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Year of the Artist, Day 110: Keith Giffen, Part 2 – Ambush Bug #2

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Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Keith Giffen, and the issue is Ambush Bug #2, which was published by DC and is cover dated July 1985. Enjoy!

I used to own “The Great Darkness Saga” in trade paperback, but it was a fairly unimpressive story arc, so I got rid of it. Now, of course, I regret it the tiniest bit, because Keith Giffen’s art in that is a good bridge between his early stuff and his more idiosyncratic stuff. I could have used that, man! Instead I decided to check out his 1985 Ambush Bug mini-series, in which we’ll see hints of his harsher style that he used in the late 1980s/early 1990s but which still shows his more cartoony side. It’s not a bad “in-between” comic for Giffen’s artwork.

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In this issue, Ambush Bug fights against a giant mutated koala, like you do, who was once a scientist named Quentin Quantis. So on this page, we see that Dr. Quantis tried to distill the “essence of cuteness,” and there are, as we can see, dire results (although you’ll note the narrator – the janitor – never actually says if Quantis drank the serum). Giffen isn’t quite using the nine-panel grid that he would use to such interesting effect in later comics, but he does use a lot of panels on the page (it’s essentially a 12-panel grid). One of the problems with Giffen’s art at this time is that he designs a lot of pages without gutters, so the panels smash up against each other. As Giffen uses a lot of panels and puts a lot of details into each panel, this makes reading them a bit more difficult than they should be. Perhaps that’s why he went back to using gutters and committing to the nine-panel grid, because it allowed him to use a lot of panels but not go overboard. Beats me.

Anyway, we can see some of the Giffen hallmarks from later years showing up here. The janitor – Ned Orton (not that it matters, as he gets crushed on the next page) – is inked heavily on this page, as Giffen uses the spot blacks for which he would become known. Bob Oksner inked this issue, but as Giffen did this kind of thing no matter who was inking him, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s his idea. In Panels 4, 6, 7, 10, and 11, we see the blacks shadowing the faces of Orton, Quantis, and Bug. The shadows on the eyes that appear to take over the entire face is a Giffen trademark from this period, and I’m not sure if this is the earliest it shows up, but it’s obvious that Giffen liked it. His faces aren’t quite as rigid and angular as they’d be later, as Dr. Quantis still looks like a cartoon character a bit, as his chin isn’t as pointy as we’d expect from a later Giffen work and his face is a bit softer. Even Orton, who’s older and more beat-up, isn’t quite as etched with wrinkles as later Giffen characters are. The scientist in Panel 9 is also still quite cartoony, and this kind of art would soon fade from Giffen’s work.

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Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming, who wrote this comic (following the famous Brian Cronin rule that Giffen should always plot and never script), give us Jonni DC, a female version of the old Johnny DC character who makes her first appearance in this issue as a “continuity cop.” She’s a bit peeved that there’s a giant koala rampaging through Metropolis, but things don’t go well. Giffen draws her as a silly cartoon character, which isn’t too hard as she’s basically a stick figure, but he does a nice job capturing a very 1950s vibe to her face, as she looks like she stepped out of a Sugar and Spike comic from the early Silver Age. We’re so close in that Giffen doesn’t have to do a lot with backgrounds, but his utilitarian line in the bottom row adds solidity to the scene, so that Jonni bouncing around actually looks like it hurts. As the koala rampages in Panel 4, we can see a bit of Kirby Krackle in the background – Giffen knows it’s a good effect! Don’t worry about the last panel – as this is an Ambush Bug comic, Giffen and Fleming decide, in the middle of the story, to show the koala playing golf, and that’s the announcer talking about it. That’s just the kind of comic it is!

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On this page, Giffen’s penchant for cramming a lot onto a page gets him in a bit of trouble. The koala gets smoke in his nose and sneezes, which is fine, but that middle row is strange because the sneeze panel isn’t clear. The giant sound effect, the clash of colors between the red and pale blue (Anthony Tollin colored the issue), and the preponderance of heavy blacks – again, I’m not sure if that’s Giffen or Oksner – make it hard to read. On the right side, we can see a building, a fence bending backward from the blast, and a cloud of smoke. But the left side is very hard to discern (except for the lamppost), so while we can infer that the sneeze took out a building or part of a building, it’s still not very clear, although I guess we’re seeing the sneeze blast come down a street? Giffen’s commitment to the tight page design works against him a bit here.

