Night Business #1 (2008), page 13 panel 3. Benjamin Marra.
There's a wonderful feeling that comes from looking at something you've never quite seen in comics before. In my opinion anyway, one of the most interesting things about the form is just how caught up in influence it is, how smooth the progressions from one wave of artists to the next are. In a medium with basically no longstanding ties to academia and a smaller body of critical literature than just about anything but video games, the easiest way for new artists to develop what they do is looking back at what's come before, engaging directly with their inspirations' work and figuring it out for themselves instead of pulling what the textbook says to pull and moving on from there. The downside to this is the rampant copyism that plagues every strand of comics you care to name, the artists who get so stuck into one previously legislated mode of working that they simply become echoes of the original idea or who simply decide that if something sold when he did it, it'll sell when I do it too. But there was never an art that didn't have its hacks, and copyism-sans-theory, copyism for the mere look and feel of it -- comics copyism -- has its perks. Plenty of the medium's best have started in an influence's shadow and incorporated all the lessons to be found there before developing beyond. Plenty more have distilled the essence of single previous artists into such potency that the reading experience becomes another thing entirely. Benjamin Marra is both of these, but he is more as well.
Marra's most apparent influence is Paul Gulacy, himself perhaps the comics artist most visibly indebted to Jim Steranko. You can really see the way this works if you look at books by the three men in succession: Steranko creates a style, Gulacy refines and ends up transcending it, then Marra does the same with Gulacy. The surface stylistic affectations -- the chiseled profiles, the liquid spotting of blacks, the fine linework, the high focus -- are all expertly imported from back issues of feverish exploitation-era curios like Slash Maraud and Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu, shorthand employed knowingly, to imbue the work with the specific ambience those comics carry so heavily about them. Where Marra's own genius comes in is with the delight he takes in amplifying Gulacy, in tensing the high-drama poses to the bursting point, in texturing everything so heavily it looks like it's been sprayed down with a layer of grease, in putting straightahead action framing to a stock scene that we're never supposed to see this clearly. It's taken so far it's not the same thing anymore, not even an echo of it. It's a chopped 'n' screwed remix that's so immediate and catchy you can't remember what the original disco song sounded like anymore.
It's not all one thing in here though. Where Gulacy was a strong adherent to the Steranko methods of blocking and composition, placing his characters in unexpected corners of the frames, employing jarring angles, and often letting individual panels form mere fractions of the total picture being communicated, Marra goes back to the source of most all heroic-comics inspiration, Jack Kirby, for his presentational technique. There's no unnecessary cleverness or trickery in the way of what we're seeing here, it's pure dynamism and rage on the page, centered and balanced and ready to move. The forcefulness of the figures denies anatomy and perspective their traditional places, shouting so loud we don't notice anything but the volume. They're set against the barest of stock backgrounds, rote vanishing-point lines putting forth scenery whose artificiality is its greatest asset, whose plastic vagueness draws an incredible amount of urgency from the deeply rendered, black-spotted characters by contrast. That background is very "comics", right down to the door that provides a perfect frame for the panel's main focus, but in its cartooned economy it mirrors the real experience of seeing better than plenty of more detailed work does. When we watch people in life we don't take time to notice what the words on the anatomical chart in the corner of our eye say, and we don't worry whether the perspective lines reach all the way to the backdrop. We see gesture, expression, exactly what Marra's giving us here. The dressing is just that.
But Marra addresses Kirby in a more interesting, immediately noticeable way too. I mentioned this panel's denial of normal human anatomy, but that's not to say that Marra isn't focusing on his characters proportions. No, what we've got in these massive cinderblock heads and stubby arms and microscopic hands is a completely new, individual way of cartooned anatomical distortion, comparable to Kirby's square fingers and barrel chests. It, like so much else, has some basis in Gulacy, in particular the strange effects of his more intense deep-foreshortening shots, but while there it was an unavoidable accident, here it blazes to life with a sense of purpose. The tiny hands clench into solid fists of anguish or make perfectly understated gestures, the shortened appendages give the body language a compact, coiled ferocity, the hulking heads pop the chiaroscuro expressions out at us, not waiting to be arrived at. It's an incredibly effective part of what Marra's doing, and if the fact that it's never been done on purpose before jars, it also gives his art the deranged thrill of the bold, the unexpected, the new.
New in American action comics anyway -- from Tezuka on down manga has a proud lineage of monster domes and puny flippers, and Gary Panter and the Fort Thunder crew have been doing this punky, mannerist body-drawing in a rattier, less polished form for years. It's just never happened this way before. It's another evolution, another new look for an old thing, another chapter in comics art's progression from what was to what is to what will be. It takes artists like Marra to show us those last two, to go far enough into the bizarrerie of the past while going far enough into the vision in themselves to produce a future. In a few decades, when Batman's fuming over exposed nipples with veins popping out of his hydrocephalic forehead, everybody will know. But for now savor this, savor the way it all comes together in such an odd, striking way. Savor the feeling of seeing something you've never quite seen in comics before.