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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: John Byrne

I’m teaching “Superhero Comics” this semester, and so I’m once again pulling out Scott McCloud’s abstraction scale:

Image result for mccloud abstraction scale

It begins with a photograph of a face and ends with a face comprised only of an oval, two dots, and a straight line. McCloud calls that last face a “cartoon” and the middle face the standard for “adventure comics,” ie superheroes. All of the faces to the right of the photograph further “abstract [it] through cartooning” which involves “eliminating details” by “focusing on specific details.” Computer programs can do the same kind of stripping down:

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But some “simplification” isn’t so simple. Look at the different between this photograph and its cartoon version.

make a caricature profile picture of you

McCloud’s scale actually combines two kinds simplification. Each step to the right of his spectrum appears simpler because: 1) the image contains fewer lines, and 2) the lines are in themselves less varied. A line becomes smoother by averaging its peaks and lows into a median curve, and so the second kind of simplification is a form of exaggeration. Since exaggeration can extend beyond averaging McCloud’s spectrum actually requires two kinds of abstraction. Each face is altered both in density and in contour quality. Density describes the number of lines; contour quality describes the magnification and compression of line shapes. Abstraction in density reduces the number of lines; abstraction in contour quality warps the line shapes. The less density reduction and the less contour warpage, the more realistic an image appears.

I like McCloud’s five-point scale though, so I’ll offer two of my own.

The Density Scale:

  1. Opacity: The amount of detail is the same or similar to the amount available in photography.
  1. Semi-Translucency: The amount of detail falls below photorealism, while the image still suggests photorealistic subject matter.
  1. Translucency: While reduced well beyond the range of photography, the amount of detail evokes photorealistic subject matter as its source material. This is the standard level of density in superhero comics art.
  1. Semi-Transparency: The sparsity of detail is a dominating quality of the image, and subject matter can evoke only distantly photographic source material. Semi-Transparency is more common in caricature and cartooning.
  1. Transparency: The minimum amount of detail required for an image to be understood as representing real-world subject matter.

The Contour Scale:

  1. Duplication: Line shapes are unaltered for an overall photographic effect. Though naturalistic, reality-duplicating line shapes exceed the norms of superhero art by reproducing too much information.
  1. Generalization: Line shapes are magnified and/or compressed to medians for an overall flattening effect that conforms to naturalistic expectations. Generalization is the standard level of abstraction for objects in superhero art.
  1. Idealization: Some line shapes are magnified and/or compressed to medians while others are magnified and/or compressed beyond their medians for an overall idealizing effect that challenges but does not break naturalism. Idealization is the standard level of abstraction for superhero characters.
  1. Intensification: Line shapes are magnified and/or compressed beyond their medians for an overall exaggerating effect that exceeds naturalistic expectations. If the intensification is explained diegetically, the line shapes are understood to be literal representations of fantastical subject matter within a naturalistic context. If the intensification is not explained diegetically, then the line shapes are understood as stylistic qualities of the image but not literal qualities of the subject matter. Explained or Diegetic Intensification is common for fantastical subject matter in superhero art; unexplained or Non-diegetic Intensification occurs selectively.
  1. Hyperbole: Line shapes are magnified and/or compressed well beyond medians for an overall cartooning effect that rejects naturalism entirely. Hyperbole is uncommon in superhero art because the stylistic qualities of the image dominate and so prevent a literal understanding of the subject matter. Hyperboles in a naturalistic context are understood metaphorically.

The two scales can also be combined into a Density-Contour Grid:

1-5 2-5 3-5 4-5 5-5
1-4 2-4 3-4 4-4 5-4
1-3 2-3 3-3 4-3 5-3
1-2 2-2 3-2 4-2 5-2
1-1 2-1 3-1 4-1 5-1

Both scales take photorealism as the norm that defines variations.

McCloud’s photographed face is the most realistic because it combines Opacity and Duplication, 1-1 on the grid, demonstrating the highest levels of density and unaltered contour. It’s opposite is not McCloud’s fifth, “cartoon” face, which combines Transparency with Idealization, 5-3; its level of density reduction is the highest and so the least realistic possible, but its contour warpage is moderate and so comparatively realistic. Replace the oval with a circle to form a traditional smiley face, the contour quality would rise to Hyperbole, 5-5, the most abstract and so the least realistic position on the grid.

