Axel-In-Charge: Waid & Samnee on "Black Widow" and the Dawn of the All-New, All-Different Era
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is John Paul Leon, and the issue is Shadow of the Bat #41, which was published by DC and is cover dated August 1995. Enjoy!
I bought exactly zero (0) issues of Milestone comics when they were coming out, and I’m not sure why. I was buying comics in the early 1990s, but for some reason they didn’t interest me. This means I don’t own a lot of early art by a lot of nice artists and I have to dig through back issue boxes to find it years later (see Williams III, J. H.), but I couldn’t find any of the issues that Leon drew during his Milestone years. Weird. So I’m skipping ahead to Shadow of the Bat #41, the second part of another Alan Grant Anarky story, because if there’s one thing Grant liked writing more than Batman, it was writing Anarky. Batman spends almost this entire issue unconscious, and the bad guy is arrested by television station security guards halfway through the issue, so it’s certainly not a typical Batman story. But Leon drew it, and that’s all we care about!
It’s only been three years since yesterday’s entry, but Leon improved quite a bit, as you can see (and which is why I tried to find some of his Milestone work, because I wanted to see where he got this good, but que sera sera). He has become far more detailed, as we get a beautiful cityscape behind the blimp on which our heroes are tied. Some of this might be inker Ray McCarthy’s doing, but Leon certainly puts a lot of effort into making Gotham a presence on this page (this was back when Gotham still had the Anton Furst makeover going on, as you can see in the back right). The blimp is very nice, with Leon using the grid of ropes to tie our heroes to it and also make the blimp a bit more streamlined. The smoke curls in from the upper left and crosses the path of the blimp, tying the entire page together. Leon has begun using more spot blacks – unless that’s McCarthy, which is certainly possible – and of course, if you’re drawing a Batman comic after 1970 or so, you need to be comfortable with using blacks. We can’t see the characters too well, but Sherilyn van Valkenburgh’s vibrant red on Anarky is always welcome, as Lonnie stands out quite well in this comic (even though Valkenburgh didn’t come up with the color scheme, she goes all in with the brightness of the costume).
As he became more confident, Leon began to go a bit more impressionistic, with fewer holding lines and more blacks, and we see that on this page a bit. Panel 1 is all blacks and colors, with Leon using negative space to define Lonnie’s eyes and mouth. His mask is good for this kind of thing, as it’s a hard, static image (if Grant and Breyfogle tell you they weren’t thinking of V when they came up with Anarky, they’re lying), so Lonnie’s eyes and mouth never change, which lends itself easily to using blacks instead of more obvious lines. In Panel 4, we get more blacks to define Joe Potato’s face (yes, his name is Joe Potato, and he’s another Grant/Breyfogle creation who has been lost to the mists of time), as Leon, who earlier in the story (issue #40, to be exact), showed all of the many lines and lumps on Joe’s face (doesn’t everyone look like their last name, like Joe?), but here he and McCarthy use black shapes to imply it. Leon gives him one closed eye and one wide open one, as Joe was both beaten up earlier and also, you know, he looks like a potato. Despite this move toward a more abstract style, Leon still makes sure to use details when he feels that they’re necessary, showing all the seams in Anarky’s glove in Panel 3 and the lines on the rope. Anarky looks a bit like a red ghost, but his gloves ground him a bit and the rope’s “realness” shows how royally screwed the three of them are. In Panel 5, you can see a bit more of the move toward abstraction from Leon, as his cityscape, while beautiful, makes use of fewer lines and more pools of black. It’s a style that would become more prevalent as he moved on.
Of course, before he could become more abstract, Leon had to go through his “extremely detailed” phase, so no matter where he ended up, he was still doing very precise work on this story. I don’t know if Leon or McCarthy inked the top of that giant spool (raise your hand if you had one of those as a “table” in your college dorm room) in Panel 2, but it’s pretty detailed, isn’t it? The junkyard in both Panels 1 and 3 is nice, too, as Leon makes it very clear where Tim is. We can see that he’s become quite a bit better at backgrounds than he was in yesterday’s entry.
