Thursday, December 17, 2009

Top Five Definitive Superman Artists

It's snowing pretty heavily outside right now (EDIT: or it was when I started this damn thing), which seems like a good excuse to talk about Superman for a bit. Because of the Fortress of Solitude or something. Just go with it. Superman, of course, has the longest continuous publishing history of any comic book character. And, this is just a guess, but he's probably starred in more comics then anyone else, considering that he's starred in at least two comic books a month for most of his career, and as many as four. That's a lot of comics. And a lot of artists. But what's interesting about Superman is that it's really not all that hard to make up a list of his definitive artists. Several have become so associated with the character that it's impossible not to think of them when you think of Superman; moreover, I honestly don't think you could expand this list beyond two or three more spots without having a tremendous dropoff. Certainly, I don't think you could get all the way to ten.

And what is a definitive artist? Well, it's an artist that made a tangible, lasting contribution to the character. Obviously, that's hard to quantify; length of service has something to do with it, but does not guarantee this status. For example, I daresay that Sal Buscema drew more issues of Captain America then anyone outside of Jack Kirby, but he wouldn't be on my Captain America list. So talent must play a part, but again can't be the only criteria. Thus, guys like Neal Adams, George Perez, and Ed McGuinness, all of whom drew Superman at some point but aren't really associated with him (with the possible exception of Adams) don't make the cut.

In the end, it's mostly just a gut feeling. It's the guys you think of when you think of Superman, or Superman is whom you think of when you think of these guys. Which is a convoluted way to put it. But whatever.

Before we get to the list, a couple honorable mentions:

Frank Quitely: Quitely is the artist of All Star Superman, which may well be the definitive Superman story. But it's still only twelve issues, and outside the regular Superman continuity at that, and I'm still not convinced that Quitely really is all that appropriate for Superman. No, I take that back; Quitely has a unique ability to convey both the fantastic and the mundane that has always been a hallmark of Superman at his best. But still, not quite yet.

John Byrne: Byrne was the mastermind behind the relaunch of Superman in the mid-'80s. Byrne wrote and drew both Action Comics and a renumbered Superman for several years, but for whatever reason he never really clicked with the character. I don't think this work would really be considered a highlight of either Byrne's or Superman's respective careers.

Dan Jurgens: During the '90s, DC published four Superman titles a month, each loosely following the previous week's installment, with an extra number even included on the cover to indicate where the issue fell in that year's Superman continuity. This period is often referred to as the Triangle Years (the shape of the extra number), and Jurgens was probably the driving creative force. But unlike a lot of other fans, I don't look back at this period, which included the death and rebirth of Superman storylines, with much fondness. And nor do I think much of Jurgens. In fairness, he'd probably have to be in any top ten list; one reason why five seems like a good cutoff number.

5. Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez

Garcia-Lopez was a somewhat regular penciller on Superman in the '70s, plus the regular cover artist, and also had stints on both World's Finest and DC Comics Presents. On the surface, this would seem to not be enough of a body of work . But Garcia-Lopez has also been DC's primary licensing artist for the past 30 years or so. His work can still be seen on hundreds of products featuring DC characters, especially Superman. It's this combination of factors, I think, that push Garcia-Lopez beyond Jurgens, Byrne, Al Plastino and others. Garcia-Lopez's Superman is iconic.

4. Jerry Ordway.

Probably the best of the modern Superman artists. Ordway was the other artist of the great Superman relaunch of 1986, launching Adventures of Superman (which continued the numbering of the original Superman series). It was pretty clear to everybody, though, that Ordway was the "B" artist in the new Superman publishing world in name only. While Byrne struggled to gain a foothold with fans, Ordway was immediately embraced as the proper inheritor of the Superman artistic mantle. Ordway stayed on Superman for years (later only as a writer); his obvious appreciation for the artists of the Golden Age made him something of a throwback, and perfect for Superman.

3. Wayne Boring

I'm going to come right out and admit that I don't know all that much about Wayne Boring. The only two comic books that I own that definitely contain his work (Secret Origins #1 and All Star Squadron Annual #3) were heavily inked by Jerry Ordway. They look great, though. But Boring was the primary Superman artist from the late '40s through the '50s, serving as a lynchpin between the top two artists on our list. Thus Boring was keenly involved in the period where Superman morphed from his early glorified strongman days into the Man of Tomorrow we now know.

2. Joe Shuster

Shuster, of course, is one of the co-creators of Superman. I don't think that the creator credit necessarily brings with it definitive artist status (see Kane, Bob), but it's certainly warranted in this case. Shuster not only designed (and refined) what is easily the most iconic costume in comics, he also developed Superman's square-jawed look.

It's hard to say how much work Shuster actually produced; plagued by eye problems, Shuster had to turn most of the work on his breakout co-creation over to several assistents. But Shuster remained involved, despite his limitations, touching up figurework and faces for years to maintain the look he'd established for the strip.

Shuster left the character permanently after his ill-fated lawsuit to reclaim the character with partner Jerry Siegel failed in 1946. The co-creator of the most iconic character in comics faded into obscurity after that, his eyes now too weak to allow for much of a career. Recently, a collection of Shuster's fetish art was released by Abrams, featuring characters that look disturbingly like the cast of a certain comic book. And, frankly, I don't know what to add after that.

1. Curt Swan

Curt Swan was basically the Superman artist through the Silver and Bronze Ages. He probably drew more Superman stories then anyone else, always with an unparalleled elegance. In a way, Swan was an odd fit on Superman; never a strong action artist, his strengths lay in facial expressions and body language. But these abilities actually fit quite well with the Superman of the Silver Age. As his powers had grown to literal godlike proportions, Superman rarely used his fists in those days, relying on his brain and his vast array of other powers. Swan, the thinking man's comic book artist, was a perfect fit with the more cerebral Superman.

Appropriately, Curt Swan's legendary association with Superman ended (for all intents and purposes) with Alan Moore's coda to the Silver Age Superman, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?". This two-issue story, running between Superman and Action Comics, effectively tied up Superman's continuity for the last 30 years, paving the way for John Byrne. It's funny; Byrne was brought in because the Powers That Be felt that Superman needed to be shaken up, but in two issues Moore showed perfectly how to balance Superman's fantastic past with modern sensibility. And Swan, as the lynchpin of the past, was a perfect compliment to Moore's script. Can you imagine if DC has put Alan Moore together with Curt Swan on Superman full time? But I digress....

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