"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Film, Comic Books
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 Spider-Man #5, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated December 1990. Enjoy!
Marvel made a huge mistake in the summer of 1990, giving Todd McFarlane his own comic because he wanted to write. McFarlane was not a good writer in 1990, and I have no idea if he’s gotten better in the quarter-century since then, but Marvel caved because they didn’t want him to leave, which of course he did a few years later. The first 12 issues of Spider-Man (which are the only ones I own) are painfully bad in the writing, although McFarlane got marginally – I use that in the smallest way possible – better by the third story, “Perceptions” (issues #8-12). None of that mattered at the time, of course, because McFarlane’s Spider-Man sold in numbers that today’s Marvel executives can only dream about. I was working at a convenience store on County Line Road in Hatboro for my summer job between freshman and sophomore years of college, and I recall rushing out on my lunch break, driving down Maple Road to Willow Grove, and buying five copies of issue #1. Four of them, I’m a bit ashamed to say, have never been opened. Damn straight. But reading the series later … man. It’s rough. But let’s begin in happier times, with Amazing Spider-Man #300 (May 1988), which gave us Spider-Man’s first battle with Venom. I just want to show a couple of things that became indicative of McFarlane’s art – his “McFarlane face” and the way he drew Mary Jane Watson-Parker.
Once McFarlane started drawing ASM, he really took off with the more rounded faces, although his later work on The Incredible Hulk showed it too. He also decided to make a lot of the characters have really thick eyebrows, as we see with Peter. This is just unusual, and I’m not sure why McFarlane did it. He was always a bit cartoony with his style, and when he started inking himself, he really embraced that side of his artwork, but it does seem a bit odd that he was drawing such serious stories – even when he wrote them himself – yet he tended to draw his characters so unrealistically so often. But here’s a good example of “McFarlane face,” for what it’s worth.
McFarlane is also responsible for sexpot Mary Jane, which 17-year-old Greg certainly appreciated. Her hair might be a bit crazy, and her proportions might not be perfect, but when you go back and see what a Plain (Mary) Jane she was when people like Romita Jr. or Ron Frenz drew her, you appreciate the fact that McFarlane actually made her look like a super-model. She even dressed … well, like something. Definitely better than her frumpy clothes of the past, but man, that belt! She’s not as heavily inked as she would be below, and her features hadn’t evolved to “Peak McFarlane” yet, but she’s getting there! I just love everything about this page, from the fact that she’s trying to make Peter feel better, to the fact that she’s willing to pose for “private” pictures, to David Michelinie’s oh-so-subtle caption box to end the page, and I even love it because I imagine 26-year-old Joe Quesada reading it and thinking, “Hey, the Spider-Man of my youth would never have had sex with such a fabulous woman, and since I’m a nerd like him and will never have sex with a super-model, I’m going to make it my mission in life to destroy this marriage and crush his dreams just like mine have been crushed!” And thus a career path was forged!
When he moved over to Spider-Man, McFarlane began designing these pages with a lot of thin, vertical panels. Back when I took a look at the first page of issue #2, I mentioned that I think he did these vertical panels to give a sense of the skyscrapers and canyons of Manhattan, although he used them in other circumstances, too, as we see here. It’s just a theory!
This artwork on Spider-Man – at least the stuff McFarlane inked himself – might be “Peak McFarlane.” It’s not because his art is as good as it will ever be – I think we can see that it’s better when someone else inks it – but because this is pure, unfettered McFarlane, before time constraints started to slow him down. You’ll notice the very cartoony style he uses for the characters in this sequence, as we get the “Ugly McFarlane face” that we saw all the way back in “Slash” – the squat nose, thick lips, and wide face on the dispatcher, along with the bushy eyebrows. Meanwhile, the cop behind him has a long, thin face, with a severely sunken chin and beady eyes, which are other McFarlane staples. Notice, too, the inking, which is a bit more excessive than we’ve seen, but it’s also stronger than it was on the example from Detective that I showed yesterday. Unfortunately, that’s not really a good thing, as the excess of lines combined with the fact that they’re stronger makes the characters look a bit more decrepit. It’s unfortunate. This is printed on slightly better paper than Amazing Spider-Man (it’s not quite Baxter paper, but I don’t know what it is), and we can see that colorist Gregory Wright takes advantage by using more shading than he might get away with on cheaper paper. It, too, contributes to aging the characters, unfortunately. The thin panels don’t interfere with the storytelling in this example, and they help McFarlane end the page with the destroyed building in which Spidey was being tortured, but the thin panels do occasionally make the artwork less decipherable, which is too bad.
