(An essay for the book, Education of a Comic Artist, edited by The New York Times' Steven Heller)
While the superhero genre has been the most dominant, commercially-successful genre in comic book art, and therefore often considered the bane of the medium in the eyes of many purists (as the action film is to cineastes), it has also been where many of the advancements in the medium have developed, both in the panel-to-panel, page-turning, storytelling arena and in the graphic delineation of super-people, places and things. The most popular genre has historically been, ergo, the most available playing field where many of the most talented comics artists and craftsmen have come to play.
Like most of the creative arts of the 20th century, comic book art flowered in the 1960s (both underground comics and the mainstream, commercial "overground" comics of DC and Marvel). The 60s are known in the overground as The Silver Age of Comics (in contrast to the previous Golden Age, the years covering Superman's birth in 1938 to the end of the 40s, when, following the War, most superheroes died out for lack of popularity, only to be revived by DC Comics in 1956, ushering in this new age and, in turn, spawning competitor Marvel Comics' birth in the 60s), and it is when superhero comic book art, drawn in a quasi-realistic style, came of age. Hall of Fame artists, like Neal Adams, Murphy Anderson, John Buscema, Gene Colan, Steve Ditko, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, John Romita, and Jim Steranko all developed their mature styles in this era.
But by the end of the Silver Age and the dawn of the 70s, of that august body, two artists' styles came to dominate the field, representing the opposite ends of the spectrum of figurative/superheroic comic art: Jack Kirby's hyper-exaggerated anatomy and stylization, on one end, mostly rendered with a bold, inked brushline (though pen was also used); and Neal Adams' hyper-realism (often utilizing photo reference) on the other end, mostly rendered with a cross-hatched pen line (though brush was also used).
(Staking out a third, out-of-left-field position was Jim Steranko, who had a basically realistic drawing style that, while it incorporated Kirby's anatomical dynamics, was more self-consciously composed into the larger canvas of his pop panel arrangements and cinematic storytelling as a kind of stylized, designed drawing. When he ended his brief four-year stay in the field in 1970, it was with a bang: the quirky short story, "At the Stroke of Midnight," that pushed his designed-drawing further into a high contrast, high-definition black and white chiaroscuro--a style that would prove to be so ahead of its time, it skipped the 70s and didn't show up in others' styles until the following decade.)
Thus Kirby and Adams were the primary influences on the next group of mainstream comic book artists who followed them in the 1970s-and who, in turn, influenced the artists who emerged in the 80s; and so on, until now, at the dawn of the 21st century, today's best comic book artists fall, roughly, into three categories, all descendent from the Kirby/Adams (and Steranko) axis:
THE NEW DRAFTSMEN: Pen & ink-based, realistic figure artists who often use photo reference in their work;
THE NEW STYLISTS: Pen & ink-based, stylized figure artists;
and THE MULTIMEDIA ARTISTS: artists who combine/alternate between pen & ink, painted artwork, photography, collage and computer graphics.
(In no way is this breakdown meant to totally comprise the diversity of graphic styles found in all of today's mainstream comics--or those of the writer/artists of independent and alternative comics--because, frankly, they are too numerous for the reasonably narrow confines of this essay, as this medium is blessed with an artistic bounty of everything from the lost art of pen & ink crosshatching to state-of-the-art computer graphics--and everything in between; it is simply a road map to understand how some of the most popular comic book art styles have developed.)
THE NEW DRAFTSMEN:
Neal Adams' impact on comic book art in the 1970s was so great (no less an authority than Graphis Magazine wrote in 1970 that "Adams, juggling incessantly with his pictures to striking effect, remains the master of narrative technique") that, ironically, his realistic style was as much responsible for the bad superhero drawing that followed in his titanic wake as the good; like any enormously successful artistic/cultural style, clones and watered-down versions of the original end up flooding the mainstream.
