Tag Archives: Stan Lee

NOT JUST FOR KIDS: THE ART OF COMIC BOOKS

November 23, 2018

The New Mutants, by Bill Sienkiewicz

(On November 12, 2018, we lost a super hero. In memory of Stan Lee, 1922 – 2018.)

No longer targeting an adolescent male audience, comic books have become more complex and far reaching. Some comics, known as “graphic novels,” highlight the quality of the writing—even honored with the Pulitzer Prize. Alongside the award-winning stories, the artwork of comic books have evolved from the crude cartoons of early comic strips found in the back pages of the newspaper. Comic book illustration has advanced to the level of art. As in fine art, as in Michelangelo and Da Vinci.

And why?

The Avengers, by Jack Kirby

The classic art form of comics arguably started with the giants of the 50’s and 60’s, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Their line work was crisp and clear. Though graphically modest, the art was expressive. The colors were flat, but boldly captured movement and energy in two dimensions. In part due to the limits of rudimental printing, early comic book artists were forced to be thoughtful and efficient. The results brightly portrayed the optimism of the generation.

left: Spider-Man and Mysterio, by Steve Ditko; middle: Iron Man, by John Romita; right: Iron Fist, by John Brynes

From the late 60’s to the 80’s, John Romita added tonality and detail. Influenced by the world of Pop Art, abstract graphics enhanced the drama of a scene. Later, ground breaking artist, John Byrnes, continued the study of graphic design and narrative structure, literally breaking out of the typical paneled grid of comic book pages. Note the revolutionary full page art of Iron Fist, and how the smaller insets exhibit the fist of our hero transforming to iron, alongside the oddly shaped boxes of commentary. As with the Pop Art movement, irony and criticism entered the pictorial lexicon, representing a growing interest for originality and a fresh look at old things.

Batman and Robin, by Bill Sprang

In studying the development of Batman over the generations, the simplicity and naivety of pioneer Dick Sprang’s Batman from the 40’s evolved to the heavy use of black ink from Neal Adams three decades later. In Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 release of The Dark Knight Returns, we confront the twisted representation of our gritty anti-hero, whose shadowy presence is barely contained within the limits of the physical page. From innocence to dark forces, graphic tools displayed our weariness in celebrating so-called virtuous heroes.

Batman, left: by Neil Adams; right: by Frank Miller

Testing further visual limits, Miller takes an abstract pictorial approach, reducing Superman and Batman to merely cinematic silhouettes. Yet through this graphic austerity, the carefully composed and detailed postures imply the entire story. Perhaps our brains are so filled these days with data, emotions and retorts, that a mere gesture can cause our bodies to generate complex reactions.

Superman and Batman, by Frank Miller

My all-time favorite, Bill Sienkiewicz, transforms the visuals of comics to the highest level—as a classical painter would, as a mixed-media artist would. For the past three decades, Sienkiewicz captured emotional and psychological content in the most imaginative of techniques. In this Moon Knight cover, note how the villainess in red, intentionally omitting her body’s outline, becomes the entire background of evil, or the cover drawing that is 98% minimalist black.

Moon Knight, by Bill Sienkiewicz

Going further, The New Mutants cover illustrates Sienkiewicz’s interest in mixed-media collage, expressing even the tape that attaches the scraps of paper. Doing away with the slickness of illustration now offered by digital means, he reverses his approach to show an honest and revealing snapshot of process and composition.

By Bill Sienkiewicz, left: The New Mutants; right: Elecktra

Finally, Sienkiewicz’s beloved assassin, Elektra, is treated with the skill, vision and artistry on par with any generation’s most prominent creative geniuses. With some illustrators, we have reached the bleakest and most dense part of our souls. Sienkiewicz and other innovative artists reached deep into murky places and offered beauty, instead of despair.

Is it so simple to say there is a linear path from the innocence and optimism of early generations to the difficulties and sarcasm of later generations, from oppressing nightfall to triumphant invention? If comic book art and the methods of artistic process and reproduction represent the development of the human condition, than I utter the legendary phrase by the father of comic books, Stan Lee, “Nuff Said!”

