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We Are Groot! And Spider-Man, and Batman, and...

SUPERHERO IDENTITY

One last thought inspired by last week's visit to New York Comic-Con:

Superheroes aren't the exclusive characters of comic books and their readers.

Superheroes are pop culture icons to be shared by the world, in whatever form that takes. Whether it's a movie version of the character, the chibi version on a t-shirt, the animated version on cable television, or the novelized version for young adults. These characters don't have One True Vision anymore.

The comic books might be the origin of the icon, but they're not the characters' "true" identity anymore. The comics are just wheels in the cog. It's an interpretation -- perhaps the first, but never the only. We as comic fans are only fooling ourselves into thinking we know the "one, true" version of a character. We aren't special because we knew the characters first any more than that guy on the internet who races to post the first comment owns that message board or blog.

Besides, the comics have been around long enough by now that they've all rebooted themselves in enough different ways that there isn't even one true identity for the comics. Comic fans pick "their" versions of the character. (It's usually the one they started with at a much younger age.)

You see it in Artist's Alley where artists interpret characters in dozens of different ways. You see it in the cosplayers, who dress up as the movie versions of the characters as much as the comics. Whether that's because it's a better fit and more achievable, or because that's the version of the character they know and enjoy, I do not know. Doesn't matter. The characters are malleable icons. Comic books are just one version.

This isn't meant to be a legal definition of terms. If so, I'd refer to the characters as the "IP." "Intellectual Property" only means that one party has the legal right to exploit a character for profit. What I'm talking about here is the group of superhero characters who feel like they've entered a sort of universal mindshare now. Everyone knows who Spider-Man or the X-Men are. Millions of people know who Hellboy is, despite so few ever reading that comic, or even knowing it exists. I bet just as many people refer to "Hellboy" and its sequel as "comic book movies" because they feel like one, not because of that character's medium of origin.

The next time someone walks up to you at work and asks if the events of a superhero movie are what "really" happened, just shake your head and tell them that the character is theirs now to do with what they wish. But, no, the movie isn't the same as the comic. The comic is still much better.

"THE ART OF BLUE SKY STUDIOS"

...is the most impressive movie-related art book I've ever seen. It addresses most of my issues with this kind of book. The pages are large, the art itself is impressive, and it doesn't rely on grabbing still frames from the final product to pad things out.

Coming in at just about 10" by 13" in size, the hardcover book from Insight Editions is better than an inch thick with over 300 pages. It feels weighty. It has a lot of ground to cover with nine movies, from "Ice Age" to "Epic" to "Rio" and "Horton Hears a Who." Maybe its because of that diversity that it doesn't get stuck trying to fill out each section with lesser material to justify a book. It feels like this book is the best of the best. At the end of each chapter, I wanted more, not less.

Jake S. Friedman writes the text in the book, and it's more than just caption work for a series of images. He starts off with a history of Blue Sky Studios, and then follows the people there through the course of the book to all their projects. There are sections devoted to different parts of the CGI animation process, like the pre-vis group and lighting, but the majority of the book is centered on the challenges of each film, how the characters are created, and how their environments are designed.

It's all packed with lots of art, from early black and white sketches of character designs to concept paintings to early computer renderings. There's a lot of attention paid, in particular, to the environment of each movie. These movies often have a very wide angle view of the world. There's a lot of details in those backgrounds, and a lot of larger issues to take into account. A lot of attention is paid to the color keying of scenes in the book, and those go along nicely with the larger painted images.

The most impressive parts of the book are the full color paintings. They're done mostly to visualize the environments for the films and the characters' place in them, and they're striking. I can't compliment them enough. There are double page spreads here that I would stare at for minutes, admiring not just the brush strokes, but also all the little details in the smallest places.

It's crazy because I'm not a painting person. I gave up on an art career in high school because I didn't have the patience to paint things. I favor looser pencils and sketchier drawings. I like smooth polished CGI. But paintings? Before this book, I didn't have enough patience for them. The work in this book dropped my jaw. It's not detail perfect. It is, to re-use a term, done in larger brush strokes. Seen from afar, it looks more detailed than it is. That's an amazing trick.

But the textures, the colors, and the mood in the paintings is fun to study. Best of all, the book doesn't try to cram them all into a smaller format. They're allowed to breathe. Some stretch across two page spreads. You can really see these paintings, and that's what an art book should do.

The painters (particularly Greg Couch) aren't trying to draw every leaf or every bit of fur. That's the renderer's jobs. The painters are there to do color studies and set designs. The wide angles of these paintings draw you in with their scale, but the strokes are left intact, obscuring the details that just aren't as important in these cases. They're stronger images for that focus.

