CLIFF RATHBURN AND “THE WALKING DEAD”
In writing up a review of “The Walking Dead” #116 last week, I ran out of room to talk about Cliff Rathburn’s contributions to the issue. Then I realized that what really needed to be written up was what his contribution was to the series as a whole. I fear it’s been completely overlooked, or underestimated. He’s just the guy who guys in and draws some fancy shadows, right?
Nope. Cliff Rathburn is nothing less than the colorist for “The Walking Dead.” He gets credited for “Gray Tones,” but that’s not exactly it. He absolutely colors the book, but with the constraint that he’s only using various shades of the same color: Gray. I talked last week about the use of white in web design and comic book art, inspired by something Adam Hughes said in this video. It’s a lesson Rathburn keeps in mind for “The Walking Dead,” every month. Save the bright white “color” for when you want to make an impression.
Sit down with an issue and look for the white areas. You’ll see white in the gutters between or around panels. After that, you’ll see it used very sparingly. On page 2, the highlights on Negan’s face are white, but that signifies the burning rage he’s showing at that point. He has raccoon eyes from the shadows, but his face is one of surprise and rage. A couple of pages later, the first person to have their head blown off stops the action with a white background under the brain matter exploding out. The white background helps to freeze the moment and makes sure detail isn’t lost on the impactful event.
In a similar real world parallel, the flash on your camera freezes the moment. The light that bursts out of the flash in a split second overpowers everything else. It appears to freeze the moment that way, much in the way the white background helps to freeze the image in the viewer’s mind here.
Those are two relatively small (physically speaking) examples. The first major use of white in the issue is the bottom half of page 14. It’s helps to pop out a moment. In this case, it’s a shot of Negan looking back as serious as he’s ever looked. That white background behind an intricately drawn chain link fence creates a pattern and an extremely bright background that helps the shadowy Negan stick out more.
So Rathburn does use white, but he uses it sparingly for panels he needs to create an even bigger moment than what the art might have looked like.
You don’t notice this so much when reading the series because Rathburn is very restrained. He uses gradients in his background, but the two tones that he fades between are fairly close together. It’s a subtle effect, not the kind we saw with the first generation of Photoshop colorists fading purple into yellow behind a caption box of lettering.
Look at the issue carefully. Look at each panel and see how Rathburn uses the extremely faded gray in the background and a darker gray used for shadows on the skin tones and hair, and clothes. Rathburn adds layers to the art. Charlie Adlard is good at creating planes with his art. He uses all the tricks in the book for that, including thicker ink lines up front, larger characters closer to the reader, and overlapping to establish physical relationships. It’s Art 101. Rathburn drops in the grays to make those planes separate even easier for your eyes.
It helps that the series is, generally speaking, a dirty one. You don’t expect sunshine and lollipops here. The television series picks up on that, too, using a muted color scheme that’s grungy, fitting a world that’s basically post-apocalyptic. Rathburn’s general gray wash over each page gives the book a feeling of uncleanliness and dark moodiness.
But Rathburn’s unexpectedly heavy use of grays often leads to moments of brightness that jump out at the reader. Gun shot lines are knocked out, and then filled in with white. The whiteness in Rus Wooton’s word balloons helps the lettering occupy a slightly higher plane from the art. It’s like they’re not getting in the way of the action because they’re happening closer to the reader, like an overlay on the action seen on the page. Some spare textures are added to the ground with lines you don’t see at first. You can feel the texture, but you have to look closer to see the dull gray lines across the page to define the space.
To see the difference a few grays can make, check out “The Art of Charlie Adlard” book Image Comics published a month or two ago. It reprints “The Walking Dead” #106 in its stark black and white beauty. It’s nice to see Adlard’s line work, but it’s obvious how much Rathburn’s work affects the final result. Adlard’s original pages look like they’re drawn with a Sharpie. They even occasionally look like a melodramatic silent comedy from the earliest days of film. The lack of grays hurts in the book. Things feel a little flat in some panels, where it feels like your eye has to work a little harder to separate the planes in the art. And in the scenes where backgrounds drop out, the art looks over simplified. The grays add an extra level of visual interest to fool the eye into thinking the page is busier or more detailed than it is.
Next time you pick up an issue of “The Walking Dead,” whether it’s in collected editions or the regular comics (there’s another one next week!), give a second look to the art. Think about the gray tones you see between all the black lines. Picture the book without it. Then see how Cliff Rathburn might just be the single most overlooked creator in comics today.
FAUX PRESS RELEASE: IDW PUBLISHING ANNOUNCES ITS CRAZY PUBLISHING SCHEME
San Diego, CA (November 19, 2013) – IDW Publishing, the largest publisher of the largest books, is proud to announce that neither “Jeff Smith’s Bone: The Great Cow Race Artist’s Edition” HC, nor “John Byrne’s Fantastic Four Artists Edition” HC are sold out. Buyers can still send IDW money and IDW will still happily send you one. As it turns out, keeping product in stock for people who might want to buy it after it’s released and been reviewed is a good business decision. IDW is proud to walk that course alone, bringing you the rare press release-worthy “Books You Can Still Buy From Us.” Moving forward, IDW will be using the BYCSBFU acronym across its websites and social media strategy.
