A Friday Farewell to a Classic Illustrator

by  in Comic News Comment
A Friday Farewell to a Classic Illustrator

This certainly has been a depressing December for comics fans. Jerry Robinson and Joe Simon, both industry giants, leaving us within days of each other. There have already been many words written about both men by comics historians far more erudite than me, and i imagine there are more to come.

It’s not getting nearly as much press as the loss of Joe Simon the same day, naturally… but the death that hit me the hardest was the loss of Eduardo Barreto.

We weren’t friends, or anything like that. Never met the man. Although I’d hoped to see him at a convention or something someday, because I really admired his work and wanted to tell him so. It was meningitis that took him, I guess. He was fifty-seven. That’s just way too young. It seems so random and unfair.

But then, “unfair” was usually the word I thought of when I thought of Barreto’s comics career.

Eduardo Barreto wasn’t an industry giant. He wasn’t a superstar artist. The obituaries I’ve seen popping up here and there the last couple of days tend to list his credits as “many DC books, most notably a long run on the Titans, before taking over the art on Judge Parker for King Features.”

Well, okay. That’s accurate enough, as far as it goes. But it really doesn’t capture the heart of the matter.

Because Eduardo Barreto, if there was any justice, would have been a comics star. But he was, more than any other artist I can think of, saddled with the curse of terrible timing.

He often ended up being “the new guy” after a more famous artist left a comic book series. He had to follow Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez on Atari Force. Then he had to follow Garcia-Lopez again— on The New Teen Titans, and that was when we were all still smarting over George Perez being replaced with Garcia-Lopez in the first place. What’s more, Barreto’s inaugural Titans storyline was one of the most unpopular in the title’s history.

Ed Barreto even had to follow Mike Mignola’s Victorian Batman Elseworlds Gotham By Gaslight. The Augustyn-Barreto follow-up, Master of the Future, is every bit as good, but no one ever mentions that one.

His most recent gig was breathing new life into newspaper strips Judge Parker and The Phantom for King Features…. in an era where story strips are dying out.

And if there was ever a dull talking-heads strip that needed an artistic makeover, it was tired old Judge Parker, believe me.

Had Mr. Barreto been plying his trade in newspaper comics in the 1940s or even the 50s, he’d have been a superstar.

Instead, he was doing stunning work on Judge Parker in an era when the ‘story strip’ is out of favor with most editors, who generally prefer gag strips these days (usually ones designed with really simple characters and art, since the real estate available on the newspaper comics page has shrunk so much in recent years) and even the newspapers themselves are on life support. First time in years the strip was worth looking at and it’s practically invisible. Bad timing, again.

In comic books, especially at DC, Barreto kept getting put on books that should have been really successful, fan-favorite projects, but for some reason never quite caught on with fans. His two Superman books, The Unauthorized Biography of Lex Luthor and particularly Under A Yellow Sun are both favorites of mine.

The author photo by 'Gammill Barreto' is a nice touch.

His 1992 Martian Manhunter miniseries with Gerard Jones, American Secrets, is probably some of the coolest work anyone’s ever done on that character– a terrific period piece set in the late 50s, long before New Frontier was a gleam in Darwyn Cooke’s eye. It’s absurd that it’s unavailable in a collected edition in an era when DC is putting out pricey hardcovers of stuff like Secret Society of Super-Villains, for Chrissakes.

You have to be kind of an uber-nerd to catch it but I love the quiet homage here to the old 1950s crime paperback covers, with the title character done almost as a logo and then the painting of a hot girl in the lower corner. Pure GOLD MEDAL-era Robert McGinnis and Barreto absolutely nailed it.

And then there was the wonderful Mike Danger series that he worked on with Max Allan Collins for Big Entertainment’s short-lived “Tekno-Comix” imprint in the 1990s.

Probably wouldn't set you back too much in back issues, and definitely worth tracking down.

I adored this book, the story of a hardboiled forties-era private eye flung into a science-fiction future, but it never quite found an audience — though I’m pretty sure this was at least moderately successful, since it outlasted everything else Tekno put out.

But the biggest injustice, as far as I’m concerned, is Ed Barreto’s criminally overlooked work on The Shadow.

