Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I Didn't Love the Story, but Defenders Looks Amazing

Yesterday, I was all, "Boo! Hiss! Defenders is lame!" Although, really, I was just complaining about Dr. Strange's role in the story. As a whole I think it's so-so from a narrative standpoint, but it's made much better by being a great-looking comicbook. And what makes that even more impressive is how many different artists contributed to the consistently beautiful run. I referred to the book in my previous post's title as "Matt Fraction's Defenders", which is wording I chose because Fraction writes all twelve issues, but in truth this series belongs to its many artists. So let's talk about them team-by-team and see why they're so strong individually and together.
     The first three issues, and also #7, are drawn by Terry and Rachel Dodson (pencils and inks, respectively) with colors from Sonia Oback. This is the group that establishes the tone for the rest of the book, and they set the bar mighty high for the artists who follow. The Dodsons deserve their reputation, and their style is particularly well-suited for superhero comics. I like how the super-people still look like people, slightly grander than normal but not overly distorted. Even Namor looks human in his own way, as does the Hulk to the degree that he can. They stand out in a crowd, but they're not totally disconnected from the rest of us, either. In a story that is particularly larger than life, even for the genre, I liked having the heroes be a little more subdued in their appearance. They still completely kick ass, and their immense power is always evident, so it's not like they aren't clearly superheroes. They're just not as broad in figure as such characters can often be.
     Another reason this aspect of the Dodsons' art works so well is Oback's shimmering colors. You expect it from, say, Silver Surfer, but everybody has their own glow. Red She-Hulk's skin looks stiff and a bit metallic, highlighting her indestructibility. Iron Fist shines most brightly in the gold pieces of his costume, making them the catchy visual flare they should be. Black Cat's suit is oil and her hair somewhere between smoke and silver. It's bright and shiny pop comics art, matching the Dodsons' fluidity and energy measure for measure.
     Not going chronologically but instead by quantity of issues drawn, Defenders #8-10 are drawn by Jamie McKelvie, credited as usual "w/Mike Norton," which I think means they both do pencils and inks but McKelvie does the bulk of the work, based on something Norton once said on Twitter. McKelvie and Norton actually remind me of the Dodsons in a lot of ways, but with slightly crisper lines. Not more detailed, necessarily, just a little more present. The Dodsons tend to get sketchier with background figures or shots from far away. Less so McKelvie and Norton.
     Anyway, these issues are deeper in the series, so there are more moving pieces and giant moments, making them my favorite, visually speaking. The big alternate reality S.H.I.E.L.D.-Hydra-Defenders battle, Silver Surfer being barraged with nothingness when the Omegas contact him, and John Aman's treasure room—these are giant single images burned in my brain, but the overall storytelling from this artistic team is also superb. The pace is lively, making the action feel almost non-stop, but it's always doing new things and a load of fun to look at. Also they draw like the best Ant-Man (Scott Lang, if it matters) ever in issue #10. I can't put my finger on why, but I think it has to do with how disheveled and frantic he looks.
     The first two McKelvie-Norton issues are colored by Dommo Aymara, whose work also reminds me of Oback's but is not quite the same. Aymara's characters do have a certain sheen to them, but the colors are not quite as bright. It's a gloomier time in the narrative than it was at the beginning, and Aymara's hues complement that.
     Jordie Bellaire colors issue #10, as well as #11, acting as the transition between McKelvie and Norton and the artist who brings the series to a close, Mirco Pierfederici. Here's how you know for sure that Bellaire is a grade-A colorist: her palette, texture, and technique changes to fit the penciler(s) of a given issue. So with McKelvie and Norton, Bellaire continues the classic comicbook coloring tradition. Her colors don't have the glimmer of Oback's or Aymara's, but they're just as bold and eye-catching. They're flat, solid tones, especially fitting since this is the issue with the most active use of white space. When Pierfederici takes the helm, Bellaire adds grit and anger to her colors, and uses fewer of them on each page. Other than blacks and white to outline the figures, the first five pages go: 1. dominantly red and orange with a section of green-brown in bottom corner, 2. entirely orange with one spot of blue (Silver Surfer's eyes), 3. washed completely in blue, 4. half washed in blue, half in yellow, 5. all yellow. It's stark and it attacks the senses, but it's in service of Pierfederici's lines. He, too, is rougher and more furious than his predecessors on the book. His cast is still distinct and all believably built, but definitely not as firm as any of the already-discussed artists. This is not because he has less control over his lines, just that he is intentionally going for something a bit more jittery. At least, it seems intentional when paired with Bellaire. It comes across as a hair more sloppy in the final issue of the series, #12, colored by Veronica Gandini.
