Marvel, Then: Intro

I'm hunkered down in my apartment*, waiting for Hurricane Sandy to pass me by. Happily, this means that I am catching up on months worth of reading I have piled up next to my mattress, but I also figured that it was a good time to quickly intro something I'm going to be doing over the next few months, in conjunction with the House of Ideas' Marvel NOW! yearly culling of established ongoing series in order for the company to replace them with new number ones in an attempt to temporarily raise sales relaunch, namely, the consideration, first, of the books whose era has just ended (Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca on Iron Man, Ed Brubaker on Captain America, Jonathan Hickman on the Fantastic Four, and so on) and then of the books that are replacing them.

In some ways, this series started last week, with my review of the initiative's not very good flagship title, Uncanny Avengers #1. That was sort of a false start, though, since the first few posts, which I've not very cleverly titled "Marvel, Then," are going to focus on what's ending, rather than what's new. Because of the staggered roll out of new titles, though, some of those posts will run concurrent with the posts, titled, again very cleverly, "Marvel When?" that deal with what's new NOW! that an era that's a decade old has come to a close.

That time frame, of course, is the same one in which Brian Bendis has been writing The Avengers. His work on that franchise over that span, while hardly the greatest superhero comics produced in the period, made possible the existence of some much better work. If he hadn't brought Luke Cage to the forefront of the Marvel universe through sheer force of will, for example, it seems unlikely that Immortal Iron Fist would have happened. I have a feeling, too, that his use of the Thing in New Avengers is partially responsible for the success of Jonathan Hickman's Fantastic Four. Bendis's move to other projects, which would have presaged a monumental change even if Marvel hadn't cloaked it in a line wide changing of the guard, presents by far the most important questions of this new era, at least when we think about Marvel as a business: can he replicate his Avengers success with All-New X-Men? Will his high word count writing style, the superhero board room approach, translate well to a much different kind of series? How about Guardians of the Galaxy? Is it going to be any good? Given that it mostly exists to gin up excitement for the movie adaptation, could it possibly be any good?

While Bendis's contributions are important, and while his arrival at Marvel marks the beginning of a renaissance for the publisher, I don't want to minimize how important, maybe even how much more important, I think Hickman, Fraction and Brubaker are to the company's artistic success over the last decade. Before them, too, were people like J. Michael Straczynski and beyond those three there are people like Kieron Gillen, each of whom helped to make Marvel's recent production stronger than anything from the Big Two comics companies in quite a long time. So, for the next few months, besides posts on the new Iron Man, Thor and Captain America series, you can expect commentary on the old ones, as well as whatever else piques my interest during this most fascinating moment in the history of the House of Ideas.

*Although this is posting Tuesday, I wrote it on Monday after I was sent home from work.

Process: Paolo Rivera

I know I posted some process from Paolo not very long ago, but I want to highlight his last post, which deals with his work on Mythos: Captain America, because, in it, Paolo goes beyond the art itself, beyond comics, really, and deals with its afterlife.

Of Mythos as a whole, that is, of the comics themselves, Paolo writes:
The series did less than amazing in terms of sales, but Marvel still followed through with the project until we had enough issues to collect into a beautiful hardcover. If nothing else, it proved to be a fantastic platform for jumpstarting my career — aside from being paired with a top-tier writer, I got to illustrate the cream of the crop in terms of Marvel characters. And all that while I was still a rookie: when they gave me the job, I had painted just 34 pages for them.
In the pantheon of creator origins, Rivera's story is kind of extraordinary. Although he was one of the few comics artists in the last few decades to immediately jump to the big leagues, I'm not sure he has ever been introduced with that overused "superstar artist" epithet, despite the fact that the quality of his work is often much higher than those artists that are. Instead, he began his career by working for the House of Ideas, and, perhaps more interestingly, he has only produced a couple of dozen books for the company over the ten years he was signed to an exclusive contract with themWhile I'm cynical about the ability of mainstream comics companies to see and recruit truly talented artists, its not hard to see why Marvel kept Rivera around for so long-- look at these pages, both from Captain America's Mythos issue: 

Although the one on the left is unequivocally beautiful, the one the right is fascinating, formally: check out the way the Rivera suggests differences of time in the top three panels, although all three frame the same space. Obviously, this is exceptional work, but anyone who suggests that nothing interesting happens in mainstream superhero comics isn't paying close enough attention. 

But Rivera doesn't just pull these images out of thin air. His process, which he very generously describes in more or less detail on a regular basis, is one of the most intensive I've ever read about. Rather than bluffing his way through the parts of a page he thinks people are unlikely to notice, Rivera takes every detail into account. He sketches everything from multiple angles. He takes reference photographs and, when he can't, he sculpts a reference out of clay. Take a look:

Of this technique, he writes:
One of the things I love most about Marvel heroes is that they don't always look the part. In fact, Captain America was the first in the entire Mythos series who had the classic heroic look (despite the fact that he doesn't start out that way). Creating that square jaw from scratch ensured that I got exactly the look I was going for, panel after panel. This was the largest of the maquettes I've made — the head's about 2 inches tall — and I still use it as a general reference for all types of heroes. 
I think he probably builds whole pages, both in reality and in his head, that we'll never see, things that are just as good as what he has published. It's hard to escape the sense that Rivera would have found success as a fine artist, had he not decided that what he really wanted to pursue was a career in comics.

Of course, the fact that his production is extraordinary neither makes him immune to market forces nor excuses him from paying the rent. In fact, I imagine it was something of a detriment: he's admitted that he's a slow painter, but, given how much work he does before he even touches the gauche, it would probably be more accurate to describe him as a pure and simple perfectionist. Still, perfection has its price, and I imagine the way it was limited production could be hard. Working on Mythos, however, helped him alleviate some of that stress:
The fact that I was commissioned to work on Marvel's flagship characters so early on was a privilege I recognized from the start, however, the benefits extended to my original art sales, which quickly became a third of my income (a much-welcomed addition since I was such a slow painter). If you're not familiar with the comic book art market, the price paid always comes down to which characters are on the page. Art is a commodity like everything else, and fame always trumps any intrinsic value. Captain America was (and always will be) more famous than me, but he has been kind enough to let me share in the spotlight.
I will tell you that, because I'm a recent college graduate, I never think about the original art market and, accordingly, know nothing about it. I had no idea that value in that world was figured in that way. Although I could imagine a market where value was determined by the relative fame of the artist, since everybody has their own favorite B-List character, this makes much more sense: Captain America will always be more famous than Paolo Rivera, and Batman will always be more famous than Jim Lee. Rivera's honesty about all of this is a thing to behold and, while I imagine that someone who wasn't some kind of fan of Marvel couldn't produce art that celebrates it like Rivera does, it's refreshing to see him admit that one of the perks of getting to draw the company's flagship characters is being able to up his income by a full third. A full third. 

Of course, an admission like that could be dangerous for artists, since its conceivable that they could end up stiffed on pay, with the big companies using that reasoning as an excuse: "Well, yeah, your royalties are tiny, but have you ever thought about original art sales?"

A few weeks ago, I heard Sean Howe describe his recently published history of Marvel as a story about pop culture because its a story of how art met commerce, and Rivera's post is a good reminder that its that confluence that conscientious readers of comics, that any conscientious consumer of culture, really, always need to be thinking about, but particularly when they're making decisions about what to buy and how. While it's tempting, maybe even partially true, to point to Paolo Rivera as story of a big comics corporation getting it right, Rivera's experience is, ultimately, atypical: he was as lucky as he is talented. And its important to remember that.