Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Barry Windsor-Smith, and the story is “The Freebooters” – from chapters 4 and 5 – from Storyteller #4 (technically it’s Barry Windsor-Smith: Storyteller, but I hate when the person’s name is part of the title – for some reason it irks me), which was published by Dark Horse and is cover dated January 1997. These scans are from The Freebooters Collection, which was published by Fantagraphics in 2005. Enjoy!
Storyteller ran for nine issues, with three features – this one, “Paradoxman,” and “Young Gods” – and as far as I know, only this one has been collected. What the hell? Someone – Fantagraphics or even Dark Horse – should get on that. I mean, really.
Windsor-Smith, of course, remains committed to wonderfully detailed pages, as the first page of the chapter shows. Axus wakes up at the Ram and Peacock (his tavern) and goes to the restaurant, and Windsor-Smith goes nuts with everything. The bar is carefully drawn in, on the floor in front of it is a intricately worked carpet (we’ll see that again), every palm frond is clear, every table is placed where it would be, and Windsor-Smith doesn’t forget the cats. As usual, Windsor-Smith’s rough inking helps add nice texture to the scene, as it looks like a somewhat seedy bar with tough customers. Windsor-Smith, of course, showed that he liked slightly rounder heroes when he worked on Archer & Armstrong, and with Axus, he does it again, as he’s definitely not a traditional hero. I love the clothing he designs for Yeek and Blacjaq (does John Ostrander know about him?), as they fit the fantasy setting but also the characters themselves. It’s nicely done.
Eeyeekaldu (Yeek) tells the ladies at the tavern why the name “Ammon” is not to be spoken, and he begins with this very nice panel. Windsor-Smith, of course, has by now perfected the Windsor-Smith Face, both for men and women, so everyone looks vaguely similar, in that they’re all drawn by Windsor-Smith, but he does some things to distinguish them. The easiest way to do it, of course, is with hair, and the women have many different kinds of hair. It can’t hide the Face, which tends to have wide cheeks, not a lot of noticeable cheekbones, and a long jaw line that turns a bit severe in the chin. Windsor-Smith’s faces aren’t as round as, say, Mature Howard Chaykin’s faces are, but the lack of inking along the cheekbones in many cases makes them look wider. They also tend to have slightly smaller mouths and eyes – even the men – which makes their faces a bit wider. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but by the 1980s and later, you could be pretty confident when you were seeing Windsor-Smith’s distinctive art. Meanwhile, we get the carpet again, with its amazing details and vibrant colors. Windsor-Smith and Tom Vincent are credited as colorists; on later issues, Vincent is credited with “base color” and Windsor-Smith is credited with “finished color,” and I’m not sure where one begins and the other ends (I know generally that color assistants do a lot of backgrounds, but does that mean the entire carpet?). Either way, it’s tremendous, with a lot of blacks highlighting the bright colors throughout. By this time, I assume some of the coloring was digital, and it’s done well, as it has a nice, rich, painted look, and Windsor-Smith or Vincent uses whites nicely to contrast the other colors of the ladies’ dresses, for instance. It’s really nice work.
Windsor-Smith has never been what you call great with more personal stuff, but he gets the job done solidly enough. He knows when to drop a character’s head when he’s discussing serious topics, as he does with Yeek in Panels 2 and 3, and he does enough with the women in Panel 4 to show that they’re taking Yeek seriously now. Obviously, when you put figures into the background a bit, they’re going to be a bit sketchier, but it’s interesting about Windsor-Smith because his style is still clear, and it doesn’t work as well in a sketchier form than some other artists. Perhaps it’s the lack of “cartoony-ness,” for lack of a better word, so that when he does go a bit simpler (as he does in Panel 4), he can’t quite pull it off, but Yeek in Panel 3 definitely looks more “real” and emotionally invested than the women in Panel 4. It’s odd. I do like how he uses much simpler line work in Panel 6, as Yeek tells the story of Axus and the panel moves from him to Axus sitting on the bar stool (complete with farting sound effect) and then to the past, when Axus was a great hero. Windsor-Smith’s more abstract but still powerful line work takes the place of a dissolve in film, and then he juxtaposes the current Axus with Yeek’s version of the Axus from the past. He is, of course, awfully manly!
