Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Fight about Alex Ross

Hillary Brown: So, in the interest of not always talking about specific books and sometimes addressing bigger comics issues, I think maybe we should talk about Frank Santoro's anti-Alex Ross screed, which attracted enough comments at the site of the original to close down the debate eventually and continues to provoke discussion around the interweb, as on The Comics Reporter. Also, I like Ross and you don't, although neither of us has a ton of experience with him. Frankly, I think I could make my argument with this picture alone.
But what really wigs me out (and I think Jared may jump in here to some extent, as he's the dude who really knows art stuff) is that so many people think Ross is excessively realistic. My impression, from reading through the comics, is that some people think this because they want their superheroes light and unwrinkled, and some other people obviously have something wrong with their eyes if they think a hand-painted panel looks anything like a photograph. The comparison in the comments on Santoro's post to Rockwell is apt. The poses are fairly realistic, and the bodies have weight in the appropriate places, but other than that it's oddly reminiscent of the crowd that ran from the screen when the film of a train rushing toward them was shown. Ross's stuff is obviously art and obviously shaped, and, sure, it takes longer to look at than a lot of contemporary superhero comics, but is that a bad thing? No one's dogging Chris Ware for the same thing.

Garrett Martin: Wait, what same thing? How are Chris Ware and Alex Ross anything alike?

Santoro isn't bashing Ross for being too "realistic". He's arguing that Ross is a poor cartoonist (ie, visual story-teller) due to an over-reliance on photo-referencing. I've never actually read a Ross comic, but I can totally see how that's possible, based just on his covers. There's hardly any sense of motion or action in any of the Ross paintings I've seen. That can work fine as the occasional cover, but it's a problem if that carries over to the comic itself. Comic art isn't just about how beautiful you can draw; it's about visual story-telling, and if Ross's art is as flat and undynamic as Santoro states, then I imagine his story-telling ability isn't that great. I've heard these complaints about Ross for years, before I even got back into comics, so I have to think there's something to it. And although I've love to see a Rockwell comic book, if only for the incongruity, I don't think the world would ever need more than one Rockwell comic, y'know?

HB: Well, they're not very much alike except that neither is incredibly dynamic (okay, fine, Ware is more so) and both create pages that take a lot of time to take in, slowing the pace of processing. It's also true that Santoro isn't arguing Ross is too realistic, but the commenters below sure are, en masse, and I know I probably shouldn't ever be responding to hyperactive fanboys commenting on a blog (except this one!), but, heck, I am. Okay, so where's the real merit of Santoro's argument? I'm not sure how using photo references has anything to do with being a poor visual storyteller. It doesn't mean you don't have to come up with the ideas. It just means you have something to look at while drawing to double-check your shadows. There's an argument farther down in the comments that makes a Jackson Pollock analogy--dudes who don't use photo references being the freewheeling type, I suppose--but that implies that carefulness and thoughtfulness about composition are a bad thing. And why is no one getting on Tony Harris's case? Maybe because he's bigger and scarier than Ross.

GM: I think photo-referencing can definitely be a problem with story-telling, if the artist fails to impart a sense of motion and action. Especially superhero action, if only because that generally relies on the physically impossible. Jack Kirby's kind of the standard for superhero artwork, I think, and his art is full of dynamic action and odd perspectives that simply are not possible in this real world of ours. Again, I've never read any Ross, but if he doesn't infuse his photo-referenced superhero drawings with the dynamism and fluidity expected from the genre then I can see why people would complain. And again, that is what Santoro is arguing; he even specifically absolves John Buscema and Barry Windsor Smith, noting that they didn't rely entirely upon photo-referencing. The Ross paintings I've seen are usually just a dude passively standing there, and generally are stiff, overly posed, and kinda lifeless. I totally agree with Santoro when it comes to displaying the photos used as reference, by the way; that's my biggest reservation with Tony Harris's artwork. I don't know which volume of Ex Machina it is, but there's a frame with two background characters sporting ridiculous reaction shots. The drawing was so over-the-top that it briefly took me out of the story. I found out in the back-matter that Harris uses extensive photo-reference, and that was one of the specific photographs he published as an example. This was a couple of years ago, before I had heard any of the arguments on either side about the issue, but I could tell right then that extreme photo-referencing might not be the best thing to happen to comics. That's regularly not a big problem with Harris, who draws action fine, and only seems too referenced when it comes to facial expressions. I assume nobody's called him out on that thread because he, like Buscema and Smith, generally incorporates his photo-referencing into a unique and fully-rounded style.

