Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Dustin Nguyen, and the issue is Manifest Eternity #1, which was published by DC/Wildstorm and is cover dated August 2006. Enjoy!
Manifest Eternity, a creator-owned book by noted comedian Scott Lobdell, lasted only six issues, and part of its quick demise may have been the unusual style Dustin Nguyen unveiled on it. Nguyen’s art, in hindsight, is quite impressive (with some caveats, of course), but when the book came out, I read more than a few reviews (and, to be fair, I wrote a few) wondering if Nguyen’s art was a detriment (some dude named Cronin, in fact, hated the coloring in this issue!). It still has some problems when we look at it years later, but the merits outweigh the demerits, I think.
Nguyen inked and colored this series, and the changes are evident immediately. He uses a harsher line than we’ve seen from him in the first two days of this series, as we can see in Panel 1. Nguyen focuses on Corporal Bozydej’s mouth and nose so we can see the sweat and snot dripping from him (he’s being tortured in a furnace), and we can see the cracked lips and scruff on his chin. This is the first close-up of the issue, and this rough drawing hits home pretty well. In Panels 2, Nguyen also shows us the bad guys clearly for the first time, and Nguyen doesn’t over-ink them, so we see the smoothness of their faces even as we see that they appear “harder” than humans – the thin eyes, heavy brows, and teeth imply a tougher skin, like a lizard or a rock. Nguyen colors this with a lot of red variations, as it’s taking place in such a hot environment. In Panel 2, he adds painted flourishes to the aliens’ armor, showing that they might look brutish, but they’re still “civilized.” We can see that he’s using computer-generated effects – the steam that separates the main alien from the others is done, I assume, with computer assistance – and that’s part of what makes the art a bit sloppy. Nguyen’s use of “soft focus” effects tends to obscure the crispness of his art, so while in Panel 1 the sharp lines help define Bozydej even as Nguyen uses hatching to rough him up a bit, in Panel 2 his lines tend to be a bit more obscure, and we’ll see a bit more of this as we go along. (We’ll also ignore that Lobdell or letterer Jared K. Fletcher spelled “carcass” wrong. Sheesh!)
On the page, this grid is much smaller, and it’s difficult to see all the interesting things Nguyen does on it. In Panel 1, we get the ugly coloring, as Nguyen obscures almost all his pencil work with dark blue, and we also get the white of the furnaces, an effect we saw above and will see again. As I’m not very good with using the computer to create effects, I don’t know how Nguyen does this, but it’s kind of clumsy. In Panel 2, Nguyen uses obvious computer-generated images in the background, and colors them pink and blue, which is behind a female holding a baby, implying that this is some kind of birthing farm. In Panel 3, we get a dark room, but we can see that Nguyen probably didn’t draw the table and chairs, as they look like they’ve been Photoshopped in. Finally, in Panel 4, we see some basic blocks and abstract figures, something Nguyen will use in later years. It’s fascinating to see him trying a lot of different things in just these small panels, which are there simply to show the reach of the galactic empire.
This is an example of Nguyen’s odd coloring on this book. He softens his pencils, so that the two lower images are pretty ill-defined. That wouldn’t be a problem if the coloring were brighter, but because Nguyen uses that blurry background that’s pretty much the same color as the building, everything blends together a bit. The last image is awful – the dude floating above the yellow area is holding something and offering it to the dude standing on the left, but we can’t see it very clearly. The creatures in the gallery are even murkier – some of them are just brown blobs. Nguyen appears to be going for some watercolor look here, but he botches it pretty badly. Over the course of the series, he gets slightly better at the coloring, but it’s never the best, and this is part of it.
This is another poor choice, one that is still too common in comics, although the trend has slowed down recently. Blurring the drawing to imply movement is the comics version of a “shaky cam,” and it might be even more egregious than that, as film is a fluid medium anyway, while comics are static and shouldn’t copy techniques from movies. This entire page is ugly, with these two panels standing out. In Panel 1, we get an explosion that looks like bad Photoshopping, but at least nothing is really happening in the panel. Nguyen then shows two characters struggling to stay on their feet in the aftermath of the explosion, and he blurs the figures so they look like they’re moving (instead of using motion lines, because they’re too old-fashioned). He phones in the background, simply putting in vertical bands of red and white, making everything glow sickeningly. This is a fairly nauseous panel, actually, which might be what Nguyen is going for because the space ship has just been hit, but do you really want to make your readers sick when they read your comic?
Nguyen gives us some very nice pages in this issue, however. This page kind of sums up what he’s going for in this series, even though he doesn’t always nail it. His coloring is better on this page, as he does a decent job with more traditional coloring and the swirling, flaring kind of stuff he uses for space, which gives the page a nice contrast. In Panel 2, he obviously did something to blur his lines, as we can see from the two characters in the background. He uses better lines on the faces of the characters, and the coloring helps create a better mood of peril than the bright red did in the previous example, because it’s a strong color but it’s not overwhelming. While the background in the big panel is still a bit blurry, the dragon is very well done. Nguyen uses sharp lines to show the face and the body, but some rougher lines for the wings and fins of the beast. The small amount of hatching on the body gives the impression of toughness, which you would expect from a space-faring dragon. Nguyen still uses some shiny colors on the dragon, but the gun-metal gray that’s its primary color helps balance that out. That’s an impressive example of what Nguyen was trying to do on this series.
Nguyen’s art got better over the course of the series, as he seemed to find a better balance between the special effects and his crisp pencil work, plus he tried a few more styles, including one that seems to have shown up again recently. He never quite figured out the coloring, though – this comic remains a dark, rather muddled mess. But it’s an interesting experiment, and it probably helped Nguyen grow as an artist. Tomorrow, he dives back into traditional superhero comics, and we’ll see what’s what! Remember: the archives are your friend!