But it is inarguable that Adams, a wunderkind himself when he took the field by storm a few years prior, used his industry clout to open the door for a new wave of young comic book artists with wide-ranging styles to come in and define the 70s: Michael Kaluta, Berni Wrightson, Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson, P. Craig Russell and others. Adams drawing style itself was more apparent an influence on artists who emerged in the latter 70s and became stars the decade after: Brian Bolland and Bill Sienkiewicz.
Out of those 80s artists came the seeds that not only birthed the New Draftsmen of today, but the Multimedia artists as well-for Adams, coincidentally, is as much at the root of that movement too, because, as if in answer to the dominance that his realistic style imposed, artists broke free first from the shackles of his realistic drawing, and then from the confines of pen & ink itself, and into multimedia.
Brian Bolland became known as the British realistic artist par excellence with his work on the Dirty Harry of the future, Judge Dredd. His careful drawing seemed like an unlikely cross between the in-your-face realism of Adams (whom Bolland wrote his art school thesis on) with the more subdued compositions and statuesque posing of the Superman artist of the Silver Age, Curt Swan. Perhaps because of the Swan influence, Bolland rendered his drawings not with Adams' pen-and-brush approximation of realism, but with more studied, meticulously-rendered, engraving-like penwork instead. Thus, by adding a more stylized, designed form of rendering on top of a solidly realistic drawing foundation, Bolland, like Adams before him, opened up the gates for an entire generation of similar comics artists: The New Drafstmen.
Bolland was the vanguard of a British Invasion of artists and writers who were imported into America via DC Comics in the early 80s. The artists included Dave Gibbons, Brendan McCarthy, Glenn Fabry, Steve Dillon and Philip Bond; the writers included Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Peter Milligan and Grant Morrison. They breathed new life into moribund American comics clichés by bringing to the medium new perspectives, both verbal and visual, borne out of their generally broader worldview than their American counterparts.
Chief among them was Moore, who, with partner Gibbons, created one of the most didactic, densest superhero comics series ever, Watchmen, for DC in 1986, in which he posited a much more emotionally and sexually realistic take on how superhuman beings might actually interact and affect each other, society, and the world. The fallout, unfortunately, from Watchmen's overwhelming critical and commercial success was that lesser creators downgraded their superheroes into lesser, antiheroic shadows of their former selves-and by the middle 90s, had dragged practically the entire superhero genre down with them.
Soon after, Moore surveyed the carnage his Watchmen had wreaked on the genre and decided to right it with his creation of the ABC line of titles, which were essentially his takes on Doc Savage (Tom Strong), Wonder Woman (Promethea), and the Justice League of America (Top 10). Published under an imprint of DC Comics, they were superhero titles stripped of the grim-and-gritty angst that had overtaken the genre and replaced with a more nostalgic, Silver Age air of classic, straight-ahead adventure. And it was fitting that the artists with whom Moore collaborated on their creation also represented a back-to-the-basics approach, with their solid figure drawing foundations, evident in the works of Chris Sprouse (Tom Strong), Gene Ha (Top 10), Kevin Nowlan (Jack B. Quick) and J.H. Williams III (Promethea)--New Draftsmen all.
Of that talented group, it is Williams, with his inking partner Mick Gray, who has produced the most sustained, stunning work on Promethea, with each issue an artistic tour-de-force on a par with the phantasmagorical scripts of Moore, which have seen his female protagonist travel from a quasi-future New York (replete with Metropolis-style levels and flying cars), through the otherworldy dimensions of the immateria (as Moore dubbed his dimension of imagination), and to the seven levels (or Sephirot) of the Kabbalah, the legendary, apocryphal body of Jewish mysticism (Moore is a practicing occultist magician). Williams' graphic explorations have run the gamut from fully-painted work alternating with traditional pen-and-ink-based work, to ornate, moebius strip-like double page spreads, utilizing ornate, graphic symbology that give these spreads the look of illuminated manuscripts-which feed back and support Moore's mythologically-based storylines.
