Tuesday, December 14, 2010

In Review Of: Jim Starlin - A Life In Words and Pictures

This is an interesting book to be reviewing, given that its finally a retrospective by one of the two major influences in my artistic life. Starlin and Gulacy were to the two men who really changed my life by providing art and stories that I was dying to try and compete with. The irony, of course, is that you'll never top those formative stories. They tend to take on far greater significance in your head than just being issue #30, or #40.

Now, having worked with Gulacy on and off since 1996, I have less issue with making comments on his work. I guess having pages that i inked included in his art book gives me the chance to be making those comment for a place of knowledge.

Starlin, on the other hand, is a whole different kettle of cosmic fish. We've met a few times, but he wouldn't remember me from any other artist/fan, so I've no other connection with him other than continuing to read over his work on the periods that i've enjoyed. I was looking forward to a "Behind the Music" approach to some of my favorite comics. What i got with this book, both fed that desire, but also left me terribly hungry for more. I'll be curious to see if other Starlin-ophiles like my buddy Alex Sheikman feel the same.

Gems to be found here: Jim admitting that we started the whole Thanos story with a bunch of characters in mind and nothing resembling a plot. That Roy Thomas wanted Captain Marvel to have the glittering trail behind him. He added the guest stars on the book (Iron Man and the Avengers) on a whim. He demanded to have a say over the inkers on Captain Marvel and the resulting demand got him off the book.

And now the quibbling on my part: We are treated to a number of panels of artwork and even full pages being reproduced here, but very little original artwork. Now, i know that after all this time the art has been long since sold, but lets look at who this book is for. Not the casual fan. No, this book is entire for the long devoted, cosmic cube loving Starlin fan. So why print a number of panels that we already know and love and give us more original art to look at? The only original of the entire Captain Marvel run reproduced here is the cover for #30, which Jim sold only recently. And its the size of a postage stamp. Why not put the call out to the artistic community? I alone could have provided a print read version of three different pages from issue #30, including two splash pages. I've seen the unaltered cover for issue #29, Jim's original version without the Romita head. Why isn't that in there, as large as could be? (The original artwork for Captain Marvel is concentrated primarily in the hands of about about 6 individuals, and we're all fairly well known, it wouldn't have been that hard.)

And why is there a ton of art from the late 1970's printed before the chapter on Captain Marvel 1973-1974? It comes at exactly the wrong point in the book. Its out of chronology and even messes up the narrative flow of the text.

Warlock fairs better, with a couple of great scans of original art, and a more precise storyline of exactly how working with Marvel went on that series. What is missing is a dissection of just how the Universal Church of Truth came from his being in a strict Catholic school growing up, and how the inventive time travel story ending came about. Its a deep storyline, one with more emotional gravitas and thought than most superhero stories. I guess that i'd love to hear Jim go deeper into the work.

Metamorphosis Odyssey comes off better here than it did at the time in the Epic books, I think partly because the art isn't a complete and utter muddle in the printing, and it comes off less as "The Grand Artistic Statement" and more as someone stretching out and trying something new.

Another gem: Jim dislocated his finger playing volleyball and had to tape a felt tip pen to his hand to ink the book. Which is why it looks different. And why the originals have all turned blue and purple over time. And that the book was part of the game changers on royalties to artists. As was Dreadstar.

Jim goes on to delineate any number of other projects over the next 20 years, many I'd seen, and some that i hadn't, but i won't spoil your chance to dig into the book for yourself. Certainly it does an excellent job of spelling out the much more of the editorial insanity that continually pushed Jim away from comics, or completely scuttled series that would have been worth reading. Why? No idea other than it was something that i saw in the comics industry every damn day taht i worked there. Now, this is just Jim's side, and he is nothing is not at opinionated figure, which was presented to me when i showed him a portfolio of work back in '89 or '90 and he told me in fairly straight forward terms to keep my day job. Always.

