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Grumpy Old Fan | Jerry Ordway, Pandora and the future

by  in Comic News Comment

In news that will surprise no one, I enthusiastically add my voice to the chorus advising comics companies to give Jerry Ordway work. Mr. Ordway represents, for better or worse, a particular style of superhero storytelling. His detailed, textured work is both realistic and stylized. He’s also become associated with a traditional approach to superheroes, mostly by drawing the Golden Age characters and their descendants. Similarly, his modern-day Superman and Marvel Family work gave those books a pretty “classic” look.

In fact, for a long while Jerry Ordway helped define Superman. He was an original contributor to the 1986 John Byrne-led revamp, penciling Adventures of Superman first for writer Marv Wolfman and then for Byrne. When Byrne left, he took over writing Adventures before moving over to the main Superman book. In one way or another, he was involved with the Superman titles from 1986 through 1993, when he started working on Captain Marvel in the Power of Shazam! graphic novel.

Of course, Byrne and Ordway had complementary styles. (Before they started on Superman, Ordway had previously penciled a few issues of Fantastic Four for Byrne.) The Super-artists of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s also included Dan Jurgens, George Pérez, Tom Grummett, Kerry Gammill, Butch Guice, Barry Kitson and Stuart Immonen, each with his own kind of clean, stylized realism. When Jon Bogdanove brought a much more “cartoony” style to Superman: The Man of Steel in 1991, he was very much the outlier. Even Immonen’s heavier lines were instantly distinct from his colleagues’ work.

Compare the Superman artists of 2013 — Tony Daniel on Action Comics, Kenneth Rocafort on Superman, and Jim Lee on the upcoming Superman Unchained. For that matter, compare Gary Frank on the Shazam! backups to Ordway and Peter Krause’s 1990s Power of Shazam! series. Artistic styles generally have shifted, and it’s not necessarily the New 52’s supposed Image-founder nostalgia. Rags Morales and Brent Anderson penciled Grant Morrison’s issues of Action Comics, Pérez was Superman Vol. 3’s original writer/penciler, and Dan Jurgens wrote and drew a handful of issues as well. Indeed, Pérez and Jurgens have both had other New-52 gigs. Heck, Ordway himself penciled that three-issue Challengers of the Unknown story for DC Universe Presents, plus the four-issue Human Bomb miniseries that concludes this week.

So this isn’t necessarily a post about the kids today failing to appreciate craft, etc. It’s not even “Artist X is better than Artist Y, so if Y is working, X should be working more.” Instead, it’s a reminder that corporately produced comics runs on an economic model that is, to put it gently, not always friendly to the folks who actually write and draw the things. I’ve bought a lot — a lot — of Jerry Ordway comics over the years. He’s never less than good, and he can elevate an otherwise-weak script. As the Batman movie adaptation showed, he can do likenesses pretty well. (If he ever did a Star Trek comic, I’d be first in line.) His style would be great for a newspaper strip, especially a Prince Valiant-style adventure with a generous Sunday section. However, all that assumes the economics are right. Newspapers aren’t handing out Prince Valiant levels of Sunday-comics real estate when they could make more money off of Best Buy ads.

For all of you thinking “Kickstarter,” I’m there with you; but Kickstarter doesn’t guarantee success. I suppose that’s the main marketplace dilemma: are you successful enough on your own, or do you (for whatever reason) need some sort of corporate patronage? Those alternatives aren’t the only possibilities, since most of us wind up somewhere in the middle, but they’re the two basic trajectories.

Again, it drives home the reality that there are just some artists who can still contribute and aren’t. Graham Nolan and Mike Manley worked on the early-‘90s Bat-books, Paul Ryan penciled Fantastic Four and Flash, and Joe Staton is one of the definitive Green Lantern artists. Today, they’re all drawing newspaper strips: Rex Morgan, M.D. (Nolan), Judge Parker (Manley, who took over for the late Eduardo Barreto), The Phantom (Ryan) and Dick Tracy (Staton). There may be no guarantees in the newspaper biz either, and the pay’s probably not that great, but you have to think your work’s being seen by more people than the average Big Two superhero book.

Still, there are any number of ‘80s and ‘90s professionals whom I’d love to see back in comics on a regular basis. Just to name one, William Messner-Loebs created the frontier adventure Journey and had well-received stints on Flash, Wonder Woman and Doctor Fate, but apart from a Wonder Woman story in a 2011 “Retro-Active” special, I haven’t seen anything from him.

Now, on one level this sounds a lot like fannish entitlement: Why can’t I have my own fantasy roster of creators and comics? Marvel had X-Men Forever, so a while back I suggested DC could do an ongoing Retro-Active-style series based around the Earth-One Silver/Bronze Age Superman.  That’s one way to satisfy fans who like those creators (and that continuity), and it gives those creators some work. However, it’s not like DC is totally blackballing Ordway. It’s more that he’s not getting enough work — from an exclusive DC contract, mind you — to make a decent living.

Into this mix comes the new Trinity of Sin: Pandora series, to be written by Ray Fawkes and drawn by Daniel Sampere. Now, without wanting to start any feuds, it occurs to me that Ordway’s traditional approach and multiversal background suits him well for at least an arc or two, if not an extended gig on this book. However, my larger takeaway from Pandora is DC wanting to use it and Phantom Stranger as two legs of a three-legged Cosmic Forces stool. In other words, Pandora may well appeal to readers who want to know what exactly is going on with the metaphysics of the New 52. Pandora herself could turn out to be a compelling character, but I suspect people won’t be buying it because of that potential. They’ll buy it because they’re invested in the New-52-verse for its own sake, because Pandora seems integral to it, and because they’re curious about how she fits into it.

And in a larger sense, that tells me DC is more focused on the New 52’s elements than it is the professionals making the stories. Generally, this is nothing new. As Ordway put it, though, “I knew I wasn’t currently in anyone’s ‘top ten’ artists, but to find that I wasn’t in the top 52 was a shock.”  DC will always trumpet its roster of professionals, whether it’s John Byrne on Superman or Scott Snyder and Jim Lee. The New-52 relaunch certainly had its share of high-profile creative teams, including Grant Morrison and Rags Morales on Action Comics, Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang on Wonder Woman, and Geoff Johns and Jim Lee on Justice League. Still, as the relaunch enters the back half of its second year, the emphasis seems more on maintaining particular titles than showcasing distinct creative visions. Again, Pandora could turn out to be a perfectly wonderful title, but at first glance I have to ask who it’s for, outside of a dedicated DC follower.

Of course, if Pandora is designed (at least initially) to appeal to cosmic-minded New-52 fans, and I’m asking why Ordway isn’t drawing it, by extension maybe I get the sense it’s not for me — and that’s not a healthy attitude. DC shouldn’t be worried about making comics for me, because my buying habits are already well-established. Instead, it needs to broaden its appeal by including a wide range of styles and storytelling approaches. I’d like to think that includes Ordway; but if he doesn’t get DC work, I’m hopeful he’ll get it from someone. (Shatner-style Trek, IDW! Like printing money, I tell ya!)

DC is fast approaching the end of Morrison’s regular superhero work, and the end of Johns and company on Green Lantern isn’t far behind. The New 52 still has some distinctive voices, but they need to be nurtured. It’s not enough to have three Superman titles, five GL-derived books, or a library wing for the Batman family. Each of them needs something to say, and needs to look good saying it. Jerry Ordway can help make DC look good.