Adam Hughes emerged in the 90s as the American Bolland by similarly displaying a masterful command of realistic anatomy-especially female anatomy-with which he then renders with a more hard-edged, graphic ink line than Bolland, choosing a thicker line for outside contours and a thinner line for interiors. Hughes followed in Bolland's footsteps by fleeing the labor-intensive fields of multiple-page storytelling for the rarefied air of covers, in which he now begins with a line-drawn foundation and then colors in fully-gradated tones on the computer. His almost-50 Wonder Woman covers for DC Comics that straddled the new millennium are not only state-of-the-art comic book cheesecake, but state of the artform as well.
Bryan Hitch, on the other hand, throws his brand of Bolland-ism into widescreen, cinematic interior panels that look like frames of the greatest action-adventure film you've never seen, their foregrounds filled with massive explosions, backgrounds with the all the detailed detritus and mechanical rubble that would result. But Hitch is a master anatomist as well, and like Hughes, Hitch carefully renders his shading and black areas into design elements. His career-making stint on the antihero superhero group The Authority (created by the British writer Warren Ellis), and his present one on The Ultimates, Marvel's post-modern revamping of their Avengers title, are bounteous examples of Hitch's drawing prowess.
John Cassady is a kind of quieter Hitch; he demonstrates a more contemplative approach, but one that doesn't sacrifice any of the grandeur found in Hitch's bombastic displays. On Cassady's premier title, the Ellis-written Planetary, he acquits himself a New Draftsman of breathtaking beauty and grace.
THE NEW STYLISTS:
Jack Kirby's post-Silver Age influence can mostly be seen in the works of four Marvel Comics artists who became stars by the 80s: John Byrne, George Perez, Walt Simonson and Frank Miller. Byrne and Perez became fan favorites by synthesizing Kirby's dynamics with a soupcon of Adams' realistic rendering; Simonson eschewed realism, substituting a scratchy ink line and stylized drawing approach instead. They, and not Kirby himself, were to mostly affect the most controversial artists of the 90s, the Image Comics artists: Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Erik Larson and Marc Silvestri.
While they all pay lip service to Jack Kirby, in reality, the Image artists are really descendants of the Byrne/Perez school of ersatz Kirby (but rendered with the stylization of Simonson, not Adams); another major influence on the Image school is that of Japanese manga comics, with their hypersenses of speed and power running amok on the page. This mishmash of styles proved to be largely destructive in practice, as Image comic book pages were reduced to too many full-page pinups of too many big-breasted females and too many small-headed men, and all of it rendered with too many scratchy lines. Unfortunately, the "success" of the Image look has resulted in it being held most in favor by the majority of mainstream superhero comics publishers today.
Decrying the dominant Image look in the early 90s, Howard Chaykin wondered where the new generation of comics artists were who really knew how to draw, like the artists Chaykin admired in his youth -- artists who came not so much from the comic book field as from the commercial illustration field, then in its Golden Age, like Robert Fawcett and Albert Dorne (the latter founded the Famous Artists school in Westport, CT, whose "We're looking for People Who like to draw" ads, adorned with Dorne's self-portrait, were regular fixtures on the back covers of Marvel comics in the 60s.) Of the facile, surface Image group, only Jim Lee really knew how to draw in the sense Chaykin was referring to. Yet there had been other artists, too, who had been solidly drawing in the field for years before the Image look took root.
Like Steve Rude and Jaime Hernandez, who were among the first post-Kirby influencees to incorporate more the essence of Kirby's dynamics into their own more realistic drawing styles, thereby claiming a middle ground between Kirby and Adams: realistic drawing as the underpinning to a bold inked brush line that served to stylize the art and give it a bit of a cartoonish look. Rude demonstrated this dynamic when he began his 15-year run in 1982 on the super-antihero Nexus (co-created by writer/collaborator, Mike Baron), while Hernandez burst upon the scene (with his brothers Gilbert and Mario) the same year in his book Love & Rockets, the seminal black and white alternative comic book of the 80s, about close-knit groups of Mexicans and Hispanic Americans (with nary a superhero in sight; the book was more about love than rockets). Hernandez was one of the many 80s artists who were influenced by Steranko's "At The Stroke of Midnight" high-contrast black and white rendering, but who quickly made it his own, by merging it with his own post-punk/post-Kirby sensibilities, becoming one of the premier artists of his generation.
