Let’s get it out of the way: I’ve got something of a love-hate relationship with Marvel.
I’ve read plenty of their comics, know their history, will fiercely debate the legitimacy of their various film adaption’s in unreasonable depth and yet I wouldn’t consider myself much of a fan. For all their great characters and striking artwork, I often feel the storylines are repetitive and shallow with an increasing sense that the Marvel universe does more as a brand than an immersive setting.
So when I say I’m doing a write-up on Stan Lee and John Buscema’s How to Draw Comics The Marvel Way (1978) I should firmly emphasise that I have no intention to follow this instruction directly. Not to disrespect either them or the company, but since very early on I’ve been determined to follow my own path, develop my own style and stay true to my own feelings. I am however, not adverse to learning things and feeding them into my own practice; while I may not be following the advice within word for word, I felt an analysis of the book might have other merits.
What I want to do here is take a look at the Marvel approach and compare it to my own, taking lessons onboard where they’re relevant but also considering exactly where we differ and why. Superhero gallantry stands in stark contrast to the grey morality and grittiness of cyberpunk but the contextual awareness offered by such a comparison may be just what I need to define my own practice more sharply. Like it or not comics are a medium dominated by the superhero genre and Marvel has emerged as one of the most successful companies in this field, I don’t want to follow in such well trodden footsteps if I can help it but examining their tracks could teach me something all the same.
As indicated by the ‘part 1’ I’ll be splitting this study up since I have a feeling I’ll have a lot to talk about and the consequent article might be a touch unwieldy (although it ended up enormous anyway – sorry). This way I can keep everything manageable and get on with other things between posts.
Let’s start with the preface’s opening paragraphs:
‘while there’s a plethora of “How to Draw” manuals gallantly glorifying any bookseller’s shelves, up to now there’s been no book available to tell a budding young Buscema, or Kirby, Colan or Kane how to draw comicbook superheroes, and –most importantly – how to do it in the mildly magnificent Marvel style.’
(Lee, Buscema, 1978, p8)
Right from the off no pretence is made, this is an unapologetic step-by-step on how to draw superheroes like Marvel. When I looked at Scott McCloud’s Making Comics I noted his more contemporary open minded approach, which refreshingly didn’t tell you what to do but rather indicated how you should approach it. This on the other hand is a straight up ‘how to’.
Having been written in 1978 I’m sure the novelty of such a comparatively rigid guide was still fresh before they completely flooded the market in more recent decades. Still, coming from the ‘bronze age’ of comics – after seeing a steady evolution through the silver and golden ages – from a man at the medium’s forefront it doesn’t seem like such a bad place to start examining Marvel’s methods.
Moving on past all the rudimentary sections on equipment and terminology (both of which I’ve seen reiterated similarly in dozens of books) things get a little more interesting around the object building exercises.
At this stage the lessons are still fairly fundamental so this one and a few like it are worth taking onboard.
The way I construct faces is similar to the example here but I tend to rough out figures with ovals and spheres rather than cylinders and cubes, attempting to roughly chart musculature of limbs and the chest over lines which form the bones. It would be tempting to dismiss the building method here as stiff and robotic but on the other hand it offers a more careful assessment of depth and proportion at an early stage in planning – at very least it might be worth a try.
The basic instructions on 1, 2 and 3 point perspective are all pretty straight forward; however there are a pair of tricks which I wish I’d know of earlier:
The first method for dividing walls is incredibly useful not only in order to figure out wall or surface divisions but also as a way to judge distance and level of foreshortening required for surrounding objects. Up till now I’ve guessed these, winging it on instinct with frankly mixed results. Having a rule to work out distance and scale with so simply is a massive help.
Being able to figure out checkerboard flooring on the other hand is invaluable. My recent spaceport scenes had me using this effect and tearing my hair out over whether I was doing it right; I did eventually devise an adequate method (along with a sort of shortcut) but the one above is pleasingly stress free by comparison and ensures the individual tiles are evenly sized at any perspective.
Moving on we start to get more Marvel-specific tips which aren’t so universally applicable. Take Lee’s thoughts regarding how male superheroes are drawn up:
‘Most average guys are about six-and-a-half heads tall. But take a look at this sketch of Reed Richards. Notice that he’s eight and three quarter heads tall. If we draw a hero he’s got to look like a hero – he should be of heroic proportions. Unfortunately, the normal six-and-a-half-head-tall proportions would make him seem somewhat dumpy when drawn in a Marvel mag.’
(Lee, Buscema, 1978, p42)
As stated and shown, the emphasis is on making characters appear physically heroic to the degree where basic anatomical rules are exaggerated in the process; a point expanded upon further into the book. Of the comparison below between Captain America and a normal male he writes:
‘Note that the superhero is larger, with broader shoulders, more muscular arms and legs, a heavier chest, and even a more impressive stance. There’s nothing weak looking about the fella next to Captain America, but a superhero simply has to look more impressive, more dramatic, more imposing than an average guy. Perhaps the most important single point to remember is that you should always slightly exaggerate the heroic qualities of your hero, and attempt to ignore or omit any negative, undramatic qualities.’
