Sunday, December 14, 2014

Newsprint Worship of the Human Form

A History
Time has taught us that great art comes in a variety of forms, and that not all art survives the test of time. Lasting art requires considerable effort, and if it works, its only because it looks easy.

Action Comic Heroes - Artwork Alex Ross

The naked human figure has been enshrined as idealized art since the beginning of civilization. It became a highly developed art form with broad popularity during the times of ancient Greece and Rome. It would reemerge and grow within the Italian Renaissance and again during Europe's Baroque period.

The popularity of the human form persists amongst artists today, as well as remaining a central discipline in academic art training. However, in our current prudish society, the idealized nude is rejected by the broader public or deemed unfit for viewing by the children of objecting parents. Subsequently, landscapes, still lifes, abstract paintings and clothed figurative work is judged more acceptable for contemporary gallery viewing.

Figurative Renaissance
To best display and accentuate unique artistic treatments of the human anatomy, figures have historically appeared nude or in scantily or tightly clad dress, accentuating the human form and enhancing the overall composition with an added assortment of colors and tonality. In fact, it is this scantily dressed approach with contrasting colors which provides today's action comic artists the ability to once again display the human form while also affording the color stimulation and emotional contrasts required within their dramatic cell-by-cell display framework.

Michelangelo Figures - Idealized Human Form
Michelangelo Figures: For whatever reason, the depiction of the idealized human form in conflict has appeared in painting and sculpture since the beginning of civilization.  Today, this genre continues on in most of today's action comic depictions.

There can be little doubt that today's action comic artists continue to carry the torch of artwork glorifying the human form. However, this art is often considered "commercial" or "work-for-hire" by their fine art contemporaries. These high-minded attitudes are often held by individuals, who either forget or are unaware "fine art" was a recent twentieth century invention and that, before the popularity of the photograph, great masters like Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Rubens and Velázquez were "sell-out" or "commercial" artists as well, "picture-makers", if you will.

Training, Observation and Application - From Rubens to Jack Kirby
Training, Observation and Application: Like their predecessors, comic book artists have to not only understand anatomy, they must appreciate the foreshortening of form while balancing composition to make their depictions both believable and inviting.

Carrying the Torch

In many ways, action comic figure artwork is simply following a path, which dates back to the dawn of civilization. As Michelangelo was influenced by the Greek and Roman sculpture being excavated during his lifetime, so too do today's artists continue to be influenced by the physical drama captured on the Sistine Chapel ceiling or within the many drawings and paintings of battles and hunts done over the centuries by the great masters.

Peter Paul Rubens - Hunts and Rapes

Instead of gods and angels, we have today's caped crusaders whisking though clouds. Instead of demons and devils, we have brutes and antiheroes as today's persistent antagonists. Painted scenes from ancient mythology have been replaced with legendary superheroes, competing with one another in true form to their earlier Olympian counterparts.

Struggle and Conflict - Jimmy Cheung and Alex Ross
Struggle and Conflict: Depictions of battles and physical struggle are nothing new. Even before the Italian Renaissance, many of the most lucrative commissions for artwork involved depictions of famous battles or mythological conflicts involving the human form. Today, action comics carry on this tradition with its own brand of mythology which often times parodies or mimics real power conflicts.

Art Movement
Any new art movement or real avant-garde occurring to date has always been met with distain. Around the same time photography greatly reduced the need for more expensive, less than perfect and time consuming renderings by artists, the Impressionistic painting movement was well underway. Initially, that artwork elicited no enthusiasm from art dealers or the public. The same can be said for just about every art movement since and up to Abstract Expressionism. However, from listening to lectures or visiting galleries today, one might begin to believe these were calculated, even welcomed stages in artistic development.

With few exceptions, all legitimate avant-garde art has historically been treated by the established fine art trade with as much distain as today's action comic-art, and it’s just as hard for these artists today to earn a living from their work as it was in previous movements. Comic figurative rendering is a vast field with few openings for what have become coveted, almost celebrity level positions.

Anatomy and Compostions - Same Motifs: Rubens to Lee Bermejo
Anatomy and Composition: Comic artists employ the same compositional tricks and techniques to control viewer eye-movement. Just as the old masters would mix anatomical lines with natural and manmade objects, so too do these contemporary action artists.   

However, there are those with vision who understand that dedicated figurative artists will always exist. Artists who have no talent for abstract painting and don't wish to compromise their natural gift producing safe narrative paintings or surreal figurative works.

The true test of any art form is time. Action comic figures have now been around for more than three quarters of a century, longer than most art movements. By contrast, even the works of magazine illustrators N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell were once frowned upon by the disciples of fine art. Today, their works are conveniently viewed as precursors to today's Narrative Art movement. Since auction houses have already begun to embrace action comic hero paintings and drawings, no doubt they will one day be appreciated for more than monetary value by museums and hopefully attract a broader field of collectors. However, today this figurative expression exists, for the most part, as a sub-cultural art industry, requiring a unique breed of exceptional talent.

Talent and Artistic Following
Having studied art and anatomy, attended human dissections, competed for awards, won a few, toured the world's museums, taught and trained, I must say I'm in awe of many of today's action comic artists. Who cannot be impressed by the anatomy, composition, color, darks, lights and forced eye movement. Also impressive is the unending issuance of mythological story line to justify the continued reinvention and regeneration of these imaginary yet physically, almost believable characters, year after year.

Bouts and Battle - Continuing Motifs: Bellows to Alex Ross and Trumbull to Hiroyuki Nara
Bouts and Battles: Over the centuries, there has been a desire to see artistic renderings of powerful mythological and historic forces battling against one another. Subsequently, artists have picked up the pen and brush to portray brutal confrontations between both individual and group forces. Action comic depictions simply continue to carry that same torch.    

Artistic Support

However, today there is a glut of talent in this highly specialized field, all attempting to land a position or invent a comic hero of their own. Consequently, a number of support groups have developed. Included is The Hero Initiative, a charity to assist comic creators with health, medical and quality-of-life assistance (founded 2000). Then there is the CBLDF or The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which aids in the protecting the IP rights of artists, writers and publishers (established 1986). Another is the Comics Alliance (begun 2009) which hosts an annual auction at Comic Con for legal defense funding (partnering with CBLDF).

These organizations act as fraternity solutions, much the same as their members often portray their imaginary hero alliances like The Avengers or The Justice League.

Persisting Need for Heroes
From the ancient legends of Hercules to the modern myths of super heroes, art and literature have proven that mankind requires heroes, real and imaginary, and that battles are best observed as artwork drawn with ink rather than blood. Over the past three-quarters of a century, artists and authors of comic legend continue to reinforce the principle that strength, while attractive, continually requires governing.

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 Copyright ©2014 Tom Mallon. All rights reserved.