Axel-In-Charge: Unmasking the "Totally Awesome Hulk"
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Matt Wagner, and the issue is The Terminator One-Shot, which was published by Dark Horse and is cover dated July 1991. Enjoy!
I own one Terminator comic, and it’s this one. I’m not even quite sure why I bought it – I knew Wagner, so I assume it was because he was drawing it, even though I didn’t know James Robinson, who wrote this, at the time. This was right before Robinson became a big name with The Golden Age, so I guess I was ahead of the curve somewhat and didn’t even know it. This is also one of those very rare Wagner comics that he drew but didn’t write, so that’s kind of neat.
Anyway, the plot of this book is that the machines sent TWO Terminators back in time, and while the Arnold one was trying to kill Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, the second one went after a different Sarah Connor – the fourth one in the Los Angeles area (Arnold killed the other two, if you’ll recall). The fourth Sarah Connor had just gotten married and was spending some time in San Francisco. So the second Terminator – who looks like a woman, years before Hollywood figured out that casting hot chicks as Terminators might be a good idea – heads off to kill Sarah. Meanwhile, an old man, Ellis Ruggles, follows her to save Sarah and her husband. Why does an old man care? Well, that would be telling. It would also be telling that this Sarah is not quite who she appears to be. It’s a fun little story. Let’s check out some of the art!
The first thing you might notice about this is that Wagner paints it himself. He doesn’t do this too often, but when he does, it’s pretty keen. He doesn’t use a lot of thick lines, and often gets rid of holding lines completely, so that his painted work is a bit more impressionistic than his pencilled work. One thing Wagner does often is show things slightly off-center or out-of-frame – note that we don’t see all of Arnold’s face in the one panel, and only Reese’s hand in the other. Obviously, one reason he does it here is because he didn’t want to draw a bad rendition of Arnold or Michael Biehn (or perhaps Dark Horse wasn’t allowed to show their images), but he does it a lot in Grendel, for instance, so it’s not only as a consideration to the actors involved. It seems he likes to do it to show a few things: the kinetic nature of the art, so that things are always moving out of the frame, and also the size of what he’s depicting, as if his panels can’t contain it all. He also likes the “snapshot” nature of the small panels, as if someone is moving around the action, getting pictures where and when they can, and that makes the scene feel more organic. It’s a clever trick, and we see it used quite well here. (And I’m not suggesting that Wagner invented this – you’ll notice this page feels very much like a page from The Dark Knight Returns – but he does use this trope often, and he does a good job with it.)
Wagner’s paint job is really nice in this sequence, as he uses thick brush strokes to match his blocky style, but also does some nice work with the watercolors in the sky. The coloring in this issue helps create a more frenzied kind of action – Wagner scatters the paint in Panel 1 to make the scene more fuzzy, giving us a good feeling of the movement of the cars. His coloring on the Terminator’s face is nice – the shadows, along with the red eyes, make her look even more inhuman, as if shadows wouldn’t fall on a real person’s face in the same way. Wagner’s still using somewhat simple shapes – the police car going off the cliff, the cliffs themselves – and in the next few examples, I want to write more about his use of those shapes.
The early 1990s were an interesting time for Wagner as an artist. He never quite stopped using more simple shapes in his work, but he was also good enough to be a bit more fancy. This created an interesting tension in the art that only stopped when he decided to become more abstract, something we’ll see in the next few days. So we’d get sequences like this – the people in Panel 1 are typical Wagnerian figures, made up of very solid shapes and without any lines on their faces to add definition. Wagner has always used only eyes and mouths to convey emotion, which makes his work a bit more largely expressive than many others, but which also weakens it slightly, as his characters often look more cartoonish than the situations in which they find themselves. In later years, he began to move toward a happy medium – his characters became a bit more lined, while his backgrounds became a bit more abstract, and it seemed to create a more unified look to his art. This sequence, for instance, shows the tension quite nicely. Sure, the hippie burnout is supposed to look goofy, but when you constrast it with the intricate designs in Alex’s workshop, it’s a bit odd. The sculptures that Alex makes are still simple shapes, but because Wagner was better at it, he was able to add some finer details, and his paints make them even more detailed. It’s interesting to contrast the solid blocks of color he uses on the clothing of the characters with the finer white ink on the sculptures. It’s almost as if he’s more interested in the inanimate objects than the living one.
Here’s another example of Wagner’s abstract art clashing with a more concrete sensibility. His Terminator and Sarah are very blocky, basic shapes, and Wagner uses very little details to suggest quite a bit. Notice the short white lines that define the Terminator’s hands – just that is enough to give us the impression of robotics. Sarah’s outfit, too, is reduced to black with simple red lines – Wagner doesn’t do anything to suggest folds or flow in the suit at all. As I noted, his facial expressions tend to be exaggerated, and we see that with Sarah in Panel 5 – Wagner gives her thin eyes, a hatchet nose, and a slash of downturned mouth, and fills a lot in with blacks. It’s a ghastly face, which is what Wagner’s going for, and he achieves it without much detailing. Once again, though, we see that he uses gouache quite well in the backgrounds, turning it into a weird, steampunk nightmare. He really does a wonderful job with the final two panels, using the bright oranges and illuminating white to help the violence stand out nicely.
This is another gorgeous painting from Wagner, almost completely impressionistic. It’s all colors and big, blocky shapes, and Wagner almost doesn’t need to define the robot at all. She’s glowing white-hot, which stands in stark contrast to her black boots and her shadowed face and hair, and it also ties her to the explosion behind her, which looks brighter against the darkness outside. Wagner wisely doesn’t show many details outside, so that he can simply paint the whole thing black and blue so that the explosion looks more dramatic. He uses a nice blend of orange, red, and white, with nice airbrushing techniques to give a better impression of the chaos of the blast. The small inset panel in the lower right is more of the same – thick brush strokes, a bit chaotic, and few details. It’s another good example of Wagner doing more with less.
This comic is also a pop-up book, in case you’re wondering – is it the only one in existence? Anyway, it’s a beautiful comic, and the story is actually pretty good for being somewhat non-essential (I mean, Arnold is on the case of the “real” Sarah Connor, so the only reason to fight this Terminator is because you don’t want her killing an “unimportant” Sarah Connor) – Robinson does a nice job with the twists and turns of the book. Wagner did get slightly more detailed over the next few years, but tomorrow we’ll skip ahead a decade and see where he was in the new millennium. If you’re here, I’ll be happy. If not, I’ll be sad. But that doesn’t mean you can’t check out the archives!
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