Alphonse Mucha: A Father of Graphic Art

I’m certain you’ve seen an Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) print at some point in your life.  So many of his prints have saturated the artistic landscape that I think it’s inevitable you’ve seen one.  The problem is you probably didn’t know the man’s name.  Which is a crime.

Alphonse Mucha was the finest example of the Art Nouveau movement of the early 20th century.  It didn’t just involve paintings and prints, but furniture, architecture, interior design, etc.  Strong, sweeping lines, naturalistic scenes and a general organic feel characterized the movement.  Which are all interesting, but I’m more interested in the line work, which you can see reflected in a lot of modern graphic arts, including comics and animation styles.  More specifically, I’m interested in the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha.

Oh, other great artists contributed to the movement, but Alphonse stood out.  He took the basic ideas and created a unique brand which lasts to this day.  The great comic illustrator Charles Vess counts him as one of his primary influences.  I would say that Mucha influenced the entire subset of graphic (or “commercial”) art.

Art Nouveau had a graphic style with sweeping lines and exaggerated flourishes.  Alphonse combined that with a solid, very competent illustrative style and a great eye for colors and symbols.  He did many illustrations for advertisements, handbills and posters, which is probably how the style trickled down through so many advertisements over the years.  He combined that with beautiful women and naturalistic scenes, overlaid with precise, geometric patterns.  This became more than a mere aping of Romance images.  It became a style unto itself.  The sum of the parts is, well . . . just look at his art.  It speaks most eloquently.

Alphonse started out as a singer and his art was merely a ‘hobby’ until 1894, when he came to the attention of Sarah Bernhardt, who took an instant liking to his style and employed him for years.  He expanded his hobby to a full-time career, culminating in his painting series The Slav Epic.  Unfortunately, his Slav nationalism and Jewish roots brought him to the attention of the Nazis when they occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939.  After a brutal interrogation, the aged Alphonse succumbed to pneumonia a few months later.

Not Mucha. But a nice homage.

Today I’ve seen several artists use his style for book covers and comics.  Outside of the art field, his name isn’t widely known.  This is just so the next time you see one of his paintings, you’ll know the man behind it.

Adam Warlock and the Magus (Forgotten Gems)

adam-warlock-01Adam Warlock was a Marvel Comics character who first turned up in the pages of Fantastic Four in 1967.  Cobbled together by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and originally called ‘Him’, Warlock appeared sporadically for several years.  Roy Thomas later turned him into a kind of superhero messiah, inspired by (I’m not kidding) Jesus Christ Superstar.  Several goofy religious elements were used, including a death and resurrection. 

Jim Starlin entered the scene in 1975 as both writer and artist.  Warlock turned from a Christ figure into a paranoid schizophrenic.  To add insult to injury, Warlock battles a cosmic Universal Church of Truth (a thinly-veiled jab at Catholicism.)

(Side note: Jim later took another jab at Catholicism with his “Church of the Instrumentality” in Dreadstar.)

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It’s at this point that Adam Warlock gets interesting.  Jim’s take on Warlock struck me as a superhero version of Elric.  Starlin admits he was reading the Elric books at the time, but claims he read them after Warlock (I have my doubts.)  Parallels with Elric were obvious to me long before I read his claims.  Instead of a soul-drinking sword (Elric’s infamous Stormbringer,) Warlock has a soul-drinking gem on his forehead.  More than that, the existential angst of the two characters is nearly identical. 

adam-warlock-07Battling the Universal Church of Truth and its sinister leader, The Magus, Warlock engages the help of several characters familiar to younger readers–Gamora and Thanos.  Following several battles where Warlock devours enemies souls, he begins to go insane from the experience.  Finally encountering The Magus in person (complete with an Afro inspired by Angela Davis) he discovers that The Magus is his future self.  The Magus is what he will become after a thousand years of cosmic torture.

Cheery stuff, eh?

Thanos enters into the story when his protege, Gamora, fails to keep The Magus from adam-warlock-02‘marking’ Warlock to summon the being that will torture him: The In-Betweener (No, I didn’t make that up.)  Battling to save Warlock from his fate, it turns out that Thanos is only doing it because The Magus is the ‘champion of life’ and Thanos is ‘the champion of death’.  Even though The Magus is evil, he still aids life and civilization, whereas Thanos wants universal genocide.

To prevent becoming The Magus, Warlock commits ‘cosmic suicide’ by erasing his timeline in which he becomes The Magus.  Doomed to die in the near future, Warlock flies adam-warlock-06off after The Magus disappears from existence.  Thanos later kills Adam while in battle with The Avengers, only to have Warlock’s soul briefly return from the Soul Gem and turn Thanos to stone.

While melodramatic, the artwork and writing (especially at the time) are pretty damn good. Overly-melodramatic and angst-ridden, but good.

Much later, Starlin retconned the Soul Gem as just one of the six Infinity Stones in the adam-warlock-08Infinity Gauntlet storyline.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe is right on the cusp of introducing the last of the ‘Infinity Stones’–the Soul Stone.  Figured now was a good time to recap its origins.

Go dig the original or reprints up and take

You thought I made it up, didn't you?

You thought I made it up, didn’t you?

a look.  Well worth a second glance.

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Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez: An Artist Who Needs More Love

jose-lgl-05Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez first came to my attention back in the early eighties in the DC Comic Atari Force.  The only reason I was aware of this comic was because they included mini-comics in the Atari 2600 games for some titles like Defender and Berzerk.  The mini-comics later became an actual DC Comics series which lasted 20 issues.  Jose’s style appealed to me immediately.

jose-lgl-07Jose was born in 1948 in Spain, later moving to Argentina.  He worked for the (now defunct) Charlton Comics in the 60s.  In 1974 he moved to New York City where he started work with DC Comics.  He says he gets inspiration from Golden Age artists such as Alex Raymond and Hal Foster and his style shows it.  Honestly, I think his style is more dynamic than his inspirations.

