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The Art Of Todd McFarlane
posted March 18, 2013

imageCreators: Todd McFarlane, Stan Lee
Publishing Information: Image, softcover, 400 pages, March 2013, $39.99.
Ordering Numbers: 1607067161 (ISBN10), 9781607067160 (ISBN13)

I've always thought of Todd McFarlane as a smart guy with sound commercial instincts and the admirable quality of working like hell to develop his craft far more than I've seriously considered him as an artist, and after reading the softcover version of Image's The Art Of Todd McFarlane, I didn't travel too far away from my initial assumptions. I hope that doesn't sound insulting. There's a lot to admire in McFarlane's story, and you get wave after wave of early art here that underlines how far he came as a self-taught cartoonist in those initial years. The biggest surprise of this volume is how much DC and Marvel art McFarlane was able to include, particularly cover-work, which allows McFarlane's story to progress from artist following the trends as best as he can figure it out to artist crystallizing them with the kind of assuredness that Jerry Lee Lewis used to evince taking to a piano. If I were a young cartoonist of the kind that drew in the back of the classroom and was trying to work out for myself how different cartoonists made certain choices, I might carry this book in my backpack for a full school year.

Two things emerge from the art, at least for me. I hadn't noticed before that McFarlane of all the Image artists found his way to a pair of delicate balances: between decoration and dynamic figure drawing, and between cartoon and illustrative character design. If you look at his Spider-Man period through the Spawn work reprinted here, the golden afternoon of McFarlane's career-to-date as a comic-book maker, you see both tensions at work. His Spider-Man and Hulk not only contort and destroy, respectively, their immediate environments do as well; this was something that he took into Spawn, primarily through that character's memorable chains and cape. This strategy allowed McFarlane to imbue his static imagery with a sense of motion, of swirl, without asking him to abandon the kind of pin-ups that drove comics art of that era. You also see with the Peter Parker character McFarlane's tendency to go to open faces, more brightly cartooned and given to exaggeration than the bodies on which many of them rest, something he was able to employ to strong effect in his Image work and his music videos, at least whenever they weren't concerned with grotesques.

The editorial and art direction in The Art Of Todd McFarlane could have been much, much stronger; they're as absent as anyone running Image pre-Larry Marder. The designer employed some tricks with fonts that I find more confusing than visually appealing, and the art is presented in such straight-forward fashion at times what we're seeing becomes more dull than it actually is, like looking at the wall of a comics shop with page turns. The text repeats some pieces information and the editorial choices never find the heart of the artist or, really, this book -- it's hard to describe what The Art Of Todd McFarlane hopes to achieve in terms of its namesake's legacy or even how McFarlane and Image want it to function in the marketplace beyond "well." This was the first Todd McFarlane book in quite some time without a savvy understanding of its primary audience.