Anyway, we see some other stuff here that will become more “Giffen-esque” in the upcoming years. The thick blacks are in evidence, as are the hatching lines on the koala as it sneezes and then wipes its nose. Giffen is quite good at silly facial expressions, as we see in Panel 10 when the koala looks down at the people. In Panel 11, the police officer is still a bit cartoony, but he’s moving toward the more angular facial design that Giffen would begin using very soon. It’s a good “transitional” panel.

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Ambush Bug figures out how to cook up an antidote, and he drops down on Dr. Quantis with that giant needle and injects him with it. This is a well designed page, as Giffen gives us some nice facial expressions from the koala as he reacts to various stimuli. In Panel 1, he looks annoyed and quizzical as the cotton swab that Ambush Bug put on his arm pops off. He’s still trying to figure it out in Panel 2. In Panel 3 he looks up in wonder, and he becomes more confused in Panel 4 as Bug flies down. Panel 2 is another interesting example – we’ve seen a few above, but this is a good one – of Giffen’s development. He would begin to use extreme close-ups more and more in his art, and the koala in Panel 2 is a prototype of this kind of panel. Note again that Giffen/Oksner is using some thicker hatching on the koala, and Giffen (presumably) adds in the thick spot blacks on the smoke billowing up around the koala. As Giffen began to use blacks more and more, this became standard, and it’s interesting to see it here.

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One of the jokes of the mini-series is that the final page of the first three issues shows Bug coming across Darkseid and the editors promising that he’ll fight the big guy the next issue, which of course never happens. So in this issue, Bug finds Darkseid working at “McSnakies,” and I just wanted to show this fun image of the Evil One serving him his lunch. It’s still a nice drawing, and you can see it’s a bit more Kirby-esque than the rest of the issue. The thick blacks on Darkseid’s helmet, face, shoulders, arm, and fingers are very Kirby-ish, although they have a Giffen-esque feel to them, too. I just love the fact that Darkseid is wearing that fun paper hat.

In the late 1980s/early 1990s, Giffen drew quite a bit, although he’s more known at this time for plotting comics, notably the “bwah-ha-ha-ha”-era Justice League. I’m trying very hard to decide which of his artwork from this time period to use. I think I’ve narrowed it down to a choice of two comics, but I’m still thinking about it. Obviously, by the time this post goes up, I’ll have made up my mind, but as I’m typing this, I’m having an existential crisis! Maybe I’ll soothe my tortured soul by checking out the archives!

29 Comments

I couldn’t disagree more about how impressive the Great Darkness Saga is, nor on how good an example of the transition Ambush Bug comics are.

At this point, Giffen has already all but completely surrendered to his unpleasant “everyone has been flattened by a steamroller” phase already.

LSH #287 would be a far better transitional piece (as well as a good sample of his highest point as a penciler). By #292 his worst traits began to surface (the cover is very telling), but he would still hold to good quality work until around #307. #308 was so disappointing for those like me who were spoiled by the GDS…

I knew what Luis was going to say because of previous comments, but for my own tastes, I completely disagree.

I love Giffen’s artwork in most of his phases (well, not so much Trencher), but this is by far my favorite stage, what I think of as Giffen really coming into himself stylistically. Ambush Bug, The March Hare, the 5 Years Later Legion… I just can’t get enough of that stuff.

Ooo, I’m moderated. I wonder what the triggering keyword was.

Yeah, The Great Darkness Saga is one of my favorite storylines of all time. Classic stuff and great Giffen work.

Luis (and turk, who left the comment as I was typing mine): I got The Great Darkness Saga in trade mainly because I read about how good it was, on this blog and others, and I was very disappointed by it. Maybe because the reveal seemed to be the whole point, and I already knew the reveal, so the rest didn’t hold up. I also don’t agree that Giffen’s art was better on it, because it seemed like (from my memory) that it was fairly standard superhero stuff. Maybe it’s because I saw his late 1980s/early 1990s art first, but I love that artwork from him, as it’s flexible enough to be a good superhero fit but so idiosyncratic that it stands out really nicely. I get that a lot of people disagree with me, but that’s how I feel.

buttler: For me, the highlight of Giffen’s work is the Dr. Fate mini-series (that led to the ongoing) through The Heckler. I like this art, but not as much as that stuff.