(By the way, you get exactly ZERO Cool Points – long-time readers of the blog might remember Cool Points and long for them nostalgically! – if you tell me what the next caption box reads on the following page. Honestly, at this point you should repeat the phrase at completely inappropriate moments, like during sex and while at funerals.)
McFarlane’s obsession with details was evident during his 1987-1992 peak, and we see a bit of that here. In “Torment” (issues #1-5), he really did a lot of close-ups, and it’s interesting to note that it seemed pertinent only to this story – his artistic storytelling skills were far more developed than his writing storytelling skills were at this point. He uses close-ups in a lot of his stories, but in “Torment,” he really went to town with it, far more than in “Perceptions,” and I think that’s because “Torment” takes place in short period of time in a cramped place, while “Perceptions” takes place in the wide-open Pacific Northwest. If that was McFarlane’s intention, he did a really nice job with it (and if it wasn’t, he still did a nice job with it!). Anyway, the details are the devil, as we get the “cracked” Spidey eye in Panel 1 (McFarlane treats them as some kind of plastic, when I always thought they were fabric) and the ripped mask, and then in Panel 2 we get Peter’s grimace, which still looks a bit cartoony, with the lack of lips and the really big teeth. McFarlane doesn’t line the two panels up perfectly, which is interesting as it extends Peter’s face just a bit, making him look more inhuman than perhaps McFarlane wanted (or perhaps not, given his penchant for drawing Spidey in such bizarre ways while he’s web-swinging). In Panel 3, McFarlane gives us a cool Spider-Man braced above the wreckage (the mansion exploded at the end of the previous issue), and a nice view of the beams jutting out all haphazardly and the fire and smoke billowing through it. It’s a neat image.
More good details here, but I wanted to note the webbing panel borders. You can say what you want about McFarlane’s art, but the dude designed comics pretty well, and this is just one neat instance. The Lizard is pretty cool, too.
Look at this page! So there’s “Calypso” on the left (that’s her name, apparently, but I still don’t think she’s ever named in the comic, as the caption box points out), while Peter reminisces about how he got into this predicament. Calypso is a truly fantastic McFarlane creation, from the wide face, full lips, and thin eyes, to the absolutely crazy hair, to the somewhat buxom-but-not-too-wild breasts and the relatively solid thighs. McFarlane, unlike so many other artists, didn’t just draw giant globes on the chests of his females – yes, Calypso’s breasts are a bit perky for their size and the fact that they’re covered with thin strips of cloth and not a good supportive bra, but they’re at least breast-shaped and aren’t too huge. Despite the excessive line work, McFarlane is actually somewhat restrained in the inking – her face is clear, her skin isn’t too overly hatched, and the blacks on the leopard skin she wears and the tattered cloths around her legs make sense in context. Meanwhile, McFarlane draws smoke as well as anyone (yes, it’s a weird thing to notice, but he totally does), and we get that drifting smoke motif I mentioned back when he was drawing Coyote. On the right side, we get more of Peter grimacing (he does that a lot in this story), and again the details are impressive. McFarlane is still treating his eye coverings as plastic, as this one appears even more cracked, but it’s still a neat effect. In the age before a lot of digital effects, McFarlane drew every drop of blood and water, so the liquid dripping off Peter looks more tactile and viscous than a lot of digitally-created water of later years. Once again, Peter’s lips are basically non-existent and his teeth are gigantic, but McFarlane’s hatching on his face is relatively restrained, which helps keep our hero youthful.
