Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Erik Larsen, and the issue is Teen Titans Spotlight #10, which was published by DC and is cover dated May 1987. But before we get to that, I want to show a few scans from Amazing Spider-Man #287, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated April 1987. Enjoy!
Erik Larsen still hadn’t become “Erik Larsen” by the time late 1986/early 1987 rolled around, but he was beginning to show more attributes of what we think of when we think of “Erik Larsen artwork,” and today I want to check out the Spotlight issue about Aqualad, where we see some of those tics. Right before that, however, Larsen filled in on an issue of Amazing Spider-Man, several years before he became the regular artist on the book, and I’m fairly certain it was the first time I saw his artwork, even though I didn’t buy the issue when it came out. After I began buying comics in the fall of 1988, I soon got into ASM because I loved Todd McFarlane’s art. Of course, back in those days back issues tended to be cheaper, so I pretty much went on the Great Back Issue Hunt of 1989, digging up years of Amazing Spider-Man, Batman, and Detective, and eventually Uncanny X-Men in that year to build up my collection. I still look for back issues, but I doubt if I’ve ever had a year as comprehensive as 1989. During 1989, I’m almost positive I bought issue #287, which was part of the “Gang War” story that really ended an era of Amazing Spider-Man – I guess we could call it the Hobgoblin Era, if you like (in the immediate aftermath of this story arc, Peter David wrapped up the Hobgoblin mystery – unsatisfactorily, you might recall – and then David Michelinie came on board and married Peter and Mary Jane, and after two crossovers – “Kraven’s Last Hunt” and “Life in the Mad Dog Ward” – he basically jettisoned Peter’s entire supporting cast). Larsen’s art didn’t have much impact on me when I bought this issue – back then, I was still much more interested in the story than I was the art – but I did remember not loving it too much. Now that I’m checking out Larsen’s art, I can show a few pages from it and explain why!
“Gang War” suffered a bit because of the inconsistent art – Ron Frenz and Brett Breeding started on it, then Alan Kupperberg drew two issues, then Larsen, then back to Kupperberg – and even the writing was strange – Tom DeFalco had been writing ASM, and he plotted the first few issues of the arc with Jim Owsley (Christopher Priest) scripting before Owsley took over completely – which made what should have been a pretty big deal of tying up plotlines a bit of a mess. Larsen’s art doesn’t hurt the story, but it doesn’t help it all that much either. We saw yesterday that even when he was rushed, he could do some nice fluid figure work, and I have to believe he was rushed here (because of the inconsistent art teams), and the work isn’t as strong as it could be. This issue came out on the penultimate day of 1986, and Teen Titans Spotlight came out almost exactly two months later, and I wonder if there was any overlap. You may not like the work on Teen Titans Spotlight, but it does look more assured than this, I think you’ll agree. Here, Larsen’s characters look posed and stiff, as if they’re cardboard cut-outs. When Peter is ushering Matt out the door in Panel 6, his right leg is too far off the ground, and the way it’s bent looks very awkward. Larsen’s perspective in Panels 8-11, when Peter and Matt are arguing in the taxi, is way off, too. The window behind the driver is gigantic, and Matt and Peter look really far away from the front seat. It must be a limousine taxi! There’s very little sense they’re even sitting in a car – it’s as if they’re standing behind a window, in front of which some dude is just hanging out looking grumpy. It’s very odd.
Spidey fights Daredevil, who was pretending to be the Kingpin so the real Wilson Fisk could return to New York and stop the gang war (stuff like that – which is kind of “real-world” – is why this is a disappointing arc, because the “real-world” parts of it were quite promising). Spidey webs Matt’s eyes without thinking and then webs his arm, which is why we see it here. Larsen lays the page out perfectly well – he’s always moving us from the left to the right, across a row and even within the panels, so there’s no problem there. But his figure work is just wonky. Look at how long Peter’s limbs are, especially in Panel 2! The figures aren’t as stiff as some we’ve seen this year, but they’re still pretty posed, so the fight doesn’t flow as well as it should. Then we get to Panel 6, and Spidey’s arms are again ridiculously long – it looks like he could touch his knees while standing up straight! The entire fight – this is the sixth and final page of it – is like this, with both characters looking stiff and their proportions often looking way off. It’s very strange, and again makes me wonder how rushed Larsen was on this issue.