I don’t know why your comment was moderated. Weird.

I’ve been reading these posts almost every day and I’m really enjoying the artist choices and the analysis. As a casual comics reader for a few decades now these posts give me a lot more insight into what artists may have been thinking as they made their choices.

For Giffen, this was the phase when I first encountered his artwork. I was just recently into comics and branching out past Superman and Batman. I loved this style at the time…so much energy to the point of being frantic (everything you wanted in a 90s comic!). And while those panels do look overly cluttered today, at the time they were a nice contrast to the usual double-splash-page filled comiX!!! that could be fully read and forgotten in 10 minutes.

I hope we get to see some Lobo in the next few posts, when Giffen was really mastering the style he was working to in Ambush Bug. And of course a little OMAC to round things out, showing how the Kirby influence (well much more than influence at this point really) once again comes roaring to the forefront.

Keep up the great work on these posts!

papercut fun: Thanks for the nice words. I don’t know how accurate I am in making my assertions, but I hope I’m not completely clueless!

I don’t know if Giffen ever drew Lobo – he wrote the books, but Simon Bisley drew it originally and then some other artists. Either way, I don’t show any Lobo work, because if he did draw them, I don’t own them. But we’re getting into his very weird period, and yes, to finish up I’m going to check out some more recent work … but you’ll have to wait to see if it’s OMAC!

Didn’t Giffen develop his 9 panel page layout on the “adult Legion” series?

Well, when Giffen cocreated Lobo in Omega Men, he was the artist half of the equation, and he drew him sometimes as a supporting character or guest star in other books (the 5YL Legion, f’rinstance). But yeah, as a solo star Lobo was usually drawn by others.

That was Lobo in his purple and orange jumpsuit back in Omega Men.

Giff drew Lobo in…oh, what the hell was that mini? But it’s probably Trencher era…it’s a 4 ish mini where his bastard children come after him. There’s the one cover with the baby holding a gun on Lobo saying “say youw pwayers, cweep!” or something. Oh…I’ll look it up later. And read this later, too.

@Travis The mini was “Infanticide” and, yes, it was drawn in the “trencher” style. Or maybe it was the trencher that came after it. Well, that’s the internet and if we want we can even check.
Anyway i remember it pleasently, the style suited well the series that was almost a parody of Lobo (practically a parody of a parody) with a lot of sensless cardboard violence.
At a certain point he even comments on that he really likes more to plot than to script ,probably not knowing that other people already noticed it and that later it would even become a Brian Cronin rule :)

I would really like to go back and revisit Video Jack. That seems pretty lost to history at this point.

I used to own “The Great Darkness Saga” in trade paperback, but it was a fairly unimpressive story arc, so I got rid of it.

Blasphemy!!!

Okay, seriously, everyone has different tastes. But I thought “The Great Darkness Saga” was incredible, and it was one of the primary reasons I became a huge fan of the Legion. I even blogged about the follow-up to it, “Child of Darkness, Child of Light.” That was interesting, because the main story was penciled by Curt Swan, but it was bookended by a prologue and epilogue drawn by Keith Giffen… talk about two very different styles! But it worked quite well in this case.

http://benjaminherman.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/legion-of-super-heroes-the-curse-of-validus/

LouReedRichards

April 20, 2014 at 8:31 pm

Yay! Ambush Bug!!!

Like Butler, this is where I think he really started hitting it out of the park pretty much every time.

As def said, Video Jack from this time period is quite visually striking. I also remember a Creeper installment in Secret Origins that was really keen too!

Never have been able to stomach Trencher, but it being an Image comic, I at least hope he made a lot of money on it.

tom fitzpatrick

April 20, 2014 at 8:48 pm

Well, Mr. Burgas could always pick up “The Quiet Darkness” which was a sequel to “The Great Darkness”. Not really as good, but for Mr. Gordon’s first attempt to write a story – wasn’t too bad, but at least Giffen can claim to draw both stories.

