Axel-In-Charge: Waid & Samnee on "Black Widow" and the Dawn of the All-New, All-Different Era
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Steve Pugh, and the issue is Animal Man #52, which was published by DC and is cover dated October 1992. Enjoy!
Pugh took what was a semi-traditional route back in the late 1980s/early 1990s, especially for British comics creators: work in Britain on one of the many nifty comics magazines they have there, do an independent book, then get noticed by the editors of the proto-Vertigo comics published by DC. So it was that Pugh teamed up with Jamie Delano for a strange run on Animal Man, in the first issue of which Delano killed the hero. To be specific, someone ran him over with a truck. Oh dear. So here we are, at the beginning of the second issue, and a few pages in, Pugh unleashes this magnificent (and magnificently weird) sequence on us:
Look at that work! Pugh, I have to think, uses photo-reference quite a bit, as his animals in this series and in later work look far too perfect to be free-hand, but he doesn’t appear to use any kind of computer tricks, as the line work on his animals and other things that look photo-referenced fits well with the rest of his work, so I imagine he draws them in. Notice, for instance, the whale and the zebra on the first page. The whale’s belly is obviously lined with pencil, while the zebra’s stripes are the loose, rough style we’ve seen from Pugh at this early stage in his career. The bat and the gull are a bit smaller, so Pugh doesn’t use as much detail, but even though they look more “artificial” (for lack of a better word), it’s still clear that Pugh drew them in, even if he was using a static image as a reference. Buddy’s skeleton itself is very precise, to the point where it appears as if Pugh was using a model, but it also looks drawn in. My point is that we’ll see this kind of “hyper-realism” from Pugh in a lot of his work, especially when he’s drawing things other than humans, and it gives his work a strange kind of horrific vibe to it. [Pugh pointed out on Facebook that he didn’t use computers because it was, after all, 1992. I thought he might have used actual photographs of animals from books, but he told me he actually grabbed some plastic animals to use as models, which is pretty awesome.]
Look at the pages, though. Buddy is trying to come back from the dead, and he’s traveling through the “Red,” which of course has become such a big part of Animal Man mythology. Pugh uses a nice vanishing point in the first panel of the first page, and the animals – including Buddy – swirl around it, with the thick blacks in the background separating the bright reds and subtle pinks – Tatjana Wood goes all out coloring this section. Pugh uses finer lines to show the animals moving through the Red, and Wood colors it brighter pink to highlight the wake of these creatures’ souls. Buddy is moving against the tide, so notice how, in Panels 2 and 3 on Page 1, Pugh orients Buddy so he’s moving right to left even as the animals, alone in Panel 3, are moving left to right. In the bottom panel on Page 2, we see this again, except this time Pugh has placed Buddy and the animals in the same panel, and he draws Buddy’s left hand reaching up away from whatever everything is falling toward. It’s also bigger, as it’s closer to us, but that implies that Buddy himself is getting closer to us and “reality.” On Page 3, Pugh tilts the panels to give the downward slope even more urgency, as Buddy continues to swim against the tide. The middle panel is a wonderfully terrifying image, as Pugh uses the costume and the blacks it creates to shroud Buddy’s skull so we see only his teeth through the mouth hole. On that page, we also see that Pugh, no matter how he achieves it, has a nice sense of perspective, as Buddy passes us by in Panels 2 and 3. On Page 4, he breaks the surface, and we get that wonderfully weird “coming up for air” pose even though Buddy is a skeleton. Pugh takes a moment that is usually relieving and makes it weird, with Buddy’s mouth area more of a silent scream than a gasp for air, with the harsh inks on the “face” and torso showing the costume adhering wetly to the bones, making the image extremely creepy. In Panels 2 and 3 he moves Buddy away from the black hole toward which everything seems to be flowing, and re-orients the view so that Buddy is swimming toward the shore. The lines in the sky are reminiscent of what we saw yesterday, which makes me think that Pugh draws them in but doesn’t ink them, leaving the colorists to turn them into crackling lines of energy, as Wood does here.
