In comic books, if an artist is good (and maybe a little lucky) they can have long careers, sometimes decades. A lot of factors are at play. Can they draw? Can they convey the story visually? Can they meet deadlines? Do the fans like their work? Can they keep looking fresh?
Some artists change their style, which can cause some chagrin for some fans. Just a couple months ago, on a Facebook comic book fan group page, a member posted two images of the work of John Romita Jr. One was an early piece of his from an issue of The Dazzler, the other was a Superman cover from a few years later. The fan wondered what happened to Romita Jr.’s work. Why had it gotten so different and, in their opinion, so bad?
The thing about art is that it’s really subjective. It depends on what you like. The John Romita Jr. discussion fostered plenty of disagreement. Folks were arguing about which period of Romita Jr.’s work was better. There were lots of opinions attempting to justify each person’s position, making consensus difficult.
What do I think? Later John Romita Jr. illustration is better.
The answer to what happened to John Romita Jr.’s work, and I’m speculating here, is that he appeared to have decided to stop trying to conform to a formulaic comic book style and started drawing in his style. And, in my opinion, his work got so much more interesting.
Romita Jr. is one of four artists that come to my mind as examples of embracing their own style and achieving greater artistic heights. The others are Barry Windsor-Smith, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Mike Mignola. They are each examples of artists coming into the industry with a look that wasn’t especially interesting (not bad, just not interesting), and then developed into great and unique artists.
Barry Windsor-Smith started working for Marvel in the late 1960s. His Jack Kirby-like style endeared him to Stan Lee. That got Windsor-Smith’s foot in the door, but then he began to adjust his style and moved away from producing work the looked like Kirby to work that had elements of Joe Kubert and Moebius, but was becoming more an more his own look. His progression in the ’70s and ’80s right through the 2000s is nothing less than astounding.
When Marvel Comics’ character Moon Knight received his own title in 1980, Bill Sienkiewicz was the artist at the helm. He had done a few Fantastic Four issues as well and he had a decided Neal Adams style. As his work continued on Moon Knight, the Neal Adams influence began to fade and what Sienkiewicz began to produce would lead to a style that, although having similarities to illustrator Bob Peak’s work, really was all his own and very innovative in the field of comic books.
His work may not have pleased purists, but it brought comic book art into a whole new strata of illustration.
Mike Mignola started at Marvel in the early ’80s and I was buying Alpha Flight when he took over pencils after John Byrne left the book and I was… underwhelmed. Something just didn’t look right. Eventually, even while drawing superheroes, Mignola’s style began to come through. My whelmness increased. And when Hellboy debuted, I felt Mignola’s true style had fully revealed itself.
John Romita Jr.
This brings me to the artist I talked about at the beginning of this week’s blog. I think John Romita Jr.’s career has the benefit and difficulty of following in his father’s footsteps. The senior Romita cast a very large shadow. His influence on Marvel Comics in the ’60s and ’70s cannot be overstated. The man was a workhorse and he was a large factor in establishing the Marvel look.
So, I think, when Romita Jr. started he was pretty much locked in those giant footsteps of his father’s, but he began to allow his style to come out. His doing so, in my opinion, propelled his work beyond that of his father’s.
What these four artists have in common is they all started in the industry working in the style set down by their predecessors. They were all capable storytellers, but they lacked that certain something. When each artist shook off the establishment style and embraced they own way of drawing, their work became more fresh and exciting. They became innovators and they expanded the world of comic book art.
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Images used under Fair Use.