Divisive Artists

Another question about the artistic direction of the Spider-Man comics is whether controversial artists should be eschewed in favor of safer choices. It’s part of an old debate in the entertainment industry: When is it worth alienating existing customers to draw in new consumers? This has always been a balancing act for  comics, although for the purpose of this discussion I’m interested in the reactions to artistic style, rather than anything to do with plot developments.

The most controversial artists tend to be in the weird category, as opposed to the dynamic, street-level and Ditkoesque Spider-Man artists. And it’s worth noting that the most popular new Spider-Man artist of the last forty years was initially quite divisive. And Todd McFarlane’s work got weirder as the initial shock wore off, as he went from Amazing Spider-Man to a best-seller that was essentially a horror comic.

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Any editor worth his salt will recognize that some artists are going to put off more current readers than others. A Barry Kitson will be a safer choice than a Brendan McCarthy. Having read discussions about John Romita Jr’s shortcomings, I’m sure every artist on the planet has some detractors, but some do have more than others. These guys are usually employed because they still have a tremendous appeal to some readers, and obviously some writers and editors. I might include Humberto Ramos, Eric Canete, Paul Azaceta and Chris Bachalo in this group. This isn’t limited to pencillers. While many people won’t buy a book by Jeph Loeb, he’s still a successful comic book writer.

Amazing Spider-Man currently has a unique problem. Because of the current amount of content—something that is likely to continue in the future—the title going to require rotating artists. So it’s quite easy to argue that the book should be limited to safer (and often blander) pencillers, so that customers can enjoy every issue, and will be less likely to drop the book, because they just don’t care for the style of a guy who draws a quarter of the issues.

I sometimes like it when artists come for a single issue or for a short storyline, like Steve McNiven in the opening arc of Brand New Day, or Eric Canete for the Deadpool team-up. That’s technically not rotating artists, though. That said, the reaction to Canete’s issue on Comic Book Resources was quite strong.

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I’ll disagree with anyone who disparages Canete’s talent, a common mistake detractors of particular artists can make, when they try to use objective terminology to describe something subjective. Canete’s art is inventive and kinetic. It’s a solid match for a quirky Spider-Man story, and works pretty well in the context of the actual issue. It seems to me that when you have art that isn’t absolutely “on-model” (a polite way of saying ugly, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) what matters most is consistency. That’s where you can criticize a Rob Liefeld, and praise an Art Spiegelman or James Kochalka. Although you’re unlikely to see either announced as the next regular artist of Amazing Spider-Man unless it happens to be April First.

A one-off issue of Amazing Spider-Man isn’t that big a deal. An unhappy reader will recognize that it won’t affect his or her enjoyment of future issues. But if a divisive artist is made a member of the rotating creative team, it’s a different situation, as that guy is likely to work on the title again in the future, on storylines that will have an impact on work by other creators. During the Brand New Day era, this happened with Paul Azaceta, who drew the opening arc of the Gauntlet, the story in which Peter Parker got fired and the final five-part Origin of the Species saga. Humberto Ramos was the artist of several of the most significant storylines of the Big Time era, including the first four issues, Spider Island, the  50th anniversary introduction of Alpha, and the final two issues.

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Ramos has many detractors on the internet, as evident by a CBR thread in which a poster tries to figure out why this guy gets work on one of Marvel’s top titles. Editor Stephen Wacker provided his answer.

You may find it condescending, but I can’t help how you feel. Humberto is inarguably one of the best in the business and has inspired scores of artists working today as well as being incredibly in demand from writers. That’s why Marvel named him an “Architect”. Sorry, but facts is facts.

People may not like his work, but to be so dimissive is naive, misguided…and just plain wrong.

Your tastes don’t “need” to evolve, but they will. (Just like the tastes of a dumb 80s kid I know who didn’t appreciate Jack Kirby, Don Heck or Mike Sekowsky).

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Ramos has drawn some of the most successful Spider-Man stories of the last few years, which seems to suggest that enough readers like his work. The counter-argument is that his stories have been among the most promoted of the last five years, and that it would have sold even better with a less alienating artist. However, Ramos’s work has been used during the promotion of those books, which suggests that he could deserve much of the credit for the high sales.

The easiest suggestion is that the title should be limited to the best and least divisive artists. There are a handful out there who are can attract the crowd interested in experimental work, while remaining accessible to most comic book readers. One problem is that these guys are in short supply, typically the most popular in the industry. Everyone wants John Cassady on their book. The other problem for Spider-Man editors is that some of these artists just aren’t that good at drawing the main character. George Perez is a legend in the field, but he never quite got the handle on Spidey.

Another suggestion is that controversial artists should be shuffled off to side projects, so that customers aren’t pressured to buy a product they’re not interested in. That way, readers are less likely to drop the title. If Marvel segregated the artists editors determined were divisive, we might not have seen Todd Mcfarlane on Amazing Spider-Man.

On the other hand, it could it be argued that it’s better to put these guys on the big projects. The detractors will most likely still buy the product, but this also encourages those readers who like the guy’s style to pick up the highly-promoted new project. I’m not sure this approach is recommended, as it doesn’t seem like there are a lot of people who pick up a book because they want to see more work from their favorite penciller.

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In my experience, when I try to buy all the work by an artist or writer, it’s usually someone fairly new. That’s when it just seems the most fresh. Eventually, the novelty wears off. As I noted before, George Perez is one of the best comic book artists alive, but I’m not going to run and buy everything he draws. Because I’m not going to get as much out of the 92nd issue (just an educated guess) I read with George Perez’s work as I would with the 5th issue by someone new whose work really impressed me. I may get more out of his newer work after an absence, as I’ll be more impressed by any new techniques. As a reader, I do probably care more about the writing. But I’m not sure that my tastes reflect those of the average customer.

Making the decisions on whether to keep an artist solely due to sales figures does carry some problems. The companies often have a limited amount of data points, making it hard to tell the reasons something was or wasn’t ordered. With pre-orders and all the other factors that contribute to an issue’s ranking on the sales charts, it’s difficult to tell what effect an artist had, unless it’s really drastic.

Although that could suggest that the effect of choosing a particular artist over another is minimal. If so, the company’s priority is getting an artist ideally suited for a particular story (someone who handle crowd scenes for Spider Island, someone who can draw robots for a spider slayers arc, etc) rather than worrying about whether a divisive artist will attract more readers than he scares away.

The Infinite Spider-Man is a series of mini-essays regarding Marvel’s options for the future of the best character in comics.

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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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One Response to Divisive Artists

  1. wwayne says:

    The panel you published comes from “Masques”, a story which clearly reveals that in 1991 McFarlane had already in mind Spawn and his universe. Ghost Rider moved his chains exactly like Spawn, the atmosphere and the setting are more or less the same, and the horror touch was another thing Masques has in common with Spawn. Todd McFarlane is a real genius.

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