Four Number One Comics Reviewed
Ugly Art Discussed and Defined (?)
A Once-over for Some Ones. Four first issues arrived
in This Corner between January and March. Three are limited series titles;
one seems poised for a long run (or so the creators might be imagined
to be thinking).
The Victorian aims for a total of five
issues, but I doubt it'll make it all the way. The creative team (Trainor
Houghton, who conceived and developed the idea for the series; Marlaine
Maddux, who writes it; Hartin Montiel Luna, who pencils it; and Jose
Carlos Buelna, who inks it) pledges to "do something different." They
intend to "show" us "a story through the artwork and words and actions
of each character." That's not so different. But they expect us to "experience
the satisfaction of discovering" for ourselves "where the story is going."
Judging from the first issue, that means
we'll have to de-code a lot of symbolism and other visual vagaries.
Like the cover, for instance--which has no apparent connection to anything
in the interior pages.
Our most meaningful encounter with the
actors in this drama is in the text descriptions at the end of the book,
and these are the best clues we have as to what is going on. For most
of the book, Fitz, an authority on Victorian history, listens to the
nostalgic ramblings of an apparently dying man, once a friend or colleague.
The pages are filled with fragments, dream-like sequences fraught with
mysterious images. As for story, the book is all puzzle with no point.
Any first issue is admittedly introductory in nature, but even if it
is introducing a mystery, our curiosity should be more focused than
it is here. Here, we ask merely "what the heck is going on?" And I doubt
that is sufficiently tantalyzing to induce many readers to return for
the second issue.
The artwork is tightly rendered--too tightly.
The lines that conjure up backgrounds are often ruled, indicating a
sort of lack of confidence. And the figures seem stiff, almost as if
they'd been drawn with a ruler, too. Every detail is meticulously attended
to, and this bespeaks an uneasy fussiness that makes me uncomfortable.
It's like visiting a friend whose livingroom is so neat you're afraid
that you'll upset a delicate balance of decor by simply sitting in a
Moreover, the characters sometimes are
not recognizable in every appearance. If Fitz didn't have a beard, I
wouldn't know him from page to page. Even his spectacles change shape
slightly from one picture to the next.
Virtex (No. 1 of 3) is not much of an improvement.
Written by Casey Lau, penciled by Kano (one name), inked by Alvaro Lopez
and scripted by none other than Mike Baron, this book takes us into
some sort of future dystopia in which outlaws of all sorts find their
homes in the Madlands, and the Justice Cycle Bureau sends a cybernetic
lawman named Virtex to rid the environs of its most vicious scourge,
the Ripnun. This is about the only sense to be derived from the tale--and
all of this comes from introductory character profiles, not the story
In the story, Ripnun's henchmen, "the
rippers," take particular pleasure in dismembering whores at the various
pleasure domes of the Madlands, and Virtex tries to stop them--unsuccessfully.
This is punk space opera. Lots of brutal
action which pretty quickly degenerates into meaninglessness (except,
perhaps, for people to whom body piercing is entertainment). The only
bright spot is the debut of a perky female with the punning name of
Makina ("I'll be your deus ex"), who rescues Virtex in the book's final
scenes. This duo promises to continue their pursuit of Ripnun in subsequent
issues--probably perpetrating more senseless violence.
The chunky, angular artwork, although
committed with a confident bold line, is often confusing. There are
virtually no backgrounds, a weakness the artists attempt to mask by
presenting much of the action in close-up--hands, gritting teeth, bleeding
cut throats. But since all the beings are either composed partly of
metal parts (rendering them indistinguishable from the furniture in
close-up) or wear outlandish costumes (ditto), it's difficult to make
out sometimes what, exactly, is happening.
With Scene of the Crime No. 1 (of a promised
four issues), we find vast improvement. Written by Ed Brubaker and drawn
by Michael Lark, this is a thoroughly competent effort. We meet a private
investigator named Jack Herriman who is hired to find a missing woman.
Jack's relationship to other characters in the story is clearly explained,
setting up certain internal tensions. The woman who hires him is the
mistress of a cop who was Jack's father's partner, and Jack's father
was killed by the bad guys who mistook him for his partner.
Jack finds the woman, they talk, they
like each other, and the next morning, he finds her dead.
Given the relationships set up and the
provocation of the murder, we are properly primed for more. This is
what the first book in a series ought to do: it has a conclusion of
its own, but that conclusion (together with the other attendant material)
provides a springboard to future developments--which we want to witness.
