Year of the Artist, Day 149: Chris Burnham, Part 1 – Nixon’s Pals
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Chris Burnham, and the comic is Nixon’s Pals, which was published by Image and is cover dated April 2008. Enjoy!
Prior to drawing Joe Casey’s graphic novel, Burnham had done some back-up stuff in a few comics, but this was his big break, and he took full advantage of it. We can see some of the nice details that would make his Batman work such an amazing piece of art, and even some hints at the cool layouts he would use on that comic. But we’re not here to talk about Batman, we’re here to talk about Nixon’s Pals!
Burnham has a lot of fun with Kirby Krackle in this book, as we see here and we’ll see below. The central image is nicely done, with black blobs surrounding the exploding rectangle, which has no holding lines, blurring its border nicely. He uses shadows to show Nixon as the explosion overwhelms him, and the bright light also obliterates holding lines on his figure, which is in stark contrast to Burnham’s usual sharp lines, which we see in the other panels. His use of grayscales in this comic is quite neat, as the shading also tempers his hard lines, giving us an interesting contrast between Nixon’s face in Panel 2 and the fuzzier other dimension that we see in Panel 3. Burnham, as we can see, smartly doesn’t draw in every line of the energy exploding out of the door, simply suggesting the shapes with the lines and then using white, gray, and black to fill in the rest of it. It’s pretty neat.
This was early in Burnham’s career as a comic book creator, but he already was good at action, which is usually the hardest thing to master for artists. The Bricklayer beats Nixon to a pulp, and Burnham does a good job showing it. He leads us across the page well – in Panel 1, Nixon flies from the left to the right, and the the Bricklayer brings his fist down from the “point” where Nixon struck the wall, so that the top row forms a triangle of action. In Panel 3, the Bricklayer stands on the right side of the panel, and his fist descends from above, so that the motion of the arm forms a line with the arm itself, leading us to his face and off the panel. In Panel 4, his face is on the same level as it was on the previous page, but Burnham just reverses the view, and he raises his arm to the right of the panel, leading us that way, but because he’s looking back down to the left (where Nixon lies), we’re still led down to the bottom row. The fist descends, and its motion forms a “V” with the Bricklayer’s arm, leading us to the upper left of Panel 6, where we find the Bricklayer’s head. He’s looking over his shoulder at the energy moving toward him, but Burnham makes sure to include Nixon as the last thing we see, which links the entire page together – Nixon led us in, and he leads us out. It’s very nicely constructed.
Meanwhile, he uses motion lines to very good effect, as it’s clear Nixon is moving at a relatively high speed in Panel 1, which makes his impact “hurt” more, while the Bricklayer’s motion lines also have the effect of speed, making it seem like he’s hitting Nixon extremely hard. Burnham has a slightly cartoony style, which makes his “regular” people look like regular folk but helps him create nice monstrous characters too, and that style also lends itself well to exaggeration, so that we can see the Bricklayer’s rage in Panel 4 writ large. Burnham inks this well, with a good combination of hard lines and a slightly softer touch, etching the violent lines while still giving Nixon’s suit some nice folds. Once again, the lack of lines on the Kirby Krackle helps make it look more like ethereal energy, setting it apart from the more solid stuff on the page.
Burnham, as we can see, does a pretty good job with character interaction, too. Carlisle is mocking Nixon, and Burnham gives him a gleefully evil grin in Panel 1. Both Nixon and Murphy are world-weary, and Burnham shows that nicely, too, when they get into Murphy’s office. The way Nixon reacts to Murphy’s dart-throwing is well done, as he’s tired of the “game” but can’t really say anything, as Murphy is the boss. In the bottom left, we see Murphy close up, and it’s close to the way Burnham will draw faces over the course of his career – he’s not exactly sparing in the hatching work on the face, but he doesn’t overdo it, and what lines he does draw are heavy and sharply defined, adding thick textures to Murphy’s face. Burnham obviously uses brushes on Murphy’s hair, making it thick and slightly lacquered, implying in an interesting way that it’s a toupée.
Obviously, there are a lot of strange characters in Nixon’s world, and Alchema is one of them. I want to focus on, ahem, her breasts here, as Burnham does a superb job giving them a ton of personality in just one panel. When Alchema holds her right breast in Panel 4, he closes the eyes of the breast, raises the “eyebrow” over it, and clearly shows us that breast’s sensual thoughts about the world. If we check out Panel 1 and the breast’s knowing-yet-still-innocent expression, it gives us a good idea about why Alchema is so popular (beyond the obvious novelty factor, that is). The left breast has the eyepatch, the bigger teeth, and the ribald expression, letting us know what that breast is all about. Casey has always been interested in the dichotomy and intersection of genders, and Alchema is an interesting example of that tension. That Burnham draws her so well is an added bonus.
Burnham has more fun with Kirby Krackle here, as Rumble Doll and Dynamoxie gloat over Nixon, who’s a bit worse for wear. He designs the characters well – they’re superpowered, so they’re a bit exaggerated, but he draws Rumble Doll as a giant, muscular freak, while Dynamoxie is built more like a “regular” person, just solid and thick. Burnham repeats the top of the panel, with the “aliens” gazing down at Nixon, through the bigger panel, which adds some strangeness to the entire scene. Once again, we see that he shifts well between thin inking lines and a thicker, fuzzier line, as he makes Nixon’s face swell up nicely.
Burnham gets to draw a packed page here, and he handles it with aplomb. Nixon is dreaming, so the page keeps getting interrupted with images of the monster coming closer to the reader, implying it’s coming closer to Nixon in his dream. The monster is pretty horrifying – Burnham uses darker grays and thick lines on it to make it look filthy, and of course he leaves the eyes and mouth gaping holes. The machine that Nixon is hooked up to is very detailed and, like any good comic book machine, a bit insane, and as we’ve already seen it, Burnham doesn’t need to show it in all its glory, but the hints he gives us are enough to remind us that we’ve already seen it. You’ll notice that he turns Nixon’s dreamscape into the main layer of the page, while placing the panels of the bad guys, who are ostensibly in the “real” world, on top, separating them out from Nixon’s main reality, which has become the dreamscape. It’s a neat idea that works well to show how far Nixon has fallen away from his actual life.
So that’s Nixon’s Pals. Back in my year-end round-up for 2008, I noted that Burnham really should get higher-profile work. And so he did, although it took a little bit until he scored his Batman gig. So tomorrow, we’ll look at another step along his way to super-duper-stardom! If you just can’t wait that long, don’t forget that you can always take a peek at the archives!