's art had eroded quite a bit by the time of his 1980's stint on the Avengers. His line work became much more loose and sketchy as opposed to the clean and precise style that he displayed on his Avengers run in the 70's.

His brother Sal experienced some of the same erosion during his 1980's work on Spectacular Spider-Man. His art was markedly more flat, stiff and sketchy looking as when compared to his earlier work on titles like The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and even his first run on Spectacular Spider-Man.

But then I have never seen an artist who's quality didn't drop off a little as their career wore on. Even my favorite, John Byrne, isn't the artist he was at the height of his powers. The same for Steve Ditko, Frank Miller, and others.

In fact the only artist I can think of who's quality not only didn't erode, but actually got a little better as he went along, is George Perez. I haven't seen a lot out of him lately, but his stuff in the 90's and 2000's was even more highly entailed than what he was doing in 70's and 80's.

I guess art talent is like anything else in life. It's like climbing a mountain. You start off at the bottom kind of unsure and shaky and then eventually you reach the peak of your talent and skill, and then you naturally start to go downhill. Whether it's just old-age or burn-out and complacency, it seems to pretty much happen to all of them.

William said...

In the above comment about George Perez I of course mean "detailed" not "entailed". Man we could really use an "edit" button around here.

humanbelly said...

With John B. on his latter Avengers run, even while we were DELIGHTED to have him on-board, there was always a sense that he quite happy to rely on Tom Palmer's inks to carry a good chunk of the load. But even then, he was SO much better than what we'd had for several years prior. I didn't realize until relatively recently (AA Boards, in fact) that he was just this side of contemptuous of his superhero comic work, and must have been doing it largely for the paycheck. Mark of a true artist, I suppose-- hating their own work if their not sufficiently inspired by it.

Sal B, though, had a couple of periods where he purposely re-examined and re-worked his penciling style-- wanting to make it more stylistically his own, and give it more dramatic punch. My opinion of the results are mixed (though not necessarily negative), but my admiration for his positive, pro-active approach to his own work is very high, indeed. Not a guy who was in a situation where he needed to stretch his boundaries at all-- but did it to nourish his muse.

When you think about it, drawing is fundamentally a profession that relies on physical ability. Eyesight, steady hand, fine-motor control, and eye/hand co-ordination. And even sustained back, shoulder, and neck endurance. The elusively defined talent may lay beyond those parts of the vessel. . . but they still create the delicate channel that the talent has to travel through. And like every other part of our bodies, those pieces invariably diminish and decay with age. There's simply no way around it.

Ah, it makes me sad to contemplate, even. . .


Anonymous said...

I agree on the Sal Buscema thing...I liked his older stuff a lot better than his later work.

I personally feel the same about John Romita Jr. (though I'm probably in the minority there)...I liked his 80s stuff much more than his later work; of course in his case it wasn't deterioration, just a style change.

Mike W.

Garett said...

It happens in music too. How many bands get better with time? I think there's a drive to climb the mountain, then exultation at the top...then they start to coast. The way forward is to deepen your art, use those years of life experience to your advantage, like Joe Kubert or Rembrandt. Also Gil Kane maintained his form right till the end, with his technique.

I love Aparo's '70s art, but in the '80s and on he settled into a less demanding, simpler style that doesn't ignite sparks. Neal Adams still has quite a bit of his technique, but his art has become stranger, uncomfortable. He felt effortlessly inventive in his heyday.

Some artists stay good, but seems to slip just a notch down. Starlin, Grell, Perez--I think their newer work is good, but doesn't have the genius of their peak. Perhaps it's the story they're working on, and breaking new ground that gives their peak work that fresh sense of urgency, excitement.

I notice for myself that when I'm fit, my figure art is better. Some artists let themselves go as they age, and I'm guessing the flab translates to a loss of sharpness in these muscular heroes.

William said...

Mike W., I agree with you about John Romita Jr.

I liked his style on his early work on Amazing Spider-Man better than his later and current stuff. But as you said that was a conscious change rather than any sort of erosion in his ability. Probably done to distance himself from his father's long shadow.

