Saturday, March 28, 2015

Taking "Stock" of the "Poses"

Doug: A few weeks ago I and some other comics-loving folk engaged in a healthy debate on Twitter. The topic that day centered on Bronze Age artists and their styles. That conversation quickly became about "wow" factor, that "man, that blew me away when I turned the page!" sort of impact. Our pal Sal Buscema quickly came under the gun as an artist who, while steady, rarely "delivered" for some involved in the debate. So, being a guy who is always looking for fodder for the kind denizens of this blog, I thought I'd bring the spirit of that conversation over to our little corner of the Internet.

Doug: It was stated during the conversation that Sal relied too often on "stock" poses. A term Karen and I coined a long time ago was "Buscema blasted". You all know what that looks like, even without the exhibit I've included. And you know what? That's OK with me. That's Sal. Sal draws guys getting pummeled like that. Again, I'm OK with that. So if it's a stock pose, I'm going to wear it like a comfortable pair of jeans. Can we agree that sometimes Sal's faces look a bit too much the same? Sure -- I'll go there. But I think of those guys who are just below the masters (that upper echelon for me being Kirby, Adams, J. Buscema, and maybe a couple of others), such as Sal, and Jim Aparo, as gifted storytellers who really don't ever disappoint me.

Doug: So how does today's conversation strike you? Do you have expectations of particular artists that are usually met? How about that aren't met? When you can identify an artist's work, is it by the faces, or the postures of the characters? Who has certain "trademarks"? Thanks in advance for your input. Oh, and one more thing... I guess I got to thinking about my own "stock poses", my own mannerisms. And it made me think of the sort of things seen in the video below. Enjoy it.


Humanbelly said...

Hahahahahaha-- Doug, you are going to OT-Tangent your own post with the inclusion of that Rich Little/Johnny Carson clip! 'Cause then it gives you option links to a zillion other Rich Little clips. . . and then it's down the old Hollywood rabbit hole-!

On topic, though-- we are of a single mind regarding Sal. I never, ever got tired of seeing that Sal-Smack/Buscema-Blast pose. Especially with the caught-in-mid-rage facial expression that was usually captured as well. Sal's faces did tend to look the same during the height of the Bronze Age-- but I daresay that was because he seemed to be drawing about 20 books a month. And ALL of these guys (even the greatest) were apt to take shortcuts when time was short. It's clearly quicker to draw something you've drawn before-- look how fast these guys can whip something out at conventions-- so the prudent thing to do is to go to tried & true poses, shots, and layouts. I think what's particularly distinctive about Sal is that in the following years he revamped and re-worked his style aggressively. Although he became somewhat more stylized, he also got well away from the everyone-looks-the-same tendency. I've said it many times here, but again, that alone puts him in a much higher artistic bracket for me: the simple desire to continue his artistic growth long after there was any practical necessity to do so. He just liked getting better at it, y'know?


Edo Bosnar said...

Yep, I have no problems with Sal's art at all, and like HB, I never tire of looking at it, regardless of the frequent stock poses, faces, etc. It's just good, solid, well-rendered super-hero sequential art.
Personally, I always find it simultaneously annoying and amusing when discussions on artists appear on comic blogs or forums (esp. the Marvel Masterworks forum) and there's always a few guys who show up to diss Sal. I never bother responding, because I know a flamewar would ensue, but I would say all of the criticisms about stock poses, facial expressions, etc. leveled at Sal apply equally to none other than Jack Kirby - and then some.

Rip Jagger said...

Stock poses are at once the vocabulary and grammar of visual storytelling. Sure you can change it up with more distinctive looks, but by and large any comic artist has a go-to set of poses which can swiftly and effectively tell the tale.

Sal is certainly a great example of a guy who used clear and (I assume) the critics would suggest boring images to clearly communicate action and mood. But Gil Kane did it, Steve Ditko did it, Wally Wood did it, Joe Kubert did it, Dick Dillin did it, Nick Cardy did it, and even the venerable Jack Kirby did it.

