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Year of the Artist, Day 152: Chris Burnham, Part 4 – Officer Downe

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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 Burnham, and the issue is Officer Downe, which was published by Image and is cover dated July 2010. Enjoy!

Once Burnham teamed up with Joe Casey again for Officer Downe, we began to see the artist he is today, as his style had become more confident and crisp than it had been only a few years earlier, and he had a colorist – Marc Letzmann – who complemented him quite well. Officer Downe is a ridiculous comic, as it seems like Casey simply wanted to give Burnham as much mayhem to draw as possible, and Burnham drew the hell out of it. It’s vaguely reminiscent of Hard Boiled without that book’s subtlety (yes, this comic isn’t as subtle as Hard Boiled), and these days, Burnham might be the closest to Geof Darrow that we can find, except for, of course, Darrow himself. So he’s pretty much the perfect artist for this comic. Check it out – if you dare!

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Terry Downe is a Los Angeles cop who, through the magic of COMIC BOOK SCIENCE!!!!, keeps getting resurrected, which means he throws himself into dangerous situations without care for his life. It’s best not to think about it too much, because Casey certainly didn’t. He just has a grand old time writing insane situations and giving them to Burnham to draw. In the back of this book, Casey talks in an interview a little about the process of creating this, and while it’s always hard to suss out when Casey is speaking seriously, it does seem like this was a very close collaboration, with both of them contributing ideas and art. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because Burnham gets to draw shit like this. Downe bursts into a crime scene driving his Hummer with the clawed grille on the front, doing some serious damage. Burnham draws the gore with glee, but part of what makes the gore work is that Burnham gives us so many details that the gore looks right at home. The collapsing drop tiles in the ceiling, the shattered glass, and the twisted metal all help place this in a familiar place, where the bursting bodies don’t fit and therefore are more horrific. Notice, too, that Letzmann already isn’t coloring this “realistically,” as he uses purple on that finger and head flying around in the foreground. Red and purple are analogous, so the purple won’t make the red pop, but it does help create a band of reddish hues in an arc across the right side of the panel, standing in contrast to the queasy green palette in the rest of the panel. It’s clear that Letzmann thought a bit about the coloring choices, unlike what we saw yesterday.

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These two pages show Burnham fooling around with page layouts, which is something he’s gotten even better at. This isn’t too revolutionary, of course, as he’s just showing the chaos of a fight, but it’s still harder than it looks, and many artists don’t even think to switch things up this way. The flow of the pages works very well, despite the irregular panel shapes. On the second page, for instance, the arrowhead Panel 1 drives us downward, but it doesn’t move us to Panel 4 until we look at Panels 2 and 3 alongside Panel 1, so despite an unusual line-of-sight – we move to a corner, then have to reverse back upward to Panel 4 – it works pretty well. Burnham’s bold line work is nice, too, as it makes everything a bit more visceral. Obviously, he’s having fun with the holes in the dudes in Panel 5 of the first page and the fact that Downe smashes eyes out in Panel 1 of the second page, but because he’s so detailed, we get the veins in the dude’s eyes in the final panel of the first page, foreshadowing the eye-popping to come. It’s a small detail, but a crucial one. As we saw with Nixon’s Pals, Burnham is quite good at action. That has to be partly the reason DC brought him on board.

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This is just Burnham having a grand old time drawing gore, but it’s still well done. He gives even the victims of Downe’s rampage some personality, like the dude with the gut below his severed arm and the dude in the background with the eye patch and the Snidely Whiplash mustache. Burnham draws every fleck and splatter of blood, so that the gruesomeness of what’s going on isn’t tempered in the least. I love the attention to detail on the right side of the panel. Downe has just clocked some dude with the stump of his arm, and Burnham draws a halo of blood in between the stump and the dude falling backward, showing us the instant after it happened. Once again, Letzmann gives us the purple dude in the foreground – this time it seems to be just so that Downe is highlighted a bit more with a frame, the dude forming the bottom of said frame. He can’t be colored the same way as the other dudes, because he’d distract a bit from our focus on Downe. It’s an interesting choice. And it’s clear that Letzmann is doing this digitally (if anyone doesn’t do digital coloring anymore), as in the second panel, he uses obvious digital trickery to show the bad guy disappearing – he can teleport, I guess, and he does so here. As I’ve said before, I have no problem with special effects when someone knows what they’re doing.

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Burnham and Casey do the same thing that makes me crazy in some television shows, which is have the people continue a conversation even though they mysteriously leap to different locations instantaneously. I can forgive it, though, because the book is, after all, a bit ridiculous. I just love how Burnham lays out the page. Again, it’s not revolutionary, but he slowly moves Downe across the panels as he moves down the page, and it gives Downe’s movements a sense of inexorability to them, because these losers certainly aren’t going to stop him! I also like how we don’t see very much of how he takes care of them – only in Panel 4, when he’s punching the dude in the face – because we know he takes care of them, because he’s Officer Downe! Notice, though, that Burnham does something clever with Downe – there’s a bit more blood on him in each panel, his clothes a bit more ripped, and his shoulder wound turns into an “X” along the way, so Burnham shows that he’s still battling even though he doesn’t draw it all. It’s a very nice touch. Of course, in the close-up, Burnham again gets to have fun with Downe, ripping off some of his ear, exposing his brain and teeth, and blackening his eye. You know he had a blast drawing this!

So that’s Officer Downe. I don’t know if this was the first time a bigger audience really took note of Burnham – his first Batman comic came out not even a year later – but if not, it should have been. It’s a wacky comic, and the art shows that Burnham could certainly handle a superhero book! Tomorrow, for our final Burnham day, I’ll take a look at his work with the God of All Comics. Which issue? Well, we’ll just have to see, won’t we? Waste your time by digging through the archives!

10 Comments

This was the first time I really took note of Burnham and I’m somewhat amazed it took to day 4 to get to it, as I considered it his first major work. It surely had an important part in him landing the Batman job, as he immediately drew a lot of critical attention with it.

Nick: Well, this is all pretty compressed, so it’s not like he had been working for years before this – Nixon’s Pals came out about only two years before. So his rise was a bit meteoric. You’re right, though – I would also consider this his first “major” work.

At a convention, Burnham sold this GN to me, saying it was what got him the Batman job.

Do one of these for Steve Epting please. He’s had a long career and his art has evolved tons over the years.

tom fitzpatrick

June 1, 2014 at 8:50 pm

Goddamn! Gotta find this one – you had me at Geof Darrow!

Burnham does go all out on this one, doesn’t he!

Doesn’t Officer Downe remind you of a certain FM character in HARD BOILED and SIN CITY? ;-)

tom fitzpatrick

June 1, 2014 at 9:12 pm

While on the subject of Geof Darrow – have you read his last series – SHAOLIN COWBOY vol.2 ?

Completely insane! Have you ever read such a series like that?

tom: No, I didn’t read Shaolin Cowboy. I figured it would probably be better to wait for the trade because I thought it would be really, really slow coming out. Then I saw issue #2 and I might have to rethink that!

tom fitzpatrick

June 2, 2014 at 3:19 am

Trust me – it’d take you 5 min. flat. :-)

Jason: Epting is on my list, definitely. I’m planning on doing him this year.

Wow, this is insanely over the top! As I said before, I never really caught much of Chris Burnham’s work after Nixon’s Pals. So It’s been interesting to view some of his subsequent projects get spotlighted on Year of the Artist.

By the way, I agree with Jason… I’d really enjoy seeing Steve Epting profiled on YOTA. His current work on Velvet is absolutely astonishing. He really has grown by leaps & bounds over the past couple of decades.

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