Emanata: What Superhero Comics Look Like

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Osborn #3 arrived this week with no particular fanfare: the middle episode of a five-issue miniseries that spins out of Amazing Spider-Man, it’s the kind of secondary superhero comic book that doesn’t tend to get a lot of attention. Still, it’s one of the most entertaining comics of the week, a tightly condensed, intensely creepy little drama in which Norman Osborn, who’d been heading toward being the most overexposed Marvel character this side of Deadpool, turns his prison into a hell in which he can reign.

Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick is juggling three different plotlines here: the Osborn-led chaos going on in a super-maximum security prison located underwater, the downfall of a Senator who’s responsible for putting Osborn there, and a pair of newspaper people on the trail of the story. That’s a lot to advance in 22 pages, and DeConnick handles it cleverly by stripping the narrative down to a handful of set-pieces–monologues and dialogues, mostly, anchored by a two-page splash panel early on that establishes the scale of what we’re looking at so the story can go back to more narrowly focused sequences.

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What really puts this issue over the top, though, is Emma Ríos’s artwork: some of the comics she’s drawn in the past have had a much more streamlined look, but her work here is built on the raw, ragged brushstrokes of a Paul Pope or Nathan Fox. The big fight scene here is all coppery chaos and spatters of blood, with pieces of the combatants’ bodies speed-blurred or appearing in too many places at once. The story’s talking-heads scenes are smartly executed, too: there’s one sequence that’s 16 consecutive panels of a single character, in close-up, and Ríos makes her hand gestures and facial expressions carry most of its weight. (Points to colorist José Villarrubia, too: each of the story’s settings has its own ambient light, and the pit within the prison is appropriately hellish.)

It’s also not easy to imagine a story that looks like this one running in a more high-profile series–which is the fault not of Ríos and Villarrubia, but of the current fashion in superhero comics. Most of them, these days, have art that falls within a specific, limited stylistic range: clean-lined, pumped-up, part of the lineage of “realism” that runs from Alex Raymond and Hal Foster through Neal Adams and John Byrne and, more recently, Jim Lee and Alex Ross.

That’s not as painfully small a range as it might be, and it includes some very good, very inventive contemporary cartoonists–Frazer Irving, John Romita Jr., Marcos Martin, Frank Quitely and J.H. Williams III, for instance, are all well within its boundaries, and they’re all superb, distinctive artists. Ben Oliver, whose cover art for Osborn #3 appears above, belongs to that tradition too. (Other artists sometimes work within that stylistic range and sometimes outside it: compare the look of Stuart Immonen’s work on New Avengers –solid and dynamic, very much of its genre–to his minimal, geometrical, ultra-high-contrast artwork on his and Kathryn Immonen’s graphic novel Moving Pictures.)

But the cartooning styles associated with nearly every kind of current comic book that’s not a shared-universe superhero story are outside that range. (Imagine Marjane Satrapi or Masashi Kishimoto or Jeff Lemire drawing an issue of Uncanny X-Men.) And even when those styles are applied to superhero characters, the result doesn’t scan as something that “counts”: part of the point of, say, Strange Tales and most of Wednesday Comics was to apply non-continuity visual approaches to shared-universe characters, but it was also clear that that was just for fun rather than to add something to the canon of continuity.

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The same principle applies to Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier and Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple’s Omega the Unknown: you can tell just by looking at them that they’re off in their own little worlds.  Maybe the problem is that it’s hard to readers to imagine significantly different ways of drawing as depicting stuff that happens in a shared fictional space. (Of course, if Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko were making their first appearances in mainstream comics in 2011, their work would be far outside the range of what looks acceptable for shared-universe superhero comics, too.)

That brings us back to Ríos’ artwork in Osborn, which is something of an edge case. In some ways, like her page layouts, Ríos is totally operating within the idiom of her genre. Her brushwork, though, is unruly, impressionistic, very obviously made by an artist’s hand rather than CGI–great, but not quite in line with superhero-comics norms. And there’s one place in this issue where a scratchy, thrashing Ríos fight scene appears on the left-hand page opposite a Steve McNiven-drawn house ad for Fear Itself: the latter is coolly composed, modeled and rendered with camera-eye precision, in a way that makes Ríos’ vivid page seem by contrast to be, maybe, less “real.” I’d love to see a superhero mainstream that has room at the top for both artists’ approaches, and I wonder what it’ll take to get there.