This is Malochia, the villain of the story, who believes the world is coming to an end and so decides to hurry it along by blowing up Gotham. You know, like you do. Once again, we see the prevalence of blacks in Leon’s artwork, but he’s gotten better at faces as he’s gone along. Despite Malochia having that thick beard, Leon does a marvelous job just with his eyes and hands showing us how around the bend he is, and the final panel is quite nice, with the hint of teeth making him a bit more feral. I’m not sure if he intended this, but the arched eyebrows, heavily-lidded eyes, and pinched smile of Mona in Panel 1 makes her seem even more vapid than your usual talk show host. I would assume that McCarthy inked in the ringlets in her hair, but whether it was him or Leon, it’s yet more nice attention to detail.
We’re back on the blimp, and we see that Leon has gotten better at perspective, as he uses the curve of the blimp quite well in this sequence. In Panel 1, we get Joe in the background, with Anarky’s groovy hat dominating the lower part of the panel, linking that circle with the curve of the blimp. Our eye follows that big rope between his word balloon and the hat toward the next panel, where we get the close-up of Lonnie cutting his bonds. Then Leon switches to behind Joe, who directs our gaze, again along a curve, back to Lonnie, who has his own ideas instead of cutting Joe loose. One thing we don’t see too often in this story but which Leon wisely remembers here (unless Grant reminded him) is that Lonnie is a 15-year-old, so he’s not as tall as an adult, which is why he wears a scaffolding inside his cloak to make himself look taller. In Panel 3, Lonnie’s neck looks far too long, but that’s not a mistake by Leon, that’s what Anarky looks like when he’s not standing up straight. How does he manage to zip around and fight people? DON’T QUESTION – IT’S COMICS!!!!!
Anyway, in Panel 4, Leon once again uses the curve of the blimp, as the motion line shows that Lonnie has swung down in an arc to look at the basket underneath the blimp. That motion leads us to Panel 5, where he sees the explosives, which are contained in … cylinders, of course. Circles, man. Circles. Leon shows that he’s gotten quite good at zipping around the page, and the curves actually make the transitions pretty smooth, which is nice.
Poor Malochia. There he is, getting shoved into an ambulance, and Batman had absolutely nothing to do with it. Anyway, I wanted to show this page because it’s beautiful. Leon and McCarthy once again give us a fantastic, detailed cityscape, as the blimp sails past what looks like the biggest cathedral ever built by man. Once again, however, the shadows are very thick, which contrasts nicely with the immaculate details in that humongous stained-glass window behind the blimp. Is it me, or are all the buildings tilted slightly to the right? With the blimp being a bit farther away from the reader, we don’t get the details from earlier scenes, but it’s still pretty neat. I just like the buildings in the background.
Leon still isn’t great at action, but it’s not as clunky as it was yesterday. Panel 1 is composed well, with Tim in the foreground and Lonnie, hanging from the blimp, framed by the ship, the blimp itself, and Tim’s word balloon. There’s a nice line from Lonnie through Tim to the Robin disc Tim is about to throw, which he does in Panel 2. Leon’s drawing of Tim in that panel is a bit stiff, but the thick blacks and the fact that Tim is in the background help mitigate that a little. The disc intrudes on Panel 3, moving us straight down instead of over to the left, where we would usually go, so the fact that the panel is “backward” doesn’t matter too much, because of how Leon got us there. Valkenburgh uses an eerie white to light the background so that we can see the disc slicing the rope tying Lonnie to the blimp. There’s no real reason for the white to be there except to make the drawing easier to see, which makes it unusual but a good idea.
On the final page, Lonnie is presumed dead (he’s not), and Leon does a nice job with the page, as his parents finish the letter he wrote to them and Batman (finally awake – way to go, Bats, missing all the action!), Tim, and Joe recover from the blimp’s explosion. Leon and McCarthy use an interesting combination of thin lines and spot blacks on Lonnie’s parents, making them vulnerable and depressed as they realize their son might be dead. Leon does a good job with Anarky in the background, as I assume Valkenburgh’s muted colors and a slightly lighter inking line are why Lonnie looks a bit ethereal. The use of blacks is very cool – his face is shrouded in shadow as he looms over the scene. In the middle ground, we get no holding lines on the uppermost flames, which makes them blend nicely from the “real” world to the image of Lonnie above it all. In the foreground, we get more blacks, as Leon again ditches holding lines to create a more impressionistic scene. The smudging on the smoke, the firefighters, even the railing are all just blacked in, making the scene a bit less rigid and a bit more, for lack of a better word, smokey.
Leon continued to evolve well, and he began to get higher profile work. I think I know which comic I’m going to show tomorrow, but I’m not positive yet. So it remains a mystery! However, what’s in the archives is certainly not a mystery!
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.