Archive for May 2013

Comic Art Friday: The tao of Steve

May 31, 2013

Big Wow ComicFest… the gift that keeps on giving.

In last week’s Comic Art Friday, we checked out the superfluity of goodness that came home with me from the Bay Area’s favorite comics confab earlier this month. That abundance did not yet include an additional item that I commissioned during the con for completion afterward.

Now it does.

Valkyrie and Taarna, mixed media art by Steven E. Gordon

When I first rolled up on Steven E. Gordon‘s table in Artist’s Alley on Saturday, his name did not immediately register with me. I did, however, admire the samples of his art that were on display. After chatting for a bit with Steve and his wife, I told him I’d return on Sunday with a commission project for him. Steve advised me that he probably wouldn’t be able to start the piece before the con ended, but that he would gladly take my information and send me the art when it was done.

At home on Saturday night, I Googled Steve to get a better idea of his style, with a view to choosing a Common Elements concept appropriate to his talents. I was astounded to discover that I actually knew Steve’s previous work quite well — I just didn’t realize who he was.

As it turns out, Steve Gordon possesses one of the most extensive and impressive resumes in the animation business. In film, he’s worked as an animator, designer, and animation director on numerous projects, ranging from Disney classics (The Black Cauldron; The Great Mouse Detective; Oliver and Company) to several directed by the legendary Ralph Bakshi (Lord of the Rings; American Pop; Cool World). In television, Steve has contributed his talents to a host of series, from Mighty Mouse to The Avengers.

With the light of giddy anticipation breaking over my mental horizon, I realized that I just met a key contributor to one of my all-time favorite animated features: Ralph Bakshi’s sword-and-sorcery epic, Fire and Ice — the product of Bakshi’s collaboration with the dean of fantasy illustrators, the late, lamented Frank Frazetta. Sometimes described (not altogether inaccurately) as “Conan the Animated Barbarian,” Fire and Ice melds Frazetta’s unmistakable design aesthetic with Bakshi’s storytelling and unique cinematic style, including ample use of the latter’s trademark rotoscoping technique. From a narrative perspective, it’s not the most original film Bakshi ever directed, what with veteran comics scribes Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway importing a bucketload of tropes they’d each previously employed writing Conan’s adventures for Marvel. But without question, Fire and Ice stands among Bakshi’s most visually appealing creations, thanks in large part to Frazetta’s input, along with background artists James Gurney (Dinotopia) and Thomas Kinkade (yes, that Thomas Kinkade), as well as Peter Chung, who would go on to create Aeon Flux for MTV. And of course, the work of animation director Steven E. Gordon.

Having made the Fire and Ice connection, I knew what Steve’s Common Elements assignment would be — two characters who would fit perfectly into Bakshi and Frazetta’s world of swordplay and mystical mayhem: Marvel’s Viking vixen, Valkyrie, and Taarna, the iconic heroine from my beloved Heavy Metal: The Animated Film.

Aside from the obvious “blade-slinging beauty” angle, Val and Taarna share two other, more subtle commonalities. Both have real monomymic real names — Valkyrie’s true identity is simply called Brunnhilde — and both are seen to be reincarnated in multiple persons. Over her career in comics, the spirit of Brunnhilde has been reborn in several women, most notably Barbara Norriss and Samantha Parrington. At the conclusion of Heavy Metal, we find Taarna’s spirit alive new in the young girl seen previously in the linking segments (titled “Grimaldi”) throughout the film.

Steve’s sensibility as an animation designer fits these heroines like an armored gauntlet. Who wouldn’t want to watch an entire movie of Taarna and Val wading into pitched battle against hordes of hostile foes? Sign me up!

Not only did Steve turn out his take-home commission assignment beautifully and speedily — I received a scan of the finished piece less than a week after Big Wow concluded — he also graciously autographed the cover of my Fire and Ice DVD. (He did seem a touch surprised that someone actually owned one.) Now if only I could run into Ralph Bakshi one of these days…

And that, friend reader, is your Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: How now, Big Wow?

May 24, 2013

Last year, Big Wow ComicFest coincided with the Pirate Queen’s and my honeymoon. (A honeymoon outranks a con every time.) That accident of timing, coupled with the greedy [plural expletive redacted] at ComicCon International moving our beloved WonderCon to SoCal, meant that I hadn’t had the chance to attend a comics convention these past two years. It was, therefore, with giddy anticipation that I awaited this year’s Big Wow.

My eagerness did not go unrewarded.

