Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Steve Rude, and the issue is World’s Finest #1, which was published by DC and is cover dated June 1990. Enjoy!
World’s Finest may have been the first place I saw Rude’s art – it came out less than two years after I started buying comics, and I didn’t know about Nexus at that point, although my evil friend who got me into comics may have shown me some of his Nexus comics prior to this. I think it was the first time, because I remember being blown away by the art. To this day, I consider this Rude’s masterpiece. I know he’s done beautiful work since (and before), but this book is freakin’ amazing. I hope these examples will do it justice!
Rude is inked by Karl Kesel and colored by Steve Oliff in this book, and it’s a good combination of artists. Kesel adds the slightest bit of roughness to Rude’s clean pencils, and Oliff’s bright colors help make this a nostalgic book, even the grittier sections with Batman in Gotham. Rude, as we have already seen, is tremendous at action and choreography, as Batman chases the punk into the alley after he rescues the little girl who the punk had grabbed. Rude leads us well around the page, from Batman beginning his throw to the punk getting a batarang in the hand, which leads us down to Panel 3, where the punk flees leftward to take us down to Panel 4, where he reverses course. Rude doesn’t do anything too shocking with Panels 4 and 5 – showing the same scene with one person chasing another is a staple in action movies, shows, and comics – but that doesn’t mean it’s not nicely done. He gives us a wonderful view in Panel 6, as the punk tries to climb the wall. Yesterday we saw Pockets in a prison cell with the same view isolating him at the bottom of a hole, while on this page Rude uses it to show how hopeless the punk’s attempt is – we can’t even see the top of the wall he’s reaching for, so of course he’s screwed. Panels 8 and 9 are nice, too, as Rude uses the bag of ill-gotten goods to “move” us from the punk to Batman, even though he uses two panels and doesn’t show the space between them. Simply by linking them with the bag, he implies that Batman has caught up to his prey, and now it’s beat-down time. As it’s Batman, Rude and Kesel use a lot of blacks, which does some cool things for the storytelling. In both Panels 2 and 7, we get a shadow obscuring part of the punk’s face, as the shadow of the Batman falls across him (far more explicitly in Panel 7, of course). In Panel 3, the use of silhouettes allows us to see the girl’s teddy bear more clearly, which hints at the desperate attempts by Batman to preserve innocence in a crazy world. Panels 4 and 5 uses shadows, too, as Batman’s is so much bigger than the punk’s, making it clear that the bad guy is about to be eclipsed. In Panel 6, the shadow of the punk’s fingers stretch upward, making his pathetic attempt at escape even more futile. It’s beautiful work, and it shows artists who know exactly what they’re doing.
The early part of this series shows Batman and Superman chasing bad guys in very similar yet hero-specific ways, as Batman, we saw, chased down a punk into an alley, while Superman fights this guy on a broad, well-lit street (school buses and kids being held hostage briefly are also involved in both scenes). At the end of each fight, the hero knows his arch-nemesis is involved, but for different reasons – the punk we saw above commits suicide with Joker poison, while Lex Luthor’s attorney gets this punk out of jail. On this page, we get far fewer blacks, of course, because it’s the day time and it’s Superman, but the action is still tremendous. Rude balances Panel 1 very nicely – on the left we get the smoking bus, which has been struck by that red car in the background. The clunky bus and the billowing smoke is offset by the sleek Superman coming in from the right side, with the bustle of the city in between them (I didn’t show it, but Gotham’s streets are largely deserted in the previous example). Rude lays the fight out in Panels 2-6 very well. The big punk is holding up the other dude while the guy with the checkered shirt is holding onto him. He punches away the skinny punk as Checkered Dude pushes him to the right, which moves our eyes quickly that way. In Panel 4, Big Punk turns and pushes Checkered Dude off of him, and Rude does a neat job moving us back to the left, as Big Dude punches who he thinks is Checkered Dude but turns out to be Superman. The jagged pain lines in Panel 5 and the punk’s pained face in Panel 6 are very well done, especially as Rude contrasts his somewhat goofy look in Panel 6 with his bad-ass look in Panel 2, when he’s in control of the situation. Rude does nice work in the bottom row, as he and Kesel use good hatching to show Superman’s Super-Breath knocking the dude backward, and then we get the final silly panel with the punk rolled over against the street lamp. Oliff, as we can see, uses much brighter colors on this page, given that it’s during the day and not at sunset like the Batman scene, but it’s also because this scene takes place on an open street and not in a grimy alley. Once again, there’s a lot of nice work on this page.
