Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

July 4, 2008

A Few Quick Notes On Frank Santoro, Alex Ross, Jack Kirby and Doing Harm

I'm referring to this article, written by the cartoonist Frank Santoro, in which he claims the artist Alex Ross has done harm to the comics art form.

* Seriously, is there anything in comics more annoying than the self-proclaimed man of the funnybook-reading people, ripping into the high-falutin' tastes of the snotty and jealous art comics elitist whose favorite/own comics obviously don't sell as much as the person being criticized? No, there is not.

* I think Frank Santoro's criticism of photo-referenced comics is a bit more interesting than the extended drum-solo rhetoric that he uses in this latest essay allows him to communicate. What I find compelling about it is the effect he claims for photo-referenced comics when it comes to the quality of the image, how the flattened plane of the photo almost invariably seeps into the final drawn picture in a way that deadens the surface. Where I think his argument could use some work is in building an enlightening wave of examples featuring the more lively cartooning he values in 1980s-and-earlier mainstream and independent comic books.

* The other fascinating thing about Santoro's criticism is that it forces us to draw distinctions between the way comics are processed and the way comics art is processed. As comics, I would suggest Ross's reads differently than most mainstream genre work because it leads its fans to spend a more significant amount of time processing the image. In that way, it's more like the modern arts comics of the mark-making variety and even late-period Jack Kirby than it is the old mainstream house styles and their shared visual cues, the more simplified iconography of some alternative comics and certain manga-style stylized comics. In other words, Alex Ross' work is really odd.

image* In terms of its effects on comics, Alex Ross' work probably shouldn't be processed in a vacuum, as mainstream comics work is very different now than it was even 20 years ago. Ross is the most successful comic book illustrator in an era of comics -- an era of pop culture entertainment -- that values the limited, potent, single moment over more traditional modes of expression like cumulative narrative and recurring theme work. Marvels was about moments of transcendent action from superhero comics in years past being used as a stand-in for overwhelming moments of world history; Kingdom Come was mostly an argument about the values of a certain kind of superhero over another where the ability to seize center stage through compelling single instances was the medium in which its characters battled. Uncle Sam traded in very specific iconography and differences between images to make its points. The vast majority of Ross's work since Uncle Sam has been covers, which tend to trade in single moments no matter the dominant mode of storytelling inside. In other words, Ross' body of work may lack some of the traditional pleasures of comics from decades past because the comics he's illustrated and the covers he's created have interests divorced from traditional pleasures. It may be that Ross could be better viewed as the result of a wider, more pernicious trend than the driver of a specific one.

* The biggest difference between Ross and Norman Rockwell is in the subject matter, isn't it? The second biggest difference is in tone. I don't even know how you get past that stuff to make comparisons on down the line. Is it even worth it? It's like comparing Marlon Brando and Jack Black.

* Where the argument surrounding Frank's essay gets even weirder is in its general invocation of Jack Kirby as an artist of greater authority. What's ironic about this is that the rise of artistic values that drive the superhero audience's appreciation of Ross has also done wonders in helping certain readers re-claim Jack Kirby's later work. If Ross is the modern master of the single moment over the controlled narrative, he's standing on the shoulders of Kirby's odd, disjointed, spread- and single-page happy 1970s comics. In other words, you can argue that Ross's success has allowed a significant portion of the comics readership a greater ability to understand Kirby's last fertile creative period.

* Alex Ross and Jack Kirby may share something else in that the best-received work from each can be said to come as much from specific pathologies in the reading culture surrounding those comics as it came from a pure artistic reaction. Kirby's 1940's dynamism and his 1960's ability to shift between modes of presentation seemed tailor-made for what comics fans desired of works that they weren't getting in the bulk of material. Ross's painting flattered both the superhero icons their fans deep-down loved and the fans themselves by providing a surface sophistication to that work that could be communicated to non-fans.
posted 4:10 pm PST | Permalink

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