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Year of the Artist, Day 26: Alan Davis, Part 1 – Marvel Super-Heroes #377

11-25-2013 06;41;20PM (2)

Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Alan Davis, and the story is “The Return of Captain Britain” from Marvel Super-Heroes #377, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated September 1981. This scan is from the Captain Britain by Alan Moore and Alan Davis Ommibus, which was published in 2009. Enjoy!

One of the things I want to do with this series is to look at how artists change over the course of their careers. It’s not a perfect system – as we’ve already seen, Seth Fisher evolved only a little over his short career, and in the future, I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to keep up the fiction either. However, while Alan Davis has had the same style for most of his career, I figured if I looked at some of his very earliest work, we could see some major differences between that and what we could later say definitively is “Alan Davis.” Sounds easy, right?

Well, as far as I can discover, this is the very first page of comics Alan Davis ever had published:

11-25-2013 06;41;20PM

Damn it!!!!

Okay, as it turns out, this isn’t the first Alan Davis artwork to be published, but it’s close enough. He had a strip published earlier in 1981 (although the cover date is November, so I’m not quite sure how that works, but the Internet agrees that it came first), and then he started working on Captain Britain with writer Dave Thorpe. So this is close enough to his first professional work, and just look at how “Alan Davis” this already is. He was around 26 when he drew this, and already, we see the style that would become one of the most recognizable in modern-day comics and spawn several imitators. But let’s consider the page nevertheless.

First, Davis does some funky stuff with the layouts. There are, I believe, two reasons for this: One, this story is six (6!) pages long, and he and Thorpe need to get a lot of information on the page, so he doesn’t waste any space. Two, young artists seem to think they can get away with weird stuff a bit more, so maybe Davis was feeling confident that he could pull this off. So look at how he leads our eye across the page, from the upper left of Panel 1 and the hazy king (that would be Arthur), across the top row, then a curve down to the bottom of the page, where Davis then leads us to the right. Meanwhile, standing outside the panels are King Arthur and Merlyn, implying that they’re beyond the confines of time and space. (Captain Britain hadn’t been seen in a while – over a year as far as I can tell – and Thorpe begins this story exactly where it had left off in the middle of an “Otherworld” saga that featured the Black Knight, in which Brian Braddock was merely a partner, not the star.) I don’t know how specifically Davis was thinking about Arthur and Merlyn existing in “Otherworld” and therefore they could stand outside the panels or if he just wanted to save space, but it’s a neat little trick. Davis changes Cap’s costume as he re-enters “our” world (which, as it turns out, isn’t “our” world at all, but that’s beyond the scope of this post!), giving him the more familiar one that has remained essentially unchanged since. Don’t worry about who Jackdaw is – Alan Moore has no time for the little elf and kills him off on the fourth page he wrote of the strip.

We see the “Alan Davis” style already, less than ten pages into Davis’s career. Davis’s hands have always been stylized, and while on this page we don’t see the classic “middle and ring fingers together” hand design, Arthur’s right hand when he speaks to Merlyn feels to me like a good Davis hand. The characters are already a bit more wiry than we see in classic superhero books, even Captain Britain – yes, he’s muscled, but he’s not too bulky. Davis’s sense of humor is also in evidence – not how Jackdaw floats along and crashes hard, contrasted with Cap’s more grim determination. This is the first time we see the Crazy Gang, too, and already we get a sense of Davis’s madcap designs, with the Conjurors, the Jack of Hearts, and Coco the Jester. They look ridiculous, but they can also be very dangerous, and Davis, in just this small drawing, brings both of those traits to the fore.

Here’s another look at how Davis needed to lay out a page to get as much information as he could into the short space allotted to him:

11-25-2013 06;44;49PM

More goofiness from Davis, as the Queen of Hearts is a ridiculous figure and Mad Jim Jaspers doesn’t look much less silly (as it turns out, one shouldn’t judge Jaspers by his appearance). Davis does some nice things with the characters – Jaspers’s eyes don’t look right, and his outfit is brilliant, ain’t it? Note again how Brian is muscular without being thick, as Davis draws him moving effortlessly through the air. Davis, even at this early stage, is really good at keeping his pencils fluid so that he does action very, very well. His action scenes, one could argue, are why he’s probably the best superhero artist of the past 30 years (there are others who could make the claim, but not many) and also why he never seems to draw anything but superheroes. Perhaps people don’t think he could do anything but superheroes? Or maybe he just loves them so much.