A reader might decide that they like the "vocabulary" of Wood or Ditko better, but as for the "grammar", all of it depends on how the story hangs together. All the guys I mentioned told stories clearly.

This is the reason I suspect critics like those at Fantagraphics often call reliable talents like those I've mentioned as hacks. They like the sturdy pulp authors before them (Dent, Gibson, and others) delivered a reliable if somewhat predictable experience. But that experience was one they could generate time and again which proved highly profitable for the companies they worked for.

Rip Off

J.A. Morris said...

I think taking artists in moderation is the best approach to dealing with trademarks or stock poses, same-ey looking faces.

I tweeted at Doug yesterday about Gil Kane's "below the nostrils" stock pose. I'm a big fan of Kane, he's one of the all-time greats. But if I read an 800 page Gil Kane omnibus, I'd be sick of his stock poses by about page 350.

Another favorite artist of mine is Gene Colan, especially his 1960s Daredevil work. Lots of Silver Age stuff has aged poorly, but Colan's DD still entertains me will all its action. But after reading a few dozen pages of it, you notice that Colan draws Daredevil in some sort or cartwell/handstand pose a bit too often.

But I've found if I love the artists' work, I make allowances for the stock poses. The bad outweighs the good.

As for critics of Sal B., I get it, I've heard it since the late 70s/early 80s. My friends put down Sal's work because he wasn't "flashy" or "slick" like Byrne or Perez. And Sal's work isn't always consistent. I recall buying Hulk issues that looked great and Rom issues published the same month that weren't very good. Part of it was the fact that he was overworked, part of it was inkers, and part of it was that he (and the Marvel brass) probably cared about some series less than others.

Speaking of stock artistry, is it sad that I can look at characters' lips and tell that it's the work of Colletta(someone I don't generally care for)?

Humanbelly said...

Doug & Karen's earlier associate (and fellow Avengers Assembler) Sharkar has a bit of a blog of her own called "Panelocity" which very adeptly explores the stock-pose/borrowing tendencies back in the Silver Age, even. She has an astonishing eye for detail and a rather encyclopedic memory-- and Jack Kirby definitely shows up borrowing from himself. And you've gotta figure, like Sal, he was a page-producing dynamo when the going was tough-- and that's how the job gets finished-!

Man, another luminary whom I've discovered borrowing from himself every once in awhile? Hal Foster, in Prince Valiant! Now and then, a panel will bring a sense of deja vu, and if you look back, you can find that it's layout & figures have been sort of seen before! (But-- NO ONE's better than Foster, in my book!)


Doug said...

Slap me stupid, J.A. - I didn't make the connection at all! I think I was thrown off by the link you referenced. And, I was probably thinking about what I was going to have for dinner at the time...

With the volume of material cranked out by Silver and Bronze Age artists, there are bound to be duplications and trends in the artwork. That is why I included the Rich Little piece. We all have mannerisms and quirks -- impressionists pick right up on that. As J.A. said, if you are just going to read comics on a monthly basis, it's probably not that big a deal. But in this "golden age of reprints", where we do have access to these behemoth-like volumes, sure -- the reader does tend to see similar work over time.

But, are you still entertained? To me, that's the real measure.


Anonymous said...

Spot on about the volume of work, Doug.
Wally Wood's 22 Panels That Always Work seems relevant here; its posted at

Mind you, Sal Buscema was no Wally Wood.
Which isn't to say his work wasn't adequate, but... you can see similar stylistic elements to his brother's work, but John had that extra something.

Although I've always found it disappointing that he never seemed to have the desire to do anything more than just average Marvel comics; you know, the way Kirby clearly had a drive to express something in his work, and how Steranko and Gil Kane etc tried different formats.
Especially as his Conan comics clearly showed his strengths as an artist played to something other than superheroes.