(On a side note, there seems to be a penchant in the late sixties and seventies of comic book companies poaching talent from Spain.  Just look at Warren Publishing of the same era.)

I think Jose’s main claim to fame with DC Comics jose-lgl-04isn’t necessarily the books he illustrated.  It’s probably that he put together the DC Style Guide in 1982 that defined the looks of all of DC’s character for years. The merchandising arm of DC Comics used this guide for all licensed merchandise.  Odds are that any merchandise you find from the 80s is either Jose’s artwork, or inspired by it.

jose-lgl-06The art that got my attention was Jose’s run on New Teen Titans.  He followed up George Perez, who left some mighty boots to fill.  It was mentioned by the writer Marv Wolfman that “[H]ad this artist who could draw almost anything”.  Jose only did five issues, but the story was literally Olympian in scope.  Impressed the hell out of me.

(Another side note: George Perez apparently had fans get mad at him when he said Jose was a better artist than him.)

jose-lgl-11Later in the 80s, Jose did a mini-series called Cinder and Ashe.  A rather grim, adult title with nothing even vaguely superheroic.  It was DC’s attempt to create more adult oriented titles as comics readers demanded something more than four-color superheroes. The writing was decent, but the artwork made it.  (The comic has the dubious distinction of being the first depiction of rape I recall in comics.)

Jose received an Eisner Award nomination for his work with Howard Chaykin on Twilight in the early 90s.  Since then, I lost track of him.  I only discovered with this research that he illustrated one of the On the Road to Perdition books in 2003.

jose-lgl-01So far as I know, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez is still working today at age 68.  Check out his work.  An unsung titan of comics illustration.

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Wendy Pini: An Artist Who Needs More Love

Wendy Pini 02Back in my youth in the early eighties, I ran across an indie comic at a science fiction convention.  It was called Elfquest.

I had never seen a comic like this before.  It was in a larger format, was detailed black & white and didn’t have superheroes or any characters I was familiar with.  The style was also . . . well, it drew me in as soon as I looked at it.  It was done by a husband and wife team named Wendy and Richard Pini.  I snapped up the first issue, went to a quiet corner and read through it.  Then I went back and grabbed all the issues I could afford (#1-6.)  I read through the first six issues over and over for the next few months, wishing I could get my hands on the following issues (this was before the rise of comic shops throughout the country.) I started drawing obsessively by copying her art.Wendy Pini 03

A couple of years later I found a new, local comic shop (B&D Comics) and found the rest of the issues up to that point.  I was astounded yet again at not only the artwork, but the writing and storytelling.  Keep in mind that at this point, independent comics were in their larval stage and anything other than Marvel and D.C. were considered ‘odd’.  I entered the D&D addiction around the same time and Elfquest and D&D went together like bullets and guns.  For a couple of years I was elf-crazed.

Moreover, all of this was done by a girl.  A girl!  Hell, I was only vaguely familiar with females at the time, and in a purely theoretical fashion.  I was incredibly shy and introverted and in Middle School–a hellish combination.  Here was one of these mythical female creatures doing amazing writing and drawing in a genre I loved.  What sorcery was this?

Wendy Pini 04Other Elfquest books started appearing on regular bookstores in malls during this period.  Not only were they pretty and glossy, but were in color.  A few years later and Marvel Comics starting reprinting the comics in a standard comic book format.

(The story goes that Wendy and Richard went to Marvel and pitched Elfquest to them and were turned down flat.  Years later after they had exploded in the indie market, Marvel approached them to allow them to reprint Elfquest in their Epic line of creator-owned comics.  I can only imagine how satisfying that felt.)

I digress, however. Elfquest is amazing, but I want to talk primarily about Wendy.  As the years passed, I picked up more information about her.  About her “Law & Chaos” project, for instance.  She had tried to put together an animated movie of an Elric story, all by herself.  For those unfamiliar, Elric was the brooding, elvish anti-hero of Michael Moorcock. The project failed, as you might have imagined due to the massive efforts required to make even a short animated film, but does show the awesome level of commitment this woman had to her artwork.

Wendy Pini 05What truly shows her dedication to her craft is the flawless narrative artwork she has.  Her primary goal in her artwork is to tell a story–and she does it flawlessly.  One of my biggest beefs with newer comic artists is the lack of clear storytelling.  Sure, they can put together pretty pictures, but you often don’t understand the story without the dialogue.  A good artist should be able to tell a story without a single bit of dialogue.  Wendy could do it and make it look easy.

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A page with virtually no dialogue from EQ issue #5

That kind of narrative art is rare these days.  The comics look great but too many artists are so busy making gorgeous illustrations that they neglect to tell a clear story, wherein you never doubt where the characters are or what they are doing.

Despite the success of Elfquest, Wendy gets little recognition from the comics industry.  When I was in the Joe Kubert School, I showed some of her artwork to one of the instructors.  He looked through it in astonishment and said something to the effect of “This is great!  Who is this person?”  My jaw dropped.

You can drop names like Todd McFarlane, John Byrne, or Jim Lee and you’ll get tons of fanboy recognition.  Wendy Pini?  No, not so much.  Not sure why.  Because she’s a woman?  Maybe.  Or maybe because her unconventional subject matter, including the Masque of the Red Death.

Wendy Pini 01On a more amusing note, I found out just a few years ago that she used to dress up like Red Sonja for a show she did with Frank Thorne at conventions called “Sonja and the Wizard”.  Amazing how much the woman captured the part!

Do yourself a favor and read through her works and give her some support.  She’s earned it a dozen times over.