There have been quite a few artists who have purposely changed their style over the years, and it's usually not for the better. The best example being (for me anyway) Bill Sienkiewicz. His early stuff was pretty nice and normal looking comic book art, and then he went off way into left field with the experimental stuff.

humanbelly said...

I daresay JRjr's experienced a hefty erosion even from his "revamped" style, which he actually unveiled about 30 years ago (!!!) in STAR BRAND w/ the New U. Compare that with his work on the first several issues of the more recent Heroic Age AVENGERS re-launch. It's like, did he simply stop caring about making his art look even remotely good? Or even finished?

And yessir, boy, Bill Sienkiewicz' gleeful plunge down the rabbit-hole of mind-boggling self-indulgence in the NEW MUTANTS simply left me flabbergasted month after month after month. It was almost a joke of the Emperor having No Clothes--- and not a single soul was willing to point it out. Absolutely no visual storytelling at all-- just wildly abstracted visual effects. I believe Jim Shooter was a major fan and supporter of this direction (he pretty much says so specifically in an interview on his blog), which may explain why it went on so long w/out a sense of anyone speaking up against it.


Bruce said...

Personally, I'd disagree on JR Jr. He is one of the few artists (along with Perez & Byrne) whose name will get me to buy a new book. Just a matter of taste, I know, but I think Romita Jr.'s work is as good as it gets.

I also enjoy Sal Buscema's later work, largely because it's so distinctive. But I like his '70s work, too.

The artist whose recent work I just don't get would have to be Frank Miller. His contemporary stuff is too rough, unpolished and, well, ugly for my liking. And his Daredevil and Wolverine work is some of my favorite comic book art of all time.

Inkstained Wretch said...

Hey, I inspired today's posting! Cool.

Regarding the question at hand, I would agree with a lot of the earlier assessments especially Doug on Don Heck (His original Avengers run was quite good) and Garett on Aparo (His 70s stuff on Brave & Bold and the Spectre stories in Adventure Comics is terrific; his run on Batman and the Outsiders/Outsiders not so much).

One artist whose work got really erratic as he got older was Gene Colan. His Silver Age work on stuff like Iron Man is excellent. His 70s era work grew more impressionistic and was perfect for film noir and horror. I loved his work on the Batman titles. His run on Tomb of Dracula is legendary. He even did great stuff with Howard the Duck.

But dang it some of his later stuff got almost unreadable. He did a few issues of the Avengers in the early 80s that were horrid and some of his 80s stuff at DC like Night Force didn't work at all.

Anonymous said...

@William: Yeah, Sienkiewicz's style is kind of hit or miss for me...sometimes it works and sometimes not. My favourite work of his was probably on Moon Knight (which was less weird than most of his later stuff).

A letter-writer in Web of Spider-Man #40 summed it up perfectly, commenting on Sienkiewicz's cover to Web #33: "The Bill Sienkiewicz cover was a great, moody change of pace, but it's not the kind of cover I'd like to see every issue, primarily because Bill's work has the tendency to look like the scribblings of a psychotic child."

I couldn't have said it better myself!

Mike W.

Comicsfan said...

I'm right there with William and others on the Buscema brothers. From vibrant, inspired work to virtually phoning it in, the contrast was almost shocking. Perhaps the sheer volume of work they turned in over the years had a lot to do with it; over time, I mostly recognized the Buscema form, rather than what they'd formerly brought to the table in style and detail.

Anonymous said...

It's almost blasphemy for me to say this considering they are among two of my favourite all time artists but the Buscema brothers (John & Sal)fall into this category.

Their work on early Marvel titles like the Avengers is legendary (usually with John doing the pencils and Sal the inks) but their later work was ... uninspired. Sal's art especially went downhill in my eyes after witnessing his art(?)work in Thor #382. I've heard that Walt Simonson who was supposed to do the art in this issue faced the dreaded Marvel Deadline, so he called up Sal to do it. While the story was good, Sal's art left me cold. Was this a rush job? Sal's art has always been a bit cartoony but this is the first time I saw how scratchy and loose his art had become.

As for Big John, I'll subscribe to the age factor as a valid reason for his lesser work later in life. While his decline was not as noticeable as Sal's, you could tell he had done better work earlier in his career.