Anonymous said...

I always preferred Sal's older stuff (Hulk, MTU, Defenders) to his later stuff like late 80s early 90s Spectacular Spider-Man. As J.A. said, maybe it was the inkers or something, but Sal's newer stuff didn't really work for me.

As for drawing faces all the same, that seems to be a thing with a lot of the top artists...Kirby certainly, and all of Ditko's background characters are basically the same guy.

Mike Wilson

Garett said...

For me, Sal falls just below the line of what I like in comics. He's rock solid, but lacking in an extra flair or inquisitiveness. Gil Kane always seemed to be probing into figure dynamics...Kirby had his explosiveness. I think an expressive inker would have fun over Sal's solid foundation though.

Also I'd compare Aparo's later work to Sal, as both were solid but somewhat generic. But Aparo in his prime, say Brave + Bold 98-130, puts him up in the top level of comic artists. He rocked!

david_b said...

Sal was my all-time favorite Marvel artist in the early 70s, primarily due to CA&F, Defenders, and occasionally Avengers. Sal was the best.

Stock poses..? So whaaat.., as indicated here, all artists have it to varying degrees. I couldn't stand Byrne's stock work in the 80s, nor Milgrom or any of the major artists. Perez was very pleasing to the eye, but his facial reactions could be soooo generic.

Sal will always be the 'Patron Saint' of Marvel's Bronze Age to me. I'd agree that I didn't care for Sal's later work on MTU (IMHO, his Spidey was so-so, but lacked charm..) and Hulk didn't seem note-worthy (preferred Trimpe there..), but it was still solid and dependable, as he's been known as.

Just sayin', when Sal did a full-page Cap-whallop (ie, against Moonstone in ish 175..), it brought tears to one's eyes.

You could literally exclaim, "..Victory At Last..."

NOTHING was as satisfying.

pfgavigan said...

Sal Buscema . . .

Oh Boy . . .

Just when I started sketching (literally) a few ideas out for another guest post that touches on today's subject.

Maybe the best way to approach this is to mention that, in the Simonson/Thor piece that I did earlier had a line in it that originally went something like “Simonson and the 'artistically rejuvenated' Sal Buscema left the book.” I didn't want to add anymore to the post that I would have felt obligated to explore/defend so I edited it down to “Simonson and Sal . .” !

Thinking about what I wanted to say today led me to the Comic Art Fans site, a really great resource and a wonderful place to find examples of almost any type of comics related art. There I was able to review some of Buscema the Younger early work. Pages from his stints on The Avengers, Sub-Mariner and Captain America. Days when he regularly collaborated with inkers such as Palmer, Verpoorten, McLaughlin and Colletta. One of the best of these is the now unfairly obscure Sam Grainger, a brush man whose talents were sadly undervalued during his lifetime. Together their work on the Avengers and the last issue of the classic X-Men represents some of the best of the Bronze Age.

Now I have no problem with stock poses and figures, every artist uses them. Check out the Sistine Chapel someday and you'll see what I mean. Especially when it comes to the females. But as the Seventies progressed and Buscema became less of a full pencil man and became, essentially, the layout artist for others to embellish he began to rely on stock everythings. Page layouts, backgrounds, panel constructions and fight sequences. He standardized practically everything he did. Sometimes when he delivered complete artwork, like some of his Rom Space Knight issues, some of his old flair was present. But, for me, his layouts became more and more submerged beneath the styles of those who inked him. And this became a problem for him when some of his embellishers were less sympathetic, less talented or, perhaps just beginning their careers. Yes, I could always recognize a Buscema page, precisely for his almost template approach, but often found myself more interested in how the inkers closed the deal.

Thor changed that. It gave Sal Buscema the opportunity to reinvent his style and his career. It worked too as he was one of the few Marvel Age of Comics veterans to end his career on his terms.

