Axel-In-Charge: "Secret Wars" Jam Session Talking "A-Force," "Ultimate End" and More
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Tony Harris, and the issue is Starman #43, which was published by DC and is cover dated June 1998. Enjoy!
Harris might be most famous for Starman, which is a tremendous comic (it’s the next thing I’m writing about in Comics You Should Own, which is taking forEVAH). He began on the book, and I’m not sure if he ended up drawing even half of the pages that form the epic, but he’s still the artist most closely associated with the comic, mainly because his style for Opal City and Jack Knight was so distinctive. Early on, his art was a bit rougher, but he grew into a more mature, amazing style as he got more confident. This is his penultimate issue, which has some nice double-page spreads and some nice action but also shows how good he was with the figure work. I did a quick search on the Internet to see if anyone had scanned the double-page spreads in a larger format so I wouldn’t have to combine two smaller images, but I couldn’t find them, so you’re going to have to double-click on the image halves if you want to see more detail. Sorry!
Harris designed Opal City, and we see here that he could really go all out with the places in the town. This isn’t the Art Deco section of Opal, but the “olde towne,” where Jack feels most comfortable. There’s a lot of Tudor-style architecture on this page, which feels a bit kitschy, reflecting Opal’s odd tension with its own past, which comes into play often during this series. Harris crowds the buildings together, as Olde Towne is a warren of alleys and tunnels, but he gives Jack’s store a bit more room so we can see it clearly. It’s an impressive façade, with four (4!) columns around the … would we call that a narthex? Harris makes sure to put some random lines on the columns to age them, and he adds towers that look like chess pieces and that wizard-looking dude to complete the front. Notice the flourish on the sign and near the bases of the columns – Harris took his designs of the city seriously, and it’s part of what makes Opal such a great character in Starman. Oh, and of course Faust is playing at the opera house – that just seems like the kind of thing Opal City would love.
On the very next page, we get another double-page splash of the interior of Jack’s store, and once again Harris goes nuts with it. I don’t know how much input James Robinson – who likes collecting things – had in putting stuff in Jack’s store or if it was all Harris, but it’s very keen. Harris takes his time to fill every nook and cranny, from the figurines on the left side of the store to the rocking horse on the right. We can tell, from the slightly off-model Betty Boop, that Harris drew all of this and didn’t rely too much on photo reference. I’m sure he looked at posters and statues and such, but he does a very nice job making everything in the store look like it belongs. His line work ranges from delicate to heavy, and he uses nice spot blacks on the lamps next to the vintage cash register. The use of the blacks allow him to ditch some of the holding lines, which helps make the lamps and the bust in the lower right look, in the first instance, a bit more metallic, and in the second instance, a bit smoother and worn, adding some age. Ted and Jack are nicely done, too. We can see the chunks of black on Ted’s suit that we saw yesterday, and Harris uses sharp lines on Jack’s hair and a bold design on his shirt, which Gregory Wright makes bolder by using pink to stand out against the black blocks. Notice the flow of the page, too, from the front to the back, even though no one is “moving” and it’s one panel. The floorboards and the beam above the two men telescope the view, so while we would move from left to right (as that’s how we read), Harris does a subtle job helping us move and also take everything in, as the beam points us to the grandfather clock at the top of the stairs, for instance. It’s a well designed page.
Jack is trying to go into space to find Will Payton, so he’s talking to various people about leaving. Here he’s talking to the Shade about going to see the Justice League, but that’s really not important, is it? I mentioned yesterday that Harris got more and more interested in different kinds of page layouts, and while this isn’t all that amazing, just the fact that Harris uses those stylized fleurs-de-lis and places two cherubs in the lower left and right corners for no real reason is interesting (I’m going to say they’re fleurs-de-lis because on the previous page, Harris uses more recognizable ones, and the Shade likes his Frenchie things, man!). The cherubs are there, I suppose, to remind us of the Shade’s bohemian, somewhat pre-Raphaelite lifestyle, where he drinks absinthe and reminisces about Oscar Wilde. The Shade, to Robinson’s credit, is far less annoying than you’d expect him to be, especially as Harris draws him so well as a dandy whom you might want to smack (and, you know, get eaten by his shadow demons for your trouble). This page is a good example of that. Jack sits, rather bluntly, with his head tilted downward and his mouth closed in resignation. The Shade sips his tea, but then we get Panel 4, and Harris draws him with the shadow cutting dashingly across his face, his right pinkie extended delicately, and his left hand almost on his chin, matching the sarcasm in his dialogue. He needs a smack, in other words, and Harris does a really wonderful job making us want to smack him (and, again, get eaten for our daring). Notice, too, that Harris is using solid lines to draw the smoke, making it almost like curled paper rising from the tea cups. It’s an interesting stylistic tic that makes this scene a bit more … nostalgic, I guess? Reminiscent of a bygone age, I would say. The dude in the turban helps with that, too. And hey, so do the cherubs. It’s all connected!
