Deadpool Max #3 (2010), page 15 panel 2. Kyle Baker.
Sometimes -- I'll be honest, most of the time -- in talking about comics art it's hard to see the forest for the trees. Given that in most comics the pictures only tell part of the story, leaving something or other up to the words, it's tough to make art-only analysis speak to content. Or at least to make it do so and still matter. There are plenty of words out there on why Jim Lee draws a badass Batman, after all. It's when you're digging deeper than the "cool picture" categorization that content begins to matter less and less, and craft to matter more and more. At a certain point, the conventional wisdom goes, it's not important what's in the picture but what makes it up, the lines and shapes and blacks themselves. Like most conventional wisdom, there's something to that. "Style" as it's popularly conceived, the mannerist tics or lack thereof in an individual artist's drawing, is often what marks the superior comics out from the rest. Put another way: the best stylists draw people and places, everyday things and things that will never exist, but because of the way they make their lines, their shapes, their blacks, you can always tell their art is their art no matter what the picture's showing you.
In most comics, analyzing craft isn't too hard. There are plenty of ways to make a panel, plenty of cartoon interpretations of the way things really look, but they almost all boil down to black ink over gray pencils on white paper, brushed or penned, maybe with a color process thrown on over, maybe not. It's a procedure that's produced a staggering amount of different results, an incredibly broad spectrum of beautiful art that only widens by the Wednesday. So it's really mostly about understanding brush grain and benday, shadowing and stipple, and how it all combines to work on the page. I'd put comics art's stylistic diversity up against that of any other medium in the world, but on the most basic level, that of the elements that form the physical substance itself, so much of it is all the same. And that's why living in the times we're living in is so exciting.
You might not notice it if you're content to stay nose-deep in the mainstream grind or pick up the latest hardcovers from the alt-comics bros every few months at Borders, but if you look around a little for the stuff, the medium is changing. I don't necessarily mean in the plots of the stories it tells or the content of the pictures it shows us or even the way it does what it does (though those things are happening too) -- I'm talking about that basic level, the physical substances that constitute a page of comics. Because it's not just ink on paper anymore. Pencil unadorned made up two of this year's most interesting comics. Paint is moving from the void of Alex Ross territory to a more expressive, Jerry Moriarty-ish place in the work of artists like Dash Shaw and CF. Frank Santoro has his glorious airbrush comics and Darwyn Cooke is doing galvanizing work with watercolors. But to me the most interesting of the new substances is the one that isn't a substance at all. 2010 could well go down in history as the year of computer-drawn comics' vindication. Essential artists from Frank Quitely to Michael DeForge are drawing on screens rather than paper, Frazer Irving's hard-light pixel sculptures reached a pinnacle on the pages of his Batman & Robin run, Brendan McCarthy returned to comics and proved in short order that digital psychedelia trumps the other kinds -- and we got Kyle Baker drawing Deadpool Max.
Baker's been playing with computers for longer than pretty much anybody else in genre comics, and while his work with digital media hasn't always been pretty, it's always been forward-looking. Unlike anything previous. Baker simply isn't interested in the computer as a time-saver or a homogenizer (which are the things the rest of the mainstream seems most eager to get out of it) -- instead he's spent more than a decade tinkering with ways to get expression from artifice, to turn the computer's flat and sterile way of image-making into a tool for expression, to get inside the binary code and start slinging it around in the wild, loosehanded way he's slung his ink for so long. It's been a long process, and fascinating to watch: really akin to seeing someone teaching themselves to draw all over again on the pages of published mainstream comics. And on Deadpool Max Baker has finally gotten there, to a virtuosic use of the computer as pure aesthetic tool that's rivaled only by Ben Jones and the Paper Rad crew. While so many artists create digital work that denies the computer's tendency toward creating total disorientation, Baker's work outright revels in it. Inconsistent backgrounds and immense detailing and flat color and overly simple modeled shapes, impediments to so many comics that have come before, are given enough room to be themselves in Deadpool Max that the figures and brushstrokes and rendering -- the elements of traditional comics art -- fall into harmony with them rather than edging them out. Baker is simply encompassing more on his pages than anyone else right now, and watching him synchronize a full range of LCD magic with good old-fashioned action comics drawing is a fascinating experience you just can't get anywhere else.
That said, the most viscerally exciting moments of the book so far have been the panels where Baker abandons traditional drawing entirely, leaving behind visible inkwork for pure-digital experiments that don't look much like anything comics have done before. Like most revolutionary comics art, these sequences don't always work perfectly. They are transcendent, and they can glow too brightly or blend together too well or simply derail the reading experience. When they work, though, they work like magic. The panel above is so iconographically simple that you can read through it in less than a second, but so visually arresting that it hits you with that killer Kirby pop as you go. It's so heavily detailed that the Marvel print process couldn't contain it -- check out how vicious the grain of the dot screens gets over it! -- but the detail is layered on a few strong, instantly recognizable elements that need no explanation. It adds nothing but depth, an extra pull into what's going on, exactly what detail should do in comics. The composition is familiar, a standard action shot that you can find in about every other war comic ever drawn, but put to Baker's bizarre, technofied stew of Fauvism and photorealism, it feels unprecedented, innovative. Like the fascinating Marvel-published superhero comic that contains it, it's a new look at something familiar.
What I like best about this panel isn't any of that, though. I love Baker's all-computer drawings because they take me out of the craft-scouring mode of the art analyst and put me back on the edge of my seat as an observer, a passive reciever even. There are no pen lines or brushstrokes or even pencil or airbrush or paint to this picture, nothing to signify the directions Baker's hands were moving in to make this panel or how fast they were going or with what force they pressed down. In a lot of ways it's completely divorced from "craft" as we know it, the imperfections of the human body at work cast aside in favor of flawless digital precision. I don't know whether Baker created the evocative shapes and gorgeous lighting of the treeline here or whether he copied and pasted them from the canvas of some Dutch master. But the thing is, it doesn't matter. By removing the elements of the handmade that dictate "style" in all the comics art of decades past, Baker makes us focus once more not on what the image is made up of, but on what it is. It's a parachute falling to ground, string-straight computer lines adding tension, red implosion punching out dynamism, tall thin canvas stretching out the moment. It's a sliver of time depicted not as it actually looks, but as it's intended to be felt, hot and plunging and desperate. It's beautifully made. Who cares how?