Flinch #1 (1999), page 13 panel 1. Drawn by Frank Quitely.
There's a certain something that gets added to comics art done in the superhero genre. Maybe it's that comics are a medium of of iconic images and the heroes are the biggest icons of all, or maybe it's that idiom's place of pride in the American comics tradition. Maybe it's both. Maybe something else too. Maybe none of the above. Regardless, once the art gets folded into those bright, serialized pamphlets with the multinational corporations' logos on the covers, it changes somehow, melding into the tapestry of visual shorthands and conceits that the thousand other artists to draw the same things contributed. Some guys, like Darwyn Cooke, change up their styles for the hero books on purpose, slickening the lines and thickening the figures to keep the rides moving smoothly. With others, the change seems more unintentional -- Richard Corben's art can't help evoking Kirby more than Frazetta when it comes in a Hulk book, same working methods as ever or no. There's a gain to be had from moving into those shared universes: immediacy, sizzle, the power of old, and well-proven ideas. But they call them "shared universes" for a reason, after all. There's usually something individual lost in the bargain, and the better the artist is the more of a dilemma the change can be.
Example: Frank Quitely. The guy's probably the best artist to draw superheroes in the 2000s, and I wouldn't trade his fully developed, glowing work on All Star Superman or the fluorescent shadows of his Batman and X-Men for anything. But looking back at his career in American comics, which had a good run in the highbrow trenches of '90s Vertigo comics before moving into the land of the flying men, there are losses all over the place as he marches toward Olympus. The Quitely of old was a perfect artist for that witchity, acid-fuzzed Vertigo kind-of-a-scene -- based solidly in the shaggy, laddish English comics tradition with prime American transgression via Crumb and the Euro elegance of Moebius thrown in for variation's sake. Quitely wasn't ultramodern so much as plain wild during this period, throwing formal innovation around with little care or even heed for what stuck, moving too quick to return or refine. That would change, and he would become a better artist when it did, but there's a near-suicidal bravado to the construction of panels like this one, which tosses a few absurdist Frank Miller screencaps over a strangely literal transformation of black gutterspace into a physical surface before inserting some cartooning that's caught deep in the cracks between the natural and the mannerist.
Quitely was wickedly funny in those days, too, mixing an affinity for the nastiness of the human form and a talent for evoking the extremes of body language with fine-art mastery of form and a true physiognomist's eye for grotesques. It's been a good long time since the internet twisted itself up calling Quitely's people ugly when one of his books came out, and while it's because he's become one of the all-time best illustrative cartoonists of the human form, I miss guys like this panel's horrible bearded fatso in the shorts suit, or the alarming-looking gentleman clutching his peni I mean his cigar. Sometimes you'll see this kind of extreme reality-based physical strangeness in a bit-part Quitely villain design these days or something like that, but the freak show used to be his stomping grounds, the building blocks of his panels. He had such a riotous impulse for it, that ugliness that popped you out of the panels, skintight clothes on bodies that didn't deserve them, facial expressions that elicited uncomfortable laughter and then awkward silence, jumbled layouts that never let you quite get comfortable. It was such a jaundiced view, comics as a brightly-colored attack dog, and once Quitely moved past it no one else could hope to fill the void.
It was an environment uniquely suited to Quitely's drawing in those days. While he's gone beyond the traditional mode of pen-and-paper comics art and into a quietly revolutionary fusion of direct markmaking and digital craft, the guy had a way with the ink that's been lost in the shuffle. Look at the downright Disney-animation bounce of the TV jelly-glob's hands in screenshot 2 here, or all the pure, unadulterated style in the illegible scrawls of the magazine "text". While pulling the art directly from Quitely's pencils gives us the viscerality of the real thing, it's less something in the presentation, the emphases Quitely the inker could lay on so thick. This panel's monstrously ugly quasi-humans work because they're lined in with no less gusto than the realistically crunchled-up pill package at the top right, or the advertisement's lettering -- clashing levels of realism aren't an issue here because everything's so cartooned. Reproducing the art from the barest form of drawing puts the reader front row, right inside Quitely's creativity, everything left on the page. It's great. But that means it has to be cleaner, grander, realer than it was in the days when he could hide behind the cartoon curtain that second layer of rendering allowed.
I cherish the Quitely we have -- he's an artist that the next wave and the one after that can go to school on, a genuine inspiration. But I get nostalgic for this Quitely, the crazy wonderful weirdo whose stuff hung together because it was always so close to falling apart. This work makes sense now: it was the laboratory that produced one of current comics' greatest talents. But just look at this panel and forget who it's by, forget the backstory, forget what it was building up to. It's all so pretty nowadays, but it was also great when it was raw and ugly! Just look at a vision from a brain that sees a madder world than we can. Horrible, isn't it? Beautiful, isn't it? And not like a whole lot else.