This is an extremely cool sequence, and after a few pages in the “real” world, Pugh returns to Buddy’s journey and hits us with this:
I had to slice off the top of the page just a little, but it only cuts off a caption box, so no harm, no foul (Buddy wonders “what is this red vastness, this ghostworld, this limbo?”). Pugh does amazing work in this panel, as Buddy and the animals around him wind and unwind. Buddy is slowly “regrowing” himself, so Pugh draws streams of his costume billowing out behind him, and through the progression of these panels, they slowly wrap him up. Meanwhile, the animals around him are being unwrapped as they head toward the lake of blood. We get the weird and horrific skeletons beneath the hollow skins, which Pugh does very nicely. In the background, Pugh places these twisted and awful structures, which look like bone palaces. Pugh uses really nice blacks on the landscape to make them more ethereal, as they seem to hover there, even though they’re obviously hard and rigid. To contrast with the heavy inks, Pugh uses thin lines on Buddy’s costume, making him a bit more superheroic and also showing his musculature as it grows back. One reason I wonder if Pugh uses photographs as reference is because he doesn’t always use perspective very well – Buddy is as tall as the giraffe, yet it appears that he’s on the same level as the giraffe, both at the ground level and in terms of the depth of field. This occurs a lot in Pugh’s work – his work with depth is often a bit off, and it adds a bit of vertigo to his work that I don’t think is deliberate (although I suppose it could be). [Pugh also pointed out that the giraffe is coming up an incline, which I missed. Dang it! That’s why the perspective is a bit off – Buddy is higher up than the giraffe, and Pugh wanted the eye lines to be on the same plane. My bad.]
Buddy reaches his body, and Pugh does a really nice job with it. He’s cleverly hiding Buddy’s face after showing us the hints of his skull earlier, and that’s a pretty cool trick. It makes him look exhausted as he climbs the cliff and heads across the wasteland, even though I’m sure it’s because his face is no longer there. Pugh makes the cliff look much like the ground in yesterday’s double-page spread – he uses heavy blacks to make it look almost like Buddy is climbing a mountain of bones. When he reaches his body, Pugh again inks it very heavily to hide its features, foreshadowing the fact that Buddy really doesn’t have a body to return to. Meanwhile, Wood switches from the red to white and blue, turning Buddy’s hot world much cooler.
Buddy gets back into his body, which is in the morgue, and he sees Ellen, but it’s really not the happy reunion he expected – his body has decayed enough that he can’t reanimate it (which causes him to “jump” into an insect and takes him on a journey through the animal kingdom, but that’s a story for another day!). Pugh shows us this scene from Buddy’s perspective, and Panels 1 and 3 show it from even farther inside his eyes – at the edges of the panels, it appears that Pugh drew in the hollow eye sockets. In Panel 3, we see that his left hand is severed, which can’t be pleasant for Ellen. I love Panel 4, as Pugh swirls the scream around Ellen and, from the progression, it’s clear that Buddy is far too close to her. At the bottom, Pugh begins to tug Ellen’s skin away from the arm, which adds to the weird motion of the circular panel. Her fingers look far too long, and I wonder why Pugh used that effect. We see in Panels 2 and 4 more of the “Pugh face” – Ellen’s nose is wide and slightly upturned, and when she opens her mouth, her chin tends to recede a bit. Wood does nice work on this page – the blue that Buddy sees implies the cold of the morgue and of the body he’s reanimated, while the red around the last panel stands in stark contrast to that and takes Buddy back to the bloody dimension he just escaped.
Pugh’s run on Animal Man was full of bizarre, harsh drawings like this, but this issue stands out as being the weirdest one. Pugh got a bit of a reputation as an “animal horror” artist for a while, but he did other stuff, too! As I noted above, artists go from British comics mags, to American independents, to “Vertigo,” and then … the next logical step! So tomorrow, we’ll see where he ended up! Remember the archives, too – they’re chock full of good stuff!
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