A continuing look at the building blocks of comics -- individual panels. Introduction here.
Neutron: The Lesmo Curve (5/1965), page 14 panel 6. Drawn by Guido Crepax.
The work of Guido Crepax is a silent engine, driving American comics art forward despite the fact that most of this country's fans have never heard his name. He was a chief influence (perhaps the chief influence) on Jim Steranko's SHIELD, one of Frank Miller's biggest inspirations in reaching for something beyond superhero comics, and his shadow falls across the stylings of modern-day artists like Sean Phillips and Alex Maleev. That said, and despite relative celebrity in Europe, he remains virtually unknown here, his best work out of print, his stock not particularly high even among the cognoscenti. What's easy to miss is that he was probably the best Continental artist to pick up a pen during the '60s.
Most of Crepax's work during that time was hardcore pornography of the very weirdest stripe -- his sci-fi S&M comic Valentina, which was based more around the intimation of deep-rooted psychological fears than the exhibition of arousal, never strayed into bad taste, but it certainly was far from user-friendly, especially as a one-handed read. It's a top candidate for strangest comic of the 20th century, a work which almost propels the reader away from it with a heavy blackness made of sex guilt and revulsion, and it's probably this slow, ferocious inaccessibility which explains Crepax's relative absence on our shores.
He did do work, however, which stands up as deliciously mainstream. Valentina was spun out of the ultra-hip superhero noir Neutron, which was basically a '60s Marvel comic as designed by Hubert de Givenchy. A superb play of shadow and light, tailored cloth and bare skin, it's Crepax's brutalist side set to play on a relatively light good guys/bad guys story, the superhero book that took the most bottles of ink to draw. As I mentioned, Jim Steranko was an early follower, and despite all the grandeur of his Crepax-influenced work at the very peak of Silver Age genius, nothing American comics produced during the '60s quite measures up to Neutron.
It's hard not to talk about fine art when discussing Crepax, as his work is miles above basically anyone else ever to draw an action story. This panel combines the best of impressionism and expressionism, the trees in the background arrayed in a row that perfectly opposes the direction of Neutron's sprint -- but are they even trees at all? Look closer and the illusion of this panel almost completely falls apart, beginning with the gnarled, woodcut-style brushstrokes that form the backdrop. They're almost just abstract inkwork that could be spiderwebs or a flock of birds or the burnings of smoke from a fire; trees only because of the tableau Crepax sets them in.
Indeed, the car is the only solidly delineated object in the panel: the road is nothing more than a few pen strokes, and Neutron's clothes cling to the darkness, backlit seams of illumination just enough to mark them out as what they are. Crepax's consummate skill with a brush is on full display: rarely was a superhero's night as black as this. It looks like he drew this panel with a squeegee, pushing aside just enough gloom to create a recognizable scene. The fact that this ink-drowned, minimalist approach was able to swim into focus as a strikingly beautiful picture is something of a miracle, ample evidence that the master is at work.
The composition, too, is masterful. Crepax was in his element when drawing the human body (the reason he made such an incredible porno artist), and he fits his characters into panels like they're wearing second layers of clothing. Here he bends Neutron beneath the top of the frame, not only increasing the sense of motion, but lending the super-spy's flight a sneaky, almost awkward look, perfectly evoking the dead silence of espionage. The over-delicate clench of the fists, the bowed head, the off-kilter slant of the legs -- none of it is by accident, everything contributes to the information being communicated.
This is a rectangular panel of fairly standard dimension, but Crepax uses Neutron's horizontally-twisted posture to make it seem as wide as any theatre's silver screen, stretching out the time it take us to move through the picture even as he amps up the speed at which his character is moving. This is expressionistic figurework at its very best. Utterly fine-art skill, technique, and rendering bent to subject matter that is somewhere in between the bizarre no-man's land between dignity and pulp. You could call that modern art, but you'd be missing something of the sheer energy here, the singularity of vision. You could call it superhero art, but this panel is just so much more. Best just to call it Art, make sure that's with a capital A, and drink the panel in once again.
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: Despite my very best efforts, I keep saying reductive things about Jim Steranko. He may be an easy target, but he's also my favorite comics artist ever, so I hereby resolve to spend Thursday with a Steranko panel and try to rebut my criticisms with a few of the million things I love about him. Until then....)