How Lee & Kirby's "Fantastic Four" Birthed the Marvel Universe, Part 1
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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