Year of the Artist, Day 111: Keith Giffen, Part 3 – Ambush Bug Nothing Special
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 Nothing Special, which was published by DC and is cover dated September 1992. Enjoy!
Ambush Bug Nothing Special is one of the funniest comics I’ve ever read – when Seth and I listed our funniest comics, it was jockeying for the #5 spot that eventually went to another Giffen comic, The Heckler. I was going to spotlight The Heckler today, as it came out about the same time as this book and both represent kind of the apotheosis of this phase of Giffen’s career, but I decided that this comic showed Giffen’s versatility a bit more than The Heckler. So yeah, this has a lot of scans, because there’s a ton of neat stuff in this comic.
The conceit early in the book is that Ambush Bug needs a job, so he goes around to several DC characters to get one. In this issue, Giffen is inked by Al Gordon and Bob Oksner, although I’m not sure who does what page. Giffen, as we’ll see, uses the nine-panel grid pretty rigidly in this book (with some notable exceptions, one of which we’ll see below), and this, unlike the Ambush Bug comic we saw yesterday, allows him to use actual gutters while still cramming a lot onto each page. It’s a good compromise. Notice, of course, the heavy use of blacks on the page – Panel 5 is brilliant in that regard. The use had become such a Giffen staple that it’s interesting to note that very few panels in this comic show the most distinctive “Giffen face” – the clear forehead and the curtain of black from the brows down. Giffen drops it in every once in a while, but usually from a distance, where it makes more sense. He had already started moving beyond it. Swamp Thing, obviously, has a lot of black on his face, because he always does. The big lip in Panel 3 is another Giffen tic – we saw it a few days ago when he drew The Defenders, and we’ll see it again in a few days. We also see the short but thick hatching lines that characterized most of Giffen’s work during this period, and as usual, I have no idea if Giffen put them in or if his inkers added them.
This remains one of my favorite comics pages, as I first saw it at the height of the Sandman phenomenon and before I realized Gaiman’s epic had its own twisted sense of humor, so Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming (who once again scripted this) having some fun with Morpheus cracked me right up. The spot blacks on Morpheus are appropriate, and in Panels 2 and 6 we see the “Giffen face,” with the shadows from the brows covering up the entire bottom of the face. Panel 7 gives us more blacks, with the big lower lip that we’ve seen from Giffen before. Notice how angular his faces have become – as we’ll see, Giffen still does a lot of cartoony, rounded faces, but for the most part, his pencils have become harsher, and that along with the heavier inking made his faces more severe. It’s an interesting shift.
“The thing is done.” Gets me every time.
Giffen and Fleming end up at a bar – the one in Panel 1 – and get drunk, so this turns into a manga for a page. Giffen effortlessly switches to a “manga” style, as he gives us the giant eyes, the sweat drops, the exaggerated mouths, the extreme emotions, and the giant sound effects. It’s a wonderful pastiche, and for someone who didn’t read any manga back then and for a long time, it almost went over my head. Luckily, I had seen Akira a few years before this, and of course I grew up watching Star Blazers, so I could appreciate the joke!
Things get even weirder, as Ambush Bug goes to work at DC and begins to try to take Julius Schwartz’s job. I guess for a long-time DC reader, this kind of inside pool wouldn’t have been too opaque – Schwartz, a legendary editor, was at this point 77 years old and retired, but he was still active in comics and he had edited the original Ambush Bug series. He’s the villain of this comic (as we see on the second page here), and when Bug tried to scheme against him, he was always one step ahead. Then, on the page prior to this one, “Fleming” passed out at the bar and “Giffen” snorted that artists didn’t need writers, hence the Image parody that interrupts the main “narrative” (such as it is).
Obviously, Giffen is parodying Liefeld and McFarlane, and while I imagine a good artist can easily ape another’s style, Giffen does it really well one these pages. On the first page, he tilts the page, gives “Bug” an elongated head, giant shoulders and arms, long and thick thighs, and tiny calves and feet. Even perspective can’t really account for the anatomical horrors, so of course it’s deliberate. Either Giffen or the inker goes a bit nuts with the cross-hatching, because cross-hatching is the bomb, yo! Giffen does a very nice job with the beady eyes and the large mouth, as it shows RAGE!!!! quite well. On the second page, he parodies McFarlane’s writing style on Spider-Man, including using “advantageous!” Even in the throwaway first panel, we get too many inking lines, as that’s just how it is. Bug’s facial expression never changes, you’ll note, and Giffen does a wonderful job with Panel 4, in which his leg somehow goes behind and over his arm. Giffen draws Schwartz like Cable, with the ridiculous shoulder pads, so many pouches, and once again, the giant thighs and spindly calves. Of course we get the cross-hatching on his clothing and gun, because why not? The use of the photograph of Schwartz is clever – Giffen doesn’t draw him because it’s funnier if his expression never changes even though he’s in a bunch of different situations, but also because this comic repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, and the fact that Schwartz looks “real” is part of that. His “realness” contrasted with the goofiness surrounding him makes it even more bizarre.
I know Liefeld and McFarlane were easy targets at the time. The fact that less than a year after this Giffen was working for Image might mean they had a good sense of humor about it.
Giffen and Fleming insert a “fanboy” magazine into the comic, and we get a bunch of pages colored green. As funny as this page is (“Joey Heatherton … sure would like to climb into her square!”), it’s not too amazing, art-wise. It does show the “birth of the nine-panel grid,” but what’s most impressive is how Giffen can draw one image, use it eight times, and it’s not annoying. Because he uses it for effect and doesn’t do it too often, it’s forgivable. Other artists do this, too, and occasionally it’s less egregious than in other examples. When used for comedic effect, it seems to work better, and here it is.
Once again, Giffen shows his versatility. We get his Liefeld parody in Panel 1, a Frank Miller homage in Panel 2, what appears to be a Kirby look in Panel 3, and even a cubist drawing in Panel 5. I know I should know that painting, but I can’t think of it right now. Someone can help me out, I hope! Giffen, using nice spot blacks in Panels 2 and 3, creates nice pastiches of the two artists – again, I imagine a lot of artists could do this, but it’s nifty to see how easily Giffen can do it.
Giffen contrasts Ambush Bug with Sugar really well here. Bug is in Arkham, and we’re getting a Silence of the Lambs riff here, in case you’re wondering. We get the rough inks and spot blacks with Bug, while Giffen gives us a rounded and cartoony Sugar. As I’ve noted, if you look at old comics, you can easily figure out how to draw Sugar, but Giffen has a background in that more cartoony style, so I imagine it was easier for him to integrate her into the story. This is also a good use of the photograph of Schwartz, as that final panel looks far creepier than if Giffen had drawn him.
Just for fun, Giffen adds this page, which I doubt was really drawn by his son and colored by Anthony Tollin’s daughter. I just thought this would be fun to include. It’s yet another example of Giffen’s chameleon-like nature. Of course, drawing like a child probably isn’t too hard, but I imagine it’s difficult to make it look enough like a child without going too far, either making it too terrible or meandering off-topic, both of which often occur with kids’ drawings. Giffen keeps it simple and on point.
Ambush Big Nothing Special came out around the time that Giffen turned 40. Over the next few months, he would wrap up his DC work (including, sadly, The Heckler), and start a new phase of his career, working at Image and other smaller publishers for the next several years. Tomorrow, I’ll check out an early Image book, with some absolutely bizarre Giffen art. But that’s part of the fun of these posts – seeing what kind of weird places artists go! You can see some other odd evolution in the archives, you know!