Here’s an example of where McFarlane’s vertical panels fails him a bit. He shows a bit of Spidey in Panel 1, with the good use of spot blacks to imply that Peter is really, really angry (the teeth help with that!), and then he widens the panel a bit to show Calypso and her Simonsonian sound effects cascading down on her. Panel 3 is weird, because of the width of the panel. It’s Peter’s thumb and index finger, but the brown background in most of the panel and the fact that the thumbnail is partially obscured by water makes it a bit harder to read on a quick glance. Of course, McFarlane doesn’t want you to take a quick glance, but still! The thin panel works when Calypso looks up, as McFarlane cuts off most of her face and focuses on her accusatory finger, and once again we get very nice details, with all the braiding in her hair. McFarlane remembers to scuff her skin a bit, as she has been through an explosion, and you’ll notice the “McFarlane lips” down in the panel’s lower right. He also gives us a nifty Panel 5, focusing on the Lizard’s gaping maw. Even so, he uses tics of the “McFarlane face” on the Lizard, with even thicker ridges above the eyes, making them thinner, and a wider, squatter nose. You can see a hint of this in this panel, but it’s there, believe me.
Some people might argue that McFarlane, at least in his later years, was style over substance, but while Spider-Man is very stylish, you can tell that McFarlane put a lot of work into it, and we get really nice pages like this. The spot blacks in the first two panels are really nice, with the Lizard’s face fading from a bit of green into total black as he succumbs to his hunger (he was being restrained by Calypso, who controls him with … voodoo!). We get the thin eyes and giant, toothy mouth, which has a pretty cool effect. In the background, McFarlane doesn’t take any shortcuts with Calypso except to put her in silhouette – her hair is still insane. Then we get Panel 2, where he continues with the silhouette, but adds cool details to make Calypso even more evil. One thing that McFarlane remembers is the drool from her mouth, which shows how crazy she’s become. In Panel 4, we see more of the Lizard, with the giant brow ridge and the thin eyes, but because his mouth is open, it’s harder to see the wide nose. Still, it’s a neat image, and the way McFarlane shows Peter flinching as the Lizard roars at him is well done. Peter is very human in this story, and this is one place where it shows nicely.
Here’s a view of “Peak McFarlane” Mary Jane. McFarlane didn’t change her too much from early in his run, except ink her a bit more heavily to flounce up her hair even more (look at that volume!), but you do notice that her eyes are even more feline than they were a few years earlier, when McFarlane redesigned her. Her green irises are far larger than we might expect, filling up the thin eye shape that McFarlane uses. The combination – large irises, thin eyes – make them far more cat-like. He also uses thick inks around her eyes, which of course implies make-up and isn’t unrealistic, but it does make them stand out more. Her face is a bit more rounded than it was in the earlier comic, but it’s really the eyes that are so different. As I noted, his lush inking job on her hair in both panels is really well done, too.
One more incredibly detailed page, as Calypso decides to skedaddle. The breaking of panel borders doesn’t work as well as usual here, partly because of the coloring, as Wright uses the nauseating green on Calypso in the center of the page, which isn’t a bad hue but tends to blend her into the background. The drawing also bleeds into Panel 1, and even though Calypso speaks in Panel 1, the fact that we only see her hand and that mess of black hair and the fact that part of her is intruding from Panel 3 makes the transition less seamless than it could be. Still, McFarlane gives us another cool, black-edged Spidey in Panel 1 and the groovy drawing of Calypso in Panel 3, as she smiles triumphantly because she’s just mind-fucked Spider-Man for five issues. As we’ve been seeing, McFarlane makes sure that we can see every drop of water on Peter in Panel 2 and all the wreckage in Panel 3. This might not be your preferred style of art, but you can’t say that McFarlane was taking any pages off!
After working on Spider-Man for another year, McFarlane left the book to help form Image and spawn, well, Spawn. That’s where we’ll find him tomorrow as we finish up with the Toddster! Feel free to wander through the archives while you wait!
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