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Year of the Artist, Day 209: Todd McFarlane, Part 3 – Detective Comics #576

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Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Todd McFarlane, and the issue is Detective Comics #576, which was published by DC and is cover dated July 1987. Enjoy!

As amazing as it sounds, there have been times in the past when you could actually buy two different comics with McFarlane’s art in them in the same month. I don’t know when he was drawing this stuff, but apparently he was fast enough to work on two different books at least a few times, and his work on the final three chapters of the four-part “Year Two” story arc in Detective Comics was on of those times, as this issue came out in the same month as The Incredible Hulk #333. Was it the fact that he wasn’t inking himself? I don’t know, but I wanted to look at this comic, which came out so soon after yesterday’s, because it shows McFarlane going a bit wild with some flourishes that would become more of a trademark for him. And yes, I’m talking about Batman’s cape.

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“Year Two” has a pretty bad reputation, a good deal of it deserved, but I can’t help but like it. It’s one of those comics from early in my collecting life that I’m overly nostalgic about, so even though I recognize that it’s not very good (especially when you consider how good the issues preceding it are), I still enjoy it. But that’s neither here nor there, because we’re here to discuss the art with a cold, clinical eye! We can see that with the lieutenant and “Big Willie” Golonka, McFarlane is getting better at round faces, even though both men are overweight so their roundness makes sense. We can see some McFarlane tics that we’ll see with better clarity later – the gun bursts in Panel 4 specifically – but I wanted to show Alfredo Alcala’s inking, because it’s quite good. Like Milgrom yesterday, he uses thick, solid lines that tend to ground McFarlane’s more flighty line work, which makes for a good combination. Panel 3, especially, is a great drawing – McFarlane gets the piggishness of Golonka, with the wide face, squat nose, and gaping mouth, and he even throws in a monocle for good effect, in case you weren’t sure that the dude was evil (remember, kids – monocles always equal evil!). Alcala inks his face with thick lines, creating folds of fat, and I assume he inked the Reaper’s scythe over his face, making the shadow almost tactile, which is very cool. Alcala is an odd choice to ink McFarlane, but it works.

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This is the next page, as the Reaper does some reaping. The lack of backgrounds is a bit vexing, but since McFarlane wants us to concentrate on the figures, concentrate we shall! I can’t be certain, but it seems like the dude in the right foreground of Panel 1 is Golonka, the dude from the previous page (okay, I’m joking – of course it’s Golonka, but read on!). If the Reaper had a gun to Golonka’s forehead in the previous panel, how did Golonka get so far away from him? Why did he put his monocle back in his eye? This is very strange. You’ll notice Alcala’s strong inking lines again. Panel 2 is almost a throwaway, as it simply shows the Reaper’s victims lying dead against the police van. In Panel 3, the police in the background rush the Reaper, who fires at them with his Jon Sable-esque gun. The gun bursts, as we saw on the previous page, are how McFarlane liked to draw them during his DC/Marvel days, with the semi-circle flares above and below the barrel. Alcala inks them very heavily, giving them a more explosive feel, but the design is all McFarlane. Panel 4 is … well, it’s something. The Reaper takes out two cops, but I’m not sure how. We see only one hand, which from where the thumb is, appears to be his left hand that has been swung all the over to the other side of his body. Is that right? Did he hit the cop on the left with a backhanded punch with his left hand? His right leg is bent to a degree where it wouldn’t look like it would support him, which is crucial as his left leg is, I think, kicking the other cop, and the Reaper (who, we should remind people, is a man of at least 60) manages to get it above his head. This is one of the most mystifying drawings I’ve ever seen in superhero comics. I mean, with some other artists, the skill is bad or the anatomy is terrible, but this is simply mystifying. I have no idea how the Reaper is doing that. And then, in the next panel, his left hand has that big mace on it, so maybe that can’t be his left hand in the previous panel? But where is his other hand in Panel 4? Man, I can’t think about this anymore.

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Alcala’s inking does a nice job with McFarlane’s pencils on this page. He gives Leslie Thompkins some gravitas, as she’s not too old (which too much hatching would do), but her slightly longer face implies some age, as opposed to Bruce’s wider face. McFarlane and Alcala do a really nice job with Panel 3, where Bruce gets serious about his use of a gun (this story is famous for Batman using a gun, which he does because of reasons). McFarlane reins in his cartoony style nicely, as he gives Bruce a hard edge, from his nose to his chin, while Alcala uses a thick line to drive home the seriousness. Then we get Panel 5, where Bruce … man, every time I see that panel, I crack up, because Bruce just looks so gleefully insane about going to see Rachel Caspian, with whom he’s in luuuuurrrrrve. This has to be a reason why superhero comics aren’t full of smiling people, because it’s apparently hard to draw smiling people without making them look like psychopaths. I get the pose, and it’s neat that McFarlane would think of it, because if we’re being coy about our romance and we’re thinking about surprising the object of our affection, we might grin and arch our fingers like that, but in a static medium, it really makes Bruce look terrifying. “Alfred, don’t bother calling Miss Caspian … I’ll attend to that … with my axe!