Frank Miller also rose to fame in the early 80s when he took over the reins of a Marvel B-list hero, Daredevil, and catapulted the title and himself to stardom by essentially grafting Adams' Batman onto Daredevil, and then telling the stories with Steranko's panel and page dynamics. Miller's Kirby mojo wouldn't really be in evidence until his 1986 Batman graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which proved to be a double-edged sword for its creator; while it garnered unprecedented outside media coverage for its mature themes and sophisticated graphic approach, within the cloistered comic book world it had a more deleterious effect, similar to that of Moore's Watchmen, rendering every other superhero an angry, angst-ridden Dark Knight clone. That development, coupled with the burgeoning Image Comics reign of overly-rendered hackwork, proved a deadly combination throughout the 90s.
Rude, Hernandez and Miller all went on to influence one of the first art stars of the 1990s, Michael Allred. With his character Madman, a comic book hybrid of the Frankenstein Monster and Robert Smith of the band The Cure, Allred was immediately hailed as a writer/artist of considerable talent and unique vision. Beneath Allred's designs exists a unique approach to the figure that appears as astute observations of real people, so much so that his figures appear to be taken from photo reference-but they're not. Though Allred's dominating influences were Rude and Hernandez, all were paying homage to an artist named Alex Toth.
(Toth, a legend in the industry since he was a teenager drawing Golden Age comics in the 40s, never achieved Kirby's or Adams' popular, commercial success because he never drew enough superhero comics but who, nevertheless, managed to influence more than one generation of comics artist with his bold, cartoony line, simplified drawing and rendering style, and most prominently, his design dynamics and stark, compositional use of black and white to delineate space and form. Toth is known to comic art aficionados as the artists' artist; he is to comic art what the Velvet Underground was to rock and roll-they may not have sold a lot of records, but everyone who listened to them started a band. Anybody who studied Toth's work ended up drawing in the tracks of his style.)
Like Bruce Timm, who burst on the scene in 1992 when the Batman animated series he designed for Warner Bros. Animation debuted, and became an overnight sensation amongst animation-and comic book- aficionados alike. For not only did the look of the show harken back to the great Max Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s (considered by toon buffs the greatest realistic-figure animated films ever made), but the drawing style itself echoed that of Toth's (whose fondly-remembered 1966 Space Ghost for Hanna-Barbera was essentially a Space-Batman). With a chin the size of a butcher block and shoulders like twin anvils, Timm's Batman also had more than a hint of Kirby, as well.
But it was when Timm began to draw Batman for DC Comics in the years following the cartoon series' debut did Timm's star as one of the great comic artists ascend. He proved to be equally adept at the art of comic book storytelling as he was at animation storyboarding; now one could savor in print all of his Tothian and Kirbyesque influences, as opposed to them fleeting by in film.
In Timm's and Allred's twin wakes came a slew of similarly-stylized artists, like Jay Stephens (Atomic City Tales, Jet Cat) and others, some of them actually graduates from Timm's Warner Bros. stable, like Ronnie Del Carmen, Javier Pulido and writer/artist Darwyn Cooke. Cooke has proven to be the standout talent out from under Timm's umbrella; his New Frontier graphic novel, in which Cooke attempts to tell the in-depth back story behind the formation of the original Justice League of America, is a startlingly mature work for an artist relatively new to the medium.
Miller survived the Dark Knight backlash and a brief stay in Hollywood and returned to comic books in the 90s to his own crime fiction roots with his series of Sin City black & white graphic novelettes. Each series-within-a-series was a further exploration by Miller into how far a high-contrast black & white pen & ink style can be pushed (influenced by the aforementioned Steranko story, as well as the black and white pencil work Steranko did for his 1976 proto-graphic novel Chandler, his homage to film noir), how much or how little graphic information a viewer needs to recognize people and objects.