If there's one nit I'd pick on the book it would have to do with the captions for all the images. They're confusingly laid out. I can't tell which artists go to which pieces all the time. You have to really slow down to follow the order to work that out. There's plenty of room in this book. They could have done one credit per line, or run a one-line credit under each item in many of the cases. Jumbled together like this, it's hard to pick out who did what.

That's very minor, though. Overall, "The Art of Blue Sky Studios" is a very impressive collection of images with smart organization and a welcomed history lesson winding through it. The production values of the book are high, as well. The book is available now through Insight Editions, who have more previews at their website. For more pages, including a few of those paintings I talked about before, check out Amazon's preview.

As a bonus, the Epilogue shows a couple of paintings from their upcoming "Peanuts" movie. The double page spread of Snoopy as the Red Baron is just perfect. It's a great sample of the kind of colorful imagery the book does best, with scale and deep dimensions.

I have some movies to catch up on as a result of reading this book. Think I'll start with "Horton Hears A Who," just for the design choices they needed to make to keep with the Seuss look of the thing. Then I'll go with "Robots" to see how they incorporated stretching and squashing into a book filled with, well, robots.

This is the good kind of homework.

PIPELINKS AND ONE-LINERS

  • A week later, I think I've come to regret not having a better game plan before I walked on the NYCC show floor. I missed too many people I would have loved to see, whether for the first time or just the latest. I feel badly about it. Problem is, the list of guests and companies is so long, it'd take a lot of work to pull that list together. Maybe next year I need a game plan of some sort.
  • Also at NYCC, Todd Nauck and Peter David post with Young Justice cosplayers. Here's another angle. Very cool. Makes me want to pull that series out for a reread. It was always a lot of fun.
  • ReedPop is doing a convention in Paris next year. Being in France, I have to believe this will be a comic-con with a strong focus on the actual comics. I'm jealous.
  • The best single link of the past month comes to us from Quora, answering the ages-old question, "How does Batman disappear from sight like that?" Spoiler: Take advantage of the person's blind spot.

"THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN" #320: "License Invoked"

Spider-Man runs into Paladin, only to get dragged into a political plot that threatens global instability. Or, at least, Symkaria. It's possible Silver Sable is being a bit of a drama queen in this issue, really.

This is the first of six parts in the bi-weekly "The Assassin Nation Plot" storyline that ran through "The Amazing Spider-Man" in the summer of 1989. It features the return of a couple characters we've seen before in "The McFarlane Chronicles." Silver Sable is back to play a major role in Spider-Man's life for the next few issues, and there's even the return of Drake -- not the "DeGrassi High" kid, but the man who ran the survivalist's group we saw in McFarlane's first issues, #298 - #299. How's that for a call back?

To make a circuitous story short, Spider-Man inadvertently gets involved with Silver Sable's latest mission to protect her home country against a possible foreign conspiracy that, of course, could make the whole world unstable. At the very least, there are evil things afoot that threaten the Symkarian royal family, and Spider-Man is now involved on the side of the angels.

Paladin is the subject of this month's superpowered fight scene. It's a brief fight in which they eventually realize they're on the same side and need to fight the common enemy. It's a quick turnaround, but works for this story. Paladin isn't evil, after all. He's just a mercenary. He happens to be on the right side here.

The issue tells a satisfying chunk of story while leaving things at a natural resting point, though not without Michelinie dropping one last soap opera cliffhanger on the last page. Peter, now living at Aunt May's house, overhears her on the phone talking about the bad results of a medical test and assuming May's in serious trouble. It's a dramatic moment undercut only by the fact that it comes out like a bad sit-com beat where everyone knows what Peter just overheard isn't what he's assuming it means.

Todd McFarlane's art in this issue deserves some discussion, for both the good and the bad.

On the third page of the story, Peter Parker snaps a new cartridge of his webbing formula into place on his wrist. It's a small detail, but it's the kind of thing that excited the 13-year-old me. It exercised the same part of my brain that bought the book that detailed how the starship Enterprise worked in graphic detail. To be fair, I needed that book for a piece of "Star Trek" fanfic I had planned to write, and -- I'm shutting up now.

It's the kind of thing that, today, I would gloss over. It's cute that the writer thought of it, but unless it's a detail in that issue's plot, I'll forget it tomorrow. 25 years ago, I'd latch onto it and look for how a future writer or artist might contradict it. I treated those little details as gospel, because I hadn't yet been around long enough to run into issues where new creative teams would contradict or ignore what the previous team had done.