Moving on, I always love complementary panels that show similar things happening simultaneously, so the final two panels are pretty neat.

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Oh, the cape. THE CAPE!!!! Look, I’m not going to lie to you. When I first read this story, in late 1988/early 1989, I thought the McFarlane cape was MOTHERFUCKING AWESOME!!!!! Did I think about the physics of it? I did not. What the fuck does anyone care about reality when it looks so MOTHERFUCKING AWESOME?!?!?!? As I mentioned, I still have a soft spot for this story (and really, this time period of Batman comics), so I still get a bit of a goofy thrill whenever I re-read this and see the Bat-cape. Damn, it’s glorious. The best thing about it, I think, is that McFarlane makes it look like a glider quite often, with those rigid shapes as the wind billows it. Plus, the spot blacks are hella awesome. Come on, that shit is cool. You know you love it!

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Batman sets a trap for the Reaper, and we see that he’s totes serious about using a gun, as he shoots the gun out of Gordon’s hand and tells him to amscray. As McFarlane got more confident, we got more dynamic pages like this – yes, things were getting more exaggerated, too, but there was still that energy to it that made McFarlane such a superstar. Yes, the fact that the Reaper has scythes coming out of the maces on his hands is ridiculous. Yes, the fact that he can apparently retract them is also ridiculous. But they look so cool, man! And who doesn’t love incognito Batman, who’s wearing a coverall that apparently restrains that entire glorious cape somehow? And how helpful of the Reaper to tear the entire coverall off for him! Still, those final three panels are well done – we have no idea where Gordon is in relation to the other two combatants, but McFarlane puts him on the right side of Panel 4, where our eyes finish reading, and then turns him around so that the shot comes from the right in Panel 5. That leads us to Panel 6, where we see the smoking gun (and a beautifully drawn gun it is) in the foreground, dominating the scene and showing how far Batman is willing to go (remember, this is technically in his second year of vigilantism, and considering Bats was pulling shit like this and this early in his career, this isn’t too dramatic a change). In the background, McFarlane wisely doesn’t draw the Reaper’s body, shadowing it with his cape, which makes the villain almost supernatural, especially when combined with Alcala’s nice inking job. It’s a neat panel.

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More wonderful capeness, as Bats and the Reaper end up on an airplane (Batman’s trap took place at the airport) and we get this battle. I don’t remember much about planes in the mid-1980s, but look at that leg room! If we ignore the capes, this is not a bad way to show a fight – Batman crashes into the Reaper in Panel 1 (and we get that very cartoony “Ooof!”), then dodges the Reaper’s riposte in Panel 2. In Panel 1, McFarlane appears to show Batman kicking the Reaper in the shin, which makes him fly backward like that, but I wonder if the amount of stuff he had to get onto each page made the layouts a bit more cramped. In Panel 3, we get a nice pose, as the Reaper looks like he just did a model turn on the catwalk, before the scythe crashes into the wall next to Batman in Panel 4. That’s another strange sequence – the Reaper looks somewhat far away in Panel 3, with Batman looking at him, but then the blade goes into the wall and Batman seems to be completely turned around. Odd. (Plus, doesn’t Bats look like a Sam Kieth drawing in that panel?) I love the silhouette Bats in Panel 5, with his eyes, gritted teeth, Bat-signal, holster, and gun the only things we see. McFarlane knew how to give his characters presence, and Batman looming over Heymer is a neat image. Then, of course, we get the mighty cape as the men escape. ALL HAIL THE CAPE!

