Wednesday, July 25, 2012

BAB Book Review: Big John Buscema -- Comics and Drawings

Doug:  From time to time I like to get on and check out the coming releases in the comics and graphic novels sections.  Well, what to my wondering eyes did appear a few months ago but the tome you see pictured above?!  You'd better believe I pre-ordered this baby, and am I glad I did.  A nice, heavy hardcover worthy of being called a "coffee table book", it was a steal at $31 (msrp is $60).  This purchase adds to my biographies of John Buscema, which I believe is a "complete set".  I own The Art of John Buscema by Sal Quartuccio, The John Buscema Sketchbook by J. David Spurlock, John Buscema:  A Life in Sketches by Emilio Soltero, and John Buscema:  Michelangelo of Comics by Brian Peck.  If you visit the two links, you'll find that I've previously reviewed the latter two books.  While each had their merits and shortcomings, I really feel that Florentino Florez's effort is the finest contribution to date on the life and career of one of the greatest creators in comic art history.

Here are the specs on the book:  As I mentioned above, the msrp is $60 and the book is a hardcover.  If I had to guess, I would be skeptical if this will be published later in paperback, and I'll elaborate in the next paragraph.  There is no dust jacket, the cover being slick in its own right.  There is a photo and brief biography of John Buscema on the back cover.  As I said, it's big and heavy -- according to Amazon's statistics, the book's dimensions are 11.1" x 9.7" x 1.1" and its 328 pages weigh in at a whopping 3 pounds, 13 ounces!  There is color throughout -- generous helpings of color.  Yet the printing process is so good that even the B&W illustrations and original art reproductions look vibrant.  

This book is an art catalog; many of the samples were on display at a show honoring Buscema's work, which took place in Gijon, Spain (on the northern coast of the Iberian nation) in 2009.  This book is the catalog to accompany the exhibition.  It should be considered as such.  Reading through some of the buyer evaluations/recommendations on Amazon, some purchasers seemed put off by this fact.  I am certain that on IDW's website they were fully up front that this was the nature of this text.  As such, I got what I paid for -- no surprises.  So, all of this being said, I am going to pursue a review course I've taken in the past and that is my categorical comments under "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly".

The Good

Jeez, where to begin?  Maybe I should have titled this category "The Great".  If you want to gush over the pencil work of John Buscema, then this is for you!  Sketches?  Got 'em -- Buscema was renowned for doodling on the backs of pages on which he was working.  Original art?  Heck yeah!  And, not only some samples, but in several cases the author was able to procure consecutive pages (sometimes up to three pages in a row) which is really nice.  And the color -- covers, pages, details of pages, paintings done by Buscema...  there is plenty of color, and when considering that the sticker price is the same as the Brian Peck book mentioned above, which has no color (along with a whole lot of other issues -- see my review if you've not previously read it), if you're going to buy one Buscema book then snatch this one up! 

Author Florez covers John Buscema's career from his earliest artistic endeavors right through the day he passed away.  Interestingly, he refers only to Sal Buscema as his work relates professionally to John's output.  That they were brothers really never factors into the story -- this was odd to me, and for those of you who might like to know a little more about Sal's life and times (and his relationship to John), I'd encourage you to check out the TwoMorrows book Sal Buscema: Comics' Fast and Furious Artist.  But once Florez gets into John's career at Marvel we get a who's who rundown of the inkers who graced/gouged those beautiful pencils.  This is where Florez really excels in the book -- I know from time to time we've had commenters question Karen and I as far as inking goes.  Some of you have an eye for the differences in style between various embellishers; others among you just don't have that level of discernment.  Every single art exhibit in this book is labeled by source, date, and inker.  This is incredibly helpful, as Florez injects his own opinions (alongside Big John's) as to who was helpful and who hurt the original intent of the drawing.  I know Karen has commented before that although Buscema preferred to ink his own work, she doesn't find his inks to be his best fit.  Here we can see Buscema's lines side-by-side with the likes of Sinnott, Colletta, Adkins, Palmer, Chan, et al.  I'd offer that at times, Buscema's own inking is reminiscent of Joe Kubert's sketchy line.  Not necessarily bad or good to me, but that's what I was reminded of.

Further, Florez goes into detail on the periods and even specific works throughout Buscema's career where he turned in tight pencils or only roughs.  Tom Palmer comments on this late in the book, and some of you may recall that I remarked (in the review of the Peck book) on that team's second collaborative period on The Avengers -- with Palmer having a great deal of responsibility for what was sent to the printer.  At any rate, I found not only Buscema's comments (some of which I'd read before in interviews with the artist; other comments showed up in the book on Sal) about his inkers enlightening, but Florez for the most part enhanced some of the arguments with his own opinions.

