"Snapshot: Revelation!" in DC Universe Legacies #8, by Frank Quitely and Len Wein. DC.
I'm of the opinion that Frank Quitely is one of the most interesting artists currently working in mainstream comics. Right now his career seems to be in a transitional phase, a quiet in-between moment. He's done his "Watchmen" -- the big manifesto that will probably end up defining its decade in superhero comics -- with All Star Superman. He's done his experimental masterpiece that pushed comics into places they've never been before with We3. He churned out a three-minute-pop-song of a run on Batman & Robin to show he could still cut heads in the trenches with the best of the younger, hungrier hero artists. And then...
Well, from what I hear the guy's got sciatica, which means he has trouble drawing regularly. He's also supposed to be working on the first Watchmen spinoff DC has ever sanctioned. Last year the sum total of his output was a handful of covers and five masterful Batman pages. There's no way for me to really know what's up with the guy's career trajectory, but as an obsessed observer I have to wonder whether the days of Quitely on sustained runs and long-form works aren't over. After all, in addition to his health problems he's scaled pretty much every peak commercial comics have to offer. If his most recent appearance is anything to go by, Quitely may be fading into the romantic quarter-bin backdrop that hero comics offer the geniuses who for whatever reason can't be hot commodities any longer. Some might think that's sad, but as for me I love stuff like this eight-page Quitely short in DCU Legacies #8 -- a random explosion of brilliance slipped into the back of an almost hilariously rote installment of the latest hard-continuity saga. It just so happens that the Legacies story is also the first work Quitely's done in well over half a decade that wasn't scripted by Grant Morrison, leaving the visual side of what has to be one of comics' all time top ten writer-artist teams to bang a solid script from veteran journeyman Len Wein into something beautiful.
It just feels like a pure taste of what superhero comics are really about to see a once-in-a-generation artist blasting a string of killer panels and sequences out of a standard action drama, more so than any masterpiece does. Quitely's back in the trenches for real, no fanfare, just drawings. Here are my favorite ones.
Page 2 panels 1-4: It isn't just the lack of Morrison that marks this story out as different from Quitely's last few years of work. Perhaps in an attempt to channel the old-school, organic quality of Jack Kirby (whose New Gods #1 is directly retold in this story), Quitely eschews the digitized, pencils-only approach he's perfected over the past few years and goes back to straight ink on paper. It's interesting to see a bit of the delicacy and detail of Quitely's pencils get subsumed in the rougher, bolder ink lines, but it also means he can do stuff like the second and third panels in this sequence, in which blobs of black flow across colorist Peter Doherty's muddy backgrounds with a liquid grace that pencil can't touch. That second one almost looks like the inks were silkscreened on over the background to me. The black on black is such a subtle, powerful effect. I go on a lot about how ink-over-pencil-under-digital color is a bizarre, byzantine, unnatural process for making comics that should have been left behind long ago, but the good ones know how to manipulate it into pleasing, unexpected forms.
Page 2 panel 5: This panel is the establishing shot for the page and a half of action that directly follows it. People who've read the original story know that this scene takes place on Apokolips, the hellish planet of the evil gods, but none of that context is written into Wein's script. (DCU Legacies is a weird little series, one that relies on the information about these stories already coded in its hardcore-fanboy audience's heads for much of its effect.) And rather than provide said context in the pictures, Quitely opens with an homage to Kirby's rendering of this particular story moment, which looked like this:
That panel, of course, had pages and pages of establishing shots backing it up. Quitely's composition here is very nice, and would probably be overly cluttered by a Boschian panorama sitting behind it, but it's still strange to see a superhero scene happen in this kind of vague colorspace. This is almost like Frank Santoro territory here! Quitely catches a lot of undeserved flack for his minimal backgrounds, but this sequence struck me as one where the detractors might actually have a point. Maybe that's just the Kirby fan in me wanting to see Quitely's rendition of Apokolips, though. It seems likely enough that the lack of backgrounds was a shortcut taken by an artist in less than optimal physical condition trying to cut down on his drawing time, but it works so effectively during the fight scene that even if it was it's immaterial to me. Also, dig that Kirbyist picnic table floating behind everybody!
Page 2 panel 8: Once again, here's Kirby's rendition of Kalibak the Cruel's big entrance:
Man, this guy is a smart artist. Look how much of the absurdism inherent in Kirby's whopping, hypercartooned style gets brought out just by applying some slightly more realist drawing to the exact same forms. Kalibak's massive dome looks of a piece with Kirby's bombastic dynamism, but it's a downright frightening grotesque when sculpted in Quitely's elegant marks and lit in Doherty's soft pastel hues. A friggin' abomination! It's pretty easy to laugh at this panel, but even though it isn't really menacing, it's a legitimately disturbing image that sticks in the head much longer than Kirby's straighter view into the same scene. Such utter surrealistic strangeness is pretty rare in superhero comics, and Quitely's willingness to give a scene originally drawn by the patron saint of superheroes such a bizarre, farcical reading is even rarer.
