I thought it would be interesting to compare these spreads from Kirby’s OMAC and Black Panther work with these more modern covers by Bryan Hitch and David Finch for Ultimates 2(I believe) and Avengers Assembled.
(Bryan Hitch, Ultimates 2)
(David Finch, Avengers Assembled)
The first thing that jumps out between these spreads is how much clearer Kirby’s pages are to look at just from a coloring standpoint. With the Finch and Hitch spreads there is not a lot of contrast, and it almost hurts your eyes to try and delineate what all is happening on the page. With Kirby it’s a very limited palette and the colors are flat, so his spreads are much more dictated by the ink on the page. So the composition is much more tied into lines and shapes than the Finch and Hitch spreads which are at the mercy of their color. Look at those lines in OMAC’s leg now try to find the lines on Hitch’s page. Which, I mean that’s by design with Hitch. It’s not good or bad. Just obscuring his tactile contribution to the image underneath the work of the colorist rendering. Finch is interesting because at times in his career he’s been colored like this, but worked in a style that if you took out the colors would have a lot to look at ink wise. I’m thinking of his run on Moon Knight in particular. He has that McFarlane kinda ink webby-ness going on in his work which is pretty cool to look at, but you have to actually look for it to see it underneath the plastic sheen of the pages. But here he’s working in a style closer to Hitch. Reminds me of Dell’Otto’s Secret War work but without the shiny texture of literal paint, and Dell’Otto’s weird predilections to how he draws forms.
The second thing is that I notice with both Finch and Hitch–and I think these spreads are somewhat emblematic of what you would typically see from these big action books from the big two these days–like Doug Mahnke’s work on Blackest Night is in this school–I mean of course modern modern comics are moving away from spreads because of digital–and maybe Marcos Martin, Javier Rodriguez, Emma Ríos (Lafuente, Aja etc)(gee I wonder what these artists have in common) could all be classed in a third school of spreads that have nothing to do with this kind of thing–where their spreads are more about the design of the spread, and are closer to Kirby in that sense. Bachalo is probably this type of artist as well. Or maybe more a meeting point between the clarity and design of the Spanish artists and the muddled realism of the British and American artists? Of course these are generalities, and I’m not actually super interested in delineating different art movements within comics from the last 40 plus years. The point is just that I think we can fairly use Hitch and Finch as examples of a fairly popular approach in action comics spreads of the last 20 years. Or at the very least say that they belong to a particular school of thought that is an interesting contrast to Kirby and helps show the power of what Kirby was doing.
(Javier Rodriguez, Spider-Woman)
But so getting to the second thing–Hitch/Finch represent a sort of overwhelming spasm of bodies on the page. It’s like a Where’s Waldo page of hamburgered superheros. It’s like José Luis García-López ability to cram superheroes on a page, but minus the clarity–and that lack of clarity is in fact a guiding ethos. Some of that is dictated by the fact that these are event crossover books, so the Where’s Waldo aspect is kind of there ostensibly for fans to search pages for their faves and get off on whatever small token fight stance they are given on that page. Like look at Black Widow peaking out under Hulk’s arm. This is the really leaning into the fan aspect of a two page spread over the purely aesthetic value of the piece. If you made the Finch spread about like…Valiant characters that people are less familiar with, would the image still have as much power, or is it just reduced to that giant hulk arm and what you think about that?
But so the effect is just kinda a place holder, like you need a spot in the book where the reader has to be like whoa, so splatter some figures on the page, and call it a day. But this gets into the third thing, which I think is actually the important one after contrast and that is scale. With the Kirby and Javier Rodriguez spreads you get full body action shots of characters that you can see them from head to toe, at a size that basically if they stood up straight would just fit within the page. And then Kirby’s characters have this added benefit of thickness which makes the characters look like gods on the page. They are literally more substantial than their modern counterpoints. JRJR could do this on his day. Check this from his Daredevil run with Nocenti:
(John Romita Jr., Daredevil: The Man Without Fear)
It’s kind of cropped because it’s a shitty pic of the spread–but there are a few things happening in this spread that give it weight. One is that both characters are fucking huge. Their height is actually just under the dimensions of the spread from left to right (a shift from the Rodriguez and Kirby spreads which the characters heights fit vertically rather thanthis horizontal). This switch works because the orientation of Daredevil IS across the spread horizontally. So him fitting horizontally rather than vertically doesn’t really make a difference. Compare that to the Hulk in the Finch spread, who is oriented vertically, but not only as his feet obscured, but he’s crouched and he still doesn’t fit on the page.