And while other reviewers might slide into "The Bad" the fact that Florez injects so much of his own opinions/evaluations into an art catalog as inappropriate and detracting from the subject matter, I'll go right here on record as saying I found it thought-provoking.  Nowhere else does Florez point such a damning finger as he does toward Stan Lee and the ultimate failure of The Silver Surfer.  He implies that Stan Lee's unwillingness to break from his formulaic writing spelled doom for the series; in creating a messianic figure Lee neglected to write him as such.  Instead we got a Surfer who was filled with self-doubt, complained vociferously, and ultimately became unlikable.  As Buscema's art continued on a meteoric rise, Lee's scripts remained pedestrian.

Noted Buscema collector and scholar Michel Maillot contributes his comprehensive index of all of Big John's work.  This feature was also a part of the Peck book.  It remains an invaluable resource!

Lastly, and this is a biggie for me, Florez exhaustively cites his resources with on-page footnotes.  While not drawing from any new sources, relying mainly on the books I mentioned at the top of the page as well as interviews previously printed in the numerous magazines published by TwoMorrows, he nonetheless lets us know the credibility of each statement that is not his own.  This has been a major knock of mine on previous efforts at creator biographies, most notably the aforementioned Peck book as well as Ronan Ro's Tales to Astonish.  As a history major and educator, I applauded this aspect of the book.

The  Bad

I actually could have included this comment in a section labeled "The Indifferent", but since I don't have that going for me, I'll just slide it in here.  On each page that holds text, there is a Spanish translation laid side-by-side with the English.  This was not a distraction for me personally and indeed I found it interesting.  Knowing fully up front that this was an art catalog for an exhibition held in Spain, I was not offended by this "feature".  I suppose I can say that I got what I expected, and it in no way detracts from the pleasure of the book.

I was going to mention that I found it annoying that Florez often wrote in his first-person voice, but given that he includes so much of his own point of view on Buscema's greatness (and shortcomings, too -- there are parts of the text where Buscema is taken to task, particularly in the late 1970's-early 1980's), by the end of the book it wasn't as much of an issue.  But I say this so you know the tone of his text.

The Ugly

I have two major beefs with the text of the book, and perhaps those among you who are not journalists or teachers may think I'm just railing about issues that aren't important to you.  The first major gripe is about Florez's style -- the entire book was written in the present tense.  For example, and I quote:

Now it's 1968.  The increase in sales and an agreement with the distributor National Periodicals allows the publishing house to increase their output.

After that he works on a couple of fill-ins.

Buscema draws Thor #178 (July 1970), then another of Kirby's episodes is published and after that they assign the series to Neal Adams.

I don't know if this was an issue for Florez in going from Spanish to English (I need to ask my younger son, who is planning to minor in Spanish in college, to read some of the Spanish text and see if it is in the same tense), but it just grated on my nerves.  If it happened in the past (which everything does, if you think about it), then write about it in the past tense.

My other qualm with the book is that the type is incredibly small, perhaps only 6 pts.  It might be 8 pts. on a good day.  Like many of you, I'm closer to 50 than 40, and the peepers have been rebelling.  Even with my best pair of bifocals I had to adjust the closeness of the book to my face in order to get the optimal viewing.   As day became night, it was a very real issue.  My guess is that since the Spanish text is included alongside the English, in order to not sacrifice any of the art and keep the integrity of Florez's text, the type size had to be this small.  But it is distracting, and laborious.

I want to emphasize that my "goods" far, far outweigh anything I wrote in the other two categories.  And I really don't think that has anything to do with the fact that I got the book at a nearly 50% discount; if I had the extra cash, I'd gladly pay full price for it.

The book is not divided into chapters per se, but Florez does have different topics divided by headings within the text.  Here is just a sampling of the first several topic headings:
  • Preface
  • The Son of a Barber
  • The First Steps
  • The End of an Era
  • Commercial Break
  • The Homecoming
  • The Marvel Method
Florez gives lengthy examinations to Buscema's tenures on the Avengers, Silver Surfer, Fantastic Four, and his various miscellaneous jobs -- but the lion's share of Florez's treatment is dedicated to our favorite Cimmerian in all his various magazines.  Some of the artwork in this section is just breathtaking.  Of course I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you something you are probably wondering -- does Buscema go on and on about hating super-heroes and comics in general?  You bet he does.  Sometimes it's tempered, but it is there running throughout the biographical text.  By this point, I'd have expected no less.

Laid next to the other Buscema books (Spurlock's, Quartuccio's, Peck's, and Soltero's), I consider this volume the "best yet".  While it is not without fault, it is thus far the most detailed account of Buscema's career, with abundant art to support the various life events and commentaries provided by Florez.  This was obviously a labor of love for him (and the curators of the original exhibition in Spain in 2009), and we are the beneficiaries.


Garett said...

I just picked this book up last week, and heartily agree--fantastic book on John B!

