Axel-In-Charge: Facing the 'Divided' Marvel NOW! Future
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Jill Thompson, and the issue is X-Men Unlimited #32, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated September 2001. Enjoy!
During the 1990s, Thompson continued working on various comics, and her style was similar to the kind of work she did on Wonder Woman. A big change came when she published Scary Godmother in 1997, as her style shifted pretty significantly. I’m not going to show Scary Godmother, though, because I don’t want to (I bought it for my daughter, who digs it). I will show some of Thompson’s comics for kids, though, but today, I wanted to show some of her new style on an X-book, mainly because I love Dazzler so very, very much. Yes, in this issue of X-Men Unlimited, Thompson teamed up with Will Pfeifer for “Dazzler: Behind the Music,” which came out during the Jemas Years at Marvel, when stuff like this came out all the time. This is a great issue, actually – this story is excellent, the James Pruett Nightcrawler story features beautiful Mike Deodato art, and John Ostrander and Ian Gibson give us a fun little Starjammers story. But let’s get back to Dazzler!
Bruce Banner walks into a bar and requests to watch the “Behind the Music” special about Dazzler, and when one of the patrons starts hassling him about it, he naturally Hulks out, which is where we pick this story up. Notice immediately that Thompson’s work has become more cartoony since her days on Wonder Woman, but we can see in the bartender and the drawings of Dazzler on the television set that she retains her essential “Thompson-ness.” Her lines have become more angular, however, which makes the art slightly more abstract. It’s still very strong work, and Thompson’s inking on this comic grounds her work more than her work on, say, Finals, which came out in 1999. I love how she draws the Hulk in Panel 1 – his mouth is huge, and Thompson scrunches up his eyes because his mouth is taking up so much of his face. He looks top-heavy, as his torso is gigantic while his legs are a bit scrawnier. He’s a good example of Thompson’s newer style – instead of using more rounded lines, she makes Hulk look like he’s cut from green granite, and her thick inking lines help with that. Thompson’s details are wonderful, too – Bruce Banner’s glasses are flying through the air, as moments ago they were on his face, and the stool’s legs are bent outward because they can’t handle the sudden weight of the Hulk. Thompson can still draw “realistically,” of course, as we see in Panels 2 and 3, when the Hulk calms down a bit. The way she turns down his mouth in Panel 3 just slightly gives him a pensive look, as he’s remembering that his poor television bought it in a fight with the Abomination.
An outfit called “Atomic Paintbrush” colored this comic, which was apparently co-founded by Dennis Calero. It’s from that time period when digital coloring was still in its infancy (or maybe its young childhood?), and while it’s not bad, computer coloring at this time tended to rely very heavily on contrasts between simple, “heavy” coloring and tricks with much lighter variants – we can see this with the puff of smoke in Panel 1, which shows the skedaddling path of the dude who antagonized Bruce. Obviously, it’s not a real puff of smoke, but in making it much more ethereal than the rest of the coloring, the digital pink that Atomic Paintbrush uses calls attention to it and makes it look odd, even in a story as cartoonish as this one. Perhaps they could have simply used thicker black lines and white ink, which would look like a stereotypical puff of smoke from every cartoon ever, which might fit in better. Oh well. We’ll see some interesting coloring choices as we go on – this story is colored better than some all-digital comics of the era, to be sure.
Thompson does a nice job dating Alison in the first panel, even though there’s not a lot of room to do so. We know that if you’re talking about Disco Dazzler, you’re talking about the late 1970s, even though the sliding timescale of Marvel doesn’t allow that anymore. But this comic rejects that and puts this in the “correct” time period, so Alison’s graduation photo is probably from the mid-1970s. We don’t get much to imply that, but the feathered bangs underneath Alison’s cap are a nice touch to the time period. Thompson also gives Dazzler thick eyelashes in Panel 3, as she should have. Notice how we move from the graduation photo to Dazzler’s face, then down her body like a slide until her left foot lands on Panel 4, where we go next. Then Alison’s left hand points us to Panel 5, where we find Marty Jacobi. Again, Thompson makes sure to “date” Jacobi, with his open shirt, manly chest hair, and long, stringy hair. He oozes sleaze, but it’s a 1970s sleaze. I should point out the richness of the coloring on Alison and Marty’s skin – it’s almost too orange, which again might be that the digital coloring isn’t as precise as it could be.
The first three panels are tremendous, as the Hulk returns from the bathroom and finds out he’s missed quite a bit. In Panel 1, he’s just the Hulk, but when the bartender tells him what he missed, he becomes Sad Hulk, which is hilarious. Thompson flattens his face by closing his mouth and making his eyes dots, as he realizes he missed a good chunk of Dazzler’s story. I love that Hulk’s pinkie is extended – obviously, his hand is too big for all four fingers to hold his glass of lemonade, but it reminds us of high society and makes it very funny. In the second row, we get some very nice Thompson facial expressions. Bruce Harris’s crooked mouth and cocked eyebrows make him look petulant, which fits with his hissy fit. Harry Osgood, Alison’s ex-manager, looks incredulous at Harris’s claims. Enchantress is also very nicely done – she’s trying very hard to look innocent, so Thompson gives her rising eyebrows, which are much less sinister than ones that slant downward toward the eyes – they open up the face and make it look more reliable. Her eyes are wide and looking up, which is another facial cue that suggests innocence. She’s not quite smiling, but her mouth is twisted up slightly, which is supposed to make her look meek. Thompson gives her some curly hair – not as curly as some of her characters, of course – and unlike her earlier work, she simply suggests the curls with few lines instead of meticulously drawing every curl. It’s part of Thompson’s move toward a bit more abstract art.
