Year of the Artist, Day 129: Walter Simonson, Part 1 – Detective Comics #440
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Walter Simonson, and the issue is Detective Comics #440, which was published by DC and cover dated April/May 1974. This scan is from Manhunter, the collected edition, which was published in 1984. Enjoy!
Walt Simonson is one of the best artists in comic book history, I should think, and one of the few people who can claim to be a true heir to Kirby without actually ripping off Kirby (if you’re a talented artist, you can probably draw like Kirby, but I’m not talking about that). It’s not a surprise that some of his greatest triumphs in comics have come on a cosmic stage, but early in his career, he was just doing a back-up story in Detective Comics, which turned out to be a classic in its own right. “Manhunter” wasn’t his first comics work, but it’s the earliest comics work by him that I own, so let’s get to it!
Simonson was 26 when he drew this (he turned 26 in September 1973), and he’s already in command of the page and close to the style that he would use for most of his career. The Manhunter back-up stories were short pieces, and Goodwin and Simonson had eight pages to cram in a grand, globe-trotting adventure. So this story becomes a masterwork on design as well as storytelling, and we can see that Simonson is already quite good at this. Alan Kupperberg and Simonson himself are credited as letterers, and I’m not sure who does what, but the letters on the top of the page need to cramped a bit to accommodate Goodwin’s prose (and this is the 1970s, when comics were full of words, man!), but they’re still perfectly legible. We get a small row of panels showing Nostrand, and Simonson does a nice job building the tension until we get the big splash at the bottom of the page. He starts close and pulls back, so we get Nostrand sweating and looking mean in Panel 1, the acknowledgement that he’s wounded in Panel 2, the fact that he’s in a truck in Panel 3, the fact that he’s in an alley in Panel 4, and the fact that Paul Kirk and Christine St. Clair (you know you’re in a comic when you meet people named “Damon Nostrand” and “Christine St. Clair,” damn it!) are in the alley in front of him. Those are small panels, but they’re full of visual information. Then Nostrand turns the lights on and illuminates Kirk and St. Clair, and we see the distinctive hatching that becomes a Simonson staple through the years. He uses spot blacks very well, and the inking helps highlight the shadows nicely. We’re off to a good start!
This is the next page, and it’s another good one, showing how well Simonson can pack a lot onto a page yet still be perfectly clear. He puts Kirk and St. Clair in the background in Panel 1, minimizing them as the truck races toward them to make them seem more vulnerable. As Kirk hits the ground, we get the three panels in which he cuts open the … gas tank? It looks like the muffler, but maybe it’s the gas tank? I’m not a car guy. Anyway, Simonson leads us nicely through that sequence, always pushing us from the left to the right. Then he reverses Panel 1 in Panel 5, as the truck speeds toward us, leaving Kirk and St. Clair once again in the background. Simonson cartoonishly draws Nostrand’s truck completely off the ground, which is a bit silly but always helps create a sense of motion, which is pretty crucial in an action scene. He then stacks a sequence in which Kirk lights a match and flips it on the puddle of gas, which he then uses in Panels 8/9 to lead us from the left foreground into the right background, where Nostrand’s truck explodes. Even the flames and smoke from the wreckage lead us to the next page. Once again we see that Simonson is quite good at hatching and inking, as he uses rough strokes to add grittiness to the alleys of Marrakesh and the smoke rising from the burning wreckage.
So there are a lot of Paul Kirk clones, and he has to fight them. Simonson breaks this into a 12-panel grid, which allows him to show a lot of the fighting but also speeds up the action, adding tension. In the top row, he leads us again from left to right, then, in the second row, he still leads us, but focuses more on the individual panels as Kirk cuts through the clones. He knows when to blur his characters, as we see in Panel 5, when Kirk becomes a flash of red. In the third row, he does a nice job linking the three panels – first the dude swings that giant chain, then he gets smashed by a table, and then Simonson switches our view to show Kirk leaping forward just after throwing the table, ready to press the advantage. In the bottom row, Simonson once again uses a bigger spread with borders to keep the grid going, but he pulls back to show the aftermath of the battle, with the clones strewn about, while Nostrand (hey, isn’t he dead? – yes, but this is a flashback) shoots at him. The bullet leads across the panels to where Kirk leaps out the window, and then we get the long, tall, vertical panel on the right side, as Kirk falls from the height into the water. This is a very nicely designed page, and again we see Simonson’s gritty inking, fitting the subject matter quite well.
Simonson uses space well again, as Kirk and St. Clair find Nostrand’s key, enter his hotel room, and find their “Wanted” posters. In the middle row, he uses thinner panels to good effect – the tight panels in the second row help create a building tension, until Kirk turns to St. Clair (and the audience) and leads us off the page with the bombshell of their posters. Notice that Simonson’s figure drawing wasn’t quite where it would be in the 1980s, when he used blockier faces, but it’s getting there. Interestingly enough, Kirk is a bit older than he looks, and while Simonson doesn’t draw him as old as he should be, his long face, thin nose, and perpetual grimace make him look a bit older. I don’t know if that’s what Simonson was going for, but it’s strange that he gets that effect.
It’s impressive how good Simonson was this early in his career, and he only got better. Tomorrow I’ll look at some of his art that, strangely, isn’t quite as good as this is. Why? Beats me. We’ll investigate tomorrow! In the meantime, have fun in the archives!