Excellent art choices made for this book, and I also like seeing consecutive pages from his comics.

I like how they include some vibrant closeups of his work--can't stand art books with small reproductions and an overload of text.

Anthony said...

You can't have too many books on Big John. He was just that good. He is one of the few artists whose work I love to see even in very rough breakdowns. Even in this embryonic stage his wonderful page layouts and storytelling ability shine through.
As to the author's comments I welcome any thoughtful analysis even if it differs from my own. Very interesting comments indeed on the Silver Surfer. Looks like I'll have to put this one on my shopping list.

david_b said...


That's what I love about Schumer's Silver Age of Comic Book Art, the legendary art in large format never gets old. You can provide analysis, perhaps talk a bit about inspiration and how things were 30-40yrs ago, but in the end, the art really says it all.

It's like Zappa telling those political-blathering rock artists, 'Just shut up and play your guitar'.

Edo Bosnar said...

Since this is basically an exhibition catalog - from an exhibition held in Europe no less, you should thank your lucky stars that the author did not resort to the pretentious, nearly incomprehensible art-historian speak that you can usually find in such publications. Trust me, I've translated a fair number of these myself and I know what I'm talking about.
Also, your gripe about the present tense may very well be something the translator (or his/her proofreader) should have caught and corrected. I often catch myself making mistakes like that.
Anyway, good review. It makes me wish some museum or gallery here in Croatia would stage a similar exhibition of comics art by, say, Colan, Chaykin or Steranko and hire me to translate the catalog...

Fantastic Four Fan 4ever said...

I remember about twenty years ago John Buscema's "Chalk Talk" printed in the pages of the Comics Journal. He tells artists working at Marvel at the time not to make pencils too tight. He was saying there must be room left for interpretation for the inker. Not only will you move faster, but will turn out more pages to pay for your living expenses. He was saying to the artists not to try to turn out "high art" that's going to be shown ina museum.

Ironically Buscema never thought there would be endless B&W Conan paperbacks, now published by Dark Horse, that showcase his black and white magazine works with many inkers. Some were better than others. You can tell he doesn't have an affinity to the super hero genre because of the 10 years + he spent on Conan.

I remember the graphic novel he worked on before he got very ill (before his passing) I also wrote to him before he left us back in 2002. The family sent me a nice e mail saying he enjoyed the letter.

I only wish he could have taken his 1970's art classes to a better venue. I would have liked to have been in that art class taught by him.

Doug said...

FF Fan --

If you get the opportunity to check out the book, on page 219 there is an anecdote from Tim Sale, who along with other future pros like Bob Hall, attended Buscema's comic art workshop. Sale is quite critical of Buscema and his delivery at the workshop. To Florez's credit, he does not amend Sale's derogatory comments, and even adds in another writer's criticism of Buscema.

Being an educator, I would say this in defense of Buscema -- there are a whole lot of people who know their craft inside and out but who cannot teach it. Those of you who attended college can back me up on this -- was not the scariest unknown in your scheduling the signing up for a class taught by "Staff"? Yikes! Who knew what you'd get?


mmaillot said...

This book review is great and very fair. As a contributor of this book, artwork, pictures, checking and adding a very few to the great Florentino text, and at last but not least my checklist you should beware of my words. So I will just make a few precisions.
We were not sponsored by some Ophthalmologist foundation and I do agree the typo was a little small but it had to respect the original book and the relation with text and pictures. Even if we make again all the scans in color and changed a lot of the pictures not to mention some design, we had to respect the first version. Same thing was to keep the Spanish language (we already removed the Catalan) to respect the Casal Solleric museum who did the show and the first edition of the book.
I have to emphasize the work of Frederic Manzano from Editions Deesse on this IDW US edition, he made the original art scans again and all the design changes and pictures scan. The only help I did was to choose with him some pictures from my books and of course lend all needed when Frederic had not them.
A problem you found is with the present tense used in the English text which was at the origin in the Spanish edition but not used in the Spanish language. It was and caused by the English person Florentino asked to make the translation, we should have noticed this for this edition, sorry about that too.
About the checklist already used by Brian Peck in his book, it is a living thing as there are probably still unknown jobs by John. I already added a few since the checklist was updated for this IDW book, so if you want to be updated, have a look from time to time on the web where it lives.
Anyway, enjoy the book; as I wrote for the original catalog, and was right for all the contributors, even with all its imperfections it was a labor of love and I hope Big John is proud of us.
Sorry for my English, as I come from a country where we are not known to speak very well foreign languages.
All the best
Michel Maillot

Doug said...

Michel --

Many thanks for stopping by our blog, and for your kind words in regard to the review. This latest Buscema book truly is a treasure, and as a John Buscema enthusiast I am in your debt for your efforts toward the ongoing checklist of John's work as well as for your involvement in this fine publication.



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