Of the many artists influenced by Miller, Mike Mignola surfaced from the Marvel superhero trenches in the early 90s and began to apply his Tothian influences to his own black and white Hellboy series, which seduced readers with stark, still compositions that played large fields of black and white off each other, befitting the subject matter (Hellboy, a spawn of the nether regions, raised on Earth and trained to fight his demonic brethren).
Two of the most stellar artists influenced by Mignola's and Miller's design-heavy chiaroscuro compositions are Eduardo Risso and Marcelo Frusin, who are working for DC on non-superhero work, the former on the noirish crime series 100 Bullets (written by another great American writer, Brian Azzarello), the latter on the long-running Hellblazer. Both artists emerged in the late 90s with their mature styles intact: strong on the figure, but equally strong on the black and white design of the artwork itself, arresting displays of angular panel compositions made up of planes of black ink that reveal themselves to be set designs within the panels themselves. Risso and Frusin have proven that one can work in color comics and still be "about" black and white.
John Paul Leon was also able somehow to find a middle ground between realism and stylization-between Adams and Toth, as it were-on his Earth X series for Marvel, an alternate-world view of the Marvel Universe of characters. One would think Leon's natural style, one that employs bold swaths of black ink to suggest more detail than is actually there, would be antithetical to a realistic superhero story. But, teamed with an inker, Bill Reinhold, who understood his suggestive blacks, Leon's artwork was revelatory, elevating what could've been just another superhero hodgepodge into a less-is-more primer.
THE MULTIMEDIA ARTISTS:
In the late 70s, Adams disciple Howard Chaykin stepped out of mainstream commercial comics and began to craft oversized, trade paperback graphic novels of fully-painted work (an adaptation of Alfred Bester's science fiction classic The Stars My Destination and an original with Samuel Delaney, Empire); while they were ahead of their time and therefore didn't achieve the breakout commercial success hoped for them, they nevertheless had an impact that was to be felt years later, especially on another Adams disciple, Bill Sienkiewicz. Emerging in the early 80s drawing a Batman-manque at Marvel Comics named Moon Knight, Sienkiewicz was not so much an Adams disciple as he was the ultimate Adams clone. And while his Adams act was indeed uncanny, one could sense, over the course of his Moon Knight run, that Sienkiewicz was straining, artistically, at the confines this self-imposed act had bound him: his drawing became looser, his inking scratchier, his storytelling more abstract.
And then, with the mid-80s publications of the graphic novels Elektra: Assassin and Daredevil: Love and War (both collaborations with writer Frank Miller), Sienkiewicz pushed past pen-and-ink into fully-painted work that was truly multimedia; he ping-ponged between the painterly influences he was referencing (commercial magazine illustrators like Bob Peak, Jim Sharpe, Bart Forbes, Marshal Arisman and Barron Storey), and also those of collage, xerography, "bigfoot" cartooning, and the pen-and-ink remnants of--if you looked closely enough-his realistic Adams style. But never to show off; Sienkiewicz let any change in the story itself-be it a change in mood, location, or character--dictate the graphic style he would employ to tell it. By never letting his graphic savviness and showmanship show up the story, Sienkiewicz , like his mentor, opened the door wide for other artists with a similar bent-on both sides of the Atlantic.
Over in England, Sienkiewicz's influence was felt enormously by two very different artists. Simon Bisley wedded his cartoony drawing and freewheeling painting style to his own "Adams," the premier fantasy painter Frank Frazetta (who rose to fame in the 1960s with his paperback cover paintings of Conan the Barbarian), resulting in a Frazetta-on-steroids look, displayed most prominently in a series of painted graphic novels (written by Pat Mills) about Slaine the Conqueror, a kind of Celtic Conan.