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The sequence shows how well Alcala inked this book and how a good inker could help McFarlane, especially when he’s doing things he didn’t seem comfortable with yet. Batman got Gordon a pipe to – get this – help him stop smoking cigarettes, and Gordon snaps it because he believes Batman has betrayed him (well, I guess Batman did, but when the Reaper is basically carving up hundreds of Gothamites, maybe Gordon should call in some people who can shoot straight). I’m going to assume that Alcala did most of the work, especially given what we know about McFarlane’s inking. In Panel 1, we get obscured faces on both the cop and Gordon, and the hooded eyes on Gordon, especially, are tremendous. Alacala hatches his cheeks to a point where the lines are almost indistinguishable from his mustache, making him look even more haggard. Panel 2 is a definite McFarlane face, but Alacala’s strong lines again make Gordon look beaten down rather than old. His hands in Panels 2 and 3 are lined very nicely – they’re tough hands, but they’re not decrepit. McFarlane lays the panels out quite well – even the broken pipe in the foreground of Panel 4 is well done – and Alcala makes it less bathetic than it might be in the hands of a lesser inker.

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THE CAPE!!!!!

I have my doubts that it would cast that shadow, but honestly, who cares? LOOK AT THAT THING!!!!

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Just as a comparison, here’s a page from Detective #578, the final chapter of “Year Two,” which McFarlane inked himself. The difference was noticeable even to a comics neophyte like yours truly when I first bought the issues, although, being ignorant about the division of labor in art, I couldn’t quite figure out why it was different (yeah, I was stupid – sue me). The layouts are similar, of course, and the cape is as wondrous as ever. But we notice that Joe Chill’s face is a bit rounder, as are those of other characters’ on other pages, even presumably fit ones like Bruce and Rachel. Notice, too, that McFarlane is both a busier inker and a weaker one. The details – the cracks on the window of the police van, the wreckage of said van, and the explosion of said van – are more evident than when Alcala was inking, but the lines aren’t as strong. McFarlane’s use of spot blacks is well done – the Reaper in the foreground of Panel 2 is quite cool, and Batman’s cape in the final panel is neat partly because of the preponderance of black – but the lines on Joe Chill in Panel 3, for instance, don’t have much heft to them, making Chill look older than Alcala made him. Even the gun burst in the same panel is inked with less weight, making Chill’s shot look, well, wimpier than the one we saw above. Why McFarlane wanted to ink himself is beyond me – some pencilers are excellent inkers, but as we’ll see going forward, McFarlane is not one of those. Was it pure ego? It’s possible, I suppose. I do like when artists recognize that they might be deficient in some areas and allow others to pick up the slack. McFarlane, I guess, though he was the best inker for his pencil work. I would beg to differ.

About a year after this, McFarlane left The Incredible Hulk and began his celebrated run on Amazing Spider-Man. We’ll check back in with that character tomorrow, but will it be on the flagship title or the one Marvel created just for him? You won’t know until you come back! And hey, are those archives? Why yes, yes they are!

24 Comments

tom fitzpatrick

July 28, 2014 at 3:01 pm

Ah, yes. THE CAPE.

No matter what the character (Batman, Spawn, Infinity, Inc.), McFarlane always nails THE CAPE perfectly.

Although I’ll admit I kinda like McFarlane’s style (ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOCAPE!), I also have to admit he has a lot of… problems with sequential art. The Golonka example cited above is, unfortunately, not an isolated incident. (It’s something that’s always bugged me in Year Two: in the final chapter, Batman is pointing the gun at Joe Chill’s forehead, with Chill facing Batman. The next panel (although it’s on the next page, like with Golonka), Reaper shoots Chill, but Chill is now facing *away* from Batman. It’s really disconcerting.) I know Liefeld gets a lot of (deserved) flack for his continuity issues, but it seems odd that it isn’t cited more often in regards to McFarlane.

Anyhoo, I’m pretty sure Reaper’s sickles (they’re more sickle than scythe, I’d say) aren’t retractable; they seem to be present in every panel he uses them in. (The “mace” part seems more like it’s supposed to be a knuckle guard.)

tom: I should write fan-fiction from the Cape’s point of view. It would be awesome!

Green Luthor: I know exactly what sequence you’re talking about. That’s also the panel where Bruce looks like he’s wearing a giant parachute or bathrobe, not a cape.

Sickles! Thank you! I wanted to use scythes, but something was nagging me about the use of the word, and now I realize that I probably wanted to use “sickle.” And I’m not sure what the deal is with them. Davis and McFarlane didn’t care, so why should I? :)

Jeff Nettleton

July 28, 2014 at 4:31 pm

I’m curious as to where the bad reputation for Year Two comes from, as it was pretty dang popular at the time. The shift from Alan Davis to McFarlane is abrupt though. Meanwhile, it did provide more than a little inspiration for Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. I thought it was decent, then, though it didn’t get as many reprints as some of the other stuff (neither did Year 3, with Robin).