Lark is an expert draftsman, drawing
with a simple unembellished line but rendering his characters recognizable
in every pose. He provides ample background visuals for every arc of
the story, drenching his pictures in solid black shadow to create the
necessary ominousness. Nicely done.
Vext from writer Keith Griffen and penciller
Micke McKone and inker Mark McKenna seems the first in a continuing
title rather than the first in a limited series. And it, too, is expertly
We meet Vext, "the patron diety of mishap
and misfortune," and we discover almost at once that he is the embodiment
of mishap and misfortune--a typical Griffen comedic turn. And we like
him immediately because he's so like us. He's exiled from somewhere
in the cosmos to Earth, where he is understandably unprepared and therefore
wholly baffled by everything. He has been instructed, however, not to
don spandex or to perform any superheroic deeds. He must muddle through
like an ordinary homo sapien.
Nevertheless, a subplot simmers along,
suggesting that Vext will be forced into superheroic action somehow.
As an introductory issue, No. 1 gives
us information necessary to our understanding of both this issue and
future numbers, and it has a conclusion--which, like any good cliffhanger,
whets our appetite for the next issue.
McKone's artwork is expert in both backgrounds
(for both locale and ambiance) and figures; and McKenna's inking is
nicely quirky--a flowing line with pleasing lumps, twists, and turns
by way of indicating volume and the shadows that model anatomy and furnishings.
I'll buy the second issues of Scene of
the Crime and Vext; but not of the other two.
I know: it's unkind and somehow unappreciative
to knock creative efforts that are so obviously well-intentioned. But
the comic book marketplace is awash in product. The good is drowning
in the bad and the mediocre. To save the first, we must brand the second
The creators of The Victorian and Virtex
need more practice. Alas, it seems the best way to get it is to produce
comic books like the ones they've manufactured. But it would be less
expensive for them (and better for the glutted marketplace) if they
could find another way.
I wish them well. But they aren't quite
ready for prime time yet.
to top of page
Ugly Is As Ugly Does. Some artwork is just ugly. It's not fun to look
at. No silvery laughter of appreciation bubbles up inside as you contemplate
it. But it's hard to say why, exactly.
For some months now, I've been secretly
at work devising a rating system for artwork. The idea is to invent
a scientifically replicable way of evaluating art so that we can say
without fear of contradiction, "This is ugly."
Sadly, I've had to give up the project.
There just isn't any way that the aesthetic character of artwork can
be measured scientifically. A picture is not a mathematical formula,
which is either right or wrong. Remember what that third grader said
about his arithmetic problem. He'd just added two and two and got four,
and his teacher complimented him:
"That's good, Johnny," she said.
"Good, hell," he snorted; "it's perfect."
Can't quarrel with that.
But you can quarrel with aesthetic judgements
about artwork. What I think is ugly, you might think is beautiful.
Still, nothing daunted by the improbability
of making an unassailable assessment, I offer the following disquisition
on Ugly Art.
By "ugly," I mean, sometimes, raw amateurism.
If a person can't draw for toadstools, his artwork stands a good chance
of being ugly.
The drawings of your three-year-old sister,
for example, are probably not very expert. They may be cute in some
abstract philosophical sense. Like the man said, The wonder is not that
the drawings are ugly; the wonder is that a three-year-old can draw
But amateurism is no absolute guarantee
Ron Goulart's Golden Age Funnies (which
once festooned the pages of The Comics Buyer's Guide) seems to be drawn
with a toothpick on sandpaper. But Goulart actually harbors somewhere
in his soul a rudimentary drawing ability. A given character looks the
same from picture to picture--as he or she should. The linework, although
seeming to wriggle about, actually doesn't: the lines are confidently
applied. The artwork isn't ugly.
(The undeniable quality of the work should,
rightly, be attributed to the ghost who actually draws the strip. Goulart
has John Callahan chained to a wheelchair in the attic under a single
naked light bulb, dangling from the ceiling. Callahan draws the strip
that Goulart takes credit for. When pressed on the matter, Goulart admits
the existence of Callahan but claims that Callahan draws only the faces;
Goulart himself does all the backgrounds and figure work.
(Callahan, it might be remembered, wrote
an autobiography of his life as a quadriplegic. Entitled Don't Worry,
He Won't Get Far On Foot, the book is a merciless look at the cartoonist's
alcoholic life before becoming paralyzed, his surmounting of the obstacles
in being confined for life to a wheelchair, and his eventual emergence
as a cartoonist, selling cartoons to The New Yorker, Penthouse, National
Lampoon, and others. It's funny, witty, and heroic. But I divaricate.)
