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Year of the Artist, Day 163: Paul Smith, Part 5 – The Rocketeer/The Spirit: Pulp Friction #1

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Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Paul Smith, and the issue is The Rocketeer/The Spirit: Pulp Friction #1, which was published by IDW (and DC, sort of) and is cover dated July 2013. Enjoy!

Smith began Mark Waid’s Rocketeer/Spirit crossover and then disappeared, which was a bit odd. The series sputtered a bit, even though J. Bone finished it up. But let’s take a look at the first issue, which is the only one Smith drew and the most recent comic he’s drawn!

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This is the first panel of the comic, and I posted it because I like how well Smith evokes the winter in Central City. He uses a lot of blacks, and the negative space of the white snow helps create lines on the pier, from the crossed wood underneath it to the arch over the gateway. For the borders of the snow, he uses a slightly thicker line, but he doesn’t completely join all the border, so it appears that the snow is blowing around the scene. In the background, we see the buildings created with black ink and negative space for the windows. In the foreground, Smith uses solid lines for the ice floes and the dark water in the river, which makes it a bit more menacing. It’s a neat way to set the scene.

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Yeah, I had to show some cheesecake – I think it’s a requirement for anyone who draws a Rocketeer comic that Betty has to appear in some kind of cheesecake pose at some point, so Smith obliges. Panel 1 shows how different art is in these digital days than it used to be. I imagine that in yonder olden days, Smith would have drawn the outlines of the water and Jordie Bellaire would have simply colored it blue. In this brave new world, either Smith or Bellaire adds the blobs that create some nice details to the surf. It’s an interesting shift. This is a nicely composed page, as Betty stands tall on a rock with the sun forming a halo behind her, while the splashing surf almost frames her on the lower right. Panel 2, of course, is the nice one, as Smith gets to draw Betty’s entire figure with no regard to panel borders or even common sense, as she’s leaning against one rock but her feet, which I guess are supposed to be on another rock, don’t seem like they would provide ample support the way she’s standing on her tiptoes. But who cares, right? Smith does a really nice job showing Betty standing against the wind, as she turns her head dramatically but has to hold her hat on as the wind blows her hair away from her face. Smith draws her fairly realistically, which is always nice, and gives her a bit of hatching, which makes her look a bit more “real,” if that makes sense. In Panel 4, we see the photographer closer up, and Smith does a good job contrasting her with Betty without making her ugly. Her face is a bit squarer, her nose is a bit wider, but she’s still an attractive woman, just not a “bombshell.” Smith shortens her hair, too, which doesn’t imply “mannishness” as it used to, but is still in contrast to Betty’s flowing locks. Smith makes the corpse a bit grotesque, keeping his eyes open, twisting his head just enough to be disturbing, messing up his hair a little bit, and shading his face so that he looks scuffed even though his body is in decent enough shape. Notice that Bellaire colors this in a somewhat muted manner – she suffuses the background with a light tan that comes from everywhere, implying dust and general desertness, which is actually not a bad way to color California. It’s an odd choice, but it works.

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Smith gets to draw a few attractive women in this issue, so let’s check in on Ellen Dolan, the commissioner’s daughter. Smith puts her in a kicky hat, worn at a jaunty angle (hats should always be worn at jaunty angles!), as she complains about, well, everything. Smith makes sure to show her hair blowing in the breeze a bit, and he does a good job with the way her face changes. She’s looking down at the map, a bit puzzled, and then when her father tells her that they went with the cheap route, her face looks a bit blank as she contemplates the information. Then she gets cranky, and Smith does a wonderful job with her face in Panel 3. She narrows her eyes, raises her eyebrows, and twists her mouth to the side, creating a wrinkle along her cheek. It’s very nicely done and shows some facets of Ellen’s personality well.

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Of course the Rocketeer and the Spirit think the other one is the bad guy, so Cliff scoops Denny up and Denny fights back, and we get this page. Smith uses nice motion lines in Panel 1, and Bellaire colors them purple so they can stand out in the night sky. Smith’s brush work has gotten better over the years, so we get some nice smooth work on Cliff’s helmet and a bit rougher on his jacket and pants. Denny is wearing a suit, so he just gets thick folds where the material bunches. It’s a good contrast between the two heroes. In Panel 2, Smith has started using a thinner line on hair, but he still inks it the same way – he creates a row across the tresses with the hatching, so that we get a roll of hair with a band of black across it, which allows Bellaire’s yellow to stand out a bit more. Smith isn’t the only artist who does this, but he has done for many years, so it’s easy to spot. In Panel 3, we the car crash, and he hatches across the back of the car well, as its away from the light source and getting dusty from the road.