Jim makes the point of saying on page 294 that he doesn't want to come off "like a bitter old man, ranting about all the things that went wrong with his final job in commercial comics", but after a while it hard to make excuses for why so many creative people constantly have to do interviews to explain how editorial messed up their most recent project. I have no problem believing Jim when he writes, "There was no longer any fun in the job (working for Marvel or DC)." And that's so sad.

Jim came in when comics were chaos, and an ex-viet nam vet who would still get drunk or loaded could go home and create a bunch of crazy fun shit that has clearly stood the test of time. And that time is long since past. Rock and Roll has moved on.

I appreciate the reprint of more obscure short stores in the back, at least one that i hadn't seen. And I like the few pages of proposals that didn't go through as well. I suppose that none of the sketches from back in the day could have been used to round out the pages from earlier in Jim's career. Are there no long lost sketches from Captain Marvel or Warlock for us to check out? No old script pages? Nothing else to let us peak behind the curtain? After all, we're the die hards; we'd appreciate stuff like that.

And, unlike many other popular comics figures, Jim's best work deserves that level of dissection. At his best, Jim posed philosophical questions of his villians, and existential queries about not just his heroes but all his protagonists. He used off-handed Kirby creations like the cosmic cube in throughly creative ways, and did so in a time when the use of corporate comics as a means of personal expression was becoming the norm for the young mavericks of the 1970's. The proof of Jim's genius is rooted in the fact that there have been very few legitimate additions to the cosmic pantheon of Marvel that haven't been branched off of Jim's ideas. With two failing heroes, Jim created a storm of ideas around them. Ideas that are still being traded off even today.

Soul Gem? Check. Titan, a hollow moon of Jupiter? Check. Cosmic awareness? Check. Thanos. Gamora. Pip. Infinity Gems. Inbetweener. Chaos. Order.

Thanos. Villian who didn't want to knock over banks. No, he worshipped Death. Try saying that over in your head a few times. He was Darkseid done better.

I'd have loved for Jim to address some of his own, reportedly, dissatisfaction with his art, and his switch to writing in the 1980's. What prompted his change in style? Other than Kirby and Ditko, who else influenced his early art? The change of only doing pencils instead of inks in the mid-1980's? Who got him to have the vast majority of his characters constantly ready to pounce? Where did this delicate inking style on his book plate illustrations come from? Inquiring minds want to know on a $50 book.

i've been meaning to do an appreciation post on Starlin, as i had Gulacy for the blog. As a nice history piece. Perhaps this will be a good push to do that. In the meantime, this is one fun book. And while shorter on substance that i would have liked, I still enjoyed it quite a bit, even if it wasn't quite the behind the scenes look that I would have loved.

1 comment:

Alex Sheikman said...

Great post/review. I did not get to spend a whole lot of time with the book, but I got to look through it and read bits and pieces and I must say that my impression of the book is very much along the same lines as yours. It looks good, but it left me wanting more.

I have been on a look out for as much of Starlin's work as possible in the last 10 years, so I did not find much new art showcased in this edition. I already read Breed, Breed II, Kid Cosmos, and even the more obscure Wyrd the Reluctant Warrior. The stories in the back where wonderfully reproduced, but I would have instead loved to have seen the unpublished Breed III material or more of the illustrations done for the novel that never materialized. Maybe even some of his animation sketches...I have also seen a bunch of Starlin's art work inked by Alan Weiss (even a group shot of the Dreadstar cast) and I would have loved to have seen that reproduced here. And YES, seeing the scans of original artwork would have been sooo much cooler than the panels from the comics.

I also would have enjoyed reading more about Jim Starlin as an artist and have some of the questions that you raised above answered. Or if he feels more like a storyteller a talk about his motivations, processes......

The pieces that blew me away: paintings that I have never seen before. Wow.

I better stop before my comment becomes longer than the post, but before I go, I'll say that I am now looking forward to reading your forthcoming post on Starlin :)