Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
I have my doubts that it would cast that shadow, but honestly, who cares? LOOK AT THAT THING!!!!
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!
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