Image result for smiley face

Cartooning covers a range of grid points, but most cartoons fall between 4-4 and 5-5, both high density reduction and high contour warpage. Charles Shultz’s circle-headed and minimally detailed Charlie Brown is a 5-5.

The characters of Archie Comics are some of the most “realistic” of traditional cartoons at 4-4.

McCloud’s middle, “adventure comics” face combines Translucency and Idealization, 3-3, the center point of the grid and the defining norm of superhero comic art.

Image result for superman

Like all grid points, 3-3 allows for a variety of stylistic variation between artists, within a single artist’s work, and even within a single image, but it does provide a starting point for visual analysis by defining areas of basic similarity.

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henry james

After reading The Time Machine in 1900, Henry James wrote to H. G. Wells: “You are very magnificent. . . . I rewrite you much, as I read—which is the highest praise my damned impertinence can pay to an author.” It’s a strange compliment, and he expanded it two years later: “my sole and single way of perusing the fiction of Another is to write it over—even when most immortal—as I go. Write it over, I mean, re-compose it, in the light of my own high sense of propriety and with immense refinements and embellishments. .  . to take it over and make the best of it.”

James’s damned impertinence turned his highest praise into an actual invitation to collaborate with Wells on a science fiction novel: “Our mixture would, I think, be effective. I hope you are thinking of doing Mars—in some detail. Let me in there, at the right moment—or in other words at an early stage . . . .” The two authors shared a literary agent, James B. Pinker, and James wanted to take over and make the best of a Wells manuscript before Pinker saw it: “to secure an ideal collaboration . . . I should be put in possession of your work in its . . . pre-Pinkerite state. Then I should take it up and give it the benefit of my vision. After which, as post-Pinkerite—it would have nothing in common with the suggestive sheets received by me, and yet we should have labored in sweet unison.” He ends his letter “your faithful finisher.”

This is a bizarre request. Give me your rough draft to rework however I wish. Wells declined. Of course Wells declined. But first he tested whether the offer was one-sided, asking to peruse the notes to James’ next novel, The Ambassadors. Although James had a “carefully typed” 20,000-word prospectus, he did not share it with Wells. “A plan for myself, as copious and developed as possible, I always draw up,” he explained, but “such a preliminary private outpouring . . . isn’t a thing I would willingly expose to an eye but my own.” And he wouldn’t expose it to another’s over-writing hand either. He was his own finisher.

James’s notion of an “ideal collaboration” is laughably outside the norms of literary authorship, but it also reveals the damned impertinence of comic book production norms. Pencillers hand over “suggestive sheets” to inkers, or “finishers,” who literally draw over them, refining and embellishing according to their own sense of propriety. That includes erasing. It may be some lowly office helper—Stan Lee in his earliest days—holding the eraser, but it’s the inker who decides what stays and what goes. James’s final pages “would have nothing in common” with Wells’ erased and overwritten rough draft. And yet the plot, the chapter structure, the scene-by-scene movement—what comic book creator would call the layouts and breakdowns—they would still be Wells’. Reworking a sentence—adding flourishes, curving the grammar for new stylistic effects, while preserving and augmenting some paraphrasable meaning—that’s an inker’s job.

Four years later, after reading Wells’ The Future of America, James wrote again, revealing his inking style: “you tend always to simplify overmuch . . . But what am I talking about, when just this ability and impulse to simply—so vividly—is just what I all yearningly envy you?—I who was accursedly born to touch nothing save to complicate it.”

James would have added complexity to Wells’ overly simplified language—how Eric Shanower inked Curt Swan’s pencils for The Legend of Aquaman.

300px-Aquaman_Special_1989

Swan was nearing the end of his career in 1989, but according to Mark Waid (via Eddy Zeno’s Curt Swan: A Life in Comics) Swan considered the special issues a personal high point. The face, the anatomy, the foreshortened movement, those are recognizably Swan, but look at the background, the clouds, the meticulously scalloped waves, that’s Shanower, an artist renown for his details. His Age of Bronze is almost calligraphic in its precision, each scallop of chain mail a painstaking wonder.

6-_Eric_Shanower_extrait_-_L_Age_de_bronze_3_Tahison_2e_partie_-_janvier_-_2010

Would Wells have benefited from such a finish by James? Probably. But Swan wasn’t always grateful for Shanower’s efforts. During a visit to my campus, Shanower told a table of professors how he would erase Swan’s background buildings in order to correct all the perspectives errors. Swan didn’t thank him. He thought Shanower was wasting his time, but, like Wells in James’ “ideal collaboration,” his opinions were irrelevant once the sheets were in Shanower’s hands.