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Dolan and Peevy know each other, so they catch up. Once again, Smith gets to contrast the clothing, as Peevy’s mechanic’s overalls have more folds in them than Dolan’s suit. He manages to sneak Ellen into Panel 2, looking cranky. What I wanted to show is Panel 1 – I suppose I should have just shown that, but I wanted to show it in context. It’s a good drawing – Smith draws a lot of the leaves in, some of the branches, and we get a nice arc with the branches, the smoke from Cliff’s rocket, and then Denny spiraling out of the scene. It’s drawn well and composed well, but I don’t get it. Is that a tree on the left side, and Cliff has brushed Denny off of him? It’s a strange-looking tree if that’s true. The last time we saw them, Denny had gotten on Cliff’s back and was trying to rip his helmet off, but it was a close-up, so we didn’t have any cues to where they were in the sky – if they were high up or closer to the ground. I imagine this is a tree, but then I thought it was a hedge of some sort and the panel was tilted so that Cliff was flying away from the ground – as if he had flown close to the ground, scraped Denny off, and then soared upward. I doubt if that’s what Smith is going for, but I’m still confused a bit by the panel. Am I the only one?

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This is the final page of the issue, as Betty comes to the door – she’s been in bed upset since finding a dead body – and finds Denny, over who she swoons. Smith gets to draw both she and Ellen, and he does a nice job with it. For a quasi-splash page, it’s composed well – our eyes flow from the upper circle to Betty in Denny’s arms, and the angle of her body takes us to the close-up of she and Denny, and then we end with the lower circle. Smith uses thin lines and delicate stippling to make Betty’s robe diaphanous (although, obviously, Bellaire’s light coloring helps that, too) and her underwear lacy, which is a nice contrast to Ellen’s power suit. He uses thick, lustrous blacks in Betty’s hair, which also contrasts with Ellen’s thinner inking lines, and notice that Ellen has a slightly more structured hair style, as she hasn’t been lying in bed all aflutter. One thing you can do well with digital coloring is add subtle tones, which Bellaire does on both Betty’s and Ellen’s cheeks, adding a touch of blush to their skins. As usual, this is a nice page, and it seems that digital coloring has evolved enough that if the colorist is savvy enough, they can create a “flatter” palette to match the artists’ sensibilities. This isn’t as lush as Cox’s colors from 2003 or Ory’s from 1993, but it seems to suit Smith better.

Smith’s style hasn’t changed a lot over the past 30 years, but it’s changed in interesting ways, so I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour. I think I’m going to take a look at an artist who uses a lot of models to create his art, but does so in a pretty cool way. At least, I think it’s cool. So come on back for a new artist, or spend some time in the archives with those I’ve already covered!

9 Comments

Such a bummer.

Waid and Paul Smith seem like a natural fit creatively and Rocketeer fans are used to waiting for great art.

tom fitzpatrick

June 12, 2014 at 8:51 pm

Was that ever explained? Why Mr. Smith did only one issue and not the other 3?

Surprised that you didn’t showcase LITC. Thought that was the last series Mr. Smith worked on.

Guess I wuz wrong! ;-)

Dean: I know! I certainly wouldn’t have minded waiting. Bone’s work was okay, but it seemed a bit off, for some reason.

tom: I have no idea why Smith left the book. It remains a mystery!

As I mentioned yesterday, I don’t own Leave it to Chance. I know I should, but I haven’t gotten it yet.

Yeah, I really wish they’d stuck with Smith for the whole mini. Nothing against Bone, but it was a jarring, seemingly pointless shift that really affected the feel of the series.

This book looks glorious! I need to pick up a copy and still get Leave it to Chance but the trades are out of print – or impossible to find for a reasonable price.

@ Greg Burgas:

Dave Stevens took forever. It was fine, because The Rocketeer was never exactly the most plot-driven comic. You were in it for the art and the overall tone of the thing.

I like J. Bone, but he is a very different artist.

Anonymous above is me, incidentally.

On -Leave it to Chance
What are you waiting for?
It’s great

One additional thing that I’d like to call attention to is how Smith incorporates Will Eisner’s art style into his work here — but in perhaps subtler ways than many other artists who’ve worked on more modern Spirit comics do. The snow-covered pier in Central City is a good example of that; the silhouetted building, with its thick texture and those globs of snow on top of it, is very Eisnerian — but not to the point of quite looking like an actual Eisner drawing. Likewise, many of the faces are very reminiscent of Eisner’s — for example, the dead guy (particularly his mouth), or Peevy when he’s indicating his truck with his thumb. Even the body language is exaggerated in a way that brings to mind Eisner’s cartoony poses. But he doesn’t go overboard with this, or get too blatant about it — on these pages, at least; I haven’t read the story. It really is a very nice blend of his own artistic sensibilities and Eisner’s style.

I love me some Paul Smith, and I seriously love me some Will Eisner, so I’m really enjoying these pages. Might have to hunt this down.

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