To return to ugliness, let me recommend
Lynda Barry's Ernie Pook's Comeek. Truly ugly. The linework is achieved
sometimes by applying several lines to the same area of the picture,
indicating a lack of confidence about rendering. The lettering is awkward.
And there are polka-dots on everything that isn't merely spotted and
scratchy crosshatching wherever there's a corner of a panel with nothing
in it. (Assuming, that is, that a given installment is not devoted entirely
to lettering, the words crowding the pictures into the basement of every
Nicole Hollander's Sylvia, although not
particularly pleasing to my eye, is still not ugly. I mention it because
it would appear to suffer from some of the same failings as Barry's
work. But examine the lettering carefully, minutely: Hollander's lettering
is more carefully spaced, the characters better formed. And Hollander
isn't afraid of white space; her panels are pleasingly composed, her
lines bold, her solid blacks artfully spotted.
Hollander's characters have elbows and
fingers. They have anatomy, for pete's sake! Barry's characters have
no elbows or fingers--or anatomy. Ugly.
But ability to make anatomy in pictures
is no assurance of attractive artwork. Mark Alan Stamaty, for instance,
can draw fingers. And eyeballs. And teeth. Holy moley, can he draw teeth!
In fact, he may be the champion tooth drawer in the universe: every
face he draws has teeth. And he draws every tooth in a person's head--individually--and
even adds some extra dentures for good measure.
Too toothy. All the mouths look like
nutcracker mouths: they seem hinged to open and close by moving the
lower jaw up and down. And his sense of proportion is shot. And everyone
looks exactly alike except for different colored hair. Ugly.
Some will doubtless argue that Ugly Art
is no accident: it is, they say, a Deliberate Statement. It says something
wondrously subtle about its subject. Something satirical.
I suppose that means the artist thinks
his subject is as ugly as his art.
Maybe. But I doubt it.
The only statement that Ugly Art makes
is a statement about the aesthetic sense and skill of the artist.
Goya made Deliberate Statements about
ugly subjects with some of his drawings. But the drawings weren't ugly;
their subjects were, but the drawings were skillfully made.
Not that art must be pretty. We're not
talking about floral arrangements here. Or colorful patterns. Nor is
it necessarily the subject per se of a painting or drawing that makes
the work pleasing. Not necessarily.
Some art that is decidedly not pretty
is nonetheless pleasing to behold because it communes to the soul in
some ineffable way. Picasso's famed Guernica, for instance. The very
distortion of the anatomies depicted speaks powerfully of the artist's
reaction to the aerial bombing of a small town in utter disregard for
the non-combatant civilian population: he saw this act as an obscenity,
and the deliberate crudeness of his pictures surely tells us this. The
painting shrieks with his outrage.
If the absence of purely technical skill
can result in Ugly Art, another ingredient with potential for the same
outcome is clutter. If the artist produces a work that is so full of
stuff that we can't tell one thing from another, it's probably Ugly
Art. Moreover, if the work is so jammed up with lines, color, objects,
and shadings that it fails to emphasize any aspect of itself, it's Ugly
Not all cluttered art is ugly; and not
all Ugly Art is cluttered. But clutter--the absence of visual clarity
or emphasis in a picture crammed with things to see--is an aspect of
Julie Doucet's work for instance. I'm
looking at Purity Plotte No. 10 which seems to me a stunning example
of art made ugly by the failure of the artist to create pictures with
visual emphasis. Everything in nearly every panel cries out to be looked
at. And cries in equal decibels. It's visual cacophony.
Doucet can draw; no amateur she. She
is, in fact, a quite competent draftswoman. Individual objects or people
are competently rendered, but each thing--whether a book of matches
tossed on the floor or the facial expression of a character--seems to
demand our attention with equivalent insistence.
In sharp contrast to Doucet's work we
have Marc Hempel's in Tug and Buster. There is no comparison here: Hempel
has distilled human figuration to its simplest geometric shapes, it
seems to me. So in Hempel's comics we have a kind of raw simplicity;
and in Doucet's, undisciplined complexity.
But in Hempel's Tug and Buster, we also
have a vivid demonstration of how an artist can manipulate his compositions
for dramatic effect. Virtually every panel provides us with a strong
visual emphasis through the very refined simplicity of Hempel's style.
He also contrasts white space and solid
blacks and texture and line with stunning results. Every page is a stark
statement of artistry in the service of narrative.
The stories are fun and funny, too. That's
enough to start, no doubt. You're welcome to nominate your own candidates
for Ugly Art. And I'll continue doing the same here from time to time.
In the meantime, without further adieu,
to top of page
return to archive main page
To find out about Harv's
books, click here.