- Mike 'still miss Big John' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Doug said...

Hey, everyone --

I'm back from 3 days in Washington, so figure I ought to toss in two cents on today's topic.

Edo -- I tried to find samples of Heck's art that were close temporally, keeping with Inkstained's original comment. I did indeed find Wonder Woman and Teen Titans original art that showed even more glaring stiffness in the art.

To those commenting on JR JR -- his early stuff was saved by Bob Layton; his latter stuff is awful in my opinion. However, as a Frank Miller rip-off, he's much better at being Miller than Miller is these days.

John Byrne is scratchy. In reference to the oft-mentioned Joe Sinnott, I've said before that Byrne's first run on the FF was great; inking himself, I feel we saw the beginnings of the scratchiness that permeates his work over the past 15 years or so.

Giffen -- never. But agreed that the later stuff is worse. See our reviews of The Great Darkness Saga (sidebar links) for our (my) opinion on Giffen's art.

Perez is still turning out great work. His Brave and the Bold series from a few years back was stellar (art was; Mark Waid's story left much to be desired in my opinion).

Miller -- should wish he was JR JR.

Now to the Brothers Buscema: in the TwoMorrows book on Sal (see our review), Sal makes a couple of comments relevant to today's conversation. First, for the Thor fill-in shortly into Simonson's run, Sal admittedly tried to ape Simonson's style so that the storyline would be seamless. Regarding his later work on Spectacular Spider-Man, Sal also comments how he felt like he wanted to stay sharp so updated his style. I, too, didn't care much for it -- didn't think it was awful, but preferred his Silver and Bronze Age stuff much better.

Lastly, Big John did lay-outs through most of the '80's, and those of you who kudo'd Tom Palmer are dead on. It was Palmer over Buscema's roughs that carried us through that great run in Avengers c. 255-300.

Thanks for all of the comments. And, check back in a week from today for a tour de force from many of the artists cited up and down these comments. If you were fortunate enough to pick up a certain book around 1996, you may know what I'm going to review.


Garett said...

I forgot about Perez's Brave and Bold series--that was really good.

Fantastic Four Fan 4ever said...

I remember reading a Harlan Ellison interview where it was said that Don Heck suffered many personal tragic events in his life and that had a profound impact on his work. His last known work I was aware of was in an Iron Man Marvel Masterwork volume. He had to restore some of his old work from the 1960's. He gave an interview on how the process was completed

Fantastic Four Fan 4ever said...

Miller's work was really bad in Dark Knight Strikes Back and Holy Terror. You have to wonder why an editor didn't step in and have someone save the book by giving it to another artist of Miller's choice. I think Miller had made so much with Sin City and Batman he doesn't have to care any more. If he stopped making comics, he'd still have a place in history. I just wish someone else did the art on his books because a student or a person like myself would put much more care into the art. His stuff is pale shadow of what it once was. It's too bad and he should give another artist a chance shine.

Fantastic Four Fan 4ever said...

I wanted to say Miller should give another artist a chance to shine...

Rip Jagger said...

I may have already mentioned this, but it fits here. I got to see a Don Heck original page a week ago, a page from his early Avengers run featuring Goliath. It was gorgeous. He inked himself, so the elegance of his line was simply awesome. His machines were rendered with a panache and his use of black and white space was outstanding.

As for Jack Kirby, there's no doubt he lost several steps as he got older. Steve Ditko is another artist who hasn't lost his punch on ideas, but has seen a degradation in his artwork.

Guys like the Buscemas were the result I think of changes in approach. John was doing breakdowns in his later career which gave inkers like Palmer greater sway on the look of the final product. Sal actively changed his style in the late 80's and 90's to keep in step a bit with the changing tastes.

I agree that John Byrne has lost a few steps, which seem as much as I can tell to result from a lack of focus.

A name I haven't read (might have overlooked) is Carmine Infantino. His style really opened up as he got older, not always to the greatest effect.

One name I want to add to the mix is Neal Adams. I think Adams has definitely lost a smidge of the magic which has defined his work for so many decades. It doesn't have the same potency it did once upon a time.

