by Mike Baron
I participate in a comic book writers' discussion group. I could tell you the names, but then I'd have to kill you. All five of you. The group includes many of the most famous and popular writers in comics. The other day our moderator asked the question, "Who would you say were the top, oh, 5-25 (if you're feeling really verbose) American (by which I don't mean published in America, I mean living or having lived in North America - Canada/USA/Central America) creators since 1935? We can take Jack Kirby as a given. Leave him out, and Alex Toth."
My list includes Winsor McKay, Alex Raymond, Hal Foster, Carl Barks, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby (he's a given), Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, Wally Wood, Richard Corben, Steve Rude, Jim Lee, and Robert Crumb. I had to be reminded about Carl Barks and Robert Crumb, to my everlasting shame. Before we get to the imbroglio, I'd like to explain my list. Winsor McKay was the creator of Little Nemo in Slumberland, whose mind-bending, architecturally-correct dreamscapes foreshadowed both the psychedelic and modern eras of story-telling. If you've never seen McKay's work, you will experience a simultaneous sense of d?j? vu, and the shock of the new. He does not trade in spandex or overly-developed muscles. McKay's talent lies in creating surreal worlds which suck you in and convince you of their reality. The effect of McKay's art on the surrealists has yet to be explored.
Alex Raymond set down the rules for modern superhero story-telling, with his classically drawn figures. He was among the first great comic book illustrators to draw from life. (My wife Madeline belongs to a local business group that includes James Raymond, Alex' grandson. James is a financial consultant. His father, John Raymond, was Chic Young's assistant for many years before taking over the reins on Blondie. James says he only met his grandfather once, his uncle never, and that nothing remains of their vast drawn legacy. At least not in the family.)
Hal Foster did similar work for Prince Valiant, bringing detailed authenticity to his Arthurian legend. The only reason Burne Hogarth is not in his company is because Raymond and Foster had already blazed the trail which Hogarth assiduously followed. Too assiduously. As he aged, Hogarth's work became almost obsessive/compulsive in its rendering of every muscle, often in unlikely positions. When it comes to learning how to draw, Hogarth's books Dynamic Anatomy and Dynamic Figure Drawing remain seminal works. I recommend them highly.
The Sunday newspaper supplements of the first three quarters of the last century were unfolding tesseracts of wonder, the not-so-crude precursors to today's video games. Before newspaper circulation began to dry up, the Sunday paper was the primary source of entertainment for the nation. There were dozens of serious strips you had to follow regularly. Dick Tracy, Mary Worth, Mike Nomad, Little Orphan Annie, the list goes on and on. Even if the strips don't survive, their characters do, in the odd afterlife of bankable names. Today, there are barely a handful of dramatic serials, squeezed into irrelevance not only by their diminishing size and circulation, but by the glacial pace of story-telling established in the thirties.
America is on the move. We want our entertainment harder, noisier, and above all, faster. Most video games dispense with narrative altogether, save for the barest hanging structure, revenge, lust, or greed, draped around the bloodshed like a Sergio Leone flashback. King Features had the good sense to tap Gary Gianni to carry on Prince Valiant, but Gianni's brilliant line work is wasted on a daily basis, in newsprint. He doesn't have the time to develop his pictures.
Carl Barks (Uncle $crooge) has always been a major influence on me for his effortless characterizations, ability to switch between humor and pathos, and comic timing. Will Eisner's (The Spirit) greatest influence lies in his splash pages, which often incorporated the architecture into the title. He pioneered a more mature story-telling that appealed to everyone, from kids to adults. Eisner has been influenced in turn by the undergrounders, launching him on a new career path, autobiographical vignettes of New York, often through immigrant eyes.
Kirby exploded the genre, creating the impression that the story didn't stop at the edge of the page, but kept on expanding into the universe. He would capture a piece of that universe and convince you it was coming straight at you. Ditko's quirky style went hand in hand with his quirky subject matter, including Spider-Man. Modern readers may not be familiar with Ditko's more personal work, such as Mr. A, from which we can surmise that Ditko is a libertarian, and a devout follower of Ayn Rand.
Neal Adams reinvigorated realism in comic book illustration, and created a dynamic style that enthralls young artists today. His Batman and Green Arrow/Green Lantern remain among comics' high marks. (Needless to say, they would not have had such impact without Denny O'Neil's powerful writing.)
Wally Wood brought a craftsman's intensity and ribald sense of humor to his work, which reached its apotheosis in the work of the late Rand Holmes. Wood's EC covers continue to inspire illustrators today. Hardly a year goes by without several covers that are direct homage to Wood.
Richard Corben's unique blend of animation and air brush brought special effects to comics. His action sequences come alive. You can feel your jaw pop.
Steve Rude revitalized the Raymond/Foster tradition of life drawing, while incorporating Kirby's fantastic imagination.
Jim Lee represents the best of the Image style, heroic, cinematic, and detailed. Nor will you find any appendages chopped off because Jim can't draw them.
R. Crumb's work is too prolific and iconoclastic to ignore. As an illustrator, he draws equally from Carl Barks and Von Dutch.
Some of my fellow correspondents suggested Byrne. He's had a hand in redefining half the major super-heroes for Marvel and DC. Others objected on the basis of Byrne's personality, citing his most recent outburst, in which he decried public adulation of Christopher Reeve as a hero. One writer wrote, "I agree with all of the above -- except John Byrne, who is a) British or Canadian or something, un-American by birth and b) a miserable motherfucker by nature."
(Byrne inspires strong feelings. There are several threads running on Comicon, most of them initiated by a poster with the monomaniacal intensity of Captain Ahab. Byrne is his Moby Dick. Captain Ahab obsessively posts the merest whiff of Byrne malfeasance. Captain Ahab is a self-appointed thought cop. Should any creator offer the tiniest opening, Captain Ahab is quick to accuse him of racism, sexism, and homophobia.)
Several cited Steranko. Steranko had the same affect on me: shock and delight at his graphic modernity. But Steranko's body of work is simply too slim. Other suggestions included Gil Kane, John Buscema, Frank Miller, Berni Wrightson, Russ Heath, John Romita, Harvey Kurtzman, and Sergio Aragones.
Of the making of lists there shall be no end.
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