O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
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:
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:
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.
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!
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