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CSBG Archive

Year of the Artist, Day 116: Chris Bachalo, Part 3 – Steampunk #5

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Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Chris Bachalo, and the issues is Steampunk #5, which was published by DC/Wildstorm/Cliffhanger and is cover dated October 2000. Enjoy!

In the late 1990s, Bachalo perfected the “classic Bachalo” artwork and took it to its logical extreme, beginning with his work on Uncanny X-Men, then The Witching Hour, and then perhaps his apotheosis, the 13-issue run of Steampunk, which still feels like such a product of a unique moment in comics history – the turn of the millennium. I haven’t read Steampunk since it first came out (although I’m getting very close to it in my alphabetical reading of back issues, so I should get to it soon), and I can’t even hope to explain what’s going on in these pages. The hero is a dude named Cole Blaquesmith, there’s a bad guy named Lord Absinthe, and Queen Victoria is a sexy ass-kicker. That’s probably all you need to know about Steampunk right now!

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We’ve seen over the past few days that Bachalo really liked details at this point, so in this comic, he went absolutely crazy with it. He also did a lot with page layouts and exaggeration, as you can see. I should point out that Steampunk is painfully beautiful – it might be the most amazingly drawn book of Bachalo’s career, if not one of the best in the past quarter-century or so. Bachalo, however, can’t get out of his own way, so the pages are almost an assault on the senses. Everything about this is excessive, from the hyper-detailed work to the rich, almost sickening coloring by James Rochelle, to the incredibly showy lettering by Richard Starkings and Comicraft. Bachalo’s storytelling isn’t great, either. Look at the top of the page. Faust is talking to Victoria in a small inset Panel 2, but then we see him climb onto a panel border and leap over the page, crashing into the “wall” represented by the spine of the book before bouncing off and ending up at the bottom of the page. Where did Victoria go? And what’s happening in those middle panels? The two dudes in Panel 3 are, I guess, smashed into the wall, but by whom? I guess by the dudes in Panel 4 (one of speaks about the muskets still working), but the connection between the two panels is tenuous, made more so by Faust leaping around outside of them. In Panel 6, the two dudes in the background move off, and we find the kid wearing the British-flag scarf (Bachalo loves scarves, as we see the checked one in the earlier panels, because they flow all over the place and allow him to have some fun). The kid is pointing the gun … at someone, but we don’t know who. Is it Faust, who stalks the bottom of the panel before leaping off the page? Beats me. This is a wonderfully drawn page – Bachalo doesn’t even skimp on the gears and machinery behind the panels – but like a lot of this series, it’s very hard to read.

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This is the very next page, so who the kid was pointing the gun at remains a mystery for now! Look at this mess. I mean, yes, Bachalo probably gave himself carpal-tunnel drawing this, but what the heck, man? So much overwhelming visual information, and even in Panels 4 and 5, which is where Faust attacks Blaquesmith, it’s hard to see what’s going on. Part of the problem is that Panel 5 blasts its way into Panel 4, so it appears that Blaquesmith’s face in Panel 4 is actually part of Panel 5, but it’s not. Faust is attacking the dinosaur he’s riding, causing him to tumble ass over tits in Panel 5, but it’s very hard to read that. Plus, Rochelle’s luminescent coloring obscures some of the pencil lines throughout the book, as we can see here. His limited palette – look at all those browns! – makes it even harder to read Bachalo’s incredibly busy pencil work. It’s exhausting just looking at this page, much less the entire issue.

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Are you worn out yet? Man. A couple of things: Look at the upper left of the page, where Bachalo draws the building where the action starts. It’s wonderful. This is what I mean – Bachalo was drawing the shit out of this book, but that doesn’t mean it’s not ridiculous. And check out Blaquesmith at the bottom of the page. Bachalo draws him in 3-D, as his weapons come right at us and still lead us off the page, while Richard Friend inks every single seam in his steampunky armor and makes everything look so utterly vintage. Where’s the dude’s face in Panel … 2? We see the mop of hair and all the steampunk accoutrements, but is his face that small triangle right above the clanky sphere? Beats me.

