Comix Surgery: Fusion Album
The Silver Surfer (limited series) #1 and 2, by Stan Lee and Moebius. Marvel.
-NEAR AS I can figure, this comic is a pretty good signpost to the end of an era. The 1980s were a time of expansion for pretty much every segment of the American comics industry: there was an indie boom, a rather incredible rise in the quality of the top superhero comics, the first trickles of the positive public perception that floods the Borders stores with comics these days, an uptick in reprints of important historical material, and most relevantly, the concerted effort to translate high-quality European comics into English that brought the work of Moebius to our shores. In many ways this Silver Surfer series is a summit to that decade, an original English language work by a foreign master teamed up with the man most associated with the medium in this country, a piece of comics that presents itself more or less explicitly as art, a superhero comic that often eschews adrenaline for political and spiritual musings.
One issue at the dizzying heights of a field that had committed itself to quality -- and the next amidst the beginning of the decline that the commercial, Marvel-monopolized 1990s would prove to be. Though this comic has much of the '80s' expansionism to recommend it, there is also perhaps a warning, not so much in its pages as in what it is. The greatest paragons of two of the world's three major comics traditions on the same book, working for the same company. If that company were to decide that art was no longer an issue and profit had become the only thing worth striving for, what could stop it?
-I LOVE when Frank Santoro gets out a new variation of his "fusion comics" rap over at Comics Comics. It's a great talk (I linked to the articles for a reason), but what's really cool is that every time this new term "fusion" comes up for comics that incorporate idiom, influence, style, whatever, from the Big Three comic book-making countries, everybody seems to really get into hopping on the comments threads and throwing out the names of random "early fusion" or "pre-fusion" comics. Last time my big suggestion was Ronin. This time it was this comic. Read further, we shall see why. And start thinking about "fusion", because it's a good term that's still in the process of being defined, and the conversation is pretty open if you're interested.
-"THERE'S A graphic language to American comics that I could have used, but I didn't because I'm too lazy... Instead of forcing myself to fit into those rules I let out another facet of my creativity."
-- Moebius, on his process
Indeed. And that's what's fascinating about this comic. A book full of Moebius copying Don Heck panels would have been interesting, but in a more fannish, less immediate way. However, the most important part of that quote is the artist's acknowledgment that there even are rules, a method, to American comics, his obvious consciousness of them while moving forward. All thought bleeds into creation, and watching the French maestro's dance with the animating spirit of American pulp is a hell of an entertaining tug-of-war.
-OKAY, JESUS, I'll talk about the actual comic part of the comic now.
Page 2 panels 1 and 2: Right off the bat, this is not the typical superhero comic. The staid minimalism of French ligne claire ("clear line") cartooning meets Milt Caniff's post-Deco "snowy mountain" shorthand. The second panel, while still rooted in French cartoon, also shows off a bit of manga stylization and framing. There are shades of Osamu Tezuka all over this comic, and this is just an early indication. The vertical-landscape composition and flowing, sinuous linework of the top panel also owe much to Japanese art, though not necessarily manga.
Page 3 panel 5: Moebius's take on an earlier "Galactus is descending, the world is ending" panel: perhaps the most monumental drawing in the original Jack Kirby version of the Silver Surfer parable. Compare:
No one can beat Kirby for sheer chaotic energy, least of all the sleek and unflappable Moebius. Where the King does it a Dada, with figures overlapping figures, perspective shot to hell, everything approaching a collaged level of displaced frenzy, the Frenchman takes a step back and lets the crushing surge of the crowd depict itself, figure after figure moving across the panel at 45-degree angles, hot pink panic-filters submerging all, faces swimming out at you in agonies of terror. Two approaches to the same subject matter that couldn't be much more different, but that in my opinion come up with similar levels of success. Also, just take a second and check out how many different styles are used to cartoon each individual face in the crowd: one looks like Bill Elder, the next one Josh Simmons, the next one Jules Feiffer, the next one Joost Swarte...