Unlike WonderCon, which has become increasingly multimedia-focused over the past decade, Big Wow remains mostly what it claims to be — a festival celebrating comics, and the talented people who make them. Perhaps in part due to WonderCon’s departure, the event has ballooned to attract many of the biggest names in the industry, including the legendary Stan Lee, who drew hordes of autograph-seekers to his signing appearance on Sunday afternoon. The focus on comics means that one need not wade through acres of gaming displays and movie studio publicity machinery to access artists, many of whom spent the weekend busily sketching away for their fans.

Namely, yours truly.

After scoring a gorgeous Supergirl commission from Brian Stelfreeze at (what proved to be San Francisco’s final) WonderCon two years ago, a companion Stelfreeze ranked high on my shopping list for Big Wow 2013. Thanks to Brian’s fan group coordinator, I was able to arrange a Mary Marvel commission in advance of the show, and Brian spent a fair chunk of Saturday working on her. I’d specifically asked Brian to draw Mary old-school — that is, not in the hypersexualized style in which the character is often presented these days. (Mary is, after all, supposed to be a teenaged girl.) Brian complied with a wonderfully adorable rendition that captures Mary’s sweetness perfectly. Both artist and commissioner took delight in the result.

Brian Stelfreeze and Mary Marvel, Big Wow 2013

Mary Marvel, pencils and inks by comics artist Brian Stelfreeze

I’d also reached out prior to the convention to Steve Mannion, who’s probably best known for his Fearless Dawn creator-owned series. Steve has done several commissions for me over the years, including two entries in my Common Elements theme. I’m always fascinated by his unique, distinctly off-kilter style. This outing, I decided to have him draw Mantis, a heroine from the Bronze Age period of the Avengers for whom I’ve always had a certain fondness. Steve did not disappoint, turning in a quirky-cute portrayal of the Celestial Madonna. This One likes her very much.

Steve Mannion and Mantis, Big Wow 2013

Mantis, pencils by comics artist Steve Mannion

Ron Lim, one of comics’ underrated classic superhero artists, can always be counted on for a solid commission under the time pressure of a con. My original plan for Ron was to have him draw a solo piece featuring the Falcon. As I approached his table, I decided instead to have him add a third Common Elements project to the two he’d drawn previously. I came up with the concept on the spot, pairing Falcon — Marvel’s first African-American superhero — with Storm, the company’s first black superheroine. And of course, Ron rocked the execution like nobody’s business. I couldn’t resist fitting Ron’s young son, who spent the weekend happily sketching alongside his dad, into the photo. (Ron assured me that his son did not draw any part of this commission. But give the kid a few years. The apple does not fall far from the tree.)

Ron Lim and son, Big Wow 2013

Storm and the Falcon, pencils by comics artist Ron Lim

I hadn’t crossed paths with David “BroHawk” Williams in a few years, but I was delighted to see that Big Wow’s website used the Mary Marvel commission David drew for me back in 2008 as an example of his work. Dave recalled that piece fondly when we chatted at Big Wow — a typically self-critical artist, Dave noted several details in Brian Stelfreeze’s rendition of Mary that he wished he himself had included. I enjoyed chatting with him about his recent and current projects, as well as watching him polish off this striking portrait of Vixen. Dave is another criminally undervalued talent whom I’d love to see doing more high-profile comics work.

David Williams and Vixen, Big Wow 2013

Vixen, pencils and inks by comics artist David Williams

One of the genuine pleasures of conventions is meeting in person artists I’ve interacted with, and even commissioned, via the Internet. This time out, I had the opportunity to thank Drew Johnson for the incredible Common Elements commission he completed for me earlier this year. Not coincidentally, I brought Drew’s artwork with me to the con, and got him to pose for a photo with his creation.

Drew Johnson with his Common Elements commission, Big Wow 2013

Having dialed in my collecting focus on commissions in recent years, I rarely buy preexisting art these days. A handful of pieces, however, managed to find their way home with me from Big Wow this year. The big prize among these was a stunning noir-inspired drawing by pinup artist Jim Silke, whose work I’ve admired for a long time. Jim’s work generally rides above my usual price point, so I mostly content myself with salivating over his portfolios whenever I see him at a con, and hope that someday I’ll stumble on that winning Powerball ticket. When I saw this piece on Saturday, I immediately felt drawn to it — and Jim’s listed price on it fell into a range where I could at least permit the flirtation. I showed it to the Pirate Queen on Sunday, and her reaction surprised me: “You should buy it.” I demurred, but I found myself back at Jim’s table several more times during the day. (I tried to pick times when Jim had stepped away. I didn’t want to be one of those people.) After I’d collected my last completed commission for the weekend, I still had enough budgeted cash left to cover the Silke. With the Pirate Queen’s blessing, I brought her home. Jim was probably more relieved than anything.