I guess I stopped reading Lobo mini-series before Giffen took a crack at drawing them, because I know I don’t have that one.

def: Man, I’ve never even heard of Video Jack. Now that I have, I must own it!!!!

Ben: Yeah, I suppose I’m in the minority about The Great Darkness Saga. But that’s the way it is!

LouReedRichards: Um … you might want to take something to fortify your stomach, because of what’s coming up in a few days! :)

tom: I’ve never been a fan of the Legion, so I’ve never been interested in The Quiet Darkness, even though I remember the ads in other DC books and thinking it looked pretty neat. If The Great Darkness Saga couldn’t make me love the Legion, not much else has a chance!

@ greg
The Great Darkness saga, comes right After the Dr Fate Backup in Flash; when we compare the art on LoSH 284-286 by Broderick, and 287 + by Giffen, there is a ton of details, and space occupation, Giffen uses, that Broderick dont come close (check the details Giffen does in the back up with Projectra and Karate Kid on Orando… We do have the same level of details in the Dr Fate Story) – (If Levitz -Giffen didnt make you love the Legion, try Levitz +Sherman / Netzer)

Video Jack , always close to hand.. is something to read, the world (internet, tv, telephony) as so much changed since the late 80’s that the story might look a litlle old…

But where do you have the chance to see Trina Robbins do a mud fight, or Walter Simonson doing is dinosaur Signature dinosauresque ?

‘infanticide came out at the same time Trencher did (and is much better) an after the Lobo’s mini drawxn by Dwyer (A contract on gawd)

Ah, yes, Infanticide. Thanks, Ranconauta!

One Giff book that was in there somewhere (’86-ish?) was the issue of DC Challenge that he drew. IIRC, Dr Fate is in there. And Superman. And Darkseid. Man, I gotta read that series again. That was fun.

I love Giff in all his incarnations. Glad you did him.

@Greg: Ah, well, this Ambush Bug art is pretty cool and funny. Plus we do get Darkseid anyway :)

Infanticide…that was it! I couldn’t recall the name either when I was typing my post…when did opening a new browser tab and googling something become such a chore? :) I vividly remember him drawing the curls of smoke coming off Lobo’s cigar as big blocky rectangles. To this day when I’m bored and doodling…while I should be paying attention to what someone is saying…I still draw smoke like that.

@turk
I think Giffen used the 9 panel grid first in Invasion! 2 and the Justice League International issues he guest penciled.

No mention yet of how Giffen’s new style was really heavily swiped from José Antonio Muñoz? I saw it mentioned in a comment on the previous piece, but I was hoping it would get a nod in an article. Here’s an interview with Giffen about it: http://www.twomorrows.com/kirby/articles/29giffen.html

Aaron: I never knew about the controversy until very recently, and while I was writing this, I checked out some of Munoz’s art and honestly, I didn’t see the connection to this particular issue. I don’t really see it that much in Giffen’s work, although maybe I’m just looking at the wrong Munoz art. I see the connection between Munoz and Frank Miller’s Sin City style much more clearly. Giffen clearly accepts that he was modeling his work after Munoz, but I didn’t see it enough to mention it here. In today’s entry, Giffen is clearly parodying other artists, so I mention it. That’s just my feeling, though. I probably have to look at more of Munoz’s art to really see it, but I didn’t have time, so I didn’t bother.

LouReedRichards

April 21, 2014 at 2:10 pm

I think the connection is pretty obvious, but that’s just my opinion.

It is a style pretty heavily cribbed from Munoz. I saw it the first time I ever saw any Munoz artwork. I think it should be acknowledged, but at the same time, it’s refreshing to have an American comic book artist show signs of influences from outside of mainstream comics.

It’s been ages, but I do remember an article that had some very blatant swipes from Munoz’s work. Does anybody else remember that article, maybe it was in the Comics Journal?

As long as he acknowledged and credited Munoz for the inspiration (which I believe he did, after he was “exposed”) I see no problem with continuing to work in that style.

I know the first time I saw Munoz artwork, which was several years after having first seen Giffen’s, my reaction was “Oh, that’s where he got it from”.

I wish more artist back in the 80’s would have looked beyond the rather limited confines of mainstream American comics. Perhaps we could have avoided a lot of the EXTREME early 90’s.

