RanXerox: Amen! part 2 (1994), page 19 panel 4. Tanino Liberatore.
By and large, comics is a medium of lines. From the ones that code for speed and impact to the ones that shape the characters to the ones that mark the panel borders and form the letters of the words we read them with, the line is comics' substance, the base unit from which it is built. Just about everyone who's used the medium has done it in line, and we've had some incredibly beautiful ones -- from Crumb's wavery trails to Pope's crackling zigzags to Feininger's spiderwebbing scratches. But like with any dominant paradigm, some challenge to the line, some work done outside it, is always a good thing. Unfortunately, that challenge was basically impossible for most comics history given the nature of the medium's pre-1970s reproduction process. Newsprint and four-color presses demanded line, the certainty of black on white and nothing more. But these days, though as ever the masses stick to the old and familiar ways, the line is losing its stranglehold on comics art as more and more new approaches break through. Painted comics, though often hideous, have produced some stunning lineless pages in their time. Silkscreened comics have been swimming just below mainstream notice for years now. Computer colors take over more and more of line's sculptural work every day. And the pencil, with the visible grain and masses of gray it encourages, is making a quiet but deeply convincing case for its worth as the comics-drawing tool of the future.
Over in Europe, where production values were something that came into consideration before the Carter administration did, lineless comics made their mark a little earlier, a little harder. Paint and airbrush were a massive part of what gave the early, Eurocomics-heavy issues of Heavy Metal such a futuristic sheen. The sheer guttiness of it -- comics without the familiar black cutlines around the shapes of everything! There's a feeling of freedom to panels that let the lines go, and few capture it better than the Italian punk genius Tanino Liberatore. Though he rarely if ever drew a panel that wasn't deeply absurd, Liberatore's work also carries more realism than pretty much anything made of line possibly can. The smooth flows from shadow to light, the delicate touch that forms the shapes, the myriad gradations of single tones -- none of this happens in black and white, which can try as hard as it wants but in the end, under the microscope, deals only in the highest of contrasts. Liberatore's slick, soft transitions from feature to feature and hue to hue invite the eye to stray much further into his panels than the hard-surfaced screens of line-built comics can. These textures and lights are immersive, multi-dimensional, pools to be bathed in rather than codes to be cracked.
Where the line is the unit in most comics, Liberatore goes deeper into the sensual, taking as his substance something that can't be found in the purest form of lined comics, the ones where the blacks and white exist alone with nothing thrown on over them. Color is the chief component of the art here, glowing and highly saturated thanks to the Pantone pens Liberatore employed in place of brush or pencil, and it's wielded with a subtlety that counterpoints its screaming brightness. Deftly placed hints of yellow pop dimensionality into the green haze that everything lurks behind, the red adds a delicious bit of teeth-gritting aesthetic conflict, and the white space on the page -- sans line or color -- is allowed to play the dominant, most immediate role. And then despite all the consummate artistry on display it still hits so hard and violent, still leaks into the eyes so bright and brutal that it catches you on your back feet, not quite prepared for comics that look this much like this.
That sea of garish color is matched pound for pound by some equally garish subject matter. The vicious subversion of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling is about as effective a signifier of Liberatore's milieu as you could ask for, a deft mix of rebel fury, beaux-arts poise, concerted degradation, and deeply clever self-referentiality. (Let's not forget, that thing is just as much a work-in-panels as any volume of RanXerox is.) It also serves an essential purpose that comics drawn without line run the risk of losing: that of iconography. While the Creation of Man digs into that particular word a little more deeply than, say, the Superman symbol or Tintin's pronged hairdo or Charlie Brown's silhouette do, the purpose is the same. This is an immediately recognizable image, one we can process before we register any of its considerable detail. Its mere use in the context of Liberatore's painterly style is a very "comics" bit of instant-picture making, but just to punch the message home a little further there's a nicely balanced bit of subdivision rounding out the panel, adding an extra pinch of nasty blasphemy to the holiness that clings to Michelangelo's composition no matter how it's abused.
It looks incredible, to be sure, and that alone is enough to justify anything at all an artist does with their pages. But Liberatore's use of color as the dominant element of his panels gets at something deep about the comics medium, especially the hi-voltage, low-denominator, dirty-action idiom he worked in. Comics about people fighting and killing each other are bright, clashing color, and they function best when content follows form. Back at the beginning of time the violent ones were so cheap and hacked out and worthless that they came off the presses almost still wet with the stuff, big sloppy messes of pure tone slathered on over the drawings, entire figures drowned in solid masses of deep red or brilliant blue or evergreen. (You ever wonder why so many superheroes have colors in their names? Their christeners understood exactly what they were doing, even if it was also a utilitarian way to address the habit the presses had of erasing any nuance from the pages' hues.) Comics can shine bright and brilliant in a way the movies and photos taken from life simply can't, a way the fine arts are usually too afraid to. Because panels are what they are: not celluloid frames or canvases, but single, momentary impacts in long strings of the same. If they can rock you with line they do it with that. If they can slam you with color they'll do that too. But behind it all is the medium, which does what it does -- and beautifully -- no matter the approach.