Jim Silke and his femme fatale, Big Wow 2013

Pencil pinup by artist Jim Silke

Cat Staggs has worked on various Star Wars properties, and more recently has been drawing interiors and creating digitally painted covers and pinups for DC. This introspective Saturn Girl is the original pencil art for one of the latter, and I was thrilled to pick it up for a surprisingly discounted price. I’ve posted both the pencil art I purchased and a scan of the finished painting, so that you can see how Cat completed her masterpiece.

Saturn Girl, pencils by comics artist Cat Staggs

Saturn Girl, digital painting by comics artist Cat Staggs

Most comic art fans know Joel Adams as “Neal Adams’s son.” While that is true, it’s a more than a trifle unfair to Joel, who’s a talented artist in his own right. I couldn’t decide whether I liked his Supergirl or his Spider-Woman more. Lucky for me, Joel offered a price for the pair that made it unnecessary to choose between them.

Spider-Woman, pencils by comics artist Joel Adams

Supergirl, pencils by comics artist Joel Adams

Part of the fun of a convention’s Artists Alley is wandering past all the tables of budding artists whose work I’ve never seen before. Most of these I glance at and keep walking, usually with a smile and a (hopefully encouraging) nod to the artist. Every once in a while, I come across something that actually makes me stop and take a longer look. At Big Wow, that happened to me at the table of Ramon Villalobos, a young artist previously unknown to me. I found Ramon’s style intriguing enough to pick up two of his original drawings. There’s an otherworldly, yet somehow retrospective, quality in his work that appeals to me. There’s some Frank Quitely in Ramon’s style, some Los Bros Hernandez, and maybe even a bit of Juan Gimenez in there as well.

Wonder Woman, pencils and inks by comics artist Ramon Villalobos

Mary Marvel, pencils and inks by comics artist Ramon Villalobos

A panel we attended on Sunday stands out among the highlights of the con: The legendary Olivia DeBerardinis, in my opinion the greatest female pinup artist ever, being interviewed by Jim Silke, no slouch himself in the pinup genre. Both the Pirate Queen and I enjoyed hearing Olivia’s unique perspective on the art world in general, and specifically on her place in it as a woman who paints women almost exclusively. I’m rarely starstruck, but I could not resist having a photo taken with Olivia after her panel, and having her autograph a copy of her Bettie Page art book.

Olivia and fan, Big Wow 2013

All in all, Big Wow 2013 proved well worth the investment of time and capital. I’m already looking forward to next May.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: Raiders of the lost archaeology

May 10, 2013

And… we’re back.

Sorry about the dearth of activity for the last little while. The Pirate Queen and I jetted off Down Under from late March into mid-April for an extended tour of Australia and New Zealand. As we chat, I’m pulling together my notes and photographs for a series of posts showcasing the highlights of the trip. Check back here next week for the first fun-filled romp.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled Comic Art Friday.

Lara Croft and Hawkgirl, pencils by comics artist Drew Edward Johnson

Longtime readers know that I keep lengthy lists of potential concepts for my two signature commission themes, Common Elements and Bombshells! That way, when the opportunity to commission an artist presents itself, I have several ideas ready to roll. I also keep a “wish list” of artists whose availability I monitor, in hope that I might jump on the chance to add their talents to my theme galleries.

I love it when the cosmos aligns, and the two lists intersect.

Drew Edward Johnson found his way onto my radar as one of a handful of artists who’ve been regulars on both of my favorite DC headline heroines, Wonder Woman and Supergirl. Drew’s commission list had been closed for some time, so when he began taking assignments again, I couldn’t wait to get on his list. I had the perfect Common Elements scenario in mind: a pairing of two of comics’ greatest archaeologists — Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, and Shiera Hall, the Silver Age version of Hawkgirl (or Hawkwoman, if you prefer… more on that in a moment).

Lara Croft is familiar to most as the lead character from the Tomb Raider video game franchise, as well as a pair of live-action feature films starring Angelina Jolie in the title role. Lara, however, has also enjoyed a successful history as a comic book heroine. She starred in a monthly series published by Top Cow Productions from 1999 to 2005, as well as several miniseries and one-shot specials during that period. Most of these comics presented Lara in different storylines from either the video games or films. (Drew Johnson was one of the pencil artists on Tomb Raider: Journeys, a 12-issue limited series that began in 2001.)