Compare Shanower’s chain mail and seas scallops to the inked versions of Swan by other artists, and you’ll see what Swan considered an appropriate attention to detail. Bob Hughes at Who Drew Superman? credits Swan for dominating Superman during that other Bronze Age while collaborating with a dozen different artists. Bob Oksner inked Superman No. 287 in 1975:

Superman287-08

Vince Colletta inked Superman Spectacular in 1977:

SupermanSpec77-50

And Al Williamson inked Superman No. 410 in 1985:

superman410-05

Look at the full-page layouts, and you’ll also see Swan’s signature breakdown: the top 2/3rds divided into 4-5 panels, anchored by a bottom rectangle featuring Superman flying toward the right margin:

Superman287-08 (2)     SupermanSpec77-50 (2)    superman410-05 (2)

The Swan-Oksner background buildings look pretty detailed to my eye–though some of those perspective lines might be a tad wonky beyond Superman’s right shoulder.  The Swan-Colletta and Swan-Williamson backgrounds are comparatively sparse. In fact, sparseness was Vince Colletta’s signature “style.” Though his best work is revered for its own Shanower-esque precision, other artists dislike his high sense of propriety.

Editor kept Colletta employed because he got his work in on time, but pencillers, like Wells, avoided the sweet unison of collaboration. Joe Sinnott (who also inked plenty of Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four pages) said Colletta “wrecked” his romance stories because Colletta “would eliminate people from the strip and use silhouettes, everything to cut corners and make the work easier for himself.” Marvel writer Len Wein agreed that Colletta “ruined” art, and Steve Ditko and later Kirby refused to work with him.

Ditko, like Wells, preferred to ink himself. PencilInk documents a range of examples (Amazing Spider-man No. 3, 1963; Monster Hunters No. 8, 1976; Iron Man Annual No. 11, 1990):

AMAZING-SPIDER-MAN-003_011Monster-Hunters-08-20Iron-Man-An11-(43)

But sometimes even Ditko would have to willingly expose his preliminary outpourings for the benefit of another artist’s vision. Wayne Howard, for example, inked House of Mystery No. 247 in 1976:

Superboy-v1-257-13

And Dan Adkins inked Superboy No. 257 in 1979:

House-of-Mystery-247p

But the most discordant of Ditko’s finishers was John Byrne. As an artist used to getting top-billing as both writer and penciller, he, like James, took possession of Ditko’s pages, applying his own immense refinements and embellishments. Look at Avengers Annual No. 13 from 1984:

comics 002

The thug’s left foot–only Ditko would draw the impossibly upturned sole. But that’s a Byrne mouth on Captain America, the musculature too. When Mr. Fantastic appears, he seems to have beamed in from Byrne’s Fantastic Four run, but that’s a glaringly Ditko-esque face grinning open-mouthed beside him:

comics 003

The mixture of the two is even stranger:

comics 004

Is this what a Wells-James collaboration looks like? James would have placed his name first–though only because cutting Wells from the credit box entirely wouldn’t be an option too. That’s what Alexander Dumas did with his collaborators. Auguste Maquet co-authored both The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, but it’s only Dumas on the covers because Maquet was his employee, what Marvel calls “work for hire.” Maquet produced rough drafts for his boss to write-over. He later sued for co-credit, but the French courts ruled in favor of Dumas.

In comics, the prestige position is reversed. Swan and Kirby had so many inkers because their editors wanted them pencilling as many titles as possible. At Marvel, the penciller was the primary creator, laying out stories with empty captions and balloons for the so-called writers to fill-in. In Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, Jason Lee plays Ben Afflleck’s inker and takes insult when called a “tracer.” Lee’s name also appears below Affleck’s in the actual credits. By the end of the film, Lee has ended their collaboration. H. G. Wells was wise never to begin one with Henry James.

hg_wells_787445

[And if you’d like to read more about their correspondence, check out Nicholas Delbanco’s Group Portrait: Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James and H. G. Wells. ]

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Panel 1: The White House at night. A sickle moon overhead.

Panel 2: The President slouches at his desk, uncapped pen in hand. OBAMA: “I will sign it now, while America sleeps!”