As I noted, Teen Titans Spotlight came out a little less than two months later, and Larsen’s art was much better (plus, it has a sweet Sienkiewicz cover). I want to spend more time with this, because Larsen’s art (inked by Romeo Tanghal) is a lot better than his work on Amazing Spider-Man.
Aqualad doesn’t know where he is, and he’s even more surprised to see his father, who died before Garth was born. It’s just that kind of story! Larsen’s eye for detail is in full effect here, especially on Panel 1, where he gives us wonderful intricate renderings of sea life on the walls and columns of the throne room. It’s a nicely designed panel, too, as we’re looking down on Garth and he’s rather small, but the angles of the walls and the column focus our attention on him. In Panel 2, Larsen draws a close-up of Garth’s face, and you might notice how cartoony it is. It doesn’t even really look like a “Larsen face,” as we’ll see in upcoming installments and even a little below. This is unusual, and I’ll write a bit more about it below. When Thar appears, notice how large Larsen draws his hand, and how well he makes the left hand appear to be closer to the reader than the rest of the drawing. Larsen always tends to draw larger hands on several characters, and the way Thar is pointing with his left arm/hand is a Larsen tic that you can find in most of his comics of the past quarter-century.
So then Nightwing and Jericho show up, and Jericho possesses Garth and forces him to shoot Thar (who becomes Aquaman on the next page, because it’s spoooooky!!!!). Jericho’s face in Panel 2 is another early example of the “Larsen face” – it’s a bit more exaggerated in the context of the book than we might expect, but the wide and disproportionately large mouth and teeth will become a staple of Larsen’s cartooning moving forward. It’s strange – John Ostrander’s script, taken word-by-word, is pretty serious (except for one segment), but Larsen undercuts that a little with the way he draws the book. In Panel 1, we see Thar looking goofily out from behind Garth because he thinks Nightwing and Jericho are there to kill him. Panels 5 and 6 feature more silly faces, as Berra’s “Larsen face” – complete with large mouth and wide eyes – is less serious than we might expect, while Garth’s and Thar’s tortured looks are also a bit silly, especially Thar’s bug-eyes. When Garth kills his father, Larsen gives him a pained expression, but it’s more like a “I can’t believe I left the chicken in the oven so long” expression rather than a “I just blasted my father’s head off” look. It’s weird. Larsen, however, seems to be doing it very deliberately, because we’ll see later that he alters his style a bit when the book gets more serious. Yes, more serious than shooting your father in the face.
Two things stand out about this sequence. First, unlike the Spider-Man/Daredevil fight from above, Larsen’s line work here is nice and fluid – even the robot doesn’t look too “robotic,” which Larsen takes care of by placing large hinges at its elbows and knees. In Panel 2, Garth’s leg looks a bit long, but not as weird as Spidey’s limbs above, and the jump out of the way is drawn really nicely – it’s smooth and dynamic and doesn’t look posed at all. Second, of course, is Cyborg’s face, which is probably not the first example of “Larsen face” ever – I don’t own all of Larsen’s comics, so I can’t say where we first see it – but is the first one we’ve really seen in this series. Larsen gives Vic a wide nose, a very large mouth, giant teeth, and a wide face in general. He also has thick eyebrows and relatively high cheekbones. Either Larsen or Tanghal inks nice lines onto his face, making his a bit tougher and angrier. It’s interesting to see Vic’s face, because the way it’s drawn would become a staple of Larsen’s work moving forward.