Rip Off

Edo Bosnar said...

Wow, this really turned into a rip-roaring discussion!
Anyway, some more thoughts from me: first, Rip, I mentioned Infantino way up on top of the thread...
And FF Fan 4ever, are you sure it was a Harlan Ellison interview in which Heck's personal problems were mentioned as a mitigating factor for the decline in quality of his artwork? The only time I think Heck was mentioned in an Ellison interview was that notorious one conducted by Gary Groth in the Comics Journal in which they both took turns disparaging him (with Groth gleefully calling him "Don Hack"). Somewhat to his credit, Ellison later said he was thinking of someone else and issued a sort of apology.
As for other artists mentioned here, I have to strenuously disagree with the characterization of Byrne and Sal Buscema "eroding." Byrne's style has changed a bit, and his more recent work looks, I don't know, looser (but not "scratchy"), but I still think it is top-notch - I just loved those Star Trek stories he did a few years ago for IDW, they're the only Trek comics I've ever read.
I'm an unabashed Sal B. fan, and like everything I've seen him do from the late '60s pretty much to '90s and beyond. He did change his style somewhat, but I don't think his talent has eroded one bit. And as for his work on Thor, while I would have preferred it if Simonson had stuck to the art chores for the duration of his his run, I like what I've seen of Sal's work on that title (since back in the '80s I stopped reading the title before he came on as artist; however, I've been slowly collecting the Visionaries tpbs - decided against the omnibus). Also, I preferred Sal on New Mutants over Sienkiewicz (since his name also came up); Sal actually drew them so they looked like a bunch of teenagers, while Sienkiewicz pretty much made them all look like they were in their early 20s.
Otherwise, and I hope I'm not anticipating a future thread, I totally agree with Garett about Gil Kane - not only did he not "erode," in my opinion he got better. I think his work from the '70s and '80s is way better than his "classic" stuff from the '60s. Another artist who, I think, hasn't lost his touch one bit is Walt Simsonson: I've seen some scanned pages from his new Judas Coin graphic novel, which look outstanding. That one's near the top of my "must buy" list...

Doug said...

We didn't really offer up any suggestions for writers, so I'll throw out two names, both blasphemous in nature: Stan Lee and Steve Englehart.

I don't know that Stan ever wrote anything again as well as he'd written in the Silver Age. As for Englehart, the high point after his tours of duty on Cap/Falc and the Avengers was his very short run on Batman with Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin. You can have Millennium and whatever else he wrote in the '80's and beyond. Granted, I've not read all of it, but most of the preview-review type of synopses really didn't make me think that I'd missed much.


Edo Bosnar said...

I'm afraid I have to agree with you to some extent on Englehart; I haven't read much of his work from the '80s or later, but I did read that Dark Detective mini-series from the mid-2000s and I was rather disappointed. Also, and it's my turn to blaspheme, I was also unimpressed with Rogers' art in that series. Technically it was really solid, but it just seemed to lack that spark that his earlier work had.
As for Stan Lee, I liked a few of his later Silver Surfer stories, and most of those Just Imagine tales he did for DC. Not saying they're as good as his Silver Age material, but still quite enjoyable.

Garett said...

I loved Mr Miracle by Marshall Rogers, but his later work seems dull from what I remember. The layouts didn't have the same pizzazz.

Frank Miller's writing has gone downhill. Batman: Year One is so good, and his writing from the last decade so weak. Distracted by Hollywood? Could he make a comeback as a top writer now that The Spirit bombed?

MattComix said...

Frank Miller was overrated from day one and made "dark" the go-to gimmick.

As for Jack Kirby I disagree that his art declined at all. His style changed and if your tastes really run more for the Neal Adams school then yeah, you're not going to like it but I really don't think there's a "erosion" of talent or craft going on. The exception to this being at times when his enthusiasm for a project may have been undercut by stuff going on behind the scenes.

Myself when it comes to superhero comics I enjoy both the naturalistic illustrative styles of guys like Adams, Byrne, or Perez but I also enjoy cartoonier artstyles to. I think both fit a superhero book. Far more so than scratchy styles slathered in shadow that are so typical now.

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