Give Me Liberty #4 (1990), page 27 panel 1. Dave Gibbons.
Dave Gibbons may well be the superhero artist who gets the smallest amount of critical appreciation in proportion to how important to comics art his influence has been. In one way he's almost taken for granted, mainly because of his involvement with the most relentlessly over-praised comic of all time, Watchmen. (Not saying that book doesn't deserve to be lauded, but at this point it's hit the Ronald Reagan levels of questionable posthumous canonization.) More interestingly, though: I think Gibbons' relatively low profile in the history books is due to just how weirdly critical evaluation moves through superhero comics art. From its inception that genre has offered and rewarded pure visual stylists more than any other in comics, its story systems' dependence on surface sheen and fast impact leading the most arresting and often least subtle artists to the highest esteem. Fletcher Hanks to Jack Kirby to Jim Lee -- there's a reason "jumps off the page" is the most overused stock phrase in hero-comics punditry. And because of that emphasis on volume and intensity, it's hard to pick through the historical narrative of superhero art without looking for the stylistic high points, the triumphs of pure visual might.
As opposed to the artists like Gibbons, who to my eyes suffers from the same silent-majority admiration as another hero artist who made nuance and understatement his forte, Curt Swan. When judged against his most vigorous and acclaimed contemporary Kirby, Swan's uninflected, naturalistic panels look as placid and measured as Gibbons' do next to those of his own hyperbolic opposite number, Frank Miller. Gibbons' artwork is a triumph of substance over style, depth over surface, and I'd imagine that's why the superhero milieu has never really embraced him in the way it has far lesser, more flashy talents. Even in this panel, which is about as rousingly bangin' a frame as you'll find in Gibbons' oeuvre (scripted, appropriately enough, by none other than Frank Miller), the immediate effect isn't to smack the eye back into its socket like a Kirby punch or a Hanks color field does, but to pull it in, encourage a rove around inside the rectangle.
That slower effect is most often the province of detailed, "illustrative" comics art, with the broader, more minimalistic forms of cartooning usually employed for quick hits and instant meaning. That's the established binary, anyway, and it's usually a fairly good one. But it falls down with Gibbons, whose work hits directly in the sweet spot between cartoon simplicity and illustrated index. This panel is filled to the gills with visual flair: as a picture of what it's a picture of, it would be just as effective with only the middle third, the arresting main action laid down, and the rest of the space left blank or ceded to more panels. But Gibbons enhances his composition by giving it room to breathe, the considerable sting of the kinesis at the center tempered with two big lungfuls of environmental context on either side. The falling rain, the play of shadows on the tree trunks, the soft grass and arching ferns don't necessarily add much to the impact itself -- Gibbons' way with heavy physicality and sudden motion carries that weight with aplomb -- but what they do add to is the sense impression the picture leaves. We can feel that pain, the stinging lash of sapling against skin, much more when we're also thrust into the cold rain, the dappled light, the foliage underfoot. Everything else sets us up; and then the main depictive thrust of the panel drives the point home.
But despite all the information in this panel, Gibbons' drawing never buckles to messiness or loses its focus. The most important thing is that we see what happens to the figures in the frame, and within that the most important thing is the guy taking a trunk in the trunk. So the blacks are spotted with a meticulous grace as the middle trooper flies backward, and the stunned, overtaken facial expression is lined in with the same certainty as his boldly physical, dynamic pose. From there it loosens up: there's plenty of knowledge about the fine points of drapery put into his clothing, but the shirt and pants themselves are not important, so it's all slashed in with a few springy lines, only their varying thickness communicating the very precise variations of shadow Gibbons has envisioned falling across the hapless soldier's frame. Moving outward, the soldier directly behind the one taking it in the gut's reaction is key, so he's drawn with plenty of black to catch the eye, more beautifully shorthanded folds in his outfit, and a greatly communicative facial expression. The other three soldiers in the frame are mere incident, support for the main point, and they're dashed off without much drapery to their clothes or nuance to their faces, the final one just a silhouette to be perceived more than actually seen.
The background elements fill out a picture in a similar hierarchy of detail: once the well-lined tree trunk and the carefully shaped ferns in the foreground establish the setting, everything reduces down to pure information, suggestion more than depiction. The grass is a few scribbled lines that go no further toward realism than George Herriman's turf did. The rest of the ferns are simple blots of black that depend on the reader's apprehension of the one fully drawn one to hold their own meaning. These are the tricks of a cartoonist, a formidable one; but they're brought to bear on a panel rich in illustrative detail. And there's more than that going on where minimal and maximal intersect here, too: the panel captures an incredibly small amount of time, with none of the instants elapsing in the read-across that are so typical of action comics. The dramatic blacks and whites, the instinctual-reaction facial expressions, and the total loose fluidity of the body language -- nothing is posed here, or even amalgamated from a few different moments of the same gesture. It's a unit of time too small to measure graven in stone, and the that's why it still hits so hard despite the immersive quality and the wealth of information being presented. Gibbons squares the circle, pulling the two divergent strands of action cartooning into one instantly recognizable drawing style.
That richness, that ability to give the panels much more weight than the simple facts of what's inside them hold, is what I think so many artists who came to superhero comics in the wake of Gibbons' big star turn on Watchmen took from him. But it takes no small amount of talent, of imagination and inspiration in equal measure, to imbue a picture with tangible meaning. Gibbons has written some pretty fantastic comics in addition to drawing them, and he has a storyteller's way with everything he puts on the page, an ability to add context to pictures without adding much in the way of ink. Where so many of his followers fell off was mistaking the sumptuousness of his panels for something that could be easily captured. I don't think we would have gotten the age of crosshatching and excessive rendering had so many people not been blown away by how much they saw in Gibbons' single pictures. Perhaps that's an undeservedly dubious legacy -- but Gibbons' real legacy is deceptively simple, deceptively detailed work like this panel, and to my mind that deserves even a little more applause than it's already gotten.