I have to take issue with the smoking gun. McFarlane didn’t quite get the shape of a Colt M1911 .45 pistol quite right (though Davis did); but that’s a nitpick. 8)

As for the cape, well yeah, McFarlane follows a fine tradition that’s been passed down by many artists, especially more recent (to McFarlane’s period) examples, like Bernie Wrightson and Marshall Rogers (and Neal Adams, in some drawings). Rogers also gave an awesome cape to Mister Miracle, in the short-lived later 70s revival of the book.

tom fitzpatrick

July 28, 2014 at 7:44 pm

@ Mr. Burgas: I have a notion about why the word scythes was nagging you. It might have to do with the sick gruesome joke that Neil Gaiman wrote in The Sandman # 14 (I think), where the serial killer convention speaker made about someone using a scythe.

I might be wrong, though, but it’s funny isn’t it, how the subconscious works.

I’ve always figured that wearing roughly an acre of cape would be impractical, but what do I know?

Jeff: I’m not sure where Year Two’s bad rep came from either. I imagine it’s a combination of it not being as good as Year One and not being as good as the six issues that Barr and Davis did before it, but those are really, really good comics, so it’s not surprising it doesn’t measure up to it. I still like it, even though I admit that my reading of it is tinged with nostalgia. But it’s perfectly entertaining, even though parts of it are goofy.

I wouldn’t know what the actual gun looked like! I just mean it’s a nice-looking drawing. I didn’t know if it was accurate or not.

tom: I remember that joke, but I’m not sure if that’s what was nagging me!

cool arrow: It’s all about looking cool, not practicality! :)

I always hated the way McFarlane drew normal people to have a billion more lines on their face than needed. That is why i was so shocked to see his depiction of Leslie Tompkins to have relatively few lines despite being an older person.

I wasn’t aware Year Two had a bad rep. It might be just recently, since they did a sequel (Full Circle).

This comic was my first exposure to McFarlane, and I was very disappointed that Alan Davis was gone. I liked the fact that he was inked by Alcala when I first read this, but when I saw McFarlane starting to ink his own pencils, looking back, in my opinion, their styles were a bit mismatched.

Interesting to note that I am completely of the oppsosite opinion concerning the inks. Once McFarlane started to ink his own work he really began to shine. While nice to see other approaches they never felt right for me, especially Alcala, who is a great artist, but an odd choice for McFarlane.

I’ve got a soft spot for this story as well. I got a trade collection of it shortly after it came out. I had got DKR first, and then followed that up with the next Batman trades I could find. Back then it was The Cult and this, with Killing Joke coming not too far behind. While even as a 13 year old I realized these other stories didn’t stack up to DKR, I still loved all of them. And I still do and don’t really care if it’s mainly for nostalgia or not.

Strangely enough, despite reading Year Two 25 years ago and being a huge Batman fan since then, (I have a Batman tattoo for Pete’s sake,) I just finally got around to reading Year One within the last 2 years or so. Gotta admit it seemed a bit overrated, but I’m sure that’s just because so many other stories have borrowed from it at this point.

This is when his style started getting sloppy and overstylized. None of those early Image guys ever seemed to have the patience to learn basic fundamentals and thought they could just get away with stylizing everything to the point of absurdity instead, It’s like they learned all the wrong lessons from Jack Kirby and never learned what made Kirby’s “style” work in the first place or how it was all anchored on technical fundamentals. What a weird time for comic art that was in general.

While it’s true that his own inks aren’t quite as strong, I was really into the grungy effect it gave his work and how it played with the more cartoonish, exaggerated elements he used. Especially when he became seemingly fixated on having everything take place around rubble heaps and trash piles. Nobody drew a trash pile (or a cape) like McFarlane!

No idea on what made him start inking, but my impression has long been that he just prefers it to penciling. He certainly stayed with it longer after the launch of Spawn, and the few returns he’s made to regular comic work has been primarily as an inker (or co-plotter).

Did the Reaper cut off Batman’s coverall, or did Batman PLAN for him to cut it off? Or maybe Bats has dissolving coveralls so he can spring into action in his costume.

I think a little kid should step on that long cape. Batman: “Cut it out.” The kid does it again. Batman: “I said, CUT IT OUT.” That would be funny.

I think the thing that bothers me most about the year two page is that the burst of the gunshot appears to be entirely to the left of the gun barrel rather than coming from the barrel in a 360 degree arc.

Maybe he started inking to pick up two pay-cheques – that was Liefeld’s excuse for the latter New Mutants issues.