As always, anything I express here is my own opinion and no pretensions of having the 'voice of authority' is intended. This is simply how I feel; Sal Buscema is a talented man who produced an impressive body of work. Some pieces of which is more impressive than other pieces.

I remain, as always, hopeful of your understanding and tolerance,


Longbox Graveyard said...

As one of the people in the aforementioned Twitter exchange I suppose it's only fair to jump in here with comments longer than that 140-character forum permitted.

For me the issue isn't stock poses so much as what the artist does with them. I picked on Our Pal Sal because his use of those poses was more often in service of deadlines than in the creation of great work. I'm fine with eighteen pages of templates and four pages of inspired pencilling -- but too often, Sal gave us twenty-two pages of templates. Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part, Sal was just grinding it out (and this is especially clear when doing a long re-read of Sal's work in collected form -- as mentioned up-thread, the cracks really start to show for many artists when you see them page after page after page, instead of 22 pages every thirty days).

I admire Sal as a pro and as a working artist, but the problems his style was solving were not my own -- his technique did not serve the reader especially well (although he was a clear storyteller, something generally common to his era). With his crazy output of five books a month or whatever, Sal solved his own problem (assuming he was paid by the page) and he solved Marvel's problem (because the guy was regular as clockwork), but he didn't solve the reader's problem -- or at least THIS reader's problem -- because I found his work uninspiring. He was never so weak that I'd abandon a book because of him, but at the same time I never felt, "Oh boy!" when I saw his name on the masthead.

Steady. Solid. A pro's pro. But far from a favorite.

I echo the comments above that Sal was usually as good as his inker permitted.

(And I've been meaning to re-read his Simonson Thor run, too).

Anonymous said...

Hoo boy here we go!

Well, I have to admit every notable artist great and not so great relied on stock poses. Yeah, one of my favourites Gil Kane could really draw dynamic pages but when you examined his work closely you tell yourself 'man,that's a lot of nostril upshots' or 'gee a lot of his figures have impossibly contorted limbs'. Even so, I've always been a fan of his elegant but quirky style.

Now for our pal Sal. Even though I've always loved big brother John's artwork, Sal like all the commentators said was the real workhorse at Marvel during this era. The guy was churning out covers and full issues at full speed, thus earning a reputation as to go-to guy whenever the dreaded deadline doomsday approached. Needless to say, this workload automatically necessitates a lot of stock poses. Big John is more polished, but you have to admire Sal for his consistency.

I agree with some commentators too when they say Sal's quality of artwork depended quite a lot on his inkers too. To me, Sal was at the height of his career in the Bronze Age. I particularly remember reading Thor #382 and plotwise it was good but artwise it lacked the usual Sal flair; his art in this particular issue looked too rushed. Sal's art usually looked best when inked by a quality inker.

- Mike 'strike a pose' from Trinidad & Tobago.

R. Lloyd said...

As far as "Stock Poses" are concerned, all of the classic artists are guilty of that. Gil Kane also had a few when Spidey or another hero would hit a villain with a punch. The same could be said for George Tuska, John Bucema, and many others. It would make a good website. Matching up the very much used poses for battle scenes. I would bet that the artists had a model sheet or drew the characters so many times they could draw the heroes in their sleep.

BK said...

Sal remains a favourite "second stringer" of mine from the period, in part because of his ubiquity. Sal was Marvel during the late 70s for me.

I often think that if a superhero artist of the BA didn't use stock poses, the should've. For every inventive composition and pose in a BA comic, there are 100 muddy amateurish attempts at "art" or unbalanced swipes. Thank Odin for the "hacks" for giving some consistency to the line.

And one man's hack is another's nostalgic fave. And sometimes we like things for different reasons. Alex Toth praised Herbie artist Ogden Whitney as a master of chiaroscuro and figure drawing. Critic Dan Nadel loves Whitney for what he calls his wooden, "frozen in time" sequential art. Both are on to something ineffable in Ogden's style.

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