Saturday, January 21, 2012

Keeping it Simple With Batman

I went to a comic book store that was having a clearance sale today, and they had a ton of Batman stuff. I picked up a compilation book of classic comic stories entitled “The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told” (compiling highlights of Batman’s nemesis). I also snagged a couple of random Batman comics for a buck a pop. Honestly, even though I’m a huge cartoon fan, I’ve never been a huge fan of superhero stuff. But I love Batman. Batman has no “super powers” at all, other than a brilliant mind. He’s just a regular ol’ human with a tortured past and a lot of money.

He was created as a comic book hero in the 1940’s by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, and those early comics were as film-noir as you can get. But what made them so good is that they were SIMPLE. There was a hero, a mystery, and a villain. The stories weren’t intertwined and scattered across multiple issues of multiple comic book series. You could just buy a Batman comic book for a dime and get one or two really good stories. Batman and Robin, in the 40’s and 50’s, weren’t TOO dark or TOO campy, but a nice balance. They were really more like Holmes and Watson than anything else, with Bruce Wayne even using chemistry and smoking a pipe. Various artists and writers eventually added to the Batman legacy and created new villains, and they’re still making Batman comics today. And cartoons, and movies, and merchandise.

But looking at the comic books themselves, I think this is really a case of “the original is always the best”. Take, for instance, this page from a 1952 story drawn by artist Dick Sprang. Look at how well drawn and staged it is, and how expressive the characters are, yet simply drawn. Sprang’s not trying to be photo-real, he knows this is a comic book. Sure, you could do something like this in a photo-realistic style, but why?

This page from a “Batman: Gotham Adventures” book from 1998 by artist Ty Templeton draws its inspiration from the early stuff. Actually, it’s based on the 90’s Batman Animated Series that was running at the time, but because that series was based on the classic material, it was, in my opinion, the best interpretation of Batman ever done. Simple, linear designs once again…but it looks awesome.

Then, well, there’s this. Kevin Smith, who directed the Jay and Silent Bob movies among many other films, is a huge comic fan and wrote a Batman comic series in 2009 called “The Widening Gyre”. The artist here is Walter Flanagan. BEAUTIFUL drawings, but it’s almost TOO realistic. The coloring is also trying so hard to be epic that it just doesn’t read as well as the simpler stuff. I bet the original sketches for this were awesome, before some overzealous inker and digital colorist got a hold of it.

My point: keep it simple. Batman's greatest enemy is not the Joker, but the artist who forgets he's drawing a comic book.

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