As for the panel 4 where Reaper takes out two cops, it doesn’t strike me as terribly odd – the camera’s low and all the figures are in the air so Reaper hasn’t necessarily kicked one of the police officers high into the air.

The hand of Reaper’s that we can see appears to have been pencilled or inked wrong – ignore that it’s a left hand, and assume it’s his right – it all makes sense then.

According to McFarlane he was always displeased about other inkers who changed his work. Watch it on YouTube, there are a few nice sets of videos where he gives insight into his development.
I agree to Andrew, the fight scene looks clear to me, more like a roundkick, hitzing the two at once.
The cape is clearly inspired by Rogers, just reading his work, he was clearly influential for quite a lot of artists, like Golden, Art Adams, McFarlane etc.

The reason this comic has a bad rep is because it urges us, repeatedly and incorrectly, to fear the Reaper. This is in direct contravention of our orders from Blue Oyster Cult.

More cowbell!

None of those early Image guys ever seemed to have the patience to learn basic fundamentals and thought they could just get away with stylizing everything to the point of absurdity

ERIK LARSEN!!!!!

Okay, sorry. I just get tired of everyone dismissing “those early Image guys” as universally terrible. Erik Larsen has been drawing (and writing) Savage Dragon for over twenty years. Yeah, I know, I’ve said this before, but I will say it again: if you look at Larsen’s work over that two decade span, as well as the proceeding ten years when he was at DC and Marvel, you will see his (perhaps gradual) growth and development as an artist as he tried different things and experimented with styles & storytelling techniques. Okay, the Erik Larsen of 2014 does not look radically different from the Erik Larsen of the late 1980s. But nevertheless he has still quite clearly improved since those days.

Dimo1: Fair enough – different strokes for different folks and all that.

Jazzbo: I’m with you on Year One being overrated. I skipped it when I was re-reading Batman for Comics You Should Own, if you’ll notice. It’s a decent story, but I was never blown away by it. Sacrilege! :)

Mr. JR: You’re REALLY going to like today’s entry, then! :)

Rob: A kid stepping on Batman’s cape would mean that DC doesn’t take Batman super-seriously, and we can’t have that!

Ben: Larsen certainly comes to mind. I think only Liefeld of the first Image guys really didn’t learn anything. The others did get better throughout the course of their careers, but at some point, every artists settles on a style that is popular and doesn’t force him to change, so why should he?

Andrew: That’s cool about the fight panel – I just can’t get past it! It’s been 25 years since I first read this story, and that panel still freaks me out!

Matthew: Good point. All hail Blue Oyster Cult!

I have never been a huge fan of Todd McFarlane’s work. As in the cases of Mark Silvestri and Jim Lee, yes, I can recognize his technical proficiency as an artist. It is just that Todd’s style does not particularly appeal to my own personal sensibilities in a way that makes me shout out “Wow, that’s incredible!” But, as Greg says above, “different strokes for different folks and all that” :)

I read this one long ago, and I think I was always struck by the stiffness of Batman’s pose in the panel featured at the top of the article, where he’s kicking the Reaper into the jet. What the heck is up with his arms? And I’m noticing a lot of other really stiffly posed characters in the fight scenes here and in the previous column. It looks like he was using those little poseable wooden mannequins they sell in art stores for reference, or maybe just action figures.

So much of Mcfarlane’s art is in the inking that i don’t even consider books like this and hulk 330 representative of Mcfarlane’s work. Mcfarlane’s work was mangled by almost every inker that touched it.

I think the reason it’s hard to believe that’s still Golonka running away from the Reaper is that he didn’t look like he had bushy white hair in the earlier panels, probably because we can’t see his hair, and his eyebrows are black. I’ve noticed, especially in older comics, that characters often have black eyebrows no matter what their hair colour is. I guess this is because in the old days the printing technology didn’t have the resolution to leave an empty space inside the eyebrow for the colour—it would have closed up?

On the airplane fight page, McFarlane crosses the axis—turns his “camera” 180° or more—twice, between panels one and two, and then between panels two and three, and crossing the axis tends to be confusing. It gets even worse when both characters are not in frame at the same time, which luckily they are in the first three panels, but not in the subsequent ones.

McFarlane’s art is messy and full of lines, which really appealed to me at the time, though now I think I would prefer a strong, minimalist inker to take all those wild lines and slick them back. A good example of the blending of McFarlane with another artist is in GI Joe #60, where the inking actually changes his art style to that of Rod Whigham, the semi-regular artist on Joe at the time. You can still see the McFarlane style underneath, and it’s a cool mixture.

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