Also: Yeah I knew you’d be featuring Trencher, how could you not? I may not like it, but it was a legitimate step in his artistic journey. I have the pepto on hand and ready to go!

It’s been ages, but I do remember an article that had some very blatant swipes from Munoz’s work. Does anybody else remember that article, maybe it was in the Comics Journal?

It was The Comics Journal #105, “The Trouble with Keith Giffen.” Side-by-side comparisons that I thought were pretty damning. Not sure why he got a pass on it but fandom collectively shrugged and moved on. I guess you could compare it to Bill Sienkewicz’s “Adams phase,” because certainly Giffen is good enough that he doesn’t need to swipe. But it was weird watching him go through all these phases; they don’t seem to have any progression to them, it’s like he randomly drew names out of a hat. Started out looking like Starlin, then Kirby, then Munoz, and now… I’m not sure. Haven’t seen anything recent other than breakdowns for other guys to pencil over.

LouReedRichards and Greg: Like I said, I’d have to see more of it. Maybe it’s because Giffen’s work is colored and I keep seeing Munoz’s work in stark black and white, so the similarities aren’t quite as pronounced. But I know Giffen has admitted he swiped stuff (or at least was influenced by), so I guess I have to believe him!

Jeff Nettleton

April 21, 2014 at 8:19 pm

One of the problems with the trade version of The Great Darkness Saga was that it was missing the prologue stuff. Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen set things up before the trade collection picks up the story. I can’t remember issue numbers, but the two issues before the initial kick-off set the scene. In the first, Chameleon Boy, Timber Wolf, and Saturn Girl (maybe one other) take on a reconnaissance mission, on the Khund Homweworld. They end up exposed and Timber Wolf ends up having to face a top Khund warrior in gladiatorial combat, and waxes his tail! Kiffen had some great artwork here, showing off a sequence of combat moves from Timber Wolf that were more than your standard superhero fight (though the flow of the movements defies a bit of physics and body mechanics). Then, the gang hightails it out of there, since they have stirred a hornet’s nest and the gang finds out that Chameleon Boy didn’t have government sanctioning for the mission. There is a back-up piece in this issue which features Mon-El and Shadow Lass landing on a rogue planet and discovering powerful automatic defense systems (ones that can hurt Mon-El). They are able to get out safely, but they have awakened someone very powerful. The next issue is on Orando, Princess Projectra’s homeworld. Her father has died and the throne has been usurped by a cousin. Karate Kid gets to settle his hash and we get Projectra’s coronation at the end. Then, we jump into The Great Darkness Saga.

The storyline also has bigger impact if you have been following the Legion for some time. it makes great use of characters from past stories, such as the Substitutes, the Wanderers, Mordru, and others. In pulls in several key worlds and makes several links to the past. Then, we also get the consequences for Chameleon Boy’s unauthorized actions and his chance at redemption, when the Daxamites have invaded the prison on Takron-Galtos. There’s some great character moments for long-time fans. There’s also good, solid storytelling for everyone. However, not every story appeals to every reader.

I can see a lot of Munoz in Giffen as things developed into the 90s. However, I am always surprised that the similarities to design details in the work of Philippe Druillet seem to get overlooked. They are very strong in those two issues that precede The Great Darkness Saga, especially in the armor of the Khunds and similar armor on Orando (and some other design elements). Druillet worked Hindu design elements into some of his work, including Lone Sloan, and Giffen seemed to pick up on that. Maybe it’s just a case of fandom not being familiar with Druillet, as Heavy Metal’s early days were his chief conduit to America (though NBM reprinted Lone Sloan, in the late 80s).

LouReedRichards

April 21, 2014 at 8:32 pm

Thanks for the info Greg, now I’ll have to hunt down that issue of the Comics Journal again!

Jeff, I’ve not ever really noticed a Druillet influence in his work. I’ve not read the Great Darkness Saga, so I missed the stuff with the armor. As I mentioned I recently bought a couple of Legions, soley based on how much some people here seem to love them. I have 304, and the ’82 Annual. So far, with just a quick perusal of them, they seem very solid, but still rather conventional. I guess I need to read more to get the overall effect.
Like Burgas, I’ve never been a big Legion fan. I think the extensive cast seems daunting to the uninitiated.

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