When I was very young, even before I was able to read, my father would bring home comic books for my older brother and me. I was captivated not only by the stories, but also the drawings. My favorite artists were Jack Kirby (with whom I share a birthday) and Jim Mooney. Later, in the mid-1970s, when I would spend my own hard-earned quarters on Marvel titles at the neighborhood corner store, I really liked Ross Andru. I’ve been thinking about why my young self was so attracted to the work of these pencillers.
Kirby’s appeal is obvious – he was the de Kooning of the comic book world. Stan Lee even nicknamed him “King,” although I don’t think he had Willem in mind when he did so. Kirby’s work on Fantastic Four was so dynamic and so much more sophisticated than most comics of the time. He knew when to go big, which was often – the FF didn’t have much down time. This epic approach aligned perfectly with the near-operatic nature of the stories. His heroic portrayal of both men and women exuded power, and his depiction of otherworldly phenomena was mysterious and electrifying.
The main reason I liked Mooney’s Amazing Spider-Man work so much may have simply been the way he drew Gwen Stacy. I should note that during Mooney’s run, John Romita and John Buscema also worked on the book – sometimes all three would contribute to a single issue. Nevertheless, it was Mooney’s work which left the biggest impression on me. He surpassed even Romita in making both Gwen and Mary Jane Watson so glamorous and captivating, but approachable. MJ was an outgoing, sexy, flamboyant party girl, but my heart belonged to Gwen, a subdued, attractive, thoughtful young woman – a sort of Grace Kelly-type. Mooney not only made her look beautiful, but strong, as well. She was sensitive, but no pushover. This was important to me as someone who, even as a child, found Olive Oyl offensive. (By the way, don’t get me started on Mr. Magoo, either.) On the other end of the spectrum, Mooney also drew a great J. Jonah Jameson, who is no beauty by any conceivable measure.
When one hears talk of great Spider-Man pencillers, Andru is usually left out of the conversation, but I think he ranks among the best. He portrayed one aspect of the stories – New York City – better than any previous Spider-Man artist. He gave the books the feel of being in a specific setting – they didn’t take place in a generic big city. Besides depicting landmarks, Andru also drew the canyonesque city from every imaginable angle, from street level to dizzying heights – NYC itself became a character in the book. In addition to excelling at capturing the face of the city, Andru was also notable for his faculty with human facial expression; one could even see emotion on Spider-Man’s mask. Another of his strengths was conveying movement, so important in a superhero comic. He sometimes did so by having multiple versions of the same figure in a single panel. At the time, I didn’t know the term “futurism,” and may have been only vaguely familiar with Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, but nonetheless I knew it was compelling.
Each of these artists also had an impeccable sense of visual clarity, as well as a strong compositional eye. I don’t think I thought much about any of this until I was a young teenager – I just knew what I liked. However, I do believe that seeing this work at such a young age did instill in me the importance of those aspects of drawing.
By the 1980s, although I would occasionally wander into a comic shop, which was then a new thing, what I saw wasn’t interesting. The time when superhero comics spoke to me had seemingly passed.
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