Friday, March 15, 2013

The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation Part 13

The thirteenth in a group of 15 posts on X-Factor volume 3.

Good and Bad With a Dash of Ugly
The Artists of X-Factor #1-50

Caveat(s): like many who write about comicbooks, I am aware of my tendency to put more weight on the writing than the art. This comes from several places, but the most glaringly obvious reason for me, personally, is that I majored in writing and literature at college. For four years I analyzed other people's prose pretty much non-stop in workshops, class discussions, lengthy papers, and my brain. I only shifted that critical focus to comics less than a year ago, so I am still learning how to talk about art in a consistently accurate, fair, and inclusive way. Also, a lot of times with art (as with all things), it comes down to individual taste, and taste is a tricky thing to try and explain or defend. So yeah, just keep that in mind for this and the next piece, where I'll be talking about artists exclusively. These are going to be fairly brief and direct, because there are a lot of artists to discuss and, more to the point, I know I am not the right guy to get too deep into any artist's work right now. Someday, fingers crossed, I will be, but for now I offer just my most basic impressions of the many, many collaborators Peter David has had on this title.
     I guess I'll just come at this chronologically? That's how I talked about the stories so I may as well do it with the art.
     The opening six-issue arc is penciled by Ryan Sook and Denis Calero (I'm not sure of the exact breakdown of their duties because I own the early issues in collected volumes), and Calero sticks around for X-Factor #8-9 as well, with #7 being Ariel Olivetti's only contribution to the title. Finally, #10-12 are drawn by Renato Arlem with Roy Allen Martinez. And all twelve of these chapters are colored by Jose Villarubia.
     I mention all these names together because I think there's a clear commonality between their approaches to the title. All of these artists lean into the private eye/hard-boiled detective/noir elements. There's a lot of shadow and grit, a hyper-realism that makes the bad times seems worse and the good times a bit stifled. Sook and Calero are the clearest example, possibly just because they have the most pages between them and because they kick things off, and I think they're a good choice and a comfortable fit. X-Factor can feel hopeless at times and terrifying at others, and the realistic-yet-extra-dark nature of the art early on definitely helped solidify those feelings. A lot of these characters are broken inside, so even if nothing terrible is happening at any given moment, they're still dealing with a lot of sadness and pain. Sook and Calero put that pain on display.
     Olivetti is a little brighter and lighter in his pencils, but when shit gets serious in-story he brings a nice edge to the visuals, where everyone seems a little harder and sharper in their features. And Renato Arlem and Roy Allen Martinez's work is somewhat less realistic than what comes before, but still shadowy and shifty. And, maybe even more than with Sook and Calero, their issues really underline the internal turmoil of many of the characters. There's no attempt by these initial artists to be cheerier than the narratives they're drawing. Instead, everyone points us directly to the sadness, preparing us right away for the long and difficult road ahead of this team.
     Villarubia obviously also has a lot to do with the darkness as well. He is the one unchanging artistic element of these opening twelve issues, and much of the shading and underlying gloominess can be attributed to his coloring. And he does a good job of changing his style to fit that of whichever penciler he's working with, something that's true of pretty much all the colorists who have worked on this title for any decent stretch of time. And there haven't been very many. Brian Reber starts with X-Factor #13 and is similarly skilled, able to adjust to a few different pencilers without any awkwardness in the transition. His colors are brighter than Villarubia's, but that change goes hand-in-hand with a shift in the overall visual feel (see below).
     Except for a stray few issues here and there by Chris Sotomayor and Frank D'Armata, Reber's pretty much it until Jeremy Cox becomes the main coloring guy with X-Factor #28. After that, there are a few others who pop up to lend a hand, but more often than not Cox is the colorist from the time he starts all the way to something like issue #213 (though, remember, it goes from #50 to #200 because Marvel hates numbers and/or logic). Like Villarubia and Reber, Cox has to color many different artists' work, but I haven't seen him slip or screw up in any significant way. Though the colors of X-Factor rarely dazzle me, they never disappoint, either. Cox is the most consistent creative force other than Peter David that X-Factor's had, and therefore deserves to be recognized as a big part of the title's success and reliability.
     Pablo Raimondi is next artist to take the helm after Arlem and Martinez, with a few issues done by Pham in the midst of Raimondi's run. Both of these guys are more in the "pop superhero" vein, a little sunnier and broader than the artists they follow. And I also don't think they are quite as strong, though it's not because (or not just because) of this shift in tone. Raimondi and Pham are both just a little less detailed, and their characters look just a smidge less natural, which all adds up to X-Factor losing some of its realism and emotional oomph. Not like it takes a tremendous dip downward in artistic quality, I just prefer it when this series reminds me more of the real world.
     Which happens again during "Messiah Complex" when Scott Eaton is the artist, but there are two problems: 1.The event as a whole spans several titles and becomes, therefore, a visually disjointed mess, and 2. The X-Factor chapters don't include many members of the titular team but DO feature any number of characters from the rest of the X-books. So Eaton does strong work, but only like half counts as an X-Factor artist anyway.
     After that crossover, Raimondi begins to trade off art duties from one issue to another with Valentine De Landro, who has drawn more X-Factor than anyone else to date. Before I dig into De Landro, though, I want to talk Larry Stroman. Right before De Landro draws his longest continuous stretch of issues, Stroman comes in to do a handful, and he is easily my least favorite artist the title has ever had. His figures look like they are sculpted from silly putty, and no one looks quite the same from page to page. There is a definite lack of clarity in places, and a general lack of energy everywhere. And everyone looks downright ugly in the face, with misshapen skulls and noses and misplaced eyes. Stroman has a very unique, immediately recognizable style, and I think it would be a great choice for any number of books. But X-Factor had already established itself so firmly in the more-realistic-than-cartoony camp of comicbook art, and David's writing didn't change to accommodate the dramatic turn-around in visual tone that Stroman's arrival included. The wrongness of Stroman's work is made stunningly obvious at the end of his short time on the book, when De Landro draws one issue in the middle of two drawn by Stroman, all three of which are part of the same story arc. De Landro's issue feels so much more exciting and lively and important, it just highlights the fact that this series is at its best when it stays visually grounded.
     Luckily, as soon as Stroman's last issue is past us, we get De Landro on point for all of X-Factor #39-50 (assisted by Marco Santucci at the start of the run).These issues are, if you'll recall, the sprawling epic that takes place in two time periods and includes the introduction of adult Layla Miller. It's arguably the biggest, boldest, most important storyline ever, and it is where De Landro fully cements himself as one of the best and most reliable artists for this book. He skillfully utilizes aspects of all the artists who precede him. His art tends toward realism---possibly even photo-referencing? It sure look that way in places but not at all in others so it's probably a bit of both---and he's quite adept at showing people wrestling with various levels of pain/guilt/depression. But he's not as regularly dark and dreary as Sook/Calero, able to swing more toward a mainstreem superhero house style when that is what the story calls for. Just at home drawing an army of Multiple Men climbing up a Sentinal as he is with a senile, delusional, wheelchair-bound Dr. Doom living in abject squalor. It is De Landro who establishes grown-up Layla, who shows Madrox absorbing his own son and all of the intense emotional fallout from that, and who gives us characters like Ruby Summers and elderly cyborg Cyclops. And this isn't even at all the end of his time on the title (though it is his longest uninterrupted run by far). He is, no question, my personal favorite artist, and must be a favorite of someone else involved, too, because he's got more issues under his belt than anyone.
     De Landro (and Cox) will still be present after the jump in numbering, though he steps down for the arc immediately following his twelve-issue streak. Which is where I'll pick up next time, with the amazingly-named Bing Cansino.

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