Comic Art Friday: Birth of a notion

I didn’t set out to be a theme commission guy.

In fact, at the beginning of my art collecting journey, I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a commission theme. Much less did I aspire to have one.

But nearly a decade down the road, my reputation in the insular ranks of comic art collectors is firmly cemented. I’m the Common Elements Guy. And, to a lesser extent, the Bombshells! Guy. Or, to that significant segment of collectors who disdain commissioned art (and those who collect it) in favor of published pages, one of “those guys.” I’m among a tiny minority within the ranks whose collection is defined by commissions focused on one or more unifying themes.

And it all started with this drawing.

Spider-Woman (Jessica Drew) and Spider-Woman (Julia Carpenter), pencils by Michael Dooney

On December 1, 2004 (I don’t recall the date from memory, but I keep records of this sort of thing), I commissioned the above piece from artist Michael Dooney, who’s done a boatload of work for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. Mike had recently done a pair of drawings for me — pinups of Ms. Marvel and Saturn Girl — and I was madly in love with his style. (I still am. I’ve commissioned Mike more times than any other pencil artist.) For my third Dooney commission, I decided to ask for a depiction of Spider-Woman — more specifically, the original, who wore a red-and-yellow costume and whose real name was Jessica Drew. (That’s her at the top of the picture.)

Jessica came into being in the late 1970s, when Marvel went through a frenzied burst of creating distaff versions of many of their established heroes. Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk evolved from that same gender-equity soup. Marvel’s idea was to lock up trademarks on all of the variations, so that the Distinguished Competition didn’t steal their thunder by coming out with characters using those names. (The two companies had squabbled over Marvel’s creation of Wonder Man when DC already had Wonder Woman, and DC’s release of Power Girl not long after Marvel debuted Power Man.) I always thought Spider-Woman was an interesting heroine, and figured Dooney would do something visually appealing with her.

The exact thought process is now lost to the mists of history, but at some point before I told Mike what character he was drawing, I said to myself, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have both Spider-Women together?” Because, you see, Marvel also had a second Spider-Woman, who came along in the mid-’80s after the first Spider-Woman’s brief blaze of glory had fizzled out. (Jessica was killed off after a 50-issue run in her own title, and although resurrected shortly afterward, was pretty effectively out of the spotlight.) Spider-Woman II’s debut coincided with Spider-Man’s much-publicized switch from his familiar red-and-blue Spandex to an eye-catching black-and-white ensemble (which eventually became a character in itself, the supervillain Venom). The second Spider-Woman’s garb matched the Web-Slinger’s snazzy new togs, which made for a handy promotional gimmick. (Fortunately, her costume was merely a costume, not a symbiotic alien creature in disguise.) Anyway, I thought the contrast between the two Spider-Women’s uniforms and hair — Jessica has black tresses, while Spider-Woman II (Julia Carpenter) is a redhead — would make for a striking image.

At first, Dooney resisted the idea. “I don’t usually do two-character commissions,” he told me via email. Whatever I said in response, however, must have been persuasive — I’m sure that no offer of a firstborn child was involved — because in the end, Mike agreed to draw the two Spider-Women. (If I remember correctly, Mike surrendered to my pleading by saying, “Well, it’s the holidays.”) I had the pencil drawing in hand less than three weeks later. The art was finished in ink by Joe Rubinstein in 2005, as you can see below.

The Spider-Women (Jessica Drew and Julia Carpenter), pencils by Michael Dooney, inks by Joe Rubinstein

When I saw what Mike had done with Jessica and Julia, the proverbial light bulb flashed on in my head. Wouldn’t it be cool to have several pieces pairing characters that are somehow related, but yet are distinct from each other? I immediately started brainstorming. As the idea took shape, I quickly got away from the Spider-Woman template — essentially, two iterations of the same basic character concept, created by the same publisher (even though Jessica and Julia’s powers are quite different, they’re both Spider-Woman) —  and honed in more specifically on what became the Common Elements theme: characters, usually unconnected to each other in continuity (unlike the two Spider-Women), but who share some trivial point of intersection, whether a similarity in name, costuming, or superpowers, or something more obscure.

From this humble origin grew the legend.

Michael Dooney’s “Spider-Women” launched my signature theme. It’s a bit ironic that this piece should be designated as “Common Elements #1,” given that its subject doesn’t precisely fit the now-cast-in-concrete definition of a Common Elements commission. But it’s okay, I think, for the concept to evolve somewhat away from its starting point. That doesn’t change the fact that, had it not been for this artwork, I might never have come up with the theme that has so thoroughly defined me as a collector.

Which brings me to the underlying message of Common Elements. Much of the beauty of life is the balance between contrast and connection. In Eastern philosophical tradition, this balance is typified by the yin-yang symbol — contrasting elements that together form a whole. It’s negative and positive, masculine and feminine, ebony and ivory — living together in perfect harmony. Common Elements is all about finding linkage where no linkage exists, and making connections in unexpected and unorthodox ways, so that things that would not ordinarily appear together come together to create beauty that would be incomplete without one or the other.

I wasn’t thinking of this consciously when I hit on the idea of Common Elements, but I believe this is part of why this theme resonates with me on such a visceral level:

I am a biracial individual. Although my adoptive parents were both African-American, and I thus was raised in a culturally black home environment (whatever that suggests), my biological parents were of different ethnicities. My genetic mother was of European descent; my genetic father, of African descent. As odd as it may sound to people of my daughter’s generation, at the time I was conceived it was illegal in most parts of this country for my biological parents to marry. I have no idea what brought my progenitors together — everything I know about them comes from a single typewritten paragraph of general description about each — but this I do know: Had they not found their way to one another, despite their differences and the then-prevailing environment hostile to those differences — I would not exist. And yet, the fact of my existence proves that, different though they were, my birth parents shared a common biology. Both their differences and their commonalities make me, me — at least, on a physical level.

When I commission a new Common Elements artwork, I’m bringing together artists and characters that, in most cases, have never been united before. I’m defining a connection between heroes and/or heroines who have, in most cases, never been connected before. I’m envisioning something that no one else has seen, and finding a means of bringing it to reality.

I think that’s kind of cool.

In a certain way, that’s kind of like who I am. Which in itself is kind of cool, too.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Comic Art Friday, Getting Racial Up In This Piece, Reminiscing, SwanStuff, That's Cool!

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