Page 3 panels 1-3: People don't talk about Quitely's action sequences enough, probably because they're so formalist and presentational and break the Frank Miller mode of in-panel focus and big hand-to-hand impacts. Quitely creates impact with the whole thing of his fight scenes, and this one is no exception. This one is first and foremost an inspired riff on Kirby's best-known bit of visual grammar, the bursts of pulsating dots known as "Kirby krackle". Quitely's spin on it is even bolder and more bracing than Kirby's, the next "greatest superhero artist" putting his spin on the last. Here the dots, which in Kirby so often seem to be bursting out of the panels, literally do just that, burning holes through the images and into the white gutters behind the panels themselves. It's a great way to show "godlike power" on a comics page, especially as seen through human eyes like it is here -- too total and luminous to be contained. It's also the one attempt at using Kirby krackle I've seen that actually evolves the device instead of just re-using it. Pretty amazing.
The composition of these three panels as a unit is also really strong. The shapes created by the eaten-away panel space are so compelling to me that I wanted to draw a one-page comic that was just this sequence rotated 270 degrees, but I have too many actual comics to draw. Here's a quick photo edit of it instead just so you can see what I mean.
Page 5 panel 2: Here's Quitely's rendition of Kirby's God of Evil, Darkseid. Again, the obvious way to go with the character design is hardcore menacing, stony and cold and bereft of all feeling. That's the way Kirby drew this shot:
But Quitely delivers something a little more... human, honestly, and to my eye that's what makes it a little more chilling. This Darkseid doesn't quite appear to be made of stone, and his face has the dim light of minimal emotion to it. Scorn, total confidence, mocking amusement, and just a dull tug or two of hatred hover around that facial expression, evoked by some especially wonderful ink lines. Once more, Quitely finds the effectiveness of Kirby's story by not being Kirby, dredging up the undertones of a master's work and finding as much in them as there is in the main thrusts of it.
Page 5 panels 3-6: Another savage fight sequence. The innovative use of Kirby krackle is just as well-considered here as before. Quitely adds in one of his own signature visual devices here too, tilting the panels around in their grid to suggest the weight of the impacts drawn inside them. It looks so obvious and simple that it's easy to miss the genius of it: so many artists see grids as fixed, symmetrical dividers that can't be negotiated with, and panel borders as mere dead space with no potential for expression. But Quitely sees the grid as movable pictures hung at certain angles to one another, and has no problem getting in there and moving things around, rearranging them to best suit the needs of his sequencing. I especially dig the transition between the second and third panels, which completely leaves out the point of impact that most artists (including Kirby) compose their fight scenes around. That decision not to show the release of power and only its aftermath seems of a piece with the way the substance of the Kirby krackle can't actually be seen. The supergod's punch landing is literally cut out of the comic, because how can a mere human correctly draw or even fully perceive one divine being socking another one so hard he flies through a fucking wall? That last sentence was just ridiculous right there.
Page 7 panel 1: This is a shot of Kirby's superscience-augmented hippie collective, the Outsiders. Quitely really lets his inner fashion designer loose here (seriously, the guy moonlights as a fashion designer), and the results are pretty great. Kirby's versions of these characters were a mix of biker, hippie, and superhero fashion, and Quitely's modernized version of it takes each of those elements and distills them into elegant, minimal single statements of identity. The digital tie-dye filter Doherty runs the two on the left's threads through looks pretty hot, too. Also awesome: the shoutout to Robert Crumb in the girl on the right's groovy "Keep on Truckin'" t-shirt. Frank Quitely: the most prominent superhero artist to be more influenced by Crumb than Kirby? I think he might be.
(Not trying to take us to a really awkward place, but... ah, whatever... that girl's physique is also another interesting Quitely nod to Kirby's unique way of cartooning the human figure. I've got an article coming this weekend that talks a little about how awkward Kirby usually was drawing women, and here again Quitely draws out the absurdism of Kirby's hyper-pneumatic gals by rendering one with a more realist touch. This is supposed to be a braless hippie girl, keep in mind.)
Page 8 panel 3: Here's the snap ending, a moment from New Gods #1 deftly interpolated into a classic EC Comics-style shocker by Wein. Quitely just goes off the reservation with this scene, which reveals that the god Orion's beauty is merely an illusion projected over a hideously ugly face. In Kirby's version, Orion's face was merely devious and unpleasant:
But Quitely takes the idea and runs with it, creating a mutated, battle-scarred visage of such abominable hideousness that it completely surpasses the original scene despite the high Shakespearean grandeur of Kirby's writing. This is an image that goes for the gut, slamming in menace and horror and dread on the face of a hero after keeping it off those of the bad guys for the whole story. It's a great moment that makes a lot of Quitely's earlier choices look even better in context. The scene and the specific impact it creates is so familiar that I have to wonder whether it could be a homage to a recent bit of mirror-based horror by another hugely influential post-Kirby artist:
That's the final panel of CF's short in the latest Monster anthology. This reminded me a whole lot of it. Just sayin'. Either way, a terrific note for the story to go out on.
And that's it, a few beautiful snatches of comics art bound to last a lot longer than the actual comic they're attached to. It isn't the divine light of All Star Superman or the glowering hunger of We3, but it looks great and brings a middling story up to the level of high drama, and that's no small achievement. As one of mainstream comics' best ever artists, Frank Quitely makes a pretty incredible illustrator of low-level anthology shorts. I wouldn't mind seeing a few more like this one -- it feels a lot cooler than anything else on the spinner racks somehow.