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Here’s another example of Bachalo shattering page layouts to show a lot of action, and again, it’s one of those things that’s really cool in theory but results in this kind of page. Victoria is shooting at that dude, and Bachalo throws the panels across the page at haphazard angles to create a sense of motion, but he also has way too much fun with the robe the dude is wearing, which goes crazy as we move downward. The explosions in the final scene feel random, as if Bachalo and Rochelle just wanted shit blowing up, so it obscures the figure as he’s about to bash Victoria over the head. I’m not quite sure why we need that inset panel of Victoria looking back over her shoulder – in the two panels around that one, it’s clear she’s fallen to the ground. At least on this page, we get some greens and reds instead of the vast array of browns. That’s nice.

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Man, even when not much is happening, Bachalo’s art exhausts the reader. But look at this amazing display (if we ignore the distracting shiny lights scattered all over the place): At the top, we get the silhouetted house, and Bachalo leads us downward with an endless staircase, moving from the center to the left, where we find Blaquesmith and Fiona, and then he leads us down. We can see every stone in the staircase – again, no one can accuse Bachalo or Friend of phoning this in. What I really wanted to show is the inventive panel borders – in keeping with the spirit of the book, Bachalo uses copper piping as borders, which is very clever. We also see some of the ways he was drawing faces at this time, which remains his default face to this day. Gone is the “Bachalo nose,” with the hatching absent but the width – on men – usually still present. The faces tend to be even wider than we saw yesterday – again, at least on the men – and this will remain a feature. Once again, this is beautiful work, but even on a quiet page like this, it’s very busy.

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More classic Bachalo features – the checked scarf is back, because Bachalo loves him some checks, at least at this point. We also see the unusual way he gets us to the bottom left of the page, through the underground tunnel. In the bottom left, we see a remnant of the “Bachalo nose” – not as much hatching as in the past, but a little bit. This page has the opposite problem of the rest of the book – it’s so murky it’s hard to see what’s going on.

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This isn’t that bad a page, busy-ness-wise, although Bachalo does drop in those weird robot fireflies that show up throughout the series (and no, I don’t remember why they’re there). I wanted to show this page because it shows – not that well, but not bad – how Bachalo’s drawing of women had evolved. He began drawing women much less like adults – they became smaller (still with decent-sized breasts, of course, but not ridiculously so), thinner, and their legs got longer. With Victoria, we see that Bachalo still drew a wide nose but not as wide as the male’s, with a narrower face and more delicate features. We’ll see this better over the next two days, but this is the way Bachalo’s art evolved.

After this series, Bachalo seemed to realize that he might have gone a bit too far, and he slowly began to ease back on this detailed style. He can still be a bit wacky, but he never got as nuts as he did on Steampunk. Come back tomorrow as we check out his journey back from the brink! And be sure to take a look at the archives!

14 Comments

I do remember really exquisite pages, and great layouts..but dont remember an End or anything resembling an end to Steampunk. (I may have missed it…)

there is a bit where is art became too dark, too many blacks, not enough lights soon after Steampunk.

(I still think Death: the high cost of living to be his Graal, better than Gen-x Wich was great)

ollieno: It did end, but on a bit of a cliffhanger. Bachalo had more planned out, but the vagaries of the market have never let him finish it, I guess.

I’m skipping ahead quite a bit tomorrow, but you’re right that some of his work soon after this was quite dark. It’s too bad. I had to figure out a place to jump to, so I skipped some of that really dark art. You’ll see tomorrow that he still liked big chunks of black, though!

I like Death, but it was too close to some of the other stuff I wanted to show yesterday. So I skipped it.

I always thought Steampunk was a friggin’ masterpiece, and was so bummed it never continued. Sure it was a mess, but it was a SPECTACULAR mess. Great breakdown, Greg!

Talk about too much of a good thing.

tom fitzpatrick

April 26, 2014 at 9:05 pm

No such thing as too much art by an artist in any issue.