There’s a lot of nice work on this page. In Panel 1, the Hulk drinks his lemonade, and Thompson does a nice job showing how sour it is. Hulk’s lips are squeezed together, his eyes are closed, his eyebrows curl downward, and his brow is furrowed. Thompson keeps it simple, which fits the character she’s drawing. Panel 2 shows a very nice Thompson drawing of Dazzler. Her hair is very “Thompson-like,” with the kicky hat holding it in place while we get the spray of it sweeping out the left side. It’s very 1980s, as is Dazzler’s amazing puffy-sleeved outfit. Thompson draws Alison somewhat innocently, standing in contrast to Roman Nekobah. Her eyes are wide and her brows are perfectly angled along with her eyes. Thompson draws a wide “V” for her nose, which again opens up her face and makes her more trustworthy – the more abstract a face, the more we can impart our own perceptions on it. Her close-mouthed smile is also demure, making her seem more innocent. Roman, on the other hand, has thin eyes, peaked eyebrows, a more heavily inked nose (it’s not significantly more detailed than Alison’s, but it’s enough), and his broad, toothy smile looks more sinister, as it also creates the furrows of his cheekbones, which automatically adds more details to his face. It’s a very nice drawing.
In Panel 3, Thompson goes a bit sketchy, which is how she was drawing some of her late Nineties work. It’s supposed to look more like “artwork” because it’s a movie poster, and I wonder if Thompson is hearkening back to Bill Sienkiewicz’s covers of the original series – her style looks nothing like Sienkiewicz’s, but the scratchy linework could be a small homage. Thompson’s poster is weirdly sad – Dazzler’s lashes are long and thick around wide but unhappy eyes, her hair is ragged, and her slightly downturned mouth are enough to suggest that she’s a bit depressed. Panel 5 is interesting, as Roman’s look is updated from his 1980s lounge lizard appearance. His hair is cropped short, and he no longer looks like he’s wearing a toupée, and Thompson opens his eyes a bit and closes his mouth, so he looks more thoughtful than in Panel 2. It’s interesting because it so perfectly fits the way these “Behind the Music” series go – the people in the present, no matter how poorly they behaved in the past, are always presented much more sympathetically.
I also love Panel 6, in which we learn that Dazzler: The Movie is enjoyed as a Rocky Horror-style show. Thompson puts the audience in Dazzler make-up, and it’s clear that some of the women in the audience deliberately styled their hair to look like hers. The shot on the screen is another exercise in minimalism, but Thompson’s abstract drawing doesn’t lose anything, and it stands in nice contrast the “real” world of the theater. For some strange reason, I love that the woman on stage isn’t a twig – she’s not fat, but Thompson draws her a bit thicker than your standard superhero. It’s a nice shout-out to the fact that people in the “real” world have all kinds of body types.
The final panel of the story shows Dazzler living in Mojoworld with Longshot, taking care of the X-babies. At some point in her history, Alison was pregnant, but then she wasn’t (I guess she had a miscarriage, but no one really wanted to delve into it). I imagine this is just Pfeifer having some fun with her – this story takes place before she returned to the X-books in the grim story that directly preceded Grant Morrison’s arrival on the books. But that doesn’t matter – what matters is the humorous way Thompson draws this. In the background, on the bank of screens, we get the drawing of Alison, and Thompson uses light pencils and few details, while the colorist uses lavenders and spot whites to give it a bit of a nostalgic feel. Thompson draws a somewhat dissolute Longshot, his mullet disheveled and his gut a bit larger than it was in the past. Alison gives him a deathly look as she struggles to change Baby Wolverine. Thompson musses her hair, which is, naturally, far shorter than it used to be, and her face has lost any of the innocence it had earlier in the story. Her eyebrows are crooked, her eyes are thin, she has wrinkles under her eyes, and her mouth is twisted as she holds safety pins in her mouth (no disposable diapers in Mojoworld?). Thompson puts her in her 1980s costume with the starburst on the chest, and she scrunches up the sleeves because Alison has a lot of work to do. Her head and the Dazzler on the screen are on the same level, so they’re linked nicely through Longshot’s word balloon. And I love that Baby Storm is poking Baby Cyclops in the eye and using only one finger because, you know, he’s Cyclops.
This was in the middle of Thompson’s transitional phase to a more non-traditional way of drawing as she moved away from mainstream work. She still drew for the Big Two (usually DC, but not always), but she was also doing animation work and drawing other kids’ comics. Tomorrow, we’ll look at one of those comics for kids and see what’s what! If you have no soul and don’t like kids’ comics, you can always head on over to the archives!
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