One thing Rude, Kesel, and Oliff do nicely in this book is show flashbacks in this sepia-tone kind of way, with a lot of blacks, not a lot of holding lines, and beautiful watercolors to blur Rude’s pencils a bit (heck, this might even be painted directly from the pencils – I wouldn’t be surprised). In some places, it appears that Rude uses duo-shade (the lines on the unconscious drivers in Panel 1 seems to imply that), which is another nice trick. There’s more beautiful work with blacks on this page, too, as you can see. The branches of the tree in Panel 1 ensnare the truck and cast dark shadows on the roof of the car, which seems like a deliberate metaphor on Rude’s part. In Panel 2, the kids enter the room, and their long shadows point toward the adult ringleader, but they still remain small while he dominates the scene. Panels 2 and 7 are mirror images of each other – in the first one, the kids enter happily, with their shadows stretching straight into the room, while in the second one, they leave the room chagrined, and their shadows are lumped together unhappily. It’s a very good use of the long blacks, especially on a wordless page.
The two groups of people meet at Midway Orphanage, where Rude gets to draw all the supporting characters in both heroes’ worlds. As it’s not a Batman scene, Rude and Kesel use thinner, cleaner lines, and as it’s not a Superman scene, Oliff can use slightly muted colors, so we get some interesting contrasts. The yellow that suffuses the entire scene makes this feel nostalgic, which is a theme of the entire comic, actually (as it’s early in the careers of the two heroes), but Oliff doesn’t go overboard with it. Rude has always been able to draw stylish characters, so Lois has very modern hair and a nice outfit (which we see only a bit in the final panel). In Panel 3, we get nice shadows on the two kids – the two kids Batman and Superman saved earlier in the issue, I should note – as they watch from the stairs. Rude decides to use Laurel and Hardy as templates for the two men who work at the orphanage, and he’s skilled enough that while it’s clear who they’re based on, Rude doesn’t light box them so they become actual characters. Rude does some nice work with faces on this page – Lois has a wry look on her face as she chats with Bruce, while he is intense as usual. Clark, as always, looks like he’s seeing things happening far away (he probably is), while in that final panel, Rude and Kesel hood Bruce’s eyes nicely. Of course, Bruce wears a dark suit and Clark wears a white tuxedo. That’s just logical!
The Joker tries to team up with Lex Luthor, who wants nothing to do with it. So we get this page, on which Rude uses the art to show the Joker’s insanity. This is kind of the Joker I love – he’s crazy and will kill people, but he’s not a mass murderer, which gets boring very quickly. Dave Gibbons, who wrote this, understands that, at least in this story. Anyway, in Panel 1 we get the overhead view that Rude likes, with the tilt of the panel leading us to the right, where the Joker pops up, crumples the edges of the panel as he sticks his nose outside the boundaries of the comic, and talks directly to the reader. Rude and Kesel use thick blacks on him, but he still looks more wacky than murderous. The fact that he appears where he does, doing what he does, is enough to imply his insanity. In Panel 3, Rude shows that he really is hanging from the ceiling, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of Panel 1. The third row, in which the window spins out of control, is another good visual representation of the Joker’s insanity without having him slaughter his henchmen just for the fun of it. Rude keeps his hair standing up, which makes us think he’s still upside-down even though he appears to be upright. The incongruity is nicely done – it’s disturbing but, as I noted, not disgusting, which is where too many writers go with the Joker.