Like most of his other work at DC, Barreto stepped in after a much more famous artist had worked on the initial effort. In this particular case, it was the Shadow ongoing that DC launched with Andy Helfer scripting over art from first Bill Sienkewicz and then Kyle Baker. This was the follow-up to the successful four-issue miniseries from Howard Chaykin.

This was definitely not the traditional, 1930s-era Shadow. The idea was to do something modern and edgy and cool.

However, the book kept pushing the boundaries, and eventually became out-and-out parody.

The modern Shadow title was canceled abruptly in mid-story, either because of low sales or because Conde Nast had finally seen what DC was doing with their Shadow license (accounts differ.) This is the version of the Shadow that DC fans tend to talk about.

But the point is, DC tried again shortly after with The Shadow Strikes!, a much more traditional take on the character, and fan response was largely “meh.” With some justification– after all, following the licensing kerfuffle over Helfer and Baker’s gleefully irreverent version, DC was careful to make it obvious that this would be a very respectful, back-to-basics take on the man in black. This was your father’s Oldsmobile. And fans largely dismissed it as such.

But you know, you get the right talent on something like that, and by God, you’ll discover that old car’s still got a lot of miles left on it. Gerard Jones turned in tightly-written, smart, pulpy scripts with a lot of actual 1930s history sneaked in around the edges… but what sold it to me was the art. Eduardo Barreto was the artist on The Shadow Strikes! and the work he did there is absolutely my favorite version of that character anyone’s ever done in comics. I saw Steve Hickman’s painted cover on #1, picked it up, and Barreto owned me.

It was traditional, sure. But it's a fine old tradition and Ed Barreto did it proud.

Yes, I’m the heretic who liked Barreto’s Shadow more than Mike Kaluta’s. Kaluta did great stuff but his version is a little too mannered and pretty for me for it to be the definitive version that it is for so many other folks. I like Eduardo Barreto’s version better. Barreto’s Shadow is similar to Kaluta’s but it’s grittier, it’s more kinetic– it just feels pulpier to me.

This style just FEELS right. I wish he had been able to paint them like Hickman did #1, that's my only caveat.

His covers were always good but it’s the moody interior pages where you can really see a master’s hand.

This was before coloring in Photoshop became the norm, as well, which meant that the actual art had to carry much more of the load when it came to lighting a scene and setting an emotional tone. Barreto did it beautifully and always in service to the story, there’s no artistic stuntwork going on.

The people all look real, and differentiated. Julius Schwartz often said that there are lots of kids out there who can draw a good Superman, but it’s the guy who can draw all the other people and cars and buildings in Metropolis that you hire. Barreto is absolutely that guy, he could do it all. His period pieces– The Shadow Strikes and all the other stuff, Victorian, 1950s beatnik cool, whatever– were always extensively researched and impeccably drawn.

I know. I’m geeking. But it’s such a rare treat in modern comics to see real illustrators. Guys who can light a scene, draw natural-looking things like regular cars and buildings and even folds in clothing, pose people naturally and still convey emotion… and who do all of that without calling undue attention to the skill involved and taking you out of the story.

Believe me, it takes a hell of a lot of skill. Don’t take my word for it– look around the internet and you’ll see that most of the obits for Ed Barreto are from professionals who worked with him or who were just fans, and they all are saying the same thing over and over again… how good he was and how unfair it is that he was never a fan favorite.

I’d been bitching for years about the unfairness and bad timing that plagued Ed Barreto throughout his comics career. And today, traditional illustrators are so far out of fashion, compared to guys drawing manga-style or whatever… hell, superhero comics is a place where a good swipe artist can land a regular title.

Good stuff lasts, though. Good is always in style. You can always tell the genuinely good artists because they’re the guys other artists get excited about. Eduardo Barreto was definitely an artist’s favorite even if he never was a star to the fans.

But he was a star to this fan. Considering that even in death Ed Barreto’s still being overshadowed by more famous comics people, I thought that at least here, in this week’s column, I could talk about how much I liked his work and run a bunch of it so people could see why. It just seemed… fair.

Rest in peace, Mr. Barreto. You’ll be missed.

See you next week.