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CSBG Archive

Year of the Artist, Day 223: Tony Harris, Part 2 – Starman #43

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

10 Comments

tom fitzpatrick

August 11, 2014 at 2:45 pm

Creator-owned book, huh? My guess is it’s either Obergeist or War Heroes.

What will it be?
What will it be?
Tomorrow, we will see?
Either way, a joy we will see!

This book was the only survivor in a number of series that spun out of Zero Hour. I remember fully intending to skip it as I had no real knowledge of, or interest in, the character. But when I picked up that first issue at my LCS (a zero issue, of course) Harris’ art absolutely floored me and I had to bring it home. It was just the cure I needed for the Image art style fatigue that had set in and caused me to shed title after title due to boredom. I loved Starman.

And I really think this Harris did his best work here. Oh, he’s continued to do good stuff since (and we’ll see it over the next three days!) and I’d certainly never begrudge an artist stretching themselves, but his Starman work just clicked with me and I don’t get tired of looking at it.

I’m eager to see your commentary on his later works and your thoughts on his evolution.

tom: Well, War Heroes would be quite a jump in time, wouldn’t it? :)

Papercut Fun: As I noted above, I’m going to write more about Starman soon, because I love it, too. Time is not my friend these days, though!

I’m not sure if it’s his best work – parts of it are excellent, but I think he still wasn’t quite as good at some of the action stuff as he would later get. But the art is really nice. Starman is one of those series that I point to when people claim the 1990s sucked.

Point them to Astro City, as well. And Strangers in Paradise, and Bone, and… well, you get the picture.

I’m glad you mentioned clothes, because that was something that struck me early on, about Harris. he could do clothes so well, especially the vintage stuff. So many artists of that and subsequent eras couldn’t do real clothes. They did spandex and leather jackets (usually at the same time) but couldn’t do a decent suit to save their lives, and couldn’t even begin to touch women’s fashions. Harris could; and, he drew a mean pirate. His Black Pirate was very much out of the Howard Pyle resevoir (I believe he homaged an actual Pyle piece, in the design).

Starman was the coolest superero book of the decade, and one of the coolest ever. It’s a shame that Harris and Robinson grew to be at odds, as I always wondered how Harris would have handled the later stories, especially “Grand Guignol.” I quickly grew to like Peter Snejberg, especially once Jack arrived on Rann; but, Grand Guignol seemed to be missing something. Not so much artistically, but structurally. Robinson teased a lot of stuff that he didn’t quite deliver. He was really building up the Mist for another confrontation, then she is pretty much pushed aside rather quickly in that story. The Ragdoll was another that was teased, who didn’t turn out quite so menacing. I still remember the conceptional drawing that Harris made, that were shown early on. I would have loved to have seen what they intended for the future, as I don’t think it’s what we got.

@greg.. Haris did a real great job on Starman…

As Papercut fun said= it was the only title that remains from Zero Hour..

but.; Harris wasnt alone on the title, James Robinson did write it. and lets not Forget WVG on inks, the merging of both artists is the reason the art si so good.

Harris and Robinson “grew to be at odds”?

I have never herd that before. What happened (or where can I read about it)?

Jeff: I’ve just been reading the Omnibus editions, and Robinson doesn’t mention much about a falling out between him and Harris. It seems that Harris wasn’t terribly happy with the direction of the book, but not to the point where he was angry at Robinson. I could be mistaken, but even if they had a falling out, Robinson implies that they’re fine now.

I love Grand Guignol on a re-read, because it’s clear that Robinson is really subverting our expectations and making these villains, who thought they were so hot shit, less than that when confronted with Culp. It was weird, sure, but I think it was also Robinson’s way of pushing Jack himself out of the book, as he never was the most enthusiastic superhero. It slowly stops being his story, which is kind of neat. But maybe it would have been different had Harris been drawing the story.

ollieno: Hey, I did mention von Grawbadger and Robinson!!! :)

I happened to find an omnibus edition of Starman at a used bookstore a couple of years ago and decided to check it out. Wow! Pretty awesome writing & art. Got the first few omnibuses up to this issue. Need to get the next ones, as my budget allows.

I don’t mean “at odds,” as in nasty fighting; but both have said words to the effect that they had differences about the evolution of the book and Harris departed. In the “Times Past,” afterword, in the first Omnibus, Robinson states, “To begin with, I guess I should say that I was a far different person then I am now. I was vain, stupid and blindly ambitious. I was hungry for some sort of recognition within the field of comics and, as a result, jealous of anyone who seemed to be having a more successful time of it than me.” He goes on to say, in a later portion, “Tony Harris. God, I’ve known this guy for so long. Are we friends? I don’t know. I know we’ve argued like friends….I confess I’ve never really gotten a handle on the guy.” Then, he adds, “What I found-Tony did indeed have an attitude. He cared about his work…. We argued, sure, but always for the right reasons and so the book were better for the conflict.” In volume 3, he says that issue #30 marks a time when Tony was slowing down and Robisnson could sense Harris was being pulled in other directions, including creating his own book. So, I think you could say that they had definite viewpoints about how the book should go, and they didn’t always gel. I swear I read an interview with Harris that said something to that effect, at the time of Obergeist’s launch; but I can’t remember where (maybe CBG). Anyway, I think that between differences of opinion on the story and Harris’ desire to control his own work led to him leaving, ultimately.

Meanwhile, Robinson writes about going through depression in that timeframe, with Archie’s loss, a marriage that was failing, and other things. He talks about frivolously spending money to fill a void, and excessive drinking and “debauchery.” He even contemplated leaving the book after sending Jack into space, but pulled back from that, with the aid of David Goyer. I think a lot of that affected the way that the later stages played out. I think his perspective had changed from when he conceived and teased those ideas, and he altered some of the course of the story. Maybe not. Maybe my imagination was beyond his original intention; but, at the time of Goodwin’s death, he spoke about a lot of wind going out of his sails; and, to me, Grand Guignol feels like it. It’s still suitably epic and unexpeced; but, some of the storytelling logic seems to have gotten muddied. maybe, as you say, Robinson intended to subvert the reader’s expectations; but, I have a hunch that wasn’t the case. I did feel that, following Grand Guignol, everything seemed to progress in the manner teased, with the final meeting with David and the resolution of the Starman of 1957. It’s just Grand Guignol that seems to have gone through a metamorphosis between conception and execution, in my eyes.

Jan Robert Andersen

September 14, 2014 at 1:16 am

James Robinson has had an impressive body of work. There have been ups and Downs for sure.

From his early Dark Horse and independent publishers work such as Terminator working with Matt Wagner, Grendel with Teddy Kristiansen and Firearm with Cully Hamner.

He the came to Vertigo and DC working on such as Witchcraft, Vigilante and of course Starman. These titles made me notice him and whomever he was working with.

He then leaft for Wildstorm and Image working on Jim Lee’s WildCATS and his own Leave It To Chance working with Paul Smith.

These titles took him even further both into mainstream and also independent publishers as well.

He worked on Batman in the early to mid 1990s and returned to the character in the mid 2000s. But this was now a somewhat different James Robinson.

His Justice League of America and Superman in the mid to late 2000s never really impressed me much and I never picked up his New 52 Earth Two.

He has returned to Marvel on Fantastic Four and All New Invaders and I have picked both up.

Looking at his work especially Starman, WildCATS and Leave It To Chance stands out.

Starman made me follow Tony Harris to Ex Machina with Brian K Vaughn and the aborted War Heroes with Mark Millar and Spider-Man With Great Powers.

I never picked up Obergeist, the JSA titles and his recent Chin Music but just might after reding these.

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