Also, Daredevil is being punched against the grain of the direction the reader is reading the book. And if you read the pages leading up to it, Daredevil pretty much walks right into this punch. Plus that step through on the punch is everything. But again, the thickness of these characters is notable. They’re not as thick as Kirby, but they are still more substantial and have a greater artistic clarity of form than later artists(including JRJR) would use. A good point of comparison to this is look at the arms on most of the characters in Finch and Hitch’s spreads and compare them to Kirby’s arms. They’re much more dedicated to this realistic musculature than Kirby, but not to any real benefit. Even JRJR’s arms on this punch are long without being lithe, and the musculature is implied. These forms are about movement and impact that you simply can’t get from a more realistic portrayal.
Also the color plays a big role here. I think these are Max Scheele colors if I remember right. But that white from the zebra print cuts across the page wonderfully and breaks up this red from Daredevil. And the lack of rendering in the color allows for the ink by the wonderful Al Williamson to denote the texture, I think to the benefit of the image as a whole. And this revelation is by no means new. Paul Pope’s whole style is a testament to the power of the line in comic art. Compare JRJR now with modern coloring and whatever his style is now:
(John Romita Jr., Amazing Spider-Man)
What’s interesting here is that the scale is slightly larger than the spread, and I do think that makes a difference. Not to go all Eddie Campbell, but I think having feet in these things seems to matter. But you also see how much less dynamic the coloring is, and how much that kills the oomph. I mean why the fuck does wood look like plastic here? And I’m not sure that whole thing wouldn’t have looked better if you just dropped out the background entirely. I’m not sure what those people on the edge of the image are really adding to the image but distraction.
So even though there’s a level where Kirby is Kirby and a complete one off. There’s shit in his basic practices that were being done by others back then, and for a time after him. But it’s kind of been lost a bit in the newer techniques people are using. And I think that is to the detriment of comics ability to sock people in the gut. Remember Kirby’s era is when comics were legit pop art. I don’t think you can say for all of the merits of today’s approaches that that is still the case. And you can see with the Spanish artists that there’s a way back to that without looking like a pastiche. It’s like the difference between seeing a spread and being like “yup, that’s a lot of crap on two pages” and seeing a spread and being like “that would look awesome on my wall”. And sure, a lot of people do have that reaction to that Hitch style and it’s knockoffs, and that’s fine–but it’s undeniably less people than were on Ditko, Steranko or Kirby. And that stuff has certainly endured. I’m not sure how well this other stuff will endure.
But also as an aside, there’s obviously been a movement away from spreads because so many people now read digitally, and spreads are hard to really appreciate on an ipad–but I think that’s to the detriment of comics as a whole. The two page spread means something. It looks really cool, and it’s a great moment in any comic you read to see stuff like that. I don’t know how we would make them work for digital readers, but maybe it’s okay if some things are for books and digital readers can just cope for two pages? I feel like digital readers could suck it up. But by the same token, I can look at those Kirby spreads on my phone, and they still look just as cool. That’s probably another point for clarity. A clear bold two page spread crosses all streams. Is that a phrase? I mean I can’t really read the words on the page that well from my phone–but there is this cool thing they used to do with cbrs where you would get the page, the second page, and then the spread of the two pages together. It’s a little different from a book but the effect still works. Plus if you like it enough, you just go buy the trade. Win win.
Anyways. In conclusion, I guess just do it like Kirby did it. It will probably work fine. I think making comics look legit cool is more important than focusing so much on having comics compete story wise with TV. You can’t translate Kirby to a TV screen, so if you want to see that magic, you have to get the comic. Comics should be hinged on that primarily. Like step 1 has got to be rocking people in the eyeballs. Then the rest can take care of itself.
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