     Gandini's work isn't inherently worse than Bellaire's. It has more of a painted feel, soft and fuzzy but very deep. That's all well and good, but it clashes with Pierfederici's tone. Where Bellaire leaned into the skid of his shaky lines, Gandini seems like she wants to smooth them over, and instead ends up highlighting their wobbliness. It's not a bad-looking issue, but it might be the worst-looking in this volume of Defenders.
     But I'm not supposed to be negative here, so let's rewind back to issues #4-6, each one handled by its own artistic team. First up is #4 with Michael Lark on pencils, Stefano Gaudino and Brian Thies on inks, and Matt Hollingsworth on colors. Story-wise, this is my least favorite issue (Dr. Strange at his worst from cover to cover), and it's the least active chapter, so the art doesn't have a ton to do. That said, it's appropriately moody and grim for scenes of Strange being super serious, sad, and in love. And it's the most grounded artwork in the book, also tailored to its issue in that way. Everything is drawn and colored realistically, because except for a few brief flashes of magic (which get more psychedelic shades) there's nothing exceptional or super going on here. So the visuals are perfect for the glum chapter they're for, and capturing the precise mood of an issue is a good deal more than many artists seem capable of doing.
     For Defenders #5, hooray! It's the Breitwesiers! Mitch does the pencil-and-ink stuff and some of the colors, with wife Bettie tackling the rest. It's their coloring I really like the most. Very muted, natural, and alive. Mitch is a good artist, too, but a little unfinished for my taste. Nobody looks the same from panel to panel, and there's an overall feeling of impermanence to everything. So the colors totally make it for me. They're soothing, they warm me from inside even though most of the issue is set in the cold dark of the depths of the ocean. I'm comforted by Breitweiser color, calmed by it, which makes me take my time when I'm reading the issue and really absorb every page. Since this issue seeds a lot of really important stuff for what follows, it's the best place for these artists to be.
     Last but not least (or, well, actually tied for least in terms of issues drawn) is issue #6's team of Victor Ibañez and Chris Sotomayor, with Tom Palmer and Terry Pallot credited as "finishers." Not sure how to know who's responsible for what, but regardless, this issue is the one that stands out most from the pack. Not the best, but the one most unlike any other issue. Ibañez's work is a couple of steps closer to the cartoon end of the comicbook spectrum. You see it right in the first panel, where Iron Fist and Misty Knight are looking totally dumbfounded with these giant bug eyes. Nothing is wildly unrealistic, mind, but it's further off the ground than the rest of the series. And I think it's good, especially right here in the middle, and coming after the two issues I just talked about. They were both the most subdued beats of the story and therefore had most restrained art. Swinging as far in the other direction as you plan to go before diving into the second half of the book makes perfect sense. And this issue also introduces John Aman as the villain, and features the Defenders' first tiny taste of combat with him, so it needed to get the energy back.
     Sotomayor's coloring is reliable and actually a bit more true-to-life than Ibañez's stuff. What I like most about it is the way he makes everything looked naturally aged during the flashback scenes. And when John Aman arrives in the present day, everything glows green from him and his crazy billowing smoke, and I always like to see a single color take over for a little while when it's done well. All told, this issue is, like the two before it, a beautiful single installment.
     But wait, before I go, I'd be the worst comicbook blogger on the planet if I spent all this time naming every creator responsible for Defenders without talking about letterer Clayton Cowles. He did all twelve issues just like Fraction, so whatever creative successes or failures this series has are on his shoulders, too.
     And he does marvelous lettering all the way through. There are a lot of places where Fraction will have omniscient third-person narration intercut with one or more characters' internal monologues, and Cowles' choices about how to color and shape each caption box always make it glaringly clear who's saying what. Not that he created that solution, he just gets it spot on every time, and spaces things out in an easy-to-follow way. His best spots are when he gets to introduce a new hero to the cast, though. They always get a full-on, logo-style namecard, and everyone's is designed differently to match their character. It's a fun and funny little running gag, which only works because Cowles puts so much effort into it. He also must have been responsible for placing all the little phrases/ads in the bottom margins of the pages, so it was just a very demanding and detailed lettering job. But he stuck with it from start to finish and never dropped the ball (that I can remember noticing).
     So there you have it. Defenders is an aggravating story with one horrible main character, put together in an extremely attractive package for your reading pleasure.

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