I’ve been at the art game long enough to remember what being an artist entailed before the internet existed.
For one thing, artists used to clip pictures from magazines, books, pamphlets, and other sorts of ephemera and save them in what was usually known as a swipe file. If you needed to draw a lion running and wanted some reference, you went to your swipe file and hopefully you had clipped something from a National Geographic that provided enough reference for you to do a believable drawing.
Artists also often accumulated libraries of books and magazines on art, photography, and general reference on animals, anatomy, costumes, architecture, and so on — you get the picture.
And then there were times you couldn’t find what you needed so you loaded up a roll of film in your camera and went out and shot your own reference. That could cost you some money, depending on how much film you bought, not to mention the cost of developing, and then you hoped your pictures came out right.
Finally, when you just couldn’t find what you needed, an artist just relied on his imagination to best approximate what he wanted to convey (hoping that the viewer was unfamiliar enough with the subject matter to not notice any errors).
I relied on all of the aforementioned sources for reference as well… until the world wide web arrived. The internet made reference ubiquitous and rendered swipe files and library sources obsolete (in all honesty, I was grateful I could throw away file-drawers full of clippings, though I continue to expand my book reference). The problem with internet reference (as I’ve written in a previous post) is that everyone is often using the same reference, so that there’s a sort of creative inbreeding occurring.
And digital photography has made the taking of reference photos cheap. No more cost of buying and developing film, so one could keep on clicking away until he gets the right shot, even if that means taking a bazillion photos.
So what’s my problem with this and why do I think this can be a problem in comics (and other art)? Well, comics in the late 80’s and 90’s seemed like they were going through a drought of talent where, in my opinion, there were few artists that I thought were really impressive. On the flip side, digital coloring and fancy printing was raising the bar on comic quality and was a far cry from the cheap newsprint comics I grew up enjoying. What this meant is that some artists who I will not name got a lot of attention and were hailed as great artists when, in my opinion, it was the novelty of digital coloring and fancy printing that made their art stand out as something special. And I’m not suggesting that digital coloring or slick paper is a bad thing, but only that it shouldn’t be a crutch when other aspects of good art are lacking.
Today, however, I’ve noticed the quality of draftsmanship in a lot of comics is over the top. By that, I mean it looks too real, like it’s heavily based on photo reference (and to elaborate further, I’m suggesting that some renderings look like they’ve practically been traced from photos), so much so that the characters lack style and the overall look seems to lack imagination. And it’s that style and imagination that I miss. No one will mistake Will Eisner’s Spirit for a photo-realistic drawing, but it’s filled with style. No one will accuse the team of John Buscema and Alfredo Alacala of using a photo when rendering a Conan page, but their efforts exuded talent and imagination. Certainly Jack Kirby’s figures provoked some debate as to the quality of his figure-drawing, but few artists have his imagination or are able to lay out an action scene with the same dynamics. Now I’m not suggesting that the artists mentioned would never have relied on a photo for reference if necessary; but if they used reference, it was only to spark their imagination and point them in the right direction.
Another problem with relying too heavily on photo-reference is that not every panel in a comic may do so. Consequently, you have a real change in feel when the artist is not using photo reference and now has to draw a character as well as the “photo” drawing from his imagination, which rarely works. Most of the time one can browse through such a comic and point out where the photo reference was used and where it wasn’t. Moreover, having to match the style of the photo-referenced-drawn panel restricts the artist from employing his own style (because photo reference has no unifying style, which is another problem in itself).
Does this mean I hate realistically-drawn comic art? No, it’s impressive on a certain level. But I noticed that what made a lot of past artists great is their talent for cartooning and unifying style. Cartoons may seem silly or childish to some, but they’re filled with animation and life that portrays an ideal. Renaissance artists were great precisely because they sought to capture this ideal and not simply recreate reality.
So why do I think much of modern comic art is soulless? A well-posed wax statue might initially seem alive, until you realize it’s stiff, making the lack of animation all the more conspicuous. And a photo-realistically drawn comic may initially impress, until you notice the same dead stiffness. I personally prefer a cartoony comic full of life, than a comic filled with a realism that lacks animation or style.
The best example I can give to sum up what I’m trying to say (and this is really aimed at those who are familiar with the artists I’m going to mention, even though the example is not from comics) is to compare Frazetta and Boris (here’s a good article discussing their differences in depth). The former painted mostly from imagination (yes, he used reference on rare occasions, but it was strictly as a springboard and nothing more), while the latter’s figures were almost entirely based on photos. After a long examination, it’s clear which artist’s work is brimming with life and energy and which represents “nice” paintings (no disrespect to Boris, whose work I still admire greatly).
In the same way, I think realistic comics are “nice,” but I’d rather take the comic art of a Will Eisner or even an Eric Powell (a contemporary comic artist oozing with style and talent…and weirdness), or any number of other artists any day over a lot of the realistic comic art of today.
Did I also mention how I miss those Sea-Monkey ads? … And don’t get me started on the perversion, profanity, and propaganda in modern comics. I’ll save that rant for another day.