Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Alex Maleev, and the issue is The Crow: Dead Time #1, which was published by Kitchen Sink Press and is cover dated January 1996. Enjoy!
I mentioned when I began this series of posts that I would show some artists who have gotten worse over their careers, and I’ve shown a few of them so far – Jim Aparo (sort of), Marshall Rogers, Gray Morrow (sort of) – but those can be explained in one way or another. Maleev is the first one whose work has gotten worse by what seems to be a conscious choice on his part, which means I’m sure he himself doesn’t think it’s getting worse, just punks like me. Of course, many people think he’s getting better (and in Part 5, we’ll look at something which makes me hope for the best), but they’re not writing these posts, are they? I want to examine Maleev’s art, because it’s a fascinating journey from someone who figured out a way to make photo-realistic art work for him but then, in my humble opinion, took it a bit too far. Let’s begin with one of his earliest work, the first sequel to James O’Barr’s Crow series, which is … well, it’s not a good comic. But it looks pretty neat!
Even at this stage in his career, we can see that Maleev used photographs in his work, as the buildings in Panel 1 are clearly dropped into the book using whatever computer tools were available in 1995. I’m not adverse to this, especially when it’s background stuff and when the artist tries to integrate it into the rest of the book, which Maleev clearly does here, using whatever filters he has to make it look more organic. We get a bit of a sense of Maleev’s regular line work in Panel 4, where he draws the three punks who are challenging Joshua. He uses lots of thick blacks, and there’s a weird cut-and-paste quality to the art, as we can see with the hair of the girl on the right, which looks like it’s been sliced off awkwardly. Is Maleev drawing these elsewhere and then pasting them onto a larger board? I don’t know, but it’s a strange look that, as we know, will only become more obvious in Maleev’s work.
Maleev did some interesting things in this series, and we see some of that here. He uses messy inks to imply movement, lots of white ink to add definition to the heavy blacks, and some ubiquitous 1990s hair on Joshua. If Maleev is using photo referencing on this page, he hides it well, mostly by making the page very dark (a boon to artists who use photo referencing!). On the left side of the page, we see the man firing a gun and hitting Joshua as he rides a horse, while on the right side, a car hits him. Joshua has been reincarnated, so on the left side, he’s getting flashes of his old life while on the right, he’s living his new life. Maleev cleverly uses different styles on the flashbacks to signify that they’re occurring, and his art has a more “wood-cut” quality to it, as we’ll see below. We’ll see this again, but notice in the last panel, despite the many, many white lines over the black, how cartoonish his art looks. Maleev, it seems, is more cartoonish the less photo-realism he gets into. Maybe that’s why he embraced it, as a more cartoonish style wasn’t where DC and Marvel were going in the late 1990s and Maleev wanted to work for them. Who knows?
Joshua has a flashback, and we get this interesting page. Maleev uses fine brush strokes to achieve that “wood-cut” quality to the art, and of course we get the heavy blacks all over the page. The white inks in Panel 3, along with the thicker white paint on the edges, help create a starkness to the scenes that might be missing if it was drenched in even more black. I want to draw your attention to Panel 5, though. The woman stands on the porch as the boy – Matthew – runs toward the house. Maleev uses a thick line, but doesn’t go overboard with it, so Maudie becomes a bit more delicate, even though Maleev draws her as a stout woman, used to the hardship of living on the frontier. He doesn’t use too many details, as her hands and the porch bleed together a bit, but it’s a very interesting image, as it’s clearly drawn free-hand. Again, it’s just slightly more cartoonish than the other characters on the page, so maybe that’s why Maleev didn’t stick with this style. It’s a beautiful image, though.
Here we get more of the flashback scenes, so we get the overabundance of blacks with white inking. I love the bad guy’s face in Panel 2 – it has a nifty Sam Kieth vibe, and Maleev uses just enough inks on it to show how grizzled he is, as well as using messy lines to imply how frayed his hat is. The knife becomes uglier because it’s a hunk of black evil, and the little white Maleev uses on Matthew highlights how he’s being sucked into the man’s grasp. Maleev leads us down to Maudie in the background, looking incredibly insignificant, but still holding the rifle, ready to fight. The final panel is wonderful. Maleev frames Maudie with the horse, using the ragged mane and the body to place Maudie in a halo of white light. He keeps her face obscured, as these are Joshua’s memory fragments, so she’s not clearly defined. As befitting a woman of the time period, she’s wearing severe black, which happens to fit in with Maleev’s style on the book. She shoots the bad guy, and Maleev leads our eye up to the side of his face, giving us a good view of his body. It’s beautiful work – the white inks on the horse’s bridle highlight the details, and the stark white cross on the bad guy’s chest is a good contrast to his less-than-Christian behavior. Maleev uses a fair amount of gouache to show the bullet hitting his face and drawing blood, but not so much that it dominates the panel. He twists the man’s body well so that the hand is coming at us (so it’s bigger) and it also leads us off the page. Maleev gives the dude a pained expression (he was just shot, after all) that is visible even with all the blacks. It’s very well done.
These two panels show the difference between the flashback portions of the art and the present-day portions. In Panel 1, Maleev is still using that “wood-cut” kind of art, with thick brush strokes and delicate white inks. In Panel 2, he draws the figures with a think pencil but uses some thicker black inks in places. The art looks rougher, probably because it’s a bit starker, and it’s strangely stiffer than the “flashback” sections. Is that a Valiant-as-in-the-comic-company burn on the wall? If so, dang, Maleev.
Here’s a beautiful page, with Maleev really committing to the white inking lines. Each brush stroke looks like he took his time with it, with the dude on the far left getting definition on his chin with several short strokes, while the middle dude has a clearly etched belt buckle, for instance. Maleev uses white paint to create the barbed wire looping around Joshua, making it stand out starkly. In Panel 2, Maleev uses negative space very well, and the fact that he doesn’t fill in the background completely with white gives the figures a ragged look, once again emphasizing their hard lives. When he gets closer in Panel 3, he gets a bit more haphazard with the inking, making the dude look a bit more haggard. Killing innocent people is hard work, after all.
We get a couple of flashback panels on this page, and once again, it’s interesting to contrast it with his present-day stuff. Panel 3, in particular, shows the kind of artist Maleev is when he’s drawing loosely and freely without trying for affectation. Maleev uses a lot of white streaks and splatters on the page, as well as thick spot blacks to create texture in the dudes’ jackets. While it’s not as clear because it’s farther away, he doesn’t use as many details and his line is a bit looser, which we’ve seen is what he does a bit this early in his career. As we saw above, he still does some things where it appears that he was playing with some things in the art, but this page does look largely free-hand.
Obviously, Maleev evolved a lot over the next few years. Tomorrow, I’ll check out some more art from before his big break on Daredevil, so be here to see how much different that is from this! I know you can’t wait, but perhaps the archives will assuage some of your impatience!
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