Although Lara began life as little more than a distaff Indiana Jones knockoff, I find that her comics capers have developed her into a vital, unique, and compelling character — a tough, resourceful, and brilliant scientist-adventurer who fearlessly engages any foe. Most of the writers who’ve scripted her books have attempted to give her a quirky British sensibility, which provides an interesting texture. Much is made of Lara’s appearance — she’s an attractive, athletic woman, usually drawn with a prominent bustline — but in the main, her stories in the comics don’t focus on exploitation. I think she’s a terrific heroine, one who’d make a great lead for a weekly TV series.

Hawkgirl suffers from the same insanely convoluted continuity that has plagued Hawkman, her frequent partner in life and combat, over the decades. In fact, it’s more accurate to speak about Hawkgirl in the plural than in the singular, because there have been several versions (often conflicting in origin, backstory, and name) since the character debuted in 1940. At times, she’s been presented as Shiera Hall, a reincarnated princess/goddess from ancient Egypt; at others, she’s been Shayera Hol, a police officer from the planet Thanagar; in still other versions, she’s been Kendra Saunders, a tormented young woman possessed by the spirit of a previous Hawkgirl. Umm… yeah. I won’t even attempt to untangle all of that twisted history in this space.

In recent years, Hawkgirl underwent yet another revision, this time as a member of the Justice League of America as shown in the animated TV series Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Her television persona possessed organic wings — historically, Hawkgirl’s wings have generally been explained as prosthetics, fashioned from the mysterious Nth Metal — and developed a complex, realistic romantic relationship with Green Lantern John Stewart. In my opinion, this Hawkgirl combined the best elements of the character’s potential, allowing her to flourish as an independent entity freed of her status as Hawkman’s significant other and sidekick.

Back to our earlier point: Depending on which iteration of the female Hawk we’re discussing, the character has employed both Hawkgirl and Hawkwoman as her code name at various times. Throughout most of her history, however, she’s been Hawkgirl — which, sexism aside, does roll more trippingly off the tongue. Since Hawkgirl is her most familiar nom de guerre, and the one most fans would associate with the uniform she wears here, that’s what we’ve used. I hope this doesn’t cost me decades of feminist street cred.

Uniting these two heroines is, for me, a chance to extol the virtues of the multidimensional superheroine. Neither Lara Croft or Hawkgirl is just a hot chick in abbreviated attire. They’re scientific explorers with expertise in an academically rigorous field. I believe it’s important that we have female role models in our culture who embrace a broad array of skills and disciplines. Young girls need to see that women can be smart and talented, and not mere eye candy. If heroes are crack shots and expert fighters, why not have heroines — such as Lara Croft — who can outshoot and outfight the best of them? And if a hero can swing a medieval mace, why can’t a heroine — a heroine who also can explain the historical significance and context of that weapon? If there’s an Indiana Jones, there ought to be a Lara Croft. If there’s a Justice League, there ought to be a Hawkgirl (okay, okay… Hawkwoman) in it.

As for the argument, “But do they have to be gorgeous?” well, that’s how we like our heroes, regardless of gender. There’s a reason why Harrison Ford nabbed the Indiana Jones role (which was originally intended for Tom Selleck, by the way; he couldn’t get out of his Magnum P.I. contract fast enough to make Raiders of the Lost Ark) and, say, Steve Buscemi or Rick Moranis didn’t. If masculine heroism is going to be typified by Harrison Ford, it’s hard to say that the ladies shouldn’t be represented by the likes of Angelina Jolie.

For this commission, Drew Johnson decided to create a look for Lara Croft that differs from her classic image — no braid, no sunglasses, no cargo shorts — yet keeps her clearly identifiable. I like Drew’s approach a great deal — retrospective yet sleekly modern, and beautifully heroic. I also appreciate that he gives her a more naturally athletic frame, without the exaggerated proportions (read: mammary appendages) that people sometimes associate with Ms. Croft. Together, we decided to use Hawkgirl’s Silver Age costume — both of us favored that particular look among the multiple designs she’s worn during her decades-spanning tenure.

The scenario portrayed here, incidentally, is all Drew — with a single exception that he revealed on his blog. After he originally sketched the layout, Drew showed his rough draft to his studio mate, Chris Moreno. Chris thought Drew’s first take on Hawkgirl felt a mite too static, so he suggested a different pose. Drew liked Chris’s retooling, and used the alternate Hawkgirl positioning in his final pencils. Nothing like a little collaboration between two titanic talents.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.