INTERVIEW: "Batgirl and the Birds of Prey" Hunt Rebirth's Oracle
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Tony Harris, and the story is “Ashes to Ashes” in Green Lantern Corps Quarterly #7, which was published by DC and is cover dated Winter 1993 (it shipped in October). Enjoy!
Early in his career, Tony Harris did a lot of inking and covers, and this is not his first pencil work, but I’ve tried to find some of his earlier stuff and just … can’t. It’s weird. But I did find GLCQ #7, which is handy because it has a Harris-drawn story and the lead story is by another artist I’m probably going to feature this year, so I can kill two birds with one stone. Yay! I’m kind of bummed I didn’t find some of his early work – Harris had been around for about three years by this time, and I’m really curious what his very early work looked like. I found one page on-line from Twilight Zone in 1991, which you can check out if you want.
Harris is already a confident artist in this story, and it wouldn’t be too long before he was drawing Starman (which we’ll check in with tomorrow). Like a lot of his art early on in Starman, he used thick blocks of black in the backgrounds, keeping them simple yet distinctive (before you remind me of the Art Deco glory of Opal City, I’ll point out that while, yes, some of the cityscapes were very detailed, many of them weren’t). The silhouettes are “detailed” in that we can see the clear spires and ornate roofs on the buildings, while Harris uses basic shapes to create the clock and the windows, which Gregory Wright colors a warm orange, contrasting it nicely with the wintry scene outside. Harris uses silhouettes for other things, too, like the gate through which the woman is walking, which makes it seem more eerie and brutal. Even the woman is constructed with blocks of black and blue, which makes her look haunted and, because she’s surrounded by spots of orange, even more lonely in the winter night. I don’t know how Harris or Wright achieved the snowy effect – I assume one of them applied the spots by using a brush that was just dabbed on the art, but I don’t know. I always like that kind of effect, and it works well here.
Our Green Lantern, who calls himself Ash, is hunting vampires (Ron Marz dug vampire stories back then, too!), and when he sees the head vampire (or longtooth, in their parlance), he flashes back to when the head vampire killed his wife. Harris, as we can see, already has a strong line, and I know he has a reputation as a guy who uses a ton of photo reference (which isn’t that big a deal to me, honestly), but you can see here that even though he uses a lot of photographs, he is still able to make his cartooning work really well in the context of the story. The first row is a good way to get us into the flashback, as Harris focuses more closely on Ash’s eye as it tears up, then the fire (the green fire, mind you) appears and takes us back. Harris, at this point, was using hard, angular lines and that hatching where solid blacks turn into comb-like teeth, as we can see in Panel 7 when Ash sees what’s happening to his wife. The flames backlight the vampire and Tasha quite well in Panel 8, and it allows Harris to draw blood without Wright having to color it red, which seems to be more offensive to DC and Marvel than black blood, as we see here. It’s fairly common in comics, and it’s handled well here. Plus, Harris almost links the blood from Tasha’s neck and the blood from the vampire’s mouth, which makes this moment more intimate and creepy. Panel 9, where Ash leaps at the vampire, shows what we can expect from Harris and action over the next few years in Starman. He likes using silhouettes, which is not a bad thing, and the figure work is slightly stiffer, perhaps because he’s not using a model. It’s certainly not bad, but we can see that it’s a bit less confident than his more close-up figure work.
Ash kills a vampire, and Harris shows some more of what he could do at this early stage. Harris must have been a fan of that kind of angular, sharp artwork that we see on Ash’s jacket, because that’s a proto-Jack Knight style if I’ve ever seen it (plus, note the tattoo, which is also very Jack Knight-like, but I seem to recall that Harris had some tattoos at this time, so maybe it’s just Harris-like). His use of that kind of inking, with the spikes emanating from black blocks, makes the vampire’s death look very neat, as Harris simply uses the thick, short lines to encompass the victim’s entire face, disintegrating him. Once again, in Panel 3 we see that he uses more basic shapes when he pulls back, but the composition of the panel is very nicely done – the vampire is on the left, “above” Ash, and the line of the panel leads from the vampire to his victim to Ash, with the fence on the bottom part of the panel mimicking this motion. We get more of that line-of-sight kind of thing in Panel 4, except now Ash has put himself between the vampire and the woman. The vampire’s shadow towering over Ash is a nice touch, too.
Ash gets cocky, and vampire dude slices two of his fingers off, including the one with the ring on it (can I still reference Beyoncé here, or is that too unhip these days?). Harris, who in later years showed that he was unafraid to throw some weird page layouts at us, does it here just a little bit, with the central image (Panel 2, I guess) of the vampire slicing Ashs’s hand off surrounded by four smaller panels, all of which take place almost simultaneously. The blade comes down in Panel 1 (although it looks like a downswing, while the vampire hacks off Ash’s hand with an upswing), Ash reacts in Panel 3, we see a spray of (black) blood in Panel 4, and we see the fingers and the ring lying on the floor in Panel 5. It’s a cool collage of images, from the big image of the vampire slicing away the fingers (hey, red blood!), as his face is sliced in half by a shadow and he appears far larger than our hero, to the shadow of the vampire (hey, what a great movie that was!) falling over the ring and the fingers in the final panel. It’s very cool. The vampire in Panel 6 is a classic early Harris drawing, as he’s all sharp edges and spot blacks. I will say that if you’re wondering, yes, Ash is wearing denim shorts (“jorts”) over what appear to be spandex tights. That’s … an unfortunate look. Let’s just chalk it up to “1993” and move on. [Edit: Marz noted on Twitter that they’re leather chaps. That makes a LOT more sense, considering that Ash is a bit of a cowboy type.]
Ash gets his ring back and kills the vampire, and Harris gives us these two nice pages as the “longtooth” exits this mortal coil. On the first page, we get more of that stippling in the background, which adds some grittiness to this mysterious city where vampires and Green Lanterns wander. Harris does a nice job showing the lantern’s energy bursting out of the vampire’s head as Ash shoves the ring into his gut, and he gives him a good, vexed facial expression as it happens. As we’ve seen, Harris does good work with faces, as he uses thick lines around the eyes to make the characters look more serious. One thing you might notice about the first page is that Harris is using photographs for the background, which, as I’ve pointed out, is fine with me. Harris and Wright make sure it blends well into the page, so it works well. On the second page, the vampire dissolves, and Harris’s thick inks really sell the destruction, as the skin melts away, leaving only the drippy skull. Somehow (we mustn’t ask how!), Ash got his wife’s jewelry back, so he strikes a dramatic pose as he holds it. Notice the circular panel in the lower right – Harris obviously likes using them, because they would become something of a staple in his artwork.
This story is quite nice (and it has a clever twist on the final page), and it shows a lot of what Harris could do early in his career, which translated well to Starman. So you could just come back tomorrow for that, or you can always hang out for a while in the archives!
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