“WITH GREAT POWER THERE MUST ALSO COME GREAT RESPONSIBILITY!”

May 30, 2015

Covers of Time: Wright, January 17, 1938, Saarinen, July 2, 1956, and Le Corbusier May 5, 1961

Are architects celebrities? Are they rock stars? Do “Starchitects” exist amongst mere mortals?

Years back at UCLA, I attended a lecture by Pritzker Prize, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas (my Harvard professor). Endless crowds lined up all day in advance for the evening performance. Upon opening the doors, the large auditorium was full in seconds. The organizers opened up two additional auditoriums with the lecture to be broadcast on screens. All this, and masses of people still could not fit in the venues. Front row: Brad Pitt, Martha Stewart, Dianne Keaton, Michael York, Vidal Sassoon, and other design fans and fanatics.

Seattle Public Library, Washington (photo by James Ewing), by Rem Koolhaas of OMA (inset photo by Superslice)
Seattle Public Library, Washington (photo by James Ewing), by Rem Koolhaas of OMA (inset photo by Superslice)

Further years back at UC Berkeley, I attended a lecture by AIA Gold Medalist, New York architect Michael Graves. Similar thing. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people showed up trying to squeeze into a college lecture hall. Hoping to graze his shroud. Hoping to bask in god-like enlightenment.

I am not proposing that an architect could fill a stadium like Taylor Swift, a concert hall like Lang Lang, an arena like Jordan, or a theater like Baryshnikov. Rather, I am impressed with and a little weary of the influence that some architects possess by simply standing at a podium with a PowerPoint of their latest projects, anecdotes and social theories.

Michael Jordan (photo by Getty Images), Taylor Swift (photo by Startraks), Lang Lang (photo by Detlef Schneider), Mikhail Baryshnikov (photo by Thomas Giroir)
Michael Jordan (photo by Getty Images), Taylor Swift (photo by Startraks), Lang Lang (photo by Detlef Schneider), Mikhail Baryshnikov (photo by Thomas Giroir)

With his world travels and outrageous behavior, perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright was the first Starchitect. But Ancient Greece had Mnesikles. The Renaissance had Michelangelo. The British Crown had Wren. Modernism had Le Corbusier. And he, alongside Wright, Eero Saarinen and Mies van der Rohe graced the covers of Time magazine.

Sure, the spotlight is flattering. The ego is stroked, as an architect’s head inflates larger and larger.

But all this said, being an architect comes with responsibilities. Some responsibilities are obvious and some, not so obvious: provide buildings for shelter, provide a roof that won’t collapse on your head, provide beautiful structures that will stir and inspire, provide creative designs that will support the evolution of cities, and provide tremendous visions that will challenge a nation’s cultural complacency. Architects have a voice. By mere role playing, we are provided a soap box to stand on, wave our hands, wail profound statements—and hope to affect education, social policies, and the spirt of our time. Our zeitgeist.

In several venues, we have influence. As comic book writer Stan Lee declared in 1962, “With great power, there must also come great responsibility!”

This responsibility may be, at one end of the spectrum, designing homes for the homeless or hospitals in third world countries. At another end of the spectrum, the responsibility can be in designing with awareness for children, the handicap or the aging. Or working with non-profit organizations. Or being a steward for the environment. Or rebuilding a city after a natural disaster.

Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women & Children, Los Angeles, California, by Anthony Poon with KAA
Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women & Children, Los Angeles, California, by Anthony Poon (w/ KAA)

In 1968, civil rights leader Whitney Young directly insulted and challenged architects at a national convention in Portland, Oregon with this, “You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights . . . You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.” Fire in the belly of architects, a battle was waged.

We can choose to be a celebrity in the limelight or we can choose to change the world quietly. Either way, we must choose responsibly.

© Poon Design Inc.