“Yes, we ordered enough to cover all the initial orders and then some,” said format creator Scott Dunbier, a man who believes that bigger is always better in comics. He refused to respond to rumors of the “Jack Chick Artists Edition” or “Bazooka Joe Artists Edition” books that three message board regulars have started petitions for.
“We’ve determined that our job as publishers is to make books that readers want and then to let them buy them. It decreases our potential press release output pool, so we saved a bunch of money by firing the marketing guy.”
The only delays reported in the process come out of ULine, who can’t make cardboard fast enough to produce the ridiculously honking huge box sizes that IDW requires to ship these books.
“One of their customers ordered three books at the same time. We went out to our parking lot to chop down a tree to fulfill that order. Corrugating cardboard, it turns out, is a real pain in the keister,” said ULine representative Woody R. Cooper.
This isn’t slowing IDW down a bit, though, as Dunbier has promised to announce new Artists Edition books at the next ten conventions he travels to in 2014. While not ready to pre-announce his pre-announcements, Dunbier said, “We’re thinking it’s time to go in a new direction with the line, and so we’ll be shrinking art down to fit the over-sized formats. We’re talking to graffiti artists whose canvas is the side of a building. We’re hoping to scan in buildings in full color and do the first ever 3D-printed edition of AE at the local UPS Store. You need to feel the brick and concrete texture to grasp the importance of those bold creations.”
Then Dunbier laughed, “You thought our previous books were a ^%$#& to ship? Wait til you see the shipping charges on these bad boys. Start saving your pennies today! We hear the postal service is armoring their cars up to carry the extra weight.”
“Also, if anyone has Banksy’s email address, tweet me, OK?”
IDW has also heard your complaints about the increasingly unwieldy names of the books in the series, and has thus canceled plans for “Frank Brunner’s Stan Lee Presents: Marvel Comics’ Giant Sized Swamp Thing Annual Artist’s Edition.” Dynamite Publishing is said to be picking up that license, instead. The cover will feature a cutiefied kiddy version of the green guy.
THIS WEEK IN PEYO: SMURFS ANTHOLOGY 2
The second volume of Papercutz’s “The Smurfs Anthology” (due out the week before Christmas) collects a few tales you might have already read in the smaller collections. Like I said with the first Anthology, they’re bigger, have slightly more sound effects, and a few minor tweaks in the lettering. The bonus stuff comes in the form of original covers and a few introductions by Smurfologist Matt. Murray. (Note: Yes, the Smurfologist’s first name really includes the period. Bizarre.)
He helps frame the major stories in the history of the Smurfs, for better or worse. It’s his job to introduce “The Smurfette,” a story in which Gargamel intends to completely destroy the Smurf colony with a female Smurf. He’s unflinchingly honest in his assessment of the story, not ignoring the controversial take on women Peyo shows with the story, but not explicitly rejecting it, either. It is, as they say, a product of its time and should be taken as such.
The book collects volumes 5 and 6 of the on-going Papercutz collections, “The Smurfette” and “The Smurfs and the Egg.” They’re packed with visual gags and silly slapstick. Even the secondary stories like “The Fake Smurf” and “The Hundredth Smurf” are pure gold for different reasons.
The big addition with this anthology is the inclusion of another Johan and Peewit story. The Smurfs only show up for three pages in the middle of it. As the introduction points out, this story formed the basis for an episode of the TV series, but had to leave a lot out. Of course it did. This story is a monster, running 60 pages. It feels long. There are some good running gags and a few testaments to the silliness of humanity along the way, but it does feel like something needed to be cut out to bring it down a few pages. I like those running gags — such as getting the deceitful and mistrustful band of bad guys to fight amongst themselves so easily — but those moments are too few and far between. Goscinny and Uderzo packed every page of “Asterix” with that kind of material. Peyo and Yvan Delporte run a far distant second here.
Still, it’s nice to read more of the Johan and Peewit stories that would likely never otherwise make it to print in English. For a Smurf completist, this is a wonderful addition, even if their part is so small. Murray explains the Smurfs publishing chronology and continuity in his introduction to “The Smurfs and the Egg”, with an essay named “Crisis on Infinite Smurfs.” It is perhaps more convoluted than modern superhero comics. It’s enough to know that there’s very little in the way of actual continuity in these stories. Go ahead and read them in any order. It does pop up sometimes, and Papercutz is nice enough to include the footnotes, though even then I wonder if that’s added in translation or part of the original script.
As the Smurfs gained popularity, Peyo and his studio rushed to create enough material to fill the demand for more stories. That includes redrawing the earliest stories in the late 1960s, which is what we see reprinted today. I would be curious to see one of those stories in its original format. Papercutz publishes early Smurf sketches and cover works, so we know how different the Smurfs looked at first. There’s the process junky in me, though, that sees the potential for unearthing one of those original stories for a new printing, maybe even side by side with the final result we’re all used to seeing today. Color me curious.
“The Smurfs Anthology” Volume 2 is available in bookstores mid-December. It runs $20, which is a fantastic price for this much material. The book is hardcover, almost 11 x 9 inches in size, and 192 pages. It’s a steal and a sure bet.
I still haven’t found video on-line of Peyo drawing a Smurf. I hold out hope that some exists somewhere, but for now we’re out of luck.