HB: ight, but lack of imagination doesn't necessarily come with photo referencing. It could, but it certainly doesn't have to. What Santoro should be arguing against is sucky artists, and while I don't think Alex Ross is one (I think he's kind of wonderful, but I prefer to read faster), he might, and he's welcome to his opinion. There are sucky and probably photo-referenced comics out there, like the Iron Man one Jon Favreau is writing, which is a horror to look at, drawing on weak computer coloring and creepily Photoshopped bodies, so why go after someone who, again, takes care and time with his art. And it's not as though his superheroes are just sitting around eating their Frosted Flakes. They do stuff. They fly and fight, and things happen. Sure, it might work a little better for covers, but you really need to flip through a book of Ross's and see if you think his storytelling sucks because I'm pretty sure it doesn't.

Good point on Harris. He's got just as much stuff that's really stylized. Also, um, he is big, and kind of piratical.

GM: He's probably going after Ross because of that guy who's drawing Favreau's Iron Man book, along with other similarly bad artists. Ross is the big name, the guy who popularized that style, and thus easy to blame for the less talented swarms that followed.

And speaking of computer coloring: can we agree that's at least as much of a problem as photo-referencing?

HB: But that guy's stuff doesn't look anything like Ross's! That's what bothers me about this whole thing: the idea that Ross's work is soulless and inorganic, when in fact it's kind of in love with the best non-cosmetically-altered humanity can be. In many ways, and I prepare myself here for some blowback, he's kind of like Jaime Hernandez. Sure, he doesn't show quite the variety of body types that Jaime does, but he likes strong, big bodies with some heft to them. He likes leg muscles and appropriate sagging. His people have hair and they get sore and their costumes tear. If all that's what comes from photo reference (and I don't think it does; I'm still arguing that photo reference is merely a tool for checking your work, for making sure it's what you wanted it to be to begin with), then hooray for photo reference. I'm not arguing here, mind you, that Ross is my favorite comics artist or that he has the strongest sequential work, but his weaknesses, to my thinking, don't result from the tools he uses.

1 comment:

Jared said...

I've been reading through most of the comments from that anti-Ross post and when i got to this one, i just decided to cut and paste it bc I agree with it about 100%. So, thanks Mr. Guttertalk, for saving me some time:

"whoa, folks are worked up over this topic. The hyperbole certainly on full display.

As much as I love Kirby, Frank's example of Galactus couldn't be worse for me because my brothers and I always laughed at Galactus with the hockey sticks. And he just happens to use the English "G" on his costume? Sorry, Frank, but you're exaggerating there about the suspension of disbelief. How about Reed's two right hands? Did that ruin the suspension for FF #88? How is the occasional photo-ref panel in a Russell comic worse than these goofs? I don't see it.

You are also exaggerating what Ross is doing, which is more than "putting photograph next to photograph." You've seen that he lays out pages before he brings in the photograph-referenced drawings. When I've seen his photos and references, they are far from the final form, which often follow the idealized proportions of the Andrew Loomis form. Realistic yet idealized characters . . . there's more there than folks are giving credit for.

Why do people limit comics by saying things like comics aren't painted. It is sequential art, which should be open to a range. It's like saying poetry should rhyme and should be iambic pentameter.

The 90s produced enough bad art that Ross was a breath of fresh art, especially after seeing annoyingly contorted bodies from Rob Liefeld and others. For that, I give him more leeway than others like Bryan Hitch. But I don't want a steady diet of Ross, nor of Rude, Adams, Buscema, or even Kirby. And I think there's more to his art or Tony Harris than drawing photos.

I agree, however, that the trend has its awful results. [Newuniversals is nearly unreadable because of the celebrity references.] As someone who tried a hand at art, I agree that focusing on being realistic is the wrong goal for aspiring artists: it should be having a voice or style that tells a story well, that conveys drama, comedy, tension.

FWIW, I think manga is probably at the opposite end of the style spectrum that has its own poor imitators.

I'm glad to have read this post, and it's the sort of thinking that does us good as fans of the medium."