Friday, January 3, 2014

A voice modulator making fart jokes

Geoff Sebesta has written a pretty amusing takedown of Keith Giffen's art on Trencher titled Keith Giffen's Weirdest Art Ever. It's a decent piece which starts by making the case that Giffen is one of the most productive, most successful and most underrated comic artists in recent history. Can't argue with that. Sebesta glosses over the many styles Giffen experimented with leading up to his grand, early 90s Trencher experiment. For those who haven't seen Trencher, here's a peak...

Sebesta writes...

"This is from the very first batch of Image books, so indulge me in a little metaphor. Let’s pretend that the beginning of Image comics is the beginning of the computer age. And let’s say that Todd McFarlane is Apple, and he makes a glossy product that lots of people want to buy. And let’s say that Jim Lee is Microsoft, and he makes a workhorse product that everybody needs. And Keith Giffen is the guy that makes the voice modulator for the Commodore 64 and he uses it to tell fart jokes. It’s a weird conglomeration of amazing achievement, absolute foolishness, being in exactly the right place at the right time, and doing exactly nothing with it. I can’t stress this enough; Giffen was the ONLY veteran creator with Image at their launch. If he had done anything even passably good he would have been able to write his own ticket for decades."

Michel Fiffe has a more personal examination of Giffen's art, specifically his run on the "Five Years Later" arc of Legion of Super Heroes here. An example of the art, and keep in mind, this is the same artist who did that Trencher page above.

He writes...

"My point is that no matter how faux-artsy Giffen is at times, that shit gets in the way of clarity. It's not challenging me, though, it's stumbling me. It's not that I'm a novice reader, it's that Giffen's art is sometimes too obscure for it's own sake. There's no reveal to his storytelling, there's just loaded mystery. Slapping a nine panel grid over a page doesn't make it Watchmen, it just jumbles the story up. Randomly shrouding faces in black doesn't make them look haunting, it makes them impossible to tell apart."

This interests me because I respect Fiffe and his art deeply, yet I feel very differently about Giffen. I can see the validity of Sebesta's and Fiffe's argument. Giffen's style on Trencher is virtually incomprehensible and certainly probably one of the worst ways to try to tell a story through sequential images. And Fiffe is correct when he states that shrouding faces in black doesn't make them look haunting or mysterious, it just makes them hard to tell apart. These are all just visual fireworks that may look good but act as barriers to the visual narrative. And yet, I love what Giffen has done in both of these books. Even though he was clearly borrowing heavily from Jose Munoz, I absolutely loved the sheer strangeness of Giffen's work on LoSH and especially his Dr. Fate miniseries. There, especially, the sheer unconventionality of the approach actually helps deepen the unsettling effect of the strange and violent story.

It comes back to something Sebesta touches on at the start of his piece. He writes...

"We tend to approach art with a Manichean dialectic, dividing the world of artists into 'good,' or 'bad.' There are confusing exceptions, like Jackson Pollock, whose work is clearly 'bad' when it's representational but 'good' when it's not, but for the most part we assume that artists will either produce 'good' work or 'bad' work and that they are correspondingly 'good' or 'bad' artists."

So what is Giffen, who has had maybe 8 or 9 different "styles?" Good? Bad? Here, take a look at this sequence from Omega Men, which while it shows an undeniable Jim Starlin influence is also clear, readable, attractive mid-80s science fiction comic book art...

Again, remember, all of the art in this post is from the same artist. I have a great deal of admiration for Giffen for being willing to constantly experiment and to try new ways of telling a story with pictures, even when he seems to fail miserably. In general, I tend to like comics the most when they don't look like what I expect a comic to look like. I guess that means I like comics with "bad" art, and I will admit to that. Some of it comes from sheer obstinacy and stubbornness. More of it comes from an overwhelming desire to always be surprised, challenged and amazed by seeing something new, or something old done in a new way. In partisan terms, I guess I am way out at the end of the spectrum on this. These ideas can easily be pushed too far in the other direction, i.e. comic art so beholden to the idea of clearly and simply telling a story that it becomes forgettable, serviceable, and transparent. I've never understood the appeal of the few comics like that I have seen, because I think at that point you would be doing yourself a favor by simply reading a book with no pictures at all.


  1. Man, I am thoroughly enjoying your Giffen love-fest, here and on Facebook. That Dr. Fate mini had some of my favorite Giffen moments.

  2. Comic book consumers as readers versus observers? You've got a medium that has still images and words mixed together. If you're more interested in the words and story, then the images are just an aid (or impediment) to story. If you're more inclined towards being an art observer (for want of a better term), then you're content to bask in the images and can care less about what's written. There's obviously a continuum of comic book consumers, but which end of this scale you fall towards will determine how respond to a comic book artist.

    I'm not a big comic book fan, but when I read them I'm usually reading them more like a book. I want a story and plot. If too much of my cognitive power is having to decipher artwork, then I quickly lose interest. The Trencher art would take me out of a book. But if I were to go to Deviant Art, for instance, and saw a single panel as a piece there, with no story demands on it, I'd have a different response.

    I think some of this may explain where the critiques are coming from. And most of the critiques will probably be harsh since they'll be written. Most people who write a great deal are far more in love with words. They're more likely to be voracious readers. The visually inclined are less likely to write long treatises, so that particular opinion is less likely to enter discussion.

  3. Dara, that Dr. Fate mini remains one of my favorite comics of all time. And it is probably Fate's finest moment as I can't recall anything else interesting ever being done with the character ever.

  4. Matthew, it is definitely a spectrum. A sometimes bewildering spectrum.

    On Facebook, I posted a link to this piece and there were some interesting comments in the thread. One of my friends, who is a writer and has written for both Marvel and DC, commented "I remember opening the first issue [of Trencher] and finding it incomprehensible." Another, who is a cartoonist with a distinct and unusual visual style and has published through Fantagraphics and Sparkplug commented " I always kind of liked Trencher in a this way lies madness kind of way." So you may be on to something.


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