(Lee, Buscema, 1978, p46)
Hmmm, now while I won’t say there’s anything wrong with making superheroes appear super the ‘ignore or omit any negative, undramatic qualities’ part doesn’t sit so well with me. This was written before Watchmen and the like turned the genre upside-down in the 80’s and really took the idea of flawed heroes somewhere, but quite frankly the whole concept of perfect super human saviours does little for me. In fairness, the visual intentions are almost entirely aesthetic and this is a How to Draw and not How to Write but for me this marks out a great deal of what I’m glad comics have largely progressed beyond or at least provided decent alternatives to.
In my case the intent was quite the opposite; my co-protagonist Curt is someone I deliberately imbued with negative and largely undramatic features on the basis I wanted him to be a credible, distinctly human window into Branch’s world: he’s short, scrawny with a rash of stubble and a decidedly sickly look around the eyes. He’s not there to wow anyone, but rather to make a sympathisable connection with the readers as a convincingly flawed character.
On female character drawings too, Lee states that women should be less ‘angular’ (p43) and that muscles should not be emphasized, ideally appearing ‘smooth and soft’ (p44). As a heterosexual man and someone reasonably well educated on gender differences in anatomy I’m not going clamour for muscle women on par with their male counterparts – still this outline strikes me as slightly narrow minded, harking from an age when female superheroes were mainly present to provide sex appeal for a mostly male demographic (although there’s still plenty of that lurking around).
In contrast to this idea, Scratch is a great deal more angular than Curt and a great deal tougher too. I have bent the rules a little on this one given that she’s a cyborg and the technology naturally tends to bring a hard edge into the design; still I really wanted that quality in the face of gender stereotypes and an exploration of someone who has had their entire life reconfigured with their body.
Before I get branded a hypocrite when someone checks out my Sasaki redesign and spitefully notes the increased exposure of leg I should clarify that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sexy qualities in a character – of either gender – providing they have a basis in their personality, the setting and they aren’t the only quality a character possesses; put simply, they exist for the character and story, rather than purely the gratification of the audience.
Even pornographic/erotic material doesn’t necessarily strike me as horrendous when it has honest intent. The only thing that truly bothers me is the stuff which pushes its characters under a banner of empowerment, concealing its objectifying intent beneath a layer of sleazy dishonesty. Marvel may have cleaned up its act somewhat in recent decades along with almost all of our media, but there’s no denying that comics have a pretty rough track record in this area.
So, I’ve emphasised difference in approach here but what of the why? To my mind the answer is that it comes down to genre differences and the way reader enjoyment is administered in each.
Take Marvel’s superhero comics; the appeal is pretty straightforward from the moment you look at their covers, incredible people doing incredible things. Psychologically this most likely taps into reader wish fulfilment, the desire to be more than we are, be important, admired and powerful. That much is basically promised upfront – straight up fantasy.
Of course that would be pretty boring without plot complications and in most cases there will tend to be a dilemma coupled with a character flaw. The hero/heroine will be tasked with overcoming this hurdle and –assuming it’s not Watchmen or Kick-Ass – eventually do just that. Tony Stark will have heart/reactor problems, Spider Man will struggle to balance his love life with crime fighting, Hulk will have an angry spell and Wolverine will be Wolverine.
Cyberpunk on the other hand is a masochistic genre.
The appeal is not so straightforward nor so broad as a superhero fantasy; characters don’t start on a high before hitting a low and triumphing on an even greater high point, rather they start on a low, go lower somewhere around the midpoint before finally finding a resolution at the end which will almost certainly be bitter sweet. Even as a fan I’d struggle to explain exactly why these stories work for me but I have feeling it falls between technological fascination, morbid curiosity and the recognition of irrepressible humanity amongst typically adverse conditions.
The genre’s protagonists in particular are almost always anti-heroes. Looping back to my earlier point about how superhero comics tend to avoid obviously negative attributes, what I love about cyberpunk is how it embraces them whole heartedly. True, these characters will rarely be evil to core and moments of redemption tend to occur sooner or later, but it’s hard won and practically never unconditional. In Strange Days Lenny Nero starts out as desperate sleaze merchant, Neuromancer’s ‘Case’ begins as a drug dealer with a failing liver and handful of ruthless murders, Spider’s behaviour in Transmetropolitan mostly appears crass and borderline psychotic while Blade Runner’s miserable Deckard takes on a job “retiring” replicants.
I’ve set myself an uphill struggle perhaps, and I certainly felt it at the expo. Neither Scratch nor Curt are presently particularly likable and frankly they shouldn’t be, emanating sub-zero temperament and phobic cowardliness respectively. Marvel comic characters are designed to be immediately likeable and aesthetically attractive, delivering reader enjoyment almost immediately. In my case I’ve followed a cyberpunk aesthetic where ferocious attributes are concealed beneath trench coats and shadow rather than bared in tights, while acts of bravery and compassion are the exception rather than the rule.
When a character is unpleasant from the start you need to work harder to find the qualities which really shine, but it’s for that very reason that I believe they shine all the brighter in the end. I like to dip into a super story from time to time, but the characters who stay with me will always be the ones who worked for my respect and surprised me.