Taste, Style, and Ability in Comics: Bones
One of the most well-known sayings in creativity is “there’s no accounting for taste”, which is true. People are going to like what they like, and they have every right to. Some unironicly love Michael Bay movies, or find Stanly Kubrick to be a bit pretentious (I’m part of the latter). It’s a scary part of putting things out there you make. However there is a distinct difference between Taste and Style. Taste is what things you typically enjoy, like certain types of mystery novels or romance movies. Style is the shorthand a creator has formed to help get the story across, their usual voice or tone in a certain genre. A creator’s style may not be to someone’s taste, even if the genre is (i.e. all the subgenres of horror).
Style does not have to do with skill though. A creator still has to successfully communicate their story. The Marvel and DC pioneer Jack Kirby (Fantastic Four co-creator among many many others) eventually got to a highly stylized way of drawing, with big blocky figures and a lot of foreshortening. He did this to get what he wanted across, these powerful beings slugging it out, or the awe-inspiring presence of a god-like figure.
He used stylized techniques to tell his story and got very good at it. Some will admit to Kirby’s skill as a story teller, but that his style isn’t to their taste.
I say all this to preface why I think Rob Liefeld is a terrible artist, and it isn’t his over muscular style. That has to do with personal taste. No no, Rob Liefeld sucks because he is bad at visual story telling. Let’s break down a fight scene in one of his more recent works, Hawk and Dove #1 from the New 52 DC relaunch.
The first look at our heroes is an okay splash page, Hawk having knocked out three bad guys on the floor and holding a final one aloft and Dove looking back at the action from the cock pit. It’s a little stiff but heroic and as a singular image introduction to our heroes, you could do worse.
However that goes right out the window with the next page where a mummy like creature wakes up in a glass tube and attacks our hero. There is no glass tube in the splash page. At all. I looked several times to see where this mummy popped out from, and it seems to be right out of Liefeld’s bottom. The mummy leaps at Hawk, teeth barred and arms out stretched ready to strangle our hero. We then cut to Dove calling for Hawk, receiving no response, with the mummy creature then making its way to leaping at dove (this thing does a lot of leaping attacks, is it Batroc the Leaper’s mummy they’re fighting?). Cut back to Hawk…still fighting the mummy. Not only were we never shown where the mummy woke up, but we only ever see ONE mummy wake up! After our heroes land the plane, there’s an argument between Hawk and Dove about what the other did wrong in the fight.
Not only were there apparently even MORE mummies besides the one that teleports, but 15 guards when we only ever see four with all of them having been knocked out by Hawk! Each panel of Liefeld’s is okay at best, with a big problem being stiff figures in boring angles and tight framing not showing much. As a whole is where it gets outright bad because Liefeld doesn’t show us what we need to see being a visual medium. It’s not until a full page after the fight scene is over that we’re told in dialogue and NOT pictures the complete scope of the fight. It isn’t good or exciting storytelling, no matter the size of Hawks muscles or the petiteness of Dove’s waist line.
Now a great visual story teller, one of my favorites working right now, is Greg Capullo. In the past Capullo has had extremely stylized figures (see his work on The Creep), but having pushed his abilities Capullo has many tools at his disposal. For a fair comparison, let’s look at Capullo’s Batman #1 that came out the exact same month as Hawk and Dove.
We open to narration over panels of the cityscape of Gotham. The narration and art work together to set the tone, drawing in the audience’s attention. We then cut to splash page of a bunch of villains trying to escape Arkham, the panel edged by Batman’s cape.
The next page we see the villains charging, Batman pulling his fist back in preparation. We see Batman’s punch connect, then ducking down and spin kicking Killer Croc. The geography of everyone is consistent, keeping us informed where the characters are at all times. We see the position of the villains in the splash page and then Batman moving forward and fighting through them in the order we were shown. It’s good visual storytelling, drawing us into the action able to feel every punch and kick land.
It’s not that Liefeld has odd figures in his work (he’s toned it down from early days), it’s that his visual story telling is dull, seeming to only care about the big splash moments with no build up. For whatever reason after 30 years in the business Liefeld hasn’t gotten better. Liefeld seems to have stagnated, slightly improving his figures but not his repetitive panel layouts and grimacing faces. A visual medium requires good visual storytelling, which is more than just muscular figures posing.