INTERVIEW: "Batgirl and the Birds of Prey" Hunt Rebirth's Oracle
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Paul Smith, and the story is “Snow!” from Marvel Fanfare #1, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated March 1982. This scan is from the trade paperback, which was published in 2008. Enjoy!
Smith is an interesting artist, because he works so infrequently. According to someone I know (so it’s just hearsay) who knows a bit about Smith, he likes surfing, so he shows up every once in a while to make some money on comics and then goes back to surfing. The dude turned 60 last year, so maybe he doesn’t do that quite as often as he used to, and it could all be bullshit, but it’s a nice story, isn’t it? Smith was 28 when this issue, his first comics work (well, I guess he did some art in an issue of The Comics Journal, but I don’t think that counts), showed up. Less than a year later he was drawing Uncanny X-Men. Man, that’s a meteoric rise, isn’t it? Anyway, in the early 1980s, if Marvel hired an artist who might not be totally confident in their work yet, they would put Terry Austin and Glynis Wein on the book with said artist. And that’s what they did here!
Before I really get into Smith’s art, I just wanted to show some Eighties fashion. Don’t tell me the Eighties sucked, not with those clothes. Holy cow.
This is a “Santa gets mugged” story, because comic book writers are a bunch of sentimental fools when it comes right down to it (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Daredevil helps Santa, because of course he does, and Smith does some nice work. In Panels 3 and 4, he gives us a nice sense of movement, as Santa is in the foreground with DD behind him, giving Santa the spotlight as he gives his speech, and in Panel 4, when Santa bends to pick up his scarf, Daredevil is larger because he’s “closer” to the reader, allowing him to counterpoint Santa and ask who mugged him. It’s a nifty little piece of storytelling. I’m not really sure what that poster in Panel 3 is all about – is Daredevil making personal appearances at malls and schools and that sort of thing? Anyway, Panel 2 gives us a good indication of Austin’s influence, as he uses short lines on Santa’s beard and face to add thickness to the hair and beard and some age to Santa’s face. Smith makes Santa’s left eye a bit bulbous, while Austin inks in the knot on his right cheek and over his right eye. Austin’s thin lines might seem like a poor choice to roughen up Santa’s face, but because he keeps the strokes short and close together, they create a good effect.
Smith was good at action from the very beginning, as he lays this page out nicely and his characters have the fluidity to them that helps action scenes. He begins with DD punching the punk in the stomach, and the panel’s flow leads us to the second one, where he moves to the ceiling to show us where everyone is in the room. The dude with the bat (“That’s jive, bro”) is at the bottom of the panel, which transitions us easily to the bottom row, where Daredevil takes care of him and scares the bejeesus out of the other dude. Smith tilts Panel 3 so the dude is working against the flow of the floor, but notice the line of the floor aims directly at where Daredevil’s fist is in Panel 4. While the punch in Panel 4 works against the flow, the fact that DD’s other fist breaks the panel border helps take us to Panel 5, where his beatdown is in the background and the dude’s giant legs in the foreground lead us off the page. It’s an interesting way to show us all the action from different angles, and Smith does a good job with it. Notice that the bottom row is constructed like a pyramid, with the floor in Panel 3 leading us up to Daredevil beating on the dude at the apex, and then the tilted floor in Panel 5 leading us back out. Smith uses spot blacks really well on this page, with the room in Panel 2 seemingly floating in a black void, while the use of negative space in Panel 5 is quite cool – the dude believes Matt is an actual devil, and the fact that Smith somewhat dehumanizes him in that panel, turning him into a black figure stark against the white, helps with that vibe. Austin’s hatching isn’t overbearing, creating just the right amount of texture on, say, the dude’s jeans in Panel 5. As this is a trade paperback from 2008, Marvel could have recolored it, but I don’t think they did, because it looks as flat as it would in 1982, and Wein’s use of bright red for Daredevil is appreciated, because it helps him stand out well. For several years, it seemed like colorists would dull down the red, which never made sense to me. The trend, it seems, has reversed itself, which is keen.
Here’s a nice two-page sequence (with some of it excised) in which Daredevil chases the drug dealer, Haskill, until Haskill falls to his doom (did you know that the title of this story has a double meaning! it’s true!). Smith repeats a panel in the first row, with Haskill in Panel 2 about to go up the stairs and Daredevil showing up in Panel 4 to chase him, and he puts the silhouette of Haskill at the top of the stairs in Panel 4, showing how close DD is to catching him. When Haskill reaches the roof in Panel 5, we get a nice tableau, with all three creators doing good work. The composition is well done, as Daredevil stands in the doorway looking at Haskill, and Smith leads us nicely from him to the jumping Haskill. Haskill’s pose is good, too – it’s an accurate representation of what someone leaping in that way would look like, and Smith does a good job showing the effect of the wind on Haskill’s clothing, including adding some puffiness to his awesome bell bottoms. The blacks are again effective, allowing the snow to stand out and making Wein’s blue pop well. We get blacks on Matt and Haskill, implying the lack of light on the roof. And, of course, Wein – I assume – adds the blotchy snowflakes, giving the scene a nice, eerie feel. As Matt chases Haskill, Smith gives us some good close-ups, once again using giant legs in Panel 1 of the second page to show the distance between the two men, and of course the foot slip in Panel 3 that leads to Haskill’s fall. Even from a bit farther away, we can see the shocked expression he gives Haskill as he falls, and of course, putting the $100-bill in the foreground on Panel 5 hammers the point home about the fleeting nature of wealth. The blacks on the second page are still used well, especially in the final panel, where Haskill’s silhouette falls into a void. I don’t know how much of the blue bleeding into white of the sky are in the original or if that was digitally altered for the trade, but if Wein did it in the original, it’s a very neat effect, because she knows that when there’s heavy snowfall, even at night, the sky can be a bit brighter from the reflections coming off the snow. This is a well done sequence.
So that’s Smith’s first work in comics. He would draw another story in Marvel Fanfare, an issue of Iron Man, some Dr. Strange issues, and then he was on X-Men. Man, that was quick. Tomorrow we will, of course, check out his well-regarded work on that book, so come on back, y’hear? And if you haven’t heard about the archives yet, now’s the time to rectify that!
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