Sunday, August 28, 2011

Let's be honest about Todd McFarlane

I recently did a purge of my comics collection. I do this once every few years, as a 25+ year collection can get rather unwieldy if you don't lighten the load every so often. What was significant about it this time is that I got rid of some comics that at one time, I would have never expected to part with them. That's right, I got rid of a lot of comics drawn by Todd McFarlane.

If you don't know who McFarlane is, he's the guy who created Spawn and runs a huge media/toy company. He got his start as a comics artist, working on books like Detective Comics, The Incredible Hulk and eventually the title where he really made his mark: The Amazing Spider-Man. He was later given his own Spider-Man book that he would both write and draw, only to leave about a year and a half later to found Image Comics and to write/draw the aforementioned Spawn.

What can I say? I was a fan. I didn't just buy his comics, but I also had several T-shirts, a poster, a set of pins, and even a bumper sticker that featured his Spidey art. I remember being impressed with the first time I saw his work, which was his first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man - #298. I then picked up as much of his work as I could find, including trade paperbacks of his older work. I followed him on the new title, and even continued to read Spawn after he passed off the pencils to artist Greg Capullo. Eventually that came to an end as the series pretty much had no forward momentum, as writing was never McFarlane's strong suit (something I would have always admitted, even if I might have downplayed just how bad it was).

Anyway, when I started to look through some of those issues of Spider-Man (the title he both wrote and drew) I was really turned off by it. It was all just very messy-looking with completely uninspired panel layouts and really poorly drawn anatomy. Sure, sometimes there would be a "cool" looking image here and there, but that's more the kind of thing that would work for a poster or a pin-up book. There wasn't any momentum from one panel to the next. When I looked at Spawn, it was even worse. It looked like somebody puked on the page and then used some neat Adobe Photoshop affects to fix it up.

I started to wonder how I could have been so wrong about an artist. After all, I've been a long-time fan of artists that I still consider to be pretty good like: Alan Davis, Mike Mignola, John Romita Jr., Mark Bagley, and Jim Lee. Why couldn't I see how cruddy this stuff really was?

And that's the thing - you still get people talking about what a talented artist McFarlane is. Most everybody admits that he can't write to save his life, and even back in those days (middle school through my college years) I would readily admit that writing was never his strong suit. Still, you'd never hear the kind of complaining about his art like you would with his fellow Image artist, Rob Liefeld. (I guess when a guy like Liefeld exists, almost anything you do will look good in comparison.)

My only regret about selling those comics off is that I should have scanned them first so I could show some examples of how lousy the artwork could be. You'd have things like rand0m close-ups, lumpy anatomy, a character's lone leg sticking out to indicate he just kicked somebody, inconsistent features on characters, etc.

Why would I have such a blind eye to this guy's lack of talent? Did I just get caught up in the hype machine? I suppose that's possible, as I even had some Rob Liefeld comics there for a time. (Those left my collection the first time I decided to purge some comics though.) I bought many of the Image titles, although I only got the ones that were done by the original members, and most of them I only bought for a few issues until quickly losing interest.

Here's the thing: I still kept those issues of The Amazing Spider-Man. When I looked back on those, I finally started to get it. His early work was dynamic, and while things like his anatomy wasn't perfect, there was still some solid storytelling going on with each page. There's a fluidity from one panel to the next. Sure, there are some awkward bits, but you can find that with even greats like Jack Kirby. I especially remember why I was so excited about this new artist when I first saw his work. For the past few years on the title, the art was rather bland and nondescript. Finally there was a guy who was breathing some life into the character, and the wonky way he drew Spider-Man made the character brought a lot of fun to the character that had been absent since Ron Frenz had left the title a few years before.

While I would say that his art visibly declines on the title, I can still say that I like his work there, especially considering that he had a competent writer in David Michelinie (whose work would also decline some time afterward on the title). The main thing that I realize is that the man IS talented. He has a hell of a lot of potential, and the appeal to his artwork was that it really reached out and grabbed the reader.

So what went wrong? I think he's just a lazy artist. Don't get me wrong, I'm not calling him lazy in general. I'm just saying that for whatever reason, he wasn't willing to put the work in to his comic book art. I think the fact that he stopped drawing his Spawn comic so early on is a testament to that - that, and the fact that he preferred to pursue other interests. If Todd McFarlane had taken the time to hone his craft a little and spend the proper time on storytelling and anatomy, he'd probably be one of the all-time greats, as opposed to one of the all-time hyped.

1 comment:

Kaboom32 said...

Yeah, I think you nailed it at the end. He's talented and lazy as an artist. If you were a sports fan you would understand this better, but I would compare him with Randy Moss. He was a talented wide received who didn't work very hard. He was great at first and had the potential to be one of the elite, but never worked very hard.

MacFarlane was the same. You have to give him a lot of credit for redefining how Spider-Man looked without giving him a makeover, such as a new costume. The talent is there, but it never grew.

I would guess that he was a good artist at an early age and everyone told him so, but he probably didn't think he had to work on a lot of technique in the traditional way. He was the winner of Comic Book Artist Idol.

And as you mentioned, everyone's art looks good next to Rob Liefeld's.