Shiny Shelf


Armitage

By Mark Clapham on 15 October 2009

For the last year-and-a-bit, every issue of the ‘Judge Dredd Megazine’ has been bundled with a reprint booklet in a similar format to the bookshop ‘2000AD’ graphic novels. It’s a nice idea, collecting and reprinting stories that either don’t have the length, or don’t have a big enough potential audience, to justify being collected as books.

The biggest series they’ve run so far have been three collections of ‘Armitage’, writer Dave Stone’s series starring the ‘Judge Dredd’ equivalent of Inspector Morse, a grouchy white-haired detective in Brit-Cit. It’s almost certainly Stone’s best work as a writer, and has recently been revived as a black and white strip drawn by veteran John Cooper, but back in the day it had a different art style.

And, never mind the writing, it’s the art I want to talk about. Because ‘Armitage’ started in the 1990s, and for readers of ‘2000AD’ and its sister mag, the 90s meant one thing only in terms of art – PAINT.

Paint, stipply, splashy, paint. Murky smears and streaky lighting effects because, mark my words, this wasn’t just ‘comics art, but done all with paint’. No, this was a house style, one where artist after artist was forced to pastiche the work of Simon Bisley, whose painted work on ‘Slaine’ and ‘ABC Warriors’ had pushed Tharg’s little comic in a whole new visual direction.

Now Bisley did, and does, paint well. He has his own style, and it’s just that – his style, the way that Simon Bisley paints and the way he sees the world. But for a few mad years in the early 90s, one man’s personal approach was taken as a template. The results were pretty dire.

Take these early ‘Armitage’ stories. Ask me who my two favourite comics artists in the world are, and I’ll answer pretty quickly – Sean Phillips and Charlie Adlard. What I love about these two guys is their mastery of laying down lines, the fluid precision with which they use a few well placed strokes of pencil and ink to create a character, reflect a mood, create drama.

If you’re lucky to see one of them sketch at a convention, or even if you just follow their output via their blogs or their actual published work, you’ll realise that they both work fast and efficiently, and most of all with absolute clarity. Flick open a comic drawn by Phillips or Adlard, and your eye will be drawn across the pages, following the story and characters. Even if you don’t read the words, their storytelling skills will be working on you.

Well, Phillips and Adlard are both artists on these early ‘Armitage’ strips, all done in the 1990s ‘2000AD’ fully painted style, and the end product isn’t pretty. I never thought I’d see a page of art by one of these artists where I couldn’t tell what was going on, but I found them here. The grungy pallete stiffens the action, obscures characterisation… it’s a poor fit.

While both artists were still developing their styles, it wasn’t like they hadn’t produced better work – look at Adlard’s ‘Judge Hershey’ stories, included with these ‘Armitage’ reprints, contemporary to the lead strips but in traditional ink-on-white, and you’ll see that he hadn’t developed as an artist to the extent he has on ‘The Walking Dead’, but there’s more dynamism in a couple of panels of his fluid inkwork than in an entire painted episode of ‘Armitage’.

Equally Phillips, an artist who can very successfully work with oil paints when the mood takes him, had done far clearer work for girls comics in the years before ‘Armitage’, but yet again the tyranny of the prevalent style was holding him back.

It’s educational, to look back on how a trend or fad in comics can spread so fast it holds back the medium, holding back artists by forcing them into too specific a style, compromising the quality of the finished work. The American industry is far from immune to this – there are horror stories of Alex Toth art being drawn over because his Superman didn’t match the Curt Swan template, or even recently Ian Churchill breaking away from the Jim Lee-inspired style he’d only adopted in the 90s to gain work.

Thankfully, ‘2000AD’ came to its senses in the early 1990s, and regained an appreciation not just for a more traditional combination of pencil, ink and flat colours, but even for the merits of black and white (although, oddly, resistance to monochrome continued for a while, with some readers bemoaning the lack of colour as being a budget-saving throwback rather than an artistic choice).

While there’s still fully painted work in the comic today, it’s by artists who want to work in that medium, and who have their own style rather than just slavishly imitating the flavour of the day. The lesson, if there is one, is that regardless of how popular a particular trend in comics art may be, forcing artists to act as copyists will never produce the best results, and sooner or later the readers are going to realise.


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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named markclapham.com.




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