Panel 3: Close-up of document on desk: “Bill to Destroy America by Letting Gay People Get Married.” OBAMA: MWAHAHAHA!”

Panel 4: Caption: “Meanwhile in the Pressroom.” Press Secretary at podium: “And of course blah blah blah the President respects blah blah blah sacredness of blah blah blah”

Panel 5: “Clark Kent turns suddenly, his super-hearing catching the President’s evil cackle.”

Panel 6: CLARK, yanking off glasses: “This is a job for . . .

Panel 7: “Superman!” Superman smashes through the wall of the Oval Office, grabbing the pen just before the bill is signed into law!

Panel 8: OBAMA, cowering on the floor: “Thwarted again!”

Panel 9: SUPERMAN, with American flag in background: “Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy!! I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn!”

Or something like that. The last bit are Card’s actual words, since deleted (thanks to Noah Berlatsky and Atlantic.com for keeping them on the web). I added the exclamation points myself.

I had to break the news to my family on the way to a restaurant. “You remember Ender’s Game?” I asked. “And Ender’s Shadow?” My wife had read the first aloud to them years ago; I’d read the second. Of course they remembered.

“Well,” I said and explained about DC readers protesting Orson Scott Card writing a Superman story because Orson Scott Card is a raging homophobe. Gay readers have known this for years, but it was news to me when I’d read about it that afternoon. It was news to my family now, but no one seemed particularly shocked, just sad. At fifteen, my daughter has grown increasingly resigned to chunks of her childhood eroding into the abyss of depressing adulthood. All those hours spent with the talented Mr. Card now retroactively icky.

Superman and Ender's Game

I’m not saying Ender’s Game is suddenly less worthy a read. But it is a little like finishing Ender’s Shadow and my son saying how it kinda ruined the first book. Not only was Ender not as smart as he’d seemed, but he was sort of an idiot for not seeing that his little friend was really the one making things work out so well.

And now it turns out Card is an idiot too. It would be easy to say it’s his religion’s fault, sort of like when Cat Stevens didn’t condemn Iran’s death sentence on Salman Rushdie. But a close colleague in my English department is Mormon, and he voted for Obama and supports our fellow gay colleagues too. So Orson Scott Card owns his own homophobia.

Superman, on the other hand, has been supporting gay rights since the 80s. DC wouldn’t let writer-artist John Byrne actually print the word “lesbian” (Superman only got as far as the first letter before interrupted by some less culturally touchy threat), but Clark was fully behind Captain Maggie Sawyer of the Metropolis Special Crimes Unit. And now the rest of the multiverse has finally caught up. Superman has been called the ultimate Boy Scout for decades, and now even the Boy Scouts are abandoning their gay ban.

So should fans ban DC when Orson Scott Card takes over the unitard?

To be honest, I find it a little hard to hate the guy. I picture him as a gray-skinned brontosaurus—not one of  those warm-blooded, hollow-boned sauropods with whip-action tails, but the kind I grew up with, back when they were just obese lizards hanging out in swamps because they couldn’t support their own weight.

I also seriously doubt his script is going to look like anything like my parody above. But is that the point? Even if Card keeps his homophobia in his swamp, does the guy and his DC employers deserve our allowance money? Obviously not. But formal bans still make me squeamish. The so-called Moral Majority used them all the time.

But if it’s any consolation, Card’s DC gig has outed his Jurassic mindset to a much larger audience. Now even straight dads like me and my (what at the moment appear to be) straight kids know the sad truth too. We’d been rooting for Hollywood to adapt Ender’s Game for years and now . . . not so much.

Also, if you like historical parallels, the original Superman was anti-marriage anyway. And I don’t mean gay marriage. I mean all marriage. George Bernard Shaw popularized his translation of the term “ubermensch” in his 1903 play Man and Superman. It’s about a modern Don Juan who wants to overthrow England’s marriage laws because they slow down the process of breeding a race of superhumans.

It’s not your standard supervillain scheme, but I’m sure Card would be horrified. And since Shaw’s evil plot would have to overthrow England’s new same-sex marriage now too, gay advocates and Card may actually have a storyline they can team-up for.

When my kids are grown up, I hope they respect and support marriage too, and when my grandkids, gay or straight, marry in their turn, I trust all the Orson Scott Cards of the multiverse will be long extinct.

Illustration by The Daily Beast

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