Garth relives Tula’s death, so Larsen gets to draw Chemo poisoning New York harbor in Panel 1. The Shark in Panel 2 (whose name is .. Shark? is that right?) is another good “proto-Larsen” drawing, with the giant mouth and teeth (granted, he’s a shark, but still), and Larsen again shows his sense of humor with the drawing of the Titans and the “goofs” in the background. This is the last time I’m going to show this kind of cartooning – the next two examples are a bit different – and notice again that Larsen tends to be a bit more silly than we might expect. This page (especially Panel 5), Garth’s face above in the first example, and the way Larsen draws the faces when Garth shoots his father, put me in the mind of Sergio Aragonés. Does anyone else see that? It’s not quite as cartoonish as, say, Groo is, but the facial expressions and some of the poses – Donna’s “aw, shucks” turn of her foot on this page, for instance – really remind me of Aragonés’s more comedic style. I’m not sure if Larsen was doing that deliberately or if it just worked out that way. It’s not a terrible thing, although, as I noted above, Ostrander’s script isn’t quite as silly as Larsen’s artwork. The script still has plenty of absurdity in it, as we see here, so Larsen’s style doesn’t clash too much with the words, but it’s still unusual. I just find it interesting that Larsen seems to be channeling Aragonés a bit here, whether or not he was doing it on purpose.
Larsen’s cartoony style works for this issue partly because of this page, where Garth freaks out a little. First, of course, we notice that Larsen shatters the panel, breaking it into pieces in the lower right, which is a fairly standard thing in comics but still works well to show the “reality” of the story breaking apart – it turns out that this entire thing is part of a diabolical plan by Mento to fuck with Garth’s mind. But Larsen’s more cartoonish style makes the reader accept the way he distends and contorts Garth on this page a little more – it fits in with the style of earlier pages, even if those were a bit sillier than this page. Yes, Garth is grotesque on this page, but we know we’re seeing his emotional state rather than his actual physical being, and part of that comes from the somewhat goofy way Larsen was already drawing the issue. He really does a nice job here, widening Garth’s mouth to extreme degrees, lengthening his head, and using thick lines to score his skin with tension. I also like how he fits the two faces at the top of the page together like puzzle pieces – the smaller head is partly defined by the larger ear in the upper right, while the shoulder leads into the philtrum of the larger head and the hand appears on the other side. Larsen even keeps the “Z” pattern of reading a page, which is also clever. This is a terrific page, and it signals the emotional climax of the book while also shifting us from the world of Garth’s mind to the real world (with a detour back into “unreality” to come, but I’m not showing that).
Garth uses his telepathic abilities to turn the tables on Mento, and he eventually figures out that both of them are sad because their women are dead. They should join a support group! (Man, I would love to read a comic about heroes and villains in a support group because their loved ones have died.) Larsen does a nice job with this page, showing them both wailing like babies as they remember Rita and Tula. What I really like is that although it’s subtle, he draws the two women with different body shapes – Tula’s arm is a bit more muscular than Rita’s, Rita’s boob is a bit bigger than Tula’s, and Rita is a bit curvier than Tula. This makes sense – Tula swims a lot, and while Rita was an athlete, she was more famous as an actress (and a 1950s/1960s actress, to boot), so Tula should be a bit more muscular and Rita should be a bit curvier. Larsen draws both Mento and Garth well, as he gives them wide, downturned eyes and anguished, gaping mouths, and he and Tanghal hatch their faces nicely to show the strain on their faces. I can’t get over their teeth, though. Man, those teeth. Larsen could have taken them right out of the Big Book of British Smiles, I’ll tell you that much! Still, I do like how he contorts their lips to show how painful it still is to remember their lost loves. So sad!
Throughout 1987, it appears that Larsen continued to work as a fill-in artist, and he drew a few issues of The Outsiders before getting his first regular gig for the Big Two (as I noted yesterday, he was the “regular” artist on The New DNAgents, if five consecutive issues counts, which I think it should). It’s a comic that was far more famous for what came a bit after Larsen left it, but his art is still pretty neat! Come back tomorrow and check it out, and feel free to spend some time in the archives!
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