It was cool that those flights of fantasy in the series had a technological basis that could be shown and explained. Most importantly, Spider-Man's webshooters were not organic. I didn't know that could even be a thing at that point. I wouldn't, probably, until "Spider-Man 2099," where Peter David made it work so well.

The splash page for this issue is also one of my favorites. It's a relatively simple page of Peter Parker at the lab running tests on some new webbing he planned on using as Spider-Man. This new webbing would pop up again a bit later in the issue to minor story affect, but just showing that it's something Parker has to work on is a nice step for the character. It makes him feel smarter and more scientific.

McFarlane nails the shot in a few ways. First, it's in the inks with all the lines radiating out from the point of contact between the webbing and the acetylene torch Parker is testing it with. Bob Sharen and Greg Wright are co-credited with colors for this issue. Whichever one did this page earns lots of extra credit for using alternating yellow and white areas to make the energy coming out of the experiment shine. When some of those lines jump out in front of Parker's hand, the yellow colors moved up a plane with them.

McFarlane's inks on Parker's face provide for dramatic shading, too, with most of his face and shoulders showing clear lines done in reaction to the dominant light source in the panel. Everything behind the mask of Parker's face (except the outer part of his ear) is hidden in shadow, as it should be. This is one portrait where the head feels like it takes up three-dimensional space. It's more than just a black and white interpretation of the head in a few lines.

This would also be the issue I've come to refer to as the "My Eyes Are Up Here" story. Silver Sable sits back in her chair at the end of this issue with her costume open halfway down her chest, with perfect circles forming the shapes you'd expect them to. Mary Jane is working on her Jane Fonda aerobics in a workout outfit that in no way would support that exercise. Those spaghetti straps on the leotard are doing an awful lot of work both lifting and separating in a clear violation of the laws of both physics and anatomy.

The funny thing about the "Jane Fonda" sequence is that the composition for those individual panels is very well done. McFarlane liked to frame his panels to guide the reader's to the focal point. He did it often. He even did it once for Stan Lee in one of those Stabur instructional VHS videos back in the day.

Take these panels for example. Try to not get distracted by asking yourself why the poor down-on-his-luck Peter Parker's supermodel wife is home all day doing cardio in barely-there clothing. Let's look at layout:

OK, so this one doesn't quite lay out the case yet, but it does show you the gratuitousness of Mary Jane's apparel, complete with side boob. I could argue that reading the panel from left to right, as one in the Western half of the world does, leads the eye straight to Peter looking at his wife, who dominates the panel with a zig-zag shape that keeps the image from being boring. There's a triangle there with her arms holding her up. Her bent legs (forming another triangle with her chest) are lifted up break any chance of boring straightness in the panel.

This one is even better. Mary Jane is the focal point, so McFarlane shows her through Peter's legs. He's surrounding her and focusing your eye straight on her. She's also bending over with her-- well, you can see what's going on here. If Milo Manara had drawn this panel today, we would instantly assume a different action would be happening in the next panel.

Again, McFarlane puts a frame inside a frame. If the panel is the frame containing the image, Mary Jane's body is almost an "S" shape that leaves open a negative space to the right where Peter fits right in. Since he has all the dialogue in the panel, it makes sense to draw the reader into the page that way. Just don't be distracted by the cleavage. Sigh.

Finally, to wrap it up, Mary Jane fills out this panel leaving just the perfect amount of negative space in the panel for her word balloon. The framing is almost symmetrical. Look at how MJ's head is tilted an angle perpendicular to her chest. Nothing's ever in a straight line in these books. McFarlane makes strong lines, bent lines, and curved lines to draw the eye around the page.

It's three-dimensional, too. Peter's walking in the door behind Mary Jane. Peter's feet are in the foreground. Mary Jane's sitting up in the foreground while Peter speaks from mid-ground.

McFarlane plays the angles throughout the issue and in all his work.

Another interesting storytelling technique is in the car chase scene. Spider-Man is swinging through the city following a car that's being followed by another car. It could be a simple enough sequence, but McFarlane chooses a repetition in the panel shapes combined with an intercutting of scenes to sell it. It feels cinematic, with cuts back and forth between two parties who are heading in the same direction.

I love this page:

Notice how the car in the first two car panels is moving back to front, roughly right to left. The alternate Spider-Man panels zoom in closer and closer on him. In the final panel, Spider-Man turns around as the car ends its run. Just as the rhythm is established, the scene goes in the opposite direction, as does the art. Clever.

Felix the Cat Watch: He's on the cover, pulling a cute face from the garbage cans in the corner.

Next Issue: Everyone from this issue returns, and McFarlane's art starts to strain under the tighter deadline.

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