The Joker and Luthor swap cities, so Batman has to deactivate a giant machine that Luthor unleashes on Gotham (it’s supposed to help fire fighters, but naturally it malfunctions). Rude once again uses a lot of panels, but because his lines are so crisp and precise, he’s never confusing. Batman lands on the top of the machine, attaches the bomb, but then gets knocked off his feet and can’t jump clear (spoiler alert: he does on the next page). Rude adds a panel on the right side in the top row showing Luthor’s limousine arriving on the scene, breaking through the barrier because Luthor is just that big a douchebag. We’re back to lots of blacks, because Gotham never actually experiences daylight and there’s a fire, so everything is thrown into shadow, and Rude uses it to his advantage to make the machine look more menacing. He and Kesel use thicker lines in Panel 4, where the machine falls into the sewer, both to show the force with which it collapses and to make the ground look carved up. In the big bottom panel, we get more rough inks, as smoke rises from the ground and the sleekness of the machine is tempered by the rough blacks on its surface. Rude has always loved motion lines, and they work nicely here, showing how violently the machine is shaking as Batman sets the bomb and then how Batman himself is shaking as he holds on. Oliff’s colors, as usual, are very nice, too.
Rude does a lot of nice things on this page, which isn’t surprising. He places the Bat-signal in the foreground of Panel 1, diminishing Batman as he feels “foolish” about being a pawn, but then Rude comes in for a close-up before pulling back a little. He uses blacks wonderfully on the entire page, but the way he uses the silhouettes of the birds in Panels 2-4 is stunning, especially when combined with the semi-silhouette of Batman, which makes him look angrier as he mulls what to do about Luthor. Rude’s Gotham design in Panel 5 is wonderful – it’s somewhat Art Deco, somewhat archaic, and not all modern, which puts it in contrast with Superman’s Metropolis. Plus, Rude uses nice big blocks instead of a lot of thin lines, so that the city still looks beautiful but not elegant. It’s also neat that Rude has the clouds move in and begin to rain – it’s something we don’t see too often in comics, where weather tends to stay the same in scenes, but Rude and Kesel give us black clouds in the first panel, while Oliff hints at the dying sun on the Bat-signal, and then Rude begins drawing in raindrops that get stronger as the scene moves along. Rude also “humanizes” Batman by the end of the page – in the first four panels, he’s hunched over and darker, while in Panel 6, when he thinks about allying with Superman, we get his entire face and he looks a bit more like a regular person rather than a dark avenger. Rude and Gibbons are contrasting the two heroes, of course, and it’s interesting how Rude moves Batman a little toward Superman on this page, as he realizes he might need assistance dealing with Luthor.
We get some more nice character work from Rude here, as Bruce and Clark meet again at the orphanage, with the other supporting characters showing up too. Rude knows what he’s doing here – Clark senses that something is bothering Bruce in Panel 1, and Rude has him cock his eye in that direction as Bruce broods (Bruce is good at brooding). Notice that Bruce moves away with Alfred in Panel 3, and Clark continues to look in that direction in Panel 5, just before Alfred approaches him. In Panel 2, we get a nice scene as Lois teases Alfred, and Rude does nice work with her as she talks to Alfred in Panel 3 and gives Bruce a venomous look in Panel 4 – Rude thins her eyes out and gives her a crooked mouth, as she remains scornful of Bruce. I’m not entirely sure why she’s posing like that in Panel 5 – it seems completely incongruous. I like Clark’s face in Panel 6, as he’s still mulling over what’s going on with Bruce. Rude gives him a grim mouth and a skeptical eyebrow, but he wants to talk to Bruce as much as Bruce wants to talk to him (they decide to swap cities, much like the Joker and Luthor did), so he goes with Alfred. There’s a lot of nice body language on this page, as Rude shows he’s good at quieter moments as well as the action-packed ones.
As I noted, by this time, Rude had pretty much reached the point where his style was refined and pretty much set. I could easily stop featuring him today, but I want to do one more day, because it’s not a bad thing to see what his art looks like in the new millennium. Will I cave and go back to Nexus? Or will I show something else from this century? Only time will tell! And don’t forget to check out the archives!
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