Dave McKean's naturalistic drawing and chaotic, cartooning collaging most closely resembled Sienkiewicz's work when McKean's debut was published, the 1987 graphic novelette Violent Cases (written by the soon-to-be-giant-in-the-field writer Neil Gaiman), but it was his spectacular covers for the concurrent Gaiman-written DC series The Sandman, which incorporated drawing, painting, photography, typography, Joseph Cornell-like shadow boxes, and especially a layer of computer graphics, that propelled McKean past Sienkiewicz in the multimedia arena (though it forced the latter to play a bit of catchup in the 90s and add the computer to his already-formidable art arsenal).
Back in America, in the 90s, Sienkiewicz had an obvious impact on artist David Mack, who was raising eyebrows everywhere with his series of written and illustrated graphic novels under the umbrella title, Kabuki, about a covert, ninja-like assassins' organization; every page of Mack's masterwork has been a different, multimedia meditation on the art of reading comics itself, as if Mack were simultaneously tempting and teasing the reader with his artistic pyrotechnics (unlike McKean and more like Sienkiewicz, Mack mostly eschews the computer in his work), while remaining true to the historical integrity of the quieter, sensitive storytelling of Noh Japanese theater and kabuki itself.
Since the 90s, numerous other comic book artists have employed mutltimedia to expand the visual vocabulary of their work. Alex Maleev has been quietly refining his signature style for the past few years as artist on Marvel's Daredevil title, written by one of the best American comics writers, Brian Michael Bendis. He casts his characters with real-life models, photographs them in as close to the actual situations called for (a somewhat manageable task given Bendis' talk-heavy scripts), and then, through a unique combination of xerography and drawing, creates a new synthesis of the two, resulting in a most nourish, cinematic graphic storytelling style, its xerographic graininess befitting the gritty city streets of New York's hell's kitchen in which Daredevil's adventures take place. Once again, the style serves the milieu.
Christian Gossett's artwork on his comic book The Red Star defies categorical description, as he melds his penciled drawings with computer coloring and 3-dimensional computer modeling to tell the epic story of his quasi-Russian retro-future war drama-like a sequential narrative interpretation of the board game Risk, told with Russian constructivist graphics. And with typography that carries the flavor of authentic Russian cyrillic faces, and overall computer design work that completes the entire package, The Red Star truly goes where no comic book has gone before.
As the computer has reared its techno head into every aspect of the comic book art process, other facets of comic book visuals-the lettering and the coloring, specifically--have attained newly sophisticated levels. Comic book colorists, doing their work exclusively on the computer in Photoshop, Illustrator and Fractal Painter programs, among others, are now awarded equal billing with the drawing artists whose work they're coloring. Laura DePuy, Matt Hollingsworth, Jeromy Cox, Paul Mounts, Lovern Kindzierski, Richard Isanove and Dave Stewart are among the many talents who have so elevated comics coloring-previously hand-cut ben day-dot screens following colorists' painted guides--into the fine art of computer coloring.
Richard Starkings and his company Comicraft have almost single-handedly revolutionized comic book text lettering by computerizing everything from customized fonts (so that now, instead of the prior all-caps "rule" that all comic book letterers marched in lock step to, upper-and-lower-case fonts are crafted to fit each particular comic book's style and subject matter) to balloons, and managing the production design of the entire comic book, so that the credit "Design" has achieved its proper stature in comics' credits boxes.
Yet, as a testament to the spectrum-spanning diversity of comic book art even within the realm of lettering, the art and craft of hand-lettering is still alive and well. Though DC's Todd Klein has won more industry awards and is one of the best letterers in comic book history, it is nevertheless the hand-lettering of writer/artist Dave Sim, on the monumental 300-issue run of his self-published, serialized graphic novel Cerebus (began in 1977, completed in 2004), that stands as the most virtuosic display that the medium has ever produced--a virtual primer on how all the elements of this particular art form, from choice of type styles and weights to denote diversities of dialect, sound effects, cadence and nuance of speech, to the shape of the thought and speech balloons that encompass them, can be maximized to their utmost potential, allowing for the closest approximation of a soundtrack that a comic book has ever had. As great as history will mark Sim's singular achievements in concept, writing, execution-and, above all, perseverance--with Cerebus, it will be his unsurpassed hand-lettering that will most inform and inspire generations of artists to come.