Page 4 panel 4: An American comics device run through the Moebius filter. Flashback panels were basically always done in different shapes than the usual boxes until computer coloring came in with accessible sepia tones -- usually squares with either wavy outlines or rounded corners. This take on it preserves a whisper of the squiggly borders beloved to DC Silver Age stuff, but sharply crinkles the indentations, almost making the panel's shape recall a dog-eared scroll of manuscript, bending form to function. Nice little touch.
Page 5 panel 3: Inking savagery! Moebius says: "My pen was getting worn down... it made for a dark, powerful, rather interesting look. But when I changed pens, suddenly it was like everything had lit up. It's almost like working with something alive." Moebius also talks about taking this book as a chance to "take creative risks, face the unknown", and if you can't see it in the shifts of inking style in the panels up to here, keep looking. It's all over this issue, and not until about halfway through #2 does he really find a line to stick to. It's fascinating to see this stuff, though, this art that has so little to do with "Moebius" -- angular, stiff, blocky, thick-lined. It's like Walt Simonson inking Tatsumi or something, maybe even a little Jose Munoz or Ted McKeever. Even the composition changes, getting rid of the rest of the book's elegance for a tight-framed street-level reaction shot. A window into something almost entirely other than the artist who made it, all thanks to an old pen.
Page 9 panel 3: Some very Japanese stylization, especially on the girl's face. I guess there's some Otomo to it, but sparer, lighter, maybe a little more like Masamune Shirow. Or I don't know, even Sailor Moon type of stuff, that's every anime girl's face really. Notable because it leaves the French style behind and basically bends all the way into manga.
Page 10 panels 3 and 4: See, here his line is so fine you can't even see it. New pen! Moebius: "One of my motivations for doing this book was to experiment with the limited palette of the newsprint color comics... I didn't fully understand how limited the palette is." It's pretty obvious that he had rarely seen his stuff printed on newsprint before either, with the brown tone and benday swallowing up the fine linework that looks so delectable in white paper and offset color. What's left are the spotted blacks, which are very few, and the artist's use of that limited palette to pull it all together. You can see a lot of this approach in a certain strain of Japanese comics, stuff like Jiro Taniguchi's work, which limits the spotted blacks, uses a lot of detail but not many rendering lines, and works a similar crease between cartoon and realism.
By and large, though, the Japanese don't have to contend with color, which the drawing really has to struggle through here. It's a pretty good job, I think: Moebius gets great subtlety and depth from four colors (who else can make magenta sing?), and the flat tones placed over figures drawn in lines that you can't really apprehend unless you look close have the air of abstract art, or maybe linoleum cuts. This is a kind of delicate primitivism, superb color choices vindicating the decision to block out vast swaths of every panel with a single tone and forego the meticulous detail Moebius usually colors with. He uses a pretty similar approach in his most recent American work, the Halo graphic novel from Marvel, but with a much, much thicker ink line.
Page 14 panels 5-9; page 15 panel 1: This is almost a cynical look at the American "big corny reveal splash" convention. It's like Moebius is making fun of the way hero artists choreograph such sequences for maximum impact instead of naturalism: suddenly the girl is standing at least 20 feet away from the Surfer, there's a giant shadow falling over what was a flat, sun-drenched rooftop a second ago, and whoops! the camera panned too far out, so that the big hero ends up way smaller in his close-up picture than he was in the ones that preceded it. It works well for the story, though, echoing the plot focus on the angle that this is a mere man determined to defeat a god. Either way, and whether intentional or not, it's a really strange, individual take on a scene we've all read a thousand times before. Also, look at that first panel real fast: at this point Galactus has been on Earth for like three hours, and already he's set up fully functioning concentration camps. I do not remember that part from the Kirby version.
