Year of the Artist, Day 154: Michael Lark, Part 1 – Shade, the Changing Man #58
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Michael Lark, and the issue is Shade, the Changing Man #58, which was published by DC/Vertigo and is cover dated April 1995. Enjoy!
I don’t own the earliest work of Michael Lark’s career – his Caliber Press stuff – but this is still very early in his career, so I figured I can show it. Lark drew one full and parts of two other Shade issues when Shade was going through its most awkward phase, and it’s a good place to start so when we get to the present day, we can see how much Lark’s style has evolved. So let’s go!
In the early part of his career, Lark was working in a pretty obvious ligne claire style, which meant he was very, very detailed, as we see in Shade’s library in Panel 1. Lark draws books into infinity, which makes the library wonderfully precise but probably takes quite a while to do. Lark inked this himself, so the stark blacks on the page are very purposeful, creating plenty of giant dark chunks against which Daniel Vozzo’s colors can work. Lark’s attention to detail makes Flaky – Shade’s skin, which turns into a replica of him every day – stand out well even though we don’t see him very well in Panel 4. Despite Flaky’s size and position, tucked away behind Lenny, the fact that Lark draws in the pieces of skin flaking off of him draws our attention that way, so we can see him clearly. Lark’s precision with his line work also helps when he wants to show the disgust of the waiter, whose face is small in Panel 4 but is still clearly offended by Flaky’s presence.
Lark’s clear line and liberal use of blacks makes the top of this page interesting, as Kirsty and Jeff seem almost to be swallowed by the blackness, which may or may not be foreshadowing (I’m going to say it is). Lark doesn’t even give Kirsty any individual hairs, as he outlines her curls and then inks the entire thing, while Jeff has some strands, but not many. At the bottom, Lark again shows how good he is at details, as the cigarette pack is precisely drawn right down to the foil. Shade’s ethereal presence throughout is nice, as Lark inks him the same way as everything else, but doesn’t use the heavy blacks, allowing Vozzo to use light brown and red for his hair to show that he’s not physically there. It’s a smart move.
One of the problems with Lark’s style is that the precision and clarity of his line doesn’t work great with weirdness, and as Shade was a weird book, he had to draw it at some point! There’s nothing “wrong” with this sequence, but it lacks the strange spark that some of the other artists – notably Chris Bachalo, of course – brought to Shade. The circles that signify Shade’s madness are too perfect, even as Lark turns them into ovals to show their stretchiness. They fly across the room, but they don’t give off a chaotic vibe, as they should. When Shade tries to enter his own body, Lark uses the same line weight, which doesn’t seem to work. The hands and Shade’s expression help create a sense of weirdness and disconcert, as Shade can’t return to his body, but that Shade looks almost as solid as the Shade body, with Lark simply not erasing what the ethereal Shade blocks behind him with his “body.” Lark’s clean style prevents this from being as traumatic as an artist with a different style might have made it.
Lark, however, is excellent at the horror that consumes this issue, as the people from Shade’s poem (the one from the first panel above) start meeting gruesome ends. Ethan dies horribly, and Lark does a wonderful job with it. Again we see the precise lines that makes the alley, which is full of trash and scattered newspaper, not that awful a place to hang out – artists who draw in a ligne claire style seem to be incapable of making places look squalid – and then we get Ethan choking on all those cigarettes. Lark draws every single one of them, which is partly why this scene is so effective – unlike a mass blowing Ethan’s head up, we get the sense of many, many cigarettes clogging him up until he can’t take it anymore. Lark uses nice lines on his face in Panel 2 to show the stress, and then, in Panel 3, he distends Ethan’s face even more as the cigarettes continue to flow out of his mouth. In Panel 4, Lark draws small pieces of Ethan flying across the page, which again is very effective. If another artist would have drawn the madness better, that same artist might have been more inclined to make this more gory, simply drawing a mess of lines and letting the colorist have at it. Lark’s detailed work brings the horror more into the “real” world, so that it’s truly terrifying.
Kirsty gets the business, a page after Jeff gets eaten by his car (it’s Shade – of course I’m not kidding!), and it’s another well drawn scene. I like the awful bottom row, but I also love how Lark draws the wrinkles on the bed sheet, radiating outward from the girl’s butt. Even this early in his career, Lark pays attention to the way a sheet wrinkles when someone sits on it, which is pretty neat. Once again we see the blacks dominating the bottom row, with the girl’s shirt, most of her hair, Kirsty’s hair, and her shirt forming a frame for the ring slicing her finger off, and the black blood exploding from the wound. In Panel 2, Kirsty’s black hair and mouth form a frame for the ring, which floats in front of her forehead, the shadow of it creating a target on Kirsty’s face. Lark draws her mangled hand wonderfully, too, as her fingers are twisted unnaturally away from the severed digit, and now Vozzo gets to color the blood. In Panel 3, Lark again uses blacks well, as the girl’s mouth is even wider than it is in Panel 2, and Kirsty’s hair is even more disheveled as the ring punches through her eye and her brain. Lark draws every splash of blood, again making this more horrific than if he had been simply sloppy, as smearing things would have obscured some of what’s happening to Kirsty, and Lark (and Peter Milligan) want us to see everything that’s happening to these poor people.
Lynn Schumacher’s arms get eaten by the washing machine, and again, it’s a terrific sequence. In Panel 2, Lark turns the lid of the machine into a row of teeth, and because of his precise style, we see the sharpness very clearly. When the “mouth” comes down in Panel 3, Lark’s use of blacks helps create that maw that tears into Lynn’s arms, as Lark uses negative space to show the sharp teeth, and once again we get a lot of blood, each drop drawn carefully and only some colored red, so that the spray is horrifying. In Panel 4, Lark draws Lynn’s bones clearly, making it even more awful, and we still get the blood spray. Because Lark is still drawing the people in as “realistic” as style as he does, the sheer horror on display on these pages has a terrific impact. Lynn’s face in Panel 4, with her smaller eyes and gaping mouth, is the way the reader feels seeing these events, and Lark is very good at showing the confusion and terror Lynn and the other victims feel.
Once again, we see that Lark isn’t great at Shade’s weirdness, although he’s not terrible at it. He stretches Shade’s face in Panel 2, just enough to make him seem out of place in Lenny’s world, and the point of view in Panel 5 is nice, as Shade’s hand is much larger than the rest of him, not only because it’s “closer” to the reader, but because it’s actually bigger than the rest of Shade. In Panel 6, Lark once again stretches Shade’s face, especially his mouth, which does help. But the ovals are still a bit too perfect and the lines of Shade’s “swirling” power are a bit too clean – they’re better in Panel 5, as you notice that Lark adds a few breaks in them – to make this a truly “weird” page. My favorite panel on the page is Lenny’s feet in Panel 2, because this plays to Lark’s strengths – the black of her pants end against the tan of her legs, the brown suede of the shoes stands out against the pools of blood, and Lark doesn’t use any extra lines, so Vozzo’s reds stand out very clearly against the other more muted hues. It’s a beautiful and horrifying image.
Lark didn’t have long to wait before he started getting bigger projects, because he obviously knew what he was doing. I own a LOT of Lark’s comics, so I’m really not sure what I’m going to show tomorrow – I know I’m ending with his most recent comic, but in between? that’s a bit tougher. I’ll figure it out. Check out some other artists whose progression I figured out in the archives!