Finally, perhaps no other artist working in mainstream superhero comics since the dawn of the 90s has had a greater impact than Alex Ross, who is both a New Draftsman as well as one of the best Multimedia artists, because he uses extensive photographic resources to fully paint his prolific body of work, a series of superhero graphic novels for both Marvel and DC. Ross has had, unequivocally, the greatest impact since Neal Adams had a generation earlier, for he took Adams' pen & ink-based photorealism father into the realm of painted photorealism. Adams once commented that if superheroes were real, they would look like the way he drew them; now they would look like the way Ross has painted them.
And yet, surprisingly to a lot of Ross' following, Adams happens to be one of his greatest influences. "I'm a post-Adams artist, specifically in regards to what I do with layouts and the way I try and aggressively make a scene more dramatic," Ross told interviewer Mark Salisbury in the book Artists on Comic Art. "So much of Neal's style is now in my blood I couldn't get it out if I tried."
Many of Ross' contemporaries use photographs as the underpinning to their drawing or painting but forget to cartoon the overlaying drawing, resulting in stiff figures and even stiffer layouts, which work against the graphic storytelling by making the photo reference become the first thing the reader notices about the work. Unlike Ross, whose photo foundations (he not only photographs models, but has his models wear custom-designed costumes of the characters) are subsumed by panel layouts and compositions as dynamic as the best of any conventional comic book artist, and yet understated at the same time, thereby not overtaking the storytelling; perhaps the painted verisimilitude of his work, and his prolific page count, are responsible for this effect.
Ross' sheer turnout of labor-intensive multiple-panel pages of breathtaking quality, range and depth is something that has to be reckoned with. He is as much of a superhero auteur as he is their greatest delineator; he doesn't so much as portray superheroes as he poses them in quasi-mythic compositions that both echo the Depression-era, heroic figurework of WPA murals and border uncomfortably close to the fascistic figures of Russian constructivist posters and the Aryan gods and goddesses in the Nazi propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl. And yet somewhat paradoxically, the wholesomeness and grand, American settings of Ross' photorealistic vision have also made him the Norman Rockwell of comic book art-and given the critical reconsideration Rockwell has received from the art world in the past decade, this is no mean feat.
With all of this graphic diversity, explosiveness and expressiveness occurring in a visual storytelling medium that, by its equally-verbal nature, actually is an interactive medium-i.e., you actually have to read comics, you can't just let them wash over you, passively, like movies or television-one would make the false assumption that comic books are more popular today than ever before. They're not. In fact, they're selling worse than ever.
What's bitterly ironic about the current situation is while comic books, superheroes, and comic book art itself have never been more influential in the larger body of American pop culture -- witness the boom in Hollywood superhero movies-- the readership of the comics themselves has bottomed out to levels that, in a prior era, would have sounded the death knell for the medium; a title's successful circulation figure today-say, 10,000 copies a month--would have spelled certain cancellation years ago. What happened?
Once the former fan boys of the Silver Age grew up to run the companies (the inmates taking over the asylum, as it were), in their zeal to have comics grow up with them--and there's nothing essentially wrong with the medium appealing to an adult audience--they forgot how to create comics for kids. That, coupled with the ghettoizing of comics books to retail comic book stores instead of the more ubiquitous candy and stationery, 7-11 type outlets of the past, and the dominant rise of computer and video games since the 1980s, has derailed an entire generation of kids away from exposure to comic books as their first reading medium.
So while comic books have never been as artistically creative, with a diversity of stories and genres, hard- and softcover publishing formats and sizes, they also have never been this far on the brink of extinction. Nevertheless, they soldier on, continuing to outshine their counterparts in the fine and commercial art worlds with dazzling drawing, scintillating storytelling, and the greatest of graphic expressions.