Anyway, the layout of this page is clever, too. Davis moves our eye across the top row, and then, when the Executioner is about to strike, we are supposed to go to the panel where he crashes out of the window. That’s not a great transition, because of the way Davis moves our eye along the top triangle of the bottom square. It makes it look like we should start in the upper right and move to the left, which is counter-intuitive in one way but logical in another way – when reading a comic, we often feel like we should read so that things “open up,” meaning we start small and get bigger. So the fact that Davis does go right to left makes sense, but because he shrinks the panels until we reach the top right, it feels “wrong.” He does this so that he can move us from the large panel on the right up to Captain Britain at the window, falling out of the “first floor” (come on, Brits, it’s the second floor!) and then he can shoot us down the diagonal to show that Cap can still fly even though he doesn’t have his sceptER. This, in turns, leads us to the final two panels, which “open up” as we move from left to right, satisfying our desires in both ways. It actually is a nice design, but in order to make it work, Davis has to push against the way we instinctively read. Again, I imagine he did this to fit all he had to onto six pages.

11-25-2013 06;46;30PM

Davis has a reputation for crispness, so I thought I’d show a few panels that are not quite as crisp, indicating that he had room to improve. Davis famously drew at the same size of the published art, not realizing that artists drew larger and then the work was shrunk, so maybe these two panels are a function of that. In the first panel, everything is fairly sketchy. Cap is struck with a tea kettle that explodes, and Davis doesn’t bother with details because the explosion is obscuring most of Cap. Jaspers, however, is also somewhat sketchy, and it’s possible that it’s because the panel was too cramped for much detail. In the second panel, Davis needs to cram a lot into a small space, so Cap flying away is very rough and sketchy, looking far less polished than most of this story. The three levels of perspective – Cap, the bad guys, and Jackdaw – don’t work as well in such a cramped space, and all three look rushed and sloppy, while the depth between Cap and the bad guys doesn’t work. Davis’s usually fine pencils are thick and imprecise, and the lack of details make the whole panel look messy. But that’s okay – these are the only two bad panels in the story (in a tale with 46 panels), so that’s not bad for a dude making what is essentially his comics debut.

I’m still going to feature Davis for the next few days, as we continue to tour through some of his early, lesser-known work. Maybe we’ll see some other developments! If not, at least we get to see some gorgeous Alan Davis artwork! Be sure to check out the archives for more gorgeous artwork!

22 Comments

What I really like about that second page you showed is how kinetic and natural the flow of the last four panels is. You get to see every stage of Captain Britain taking flight, from jumping out of the window, to curving down and around, to getting altitude as he flies, to establishing himself in the air. It’s four panels that almost function as one image.

Open question to anyone in general: Does Alan Moore’s run on this character still hold up? This was so early in his career and I don’t want to just buy the omnibus blindly if it’s just a conventional superhero book (I have no interest in the character in and of itself).

” from Marvel Super-Heroes #377, which was published by Marvel” UK in B&W. “This scan is from the Captain Britain by Alan Moore and Alan Davis Ommibus, which was published [by Marvel] in 2009″ in colour. The original loses a lot of detail due to the lack of color, poor paper quality and what I’m guessing were flexographic plates.

Davis will be a really interesting artist to look at since, as you mentioned, his style really didn’t change much, but the different coloring techniques used on his art as well as the inkers he worked with (basically Neary vs. Farmer) have had subtle but definitely noticeable impacts on his work.

Alan Davis was one of my first ‘favorite artists’ and the reason I am currently a Wolverine reader. Based on what we have seen earlier this week, I think we are in for some really great comics the next few days.

I agree that from this Davis started out with his style pretty much down, but he did improve his renderings over time. I think he was fully matured by the time he did some DC work that I think we will see soon (Tuesday I would guess). Maybe the next artist in the spotlight could be the one time Davis clone Bryan Hitch.

Incidentally, I have a friend at work who read comics from the early eighties until very recently, and really knows his stuff. For some strange reason, he does not like Davis’s work. He is a good friend, so I try to over look it…

Excellent, please let us see some Dr & Quinch, or any other 2000AD stuff!

Ryan: I do like how Davis did that. I think the layout is a bit wonky, but that image is pretty cool, you’re right.

David: I wish I could see the originals – it would be nice to see how different they look.