Page 19 panels 3 and 4: Great composition on that first panel. I love how Moebius has the Surfer standing sideways on his board in almost half the panels of this comic. That "looking through a crowd of heads" thing, that's a really neat angle that only Frank Quitely has picked up over here. A lot more guys should use it, it's great for depth and for livening up talking scenes. An outtake from Wally Wood's "22 Panels That Always Work".
I mostly want to point out the writing here, though: this comic almost never gets mentioned in this context, but it's definitely one of the better things Stan Lee's written in his career. There's no overbearing narration, no souring attempts at hipness... the confidence that this is a story that doesn't need to explicitly engage the audience about how awesome it is to succeed. And honestly, this is some pretty great dialogue, no community college Shakespeare recitations or carny patter in sight. Just dramatic and idiosyncratic, striving as far as it can stretch toward modernity and timelessness at the same time. Weird to say, but it's almost Kirbyesque.
Page 21 panel 2: Nothing I could say would make this panel more... uh, more uh... uh...
Page 27 panel 4: (This is really issue 2 page 2, but the book is more a French album split up into two pamphlet comics than anything with the actual features of a serial story, and it was subsequently collected... so bear with me.) It's interesting to note that 20 years previous these lines of dialogue would definitely have gone into narrative captions over action panels. In 1989, though, Lee gets his exposition out through the TV men. It's a pretty obvious pickup from Frank Miller (or maybe Jim Steranko), but functions as a good sign o' the times too. Stan Lee sticking his eternal wordy words into a Frank Miller panel, not realizing that Miller's TV stuff in Dark Knight was more than just exposition, is an apt metaphor for how the '90s turned out in superhero comics. Another interesting post-Millerism: I haven't even come close to looking at the man's complete works, but this is the only Stan Lee comic I've read that uses first-person narrative captions. It's a nice Franco-Japanese style meld on this guy's face, by the way.
Page 29 panel 4: Moebius: "A letterer may be a professional, but he is very likely someone who has stopped seeing lettering as something amusing." Yeah, plus he isn't the guy coloring the book. When he is you can do stuff like the "NOW!" at the bottom here -- I love that half-bright-red word. It stamps such a great period down on a panel with a lot of information in it, and you can also tell that the mayor is saying "now" like it's split up into two syllables, you just can't help but read it that way. "Nay-ow!"
Page 32 panels 1 and 2: This is a pretty imaginative use of the size of a full-page panel to really do something cool with the composition. The action/figure shot is drawn at a large enough size to give it a full splash page's impact, especially popped out the by the white framing the way it is. But it's also shot from farther away than usual, making the gesture an easier size to read through, and also allowing us to get a widespread panorama of all the devastation Galactus has caused. It's really two panels, the depiction of two things in one. It's also excellent how the multiple levels make your eyes do a zoom in on the figure, taking in progressive levels of destruction: first you get the burning building in the foreground, then the toppled cars and trucks and dented streets, then finally the demolition of a skyscraper in progress.
Page 41 panel 2: The purity of benday on newsprint, the most beautiful mode of comics in the world. This is glorious CMYK minimalism, four colors turning a flat couple of lines into a picture with the stuff of life to it. Moebius has arrived at a minimum line thickness to work on the newsprint with, but has also obviously embraced the lino-cut look of the colors overpowering his lines. It's all about the shapes here, with only the barest details drawn in. This is a completely different Moebius from the one who drew Arzach or The Incal: intentionally or not he has absorbed the popped-out colors, the fist-pound imagery, the Kirbyist minimalism of the American form and wedded it to his own style beautifully.
Page 48 panels 1-3: And finally, the point of the book, a wrenching note of bitter pessimism from the usually beatific arch-humanist Lee. Maybe it's the power of the language, maybe it's the punch in the gut of the sentiment, maybe it's because Moebius draws the living hell out of it, but this is way more convincing than all that '60s Marvel "we're all brothers" stuff. Though the same things could be said about this whole comic, in the end. An unexpected, truly stunning finish to a gorgeous, vastly underrated and under-read comic.
Galactus-size thanks to David Brothers for his research assistance.