I love how Jack goes to visit the Justice League to get a rocket, and they just happen to be fighting 1950s-type robots so that it fits in with the aesthetic of the book. I wonder how Robinson knew they would be fighting retro-futuristic robots that day? Anyway, you’ll notice that like we saw yesterday, when Harris isn’t in close-up, especially when he’s doing action, he uses big black blocks, which may help his action scenes (I’m not sure if that’s why he does it), but definitely help keep the vibe of the book, as the lack of details and the basic shapes in Panels 2 and 6, for instance, really make this even more retro than the fact that the robots stepped off of a set of a Fifties sci-fi movie. Harris still does a very nice job with the details on the robots, however, as we see in Panels 1 and 3. He uses crisp, clean lines, which are a bit contrasted with Jack’s more edgy look. Wade von Grawbadger inked this, and I’m wondering, as I often do with pencilers and inkers, what the raw pencils look like. I imagine Harris drew in the teeth-like rows on Jack’s jacket, and then von Grawbadger added the blacks, but I don’t know. Anyway, I love that Harris adds the lightning bolts in Panel 3 and the way he draws the robot’s head exploding in Panel 5, because he doesn’t introduce any ambiguity – they’re just jagged energy, and they fit the aesthetic of the book more than if Harris or Gregory Wright had tried to paint in some electricity in post. The crisp lines of the lightning bolts fit well with the robot’s lines in Panel 3, and the explosion frames the precise work showing the gears and nuts/bolts flying from the head in Panel 5.
Starman is, of course, a pretty grand love story (even though Jack and Sadie’s relationship starts off … odd), and here Harris draws them talking about Sadie’s request that Jack go into space to find her brother. Once again, if Harris is using models, I don’t care too much, because he does such a nice job with the actual drawing. He swirls Sadie’s hair beautifully, and he and von Grawbadger add wonderful texture to it. Her facial expression is one of wonderment and love, as Jack agrees to do something so magnificent that she still can’t believe it. Harris smartly shows just her fingers trapped in Jack’s hair, which is what it would look like but seems stranger in comics, even though it shows how close the two of them have become. Jack, meanwhile, is a bit in shadow, which is because of the position of his face but also could signify the trouble ahead for him and Opal itself. I like how Harris divides the page into six panels, technically, and places Sadie in the middle of Panel 2, unblemished by borders, but cuts Jack’s face a little, showing his slight ambiguity about what he’s doing. Harris, as we’ve seen, is quite good at putting his characters in regular clothing, and Sadie’s outfit is quite nice. Von Grawbadger doesn’t overhatch, which is always nice to see, but he does add nice definition to the characters as they share this nice moment.
Harris usually does a very good job with the Shade’s powers, as we see here. He uses ragged black chunks, and notice that the Shade’s left shoulder appears to bleed into his powers and his right hand has completely blurred into them. These nice touches make the Shade’s powers even creepier. Harris gives us a silhouette of the Shade, with white ink showing his eyes and the brim of his top hat, and the effect is very cool. Yesterday I mentioned that Harris began to like circular panels, and here’s another one!
Starman is a beautiful book that was lucky enough to have a lot of great artists working on it, but Harris was a big reason why it got off the ground with such success. Tomorrow, I’ll check out a creator-owned book that I bought solely because Harris was drawing it. That’s just how I roll, yo! Be sure to peruse the archives – you never know what you might have missed!
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.