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 Trinity #2, which was published by DC and is cover dated September 2003. Enjoy!
Around the turn of the millennium, Wagner’s art reached the apex of the tension between his more abstract facial style and his intense details in the backgrounds. This was also the period when his frenetic page layouts reached something of an apotheosis, as well. Books like the second Batman/Grendel crossover and his issue of Ultimate Marvel Team-Up show this very well, but then he seemed to find a better balance, retreating a bit to a cleaner style but still using inking lines smartly when the situation warranted. So we got something like Trinity, his gorgeous comic from 2003, which is what I want to look at today.
This first meeting of the three heroes is a nice drawing, colored well by Dave Stewart. As we’ve seen, Wagner likes drawing his superheroes with slightly less bulk on them, so his Superman is a bit streamlined. He draws a curvy Wonder Woman, and it’s interesting that she’s a bit more solid than we usually see her drawn, but she’s still not terribly bulky. Wagner still doesn’t use a lot of hatching on faces, but the smudgy inking on Superman is really well done, as it highlights the twilight in which the scene takes place – the shadows aren’t crisp, but they’re still evident. Notice that Wagner is fairly abstract in the backgrounds (which is a change from his 1990s work), and the rope is just a series of small brush strokes with no border. He’s still very good at suggesting things without going into too much detail.
Here’s a good example of Wagner bringing the two aspects of his artwork closer together – he uses more hatching on the seer than he would have in the past, he uses a lot of cross-hatching on the seer’s hood, but Ra’s al Ghul in the middle distance is still much more blocky than most artists would draw him. Obviously, the farther characters get away from the reader, the more loosely defined they’re going to be, but Wagner doesn’t even try – he keeps Ra’s and the woman farther behind him – it’s Artemis, by the way – as simple as possible.
Here’s another nice example of the maturation of Wagner’s style. His Bizarro, as a monstrous figure, has far more hatching on his face than the other characters, and you’ll notice the rough brush strokes around his eyes in the bottom close-up. The lines, however, are etched quite precisely, because Wagner has always been a precise artist, so even though there are a lot of lines, the art still looks clean. Bizarro’s body is inked with a brush, too, far more than the heroes, placing him in a murkier gray area while the heroes stand more in the light. Even a “dark” hero like Batman, as we see above and will see below, is inked more precisely. Wagner still uses the small panels superimposed over the larger one, something he’s done for almost as long as he’s been drawing stuff. The placement and tilting of the panels helps draw our eyes over the panel and also gives us a sense of movement and panic, as Bizarro goes through many emotions as Wonder Woman’s rope forces him to confront the truth. Wagner makes the panel borders more and more fuzzy and angry as Bizarro progresses, which is a nice touch.
Wagner shows his action chops pretty well in this sequence, as Batman finds Artemis and lures her into a fight. In Panel 1, she swings at him and misses, getting her hand caught in his cape. He flings her away, and Wagner leads us from left to right and then, in Panel 3, back from right to left, which is where find Artemis in Panel 4, caught in the lasso but still striking out at our hero. I mentioned above that Bizarro is inked a bit more roughly than even Batman, and we can see that here. Even though there’s still a bit of roughness in Batman’s costume, the overwhelming use of black helps cover that up, but even when it doesn’t, the way Stewart lights the costume makes it look more like latex, which might be kinky but also keeps the rough inking to overwhelm it. I’m not sure if Wagner or Stewart is responsible, but those flashes of white in Panels 1 and 2 help create that effect, which keeps Batman “cleaner” than Bizarro. Meanwhile, we see again that Wagner keeps things simple – he uses very few lines for Artemis’s hair, for instance.
Batman biffs Bizarro in another nice example of Wagner growing as an artist. Batman’s and Bizarro’s faces are still somewhat cartoonish – Wagner uses few lines and, in Batman’s case, exaggerates the way his mouth looks – but the inking on this page is superb. Wagner, having painted some of his own work, understands where the light source is and how Stewart will color the page, so he inks Bizarro and Batman accordingly. The shadows around Bizarro’s midsection and Batman’s thigh and back and scruffy and smudgy, half-lit by the “solar-spectrum laser” but obscured because they’re not in its direct line of sight. So while the part lit by the laser remains stark, and we know Wagner is good at that, he needs to use a thicker brush on the other parts, giving us shadows with less-defined borders. It’s a very interesting progression from the point of impact, radiating outward, and it shows how well Wagner understands the way light falls on objects.
Diana went into the Lazarus Pit, and here she is rising from it. This is a wonderful drawing, showcasing Wagner’s strength with minimalism. He hardly needs to draw anything, because his almost caricature of Wonder Woman is just complete enough so that it does look like she’s covered in that Lazarus Pit lava gunk. The goop dripping off of her and the bubbles are very simplistic, so that we’re left with the starkness of Wonder Woman reborn. Stewart’s colors are amazing, of course.
This comic shows that Wagner was getting a bit more abstract in his backgrounds while also becoming just a bit more comfortable with more inking of his characters, which helps bring his art into sync a bit more. Tomorrow, for our last Wagner day, we’ll return to his most famous creation and check out how he was able to bring all these elements together even more. Join me, won’t you? And if you enjoy checking out other artists, don’t forget the archives!
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