Windsor-Smith shifts his storytelling techniques both to show that this is happening in the past (and, perhaps even more so, that it’s Yeek telling a story) and because the war makes everything messy. So we get thick hatched lines instead of blacks to really make the buildings and smoke look rough and textured, while Windsor-Smith also uses more colors to form figures without holding lines. It makes the battle look more chaotic and sloppy, even though it’s clear Windsor-Smith has total control over the panels. The fiery mass in Panel 2 is wonderful, with all those elements coming together well – the blocks of hot colors and the chunks of black, as well as the thicker black lines, makes the smoke look oily and alive. In Panel 3, we get more black lines and chunks to make Shahariza’s buildings flaming masses rather than the exquisite mansions and shrines we saw in earlier long views of the city. The demon in Panel 5 is terrific, too, as Windsor-Smith again uses blacks instead of crisp lines to make Ammon fuzzy, malleable, and viscous – he looks like he’ll just flow over Axus and smother him, but Axus is having none of that!
As the battle gets more brutal, Windsor-Smith uses more blacks and even darker reds, until it appears that there are very few lines, just spot blacks. That’s not true, of course – notice the wonderful line work on Axus, showing both his body hair and the general roughness of his skin, and the intense lines in Panel 3 as the tower collapses – but because of Windsor-Smith’s use of blacks, the line work helps form a more impressionistic vision of Ammon’s death and fall. The layout of the page is well done, too – Panel 1 is a wider view, as the floor cracks and Yeek’s story tells us that Axus and his men fell, which Windsor-Smith shows with vertical panels 2-4, which helps facilitate the idea of them moving downward. It’s always nice when artists think about layouts like this, as it really does make a difference.
Chapter Five of the story appears in the same issue of Storyteller, and it’s a brief vignette in which Uta-Prime, the chief priest of Ammon-Gra, argues with the demon inside him and strolls through some really cool architecture. Once again, Windsor-Smith shows why he’s so distinctive, as he labors to make sure every panel is dynamic, even when some dude is just walking around. In Panel 1, we get a good view of Uta-Prime, with his feathered headdress that makes his head look more elongated than we’ve already seen it is. Windsor-Smith makes him fairly gaunt, which isn’t surprising as it implies evil (although on the next page he’s a bit more barrel-chested), and in the background we get a head carved into the stone. Windsor-Smith and Vincent do amazing work with the colors, using that light blue and lavender watercolor on the steps to make them look like marble, showing how ornate Uta-Prime’s citadel is. In Panel 2, Windsor-Smith goes with a low view so that the reader can see the impressive architecture through which Uta-Prime walks. As we saw above, he’s using more blacks and not as many holding lines, which ages the structures a little, so that we’re more impressed with the fact that they’ve been around for a long time. As with any good villain, using a dull shade of red helps, as it’s supposed to remind us of blood. Then we switch to a higher-up view in Panel 3, which again minimalizes Uta-Prime in the face of the impressive structures around him while also showing us that part of the citadel is newer, or at least shinier. This blend of the ancient and the technological makes Uta-Prime and Ammon seem more formidable, because they’re not trapped in the past. It’s a nice contrast in styles, but it does show that they’re keeping up with any changes in Shahariza since Ammon last made himself known. As usual with Windsor-Smith, the details of the surroundings create a very specific tone and sense of place – no matter what Windsor-Smith draws, you can be sure you know exactly where it’s occurring and what’s going on around the characters.
After Storyteller, Windsor-Smith didn’t do much more. He drew some stuff for Fantagraphics around the turn of the millennium, but since then, he’s been fairly quiet. I don’t know why that is – he’s getting older, of course (he turned 65 in May), but that hasn’t stopped many others of his peers, and I haven’t heard of anything bad in his life that would keep him from doing comics. Maybe he’s happy doing other things. Tom Scioli wrote a great piece about Windsor-Smith last year, complete with comparisons of the original Conan work and the very unfortunate recoloring (as I touched upon a few days ago). Windsor-Smith is a great artist, with a style unlike almost anyone else in comics (although Scioli points out that people like Liefeld were probably influenced by him), and it’s too bad he’s not doing more work. Maybe he’ll finish his Hulk graphic novel that’s no longer about the Hulk sometime soon!
As we speed toward the end of the year, I’m going to take a look at an artist that I devoted a week to back in 2012, when I did the first pages of comics. I’ll probably show some of those same comics, although I have to be more judicious about which ones I show because of the restraint of five days. Plus, this dude has changed styles a lot over the years. But we’ll see what we can see, won’t we? You can find some of his collaborators in the archives!
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