Simply, just check out any issue by Geof Darrow. (namely HARD BOILED, or SHAOLIN COWBOY v. 2)

Marc: I’ll have to re-read it before I go that far, but it is pretty spectacular! Thanks for the nice words.

tom: Well, it’s not that there’s “too much art,” it’s just that the way it’s presented becomes incomprehensible at times. That’s the big problem, not the fact that Bachalo was going nuts with the details.

oi like what tom said, perfect example in geoff darrow, where you gotta put work in to appreciate subtle complexity what seem to integrate background w/ fore onto the same perspective plain. shaolin cowboy v.2 am loving if thats the endlessish zombie fight w/ two chainsaws duct tape and a stick plus no words. i think bachalo pulls it off better than darrow by way of his abstract cartoonier style, where i see darrows work as great as is, bland and unsurprising. dude draws too realistic for his own good, & gets no respect. probably some, hey now i got to thinking, at what pace can bachalo crank out a page nowadays? with so much simplified in his style i d guess he could crank out three pages a day like its old hat. boring old hat.

Darrow’s pages pop more than this does. Whether that’s just the color palette or if Darrow has a better design sense.

I’m so happy we’ve gotten to Bachalo! Easily one of my all time top five artists.

Stephen Conway

April 27, 2014 at 9:25 am

These pages would work so much better if a broader palette was used. Bachalo’s pencil work is so imaginative that using such a limited palette is a disservice to him.

I loved Shade & early issues of Generation Next but could not get into Steampunk. Steampunk & later issues of Generation Next was where I stopped following Bachalo carte blanche, it seemed I could not follow the art & story very well. I do remember trying out Ghost Rider 2099 around that time and thinking it was OK. Maybe part of it was dependent on the writers too, and not just due to Bachalo’s increasingly cartoonish art.
Speaking of Darrow, I loved Hard Boiled and could look over that art all day. But Shaolin Cowbow v2 was one of the worst comic series I’ve ever bought – especially issue #3 (thankfully I did not pick up #4). #2 was a bit “Huh?” that turned into “OK… that was strange but a bit amazing” but when #3 came out and it was more of the same, I got feeling that I was being burned. I may not pick up another Darrow comic ever again because I feel so cheated. Way too repetitive, or, I just did not “get it”.

Bachalo is definitely talented, but this era was not to my liking. However, I am enjoying this analysis of his style over the years. Thanks Greg. I am slowly but surely going through the archives based on my familiarity with the artist, and appreciate the gamut you have presented so far!

OT: Say, does anyone know of a good source for information about upcoming Marvel omnibus editions? I’ve plunked down some cash on some of these, and love the format. I would like to read up on any articles about how Marvel determines what & when to print these huge editions. (In particular, I’m looking forward to next volumes of Amazing Spider-Man and Avengers, and I can’t find any information about it on the net.) Is it just a secret and nobody knows which title Marvel will pick next? Just curious if you comic knowledge gods might know. Sorry for the off-topic questions.

David: I wondered if people who were buying Shaolin Cowboy would get angry, especially when #3 dropped (I would have gotten a bit grumpy with issue #2, but at least it was one issue!), but I haven’t read very much about it on the Internet, so thanks for your reaction. To me, it does seem a bit like he was just messing with people, which is kind of insulting, but I haven’t actually gotten the issues, so maybe we’re both missing something!

Thanks for your nice words. I’m having a lot of fun doing these!

I have no idea about the Marvel Omnibus things. I just wait until Previews comes out, which I know is probably the worst way to do it. I imagine that the Mothership (CBR, that is) and other big news sites – is Newsarama the only other one left? – have articles about big collections coming out farther in the future than just what shows up in Previews, but I don’t read those articles, so I can’t be sure. Sorry!

Greg – thank you on the OT subject. I will keep trying to find info on the those Marvel Omnis. It may be that I just have to be patient. I think part of me worries that by the time (or, if) they get around to publishing the ones I want them to, the format will have become passé and I’ll be left with just a few nice books that partially reprints a title.

WIth Shaolin Cowboy #2 I was a bit grumpy, but still forgiving at that point. With #3, I jumped overboard and swam for shore and never looked back. (If the pages just had some variety to them, it’d be a whole different story. I could have looked at the series as 20 pages of prints, for example.)

Thanks for the super-fast reply! :-)

David: Ha! I just happened to be writing on the blog at the time – I wish I were always that fast! :)

Wow. I forgot about Steampunk. I admit I haven’t seen much of his X-men stuff lately but THIS series was just a beautiful, chaotic mess! The fonts, the design of the panels. Crazy stuff.

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