Roman: I’m limiting myself to 5 days per artist, so I don’t even get close to him being inked by different inkers. I do agree there’s a difference between when Neary inked him and when Farmer does, but I have to draw the line somewhere!

kdu2814: I’ll get to his DC work, but not right away. I’m focusing on a lot of his pre-American work with these posts. And I’ll probably do Hitch at some point, but not right away!

Pete: Oh, we’ll see some 2000AD stuff, believe me!

Alan Davis may be my favorite comic book artist

Never thought much of his writing tho, outside Excalibur

I also do not like Alan Davis’s art. Sorry, I just don’t! Everything he draws looks like it’s made of plastic.

Open question to anyone in general: Does Alan Moore’s run on this character still hold up? This was so early in his career and I don’t want to just buy the omnibus blindly if it’s just a conventional superhero book (I have no interest in the character in and of itself).

It holds up well. Do you like Claremont/Davis Excalibur? It’s roughly as good (and similar in scope) to that, although better.

I love Davis’s work with the exception of Dr & Quinch which I think is both he and Moore’s weakest work.

@Anonymous:

I read Moore and Davis’s Captain Britain for the first time last year and I think it’s a fantastic piece of work. I too never particularly cared for the character prior to reading their run, but I now have a much greater appreciation for the Brian Braddock.

Anonymous: Captain Britain is a tremendous comic, and the Omnibus is very cool. The Thorpe stories are pretty good, the Moore stories are excellent, and then Delano and then Davis write it, and it continues to stand out. It’s really a wildly underrated comic.

Jeremy: I think Davis is a pretty good writer – he’s not great, no, but he’s not terrible.

Toozin: Oh well. To each his own!

Stephen: I like D.R. & Quinch quite a bit, but I know not everyone thinks so. We will see some of it in a few days, though, because it’s part of Davis’s development!

Was the layout dictated by Moore. He did very detailed directions in early days

I wouldn’t think so: Those pages are written by Dave Thorpe!

“He did very detailed directions in early days”

He did, but he designed them specific to the artist, so even if he had done this, it still would’ve been based around Davis’s style.

“His action scenes, one could argue, are why he’s probably the best superhero artist of the past 30 years (there are others who could make the claim, but not many) ”

I’d say Joe Madureira could make that claim. His action scenes are the closest I’ve seen to any American artist matching the energy and creativity of a Toriyama fight scene, plus he can do emotional scenes, talking head scenes, covers, etc.

Captain Britain, Henry 20 on the hard rock, Dr and Quinch .. Marvelman / Miracleman

And then Batman/Outsiders, Det , X-Men ..

Great leaps in real short time

Although it’s a moot point because these aren’t Moore pages, from what I understand, the reason Alan Moore developed his heavily descriptive script style was actually because early on, he WASN’T sure who his artist would be for each story (short shorts for 2000AD and so forth). Therefore, he spelled everything out in great detail to try to “idiot-proof” the results he’d get.

He just continued it on once he was working on a regular run (like with Davis on CB, or with Swamp Thing a bit later) because he liked it. I assume.

The reliable resource for Alan’s work is his own website.

This was the first publication of a story he drew.
The first story he plotted to get published was a 3 page story “The origin of the Crusader” in issue 41 of Rampage Monthly (A UK title originally reprinting from the rampaging hulk but later focussed on the New XMen)
Note Rampage Monthly SHOULD NOT be confused with Frantic (The Marvel UK version of Cracked).

Also note that the language is called “English”
– just because you Yanks outnumber us doesn’t mean you can dictate what’s right (especially given all those spelling mistakes made by Webster which you copy)

John: I got most of the information about Davis’s early work (in fact, probably all of it) from his web site. Maybe I was looking at the wrong page, but I couldn’t quite figure out if this was the first thing he got published. I saw the origin of the Crusader thing, which is what I reference above, but I’m not sure when that and this were actually published.

I’m just funnin’ about the language thing! :)

I meant his website is a more reliable account of his work than the rest of the internet (which claims that the Crusader was first and in Frantic).

Your problem is the “biography” is a summary of his major works broken down into time periods so is not complete or detailed enough, while the “checklist” is not chronological but mainly alphabetical for major works with minor works split by categories at the end.
The Fanzines/Magazines (UK) section includes some illustrations from 1979 and 1980 but Captain Britain would be the first strip,

(If you’re curious Marvel Superheroes was a monthly publication but it hadn’t been running for 30 years but rather was just continuing the numbering from an earlier weekly series which started 1972)

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