EXCL. PREVIEW: "Avatar: Smoke & Shadow" TPB Threatens the Fire Nation
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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