During this week’s Comic Book Club in New York City, X-Factor writer Peter David made an interesting point as the comedic trio each took potshots at Jeph Loeb’s Ultimate Hulk Annual #1 (which, at this point, really has taken a bit of a beating by reviewers).
While people have said that the story was cartoonish and trite, David argued (starting at 02:43) that was because they were not viewing it in the proper context — that this was meant to be a light-hearted, lightweight story, but that people couldn’t see that because of the A-list art by Ed McGuinness and Marko Djurdjevic.
In other words, what if that story — in which a naked, pancake-craving Ultimate Hulk battles a ticked-off Power Princess (from J. Michael Strazcynski’s Supreme Power), culminating in them randomly sleeping together — was drawn by Sergio Aragones? Or Kevin Maguire? Or Darrick Robertson?
Which brings us to an interesting question, one that really burrows down to the foundation of any individual issue: the relationship between art, expectation, and tone.
For example, Mark Millar’s Ultimates series was meant to be high-octane action with a healthy dollop of today’s post-9/11 cynicism. Shown through the “camera” of Bryan Hitch, the series was larger than life yet extremely down to earth — characters’ abs were not seen bursting through their spandex, and costume designs such as Iron Man’s armor were not the streamlined outfits of old, but more clunky, realistic images. The level of detail meant that readers took the story seriously, and because Millar worked strenuously to create a world not too different from ours, the series was a critically-acclaimed success.
Now imagine, if you will, if Rafael Albuquerque drew Ultimates. I can pretty much assure you that the series would not have ranked nearly as well, because Albuquerque’s style is more cartoony and emotional. In other words, good chops, but not for this story.
Continuing on this thread, let’s look at the series that has worked wonders for Albuquerque — Blue Beetle. While the series does have action to it, the tone of the series is characterization and comedy. No Michael Bay explosions here. Of course, with the additional comedy, it’s a series that readers, subconsciously or not, are willing to take greater patience with. For example, one issue of Blue Beetle had Eclipso unleash Jaime Reyes’ power fantasy in a one-on-one battle with rough-around-the-edges pal Paco. The problem with Eclipso’s plan: Jaime’s power fantasy is being a 30-year-old dentist. Would Bryan Hitch have been able to really nail this joke? Well, again, this is the relationship between art and tone.
Perhaps my favorite team when it comes to expectations and tone is a fairly old-school pick: Devin Grayson and Roger Robinson’s Batman: Gotham Knight. A series of more-or-less self-contained stories, Grayson’s writing waxed introspective, with lots of internal monologues and increasing psychological drama roiling beneath Batman’s surface. As the main thrust of Grayson’s series exploded during Bruce Wayne: Murderer, the main question became whether or not Batman’s inner demons, long responsible for his mystique and power, were now tearing him apart from the inside. Robinson’s use of shadows and light helped play up the psychological impact — Batman was both human and demon, a fiercesome presence both in action and in stillness, a figure whose internal struggles were as apparent as his brooding nature. The art set the stage for moodiness and action, and Devin Grayson’s script delivered.
How about some more? Let’s look at the dark side, now — the mismatches.
It’s difficult to find true representations of a poor match, simply because more often you will find that artists come and go, and if they don’t click, it’s more forgettable than actually detrimental to a particular series. (And particularly ugly artists don’t hurt a series due to tone — they hurt a series due to really, really horrible art.) Another reason is that one (of many) jobs for an editor is to help mix and match suitable talents for suitable series. But if you look closely enough at it, mismatches do exist.
Take, for example, All Star Batman and Robin, which suffers in much the same way (not quite as intensely, but close, and over a longer period of time) of the Hulk annual. (Although one could certainly argue that Jim Lee’s art is good enough to read on its own, without the words.)
Another mismatch might have been the second and third arcs for Mark Waid’s Fantastic Four series. Mike Wieringo’s cartoony style was spectacular for the proto-Incredibles, “day in the life” first arc — these were not just rock ‘em-sock ‘em heroes, but a family with its own quirks and comic moments. But the second arc — in which Doctor Doom brutally murders his ex-girlfriend to turn her skin into magical armor (eww), traumatizes little Franklin Richards by sending him to fend for himself against demons in Hell, and possesses little Valeria Richards and speaks through her as a puppet using creepy sorcery — well, Wieringo’s style came off as a bit too wholesome and positive for such a dark story.
Meanwhile, Howard Porter, well-known for action and energy in JLA, had a weird arc in Fantastic Four with “Authoritative Action” — this is not an artist known for his introspective or cerebral work, so the fact that he was drawing what was mainly a political thriller with an fight sequence coda left Waid’s story a bit flat, editorial behind-the-scenes drama notwithstanding. Obviously, there are times when pinch-hitting is unavoidable — and sometimes, even the best writers can’t write stories to utilize their artists’ strengths — but when a mismatch occurs like this, even the best-laid stories (like the proactive War on Terror metaphor behind this particular story) can really lose their creative spark.
Sometimes, the very premise of a series will preclude certain creators. John Byrne’s short-lived Doom Patrol is certainly one of those series. Since the team became known as a sort of “avengers of the avant garde” through the work of Grant Morrison, Byrne’s straightforward pencils and storytelling just didn’t fit. Byrne can still draw the heck out of Superman, but when working with the subconscious terrors that haunt the Doom Patrol, his style just doesn’t set up the alienness of their world. (But imagine if you put Frank Quitely, Doug Mahnke, or J.G. Jones on board.)
Now what do you think? Are there any partnerships that transcend the sum of their parts? Any matches made in Hell? What if… Rob Liefeld drew the Power Pack?