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The Silver Age of Comic Book Art – by Arlen Schumer

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My interest in superhero comic books is narratological, rather than art historical–still, a work cannot live by structure alone… you’ve got to put some meat on those bones, and that is indisputably the artist’s responsibility! I disagree vehemently with Gil Kane’s contention that “the only thing that makes [superhero comics] worth reading is the art”–but of course the interesting artwork is what attracted people in the first place, and made them care enough to donate their time and energy to the consensual narrative-building enterprise that my dissertation will explore!

Arlen Schumer won me over to his book with these introductory remarks:

There has never been a coffeetable book celebrating their [the silver age artists’] work, showing the actual printed comic book art–with Ben-day dots on cheap newsprint–as it was transmitted to and perceived by the readership. Other books have been illustrated with the black and white original art, and as beautiful as that is, that’s production art, as far as I’m concerned. The recent spate of reprints, though they serve a noble purpose, remove the original coloring and replace it with garish colors on harsh white paper. Although most of the comics in those days were poorly printed with off-registration rampant there was something beautiful about them too.

You are correct sir!!!

There are chapters on Infantino, Ditko, Kirby, Kane, Kubert, Colan, Steranko, Adams. Personally, the only choice I take issue with is Kubert. Sure, he’s good, but I would have preferred to see Wally Wood in that spot, or Don Heck, or Nick Cardy, or Mike Sekowsky, or Ross Andru, or Werner Roth, or even Barry Windsor-Smith (if only for the immortal Avengers #66-67!)… Anyone care to explain to me why Kubert belongs with the rest of these guys? Schumer’s writing certainly didn’t convince me, and neither did the artwork in that chapter…

But this is more than just a coffeetable book. It actually makes an argument–and rather gracefully too: it’s all done through chapter arrangement; you don’t have to see it if you don’t want to… Unfortunately, it’s an argument I disagree with rather strongly!

Schumer begins with Infantino, describing his work as the acme of streamlined, suburban modernity… Frankly, I call that damning with faint praise. Infantino was more than just Curt Swan/Murphy Anderson-squared! I’ll admit that I’m prejudiced in this regard, and that I’m more familiar with the artist in his post-executive Spider-Woman/The Daring New Adventures of Supergirl/immortal “Trial of the Flash” phase, but I think Schumer is really overemphasizing the “slickness” of Infantino’s work. Sure, the settings (even the ones in space!) are suburban, but these backgrounds are there precisely to play up the dynamism of the agents that move through them! That’s how I see it, anyway (and I did have quite a few of the sixties Flash comics at one time…I loved them! even the “Flashgrams”, which were a far cry from the Bullpen Bulletins, I’ll tell ya!). To be fair, Schumer does allow Infantino to defend himself against the charges of gentility, by printing quotations like this one:

On covers, I felt that … one way to irritate the eye is by creating negative space with shapes. You can put things off-angle. Or you can put a large object in with a tiny object, and that would force the eye to look. And it would offend it, it irritates it a bit, but it takes you in… once you get the person in, you hold them.”

This sounds like Russian formalism. The aim of the artist is to defamiliarize. You take something the reader/viewer knows well (like 1950/60’s suburbia!) and “make it strange”… To me that’s a lot more interesting/challenging than taking a fantasy character like Green Lantern and rubbing his hyper-realistically rendered nose in squalor! Clearly, Schumer disagrees. Implicit in the structure of his book is an argument in favour of a qualitative progression (or, at least, a progression towards “seriousness”) from Infantino to Adams…

Schumer gives Neal Adams the last word on the Silver Age, and I think most of us understand that the “promise” he speaks of was, in fact, more like a prophecy of doom, and the “road” leads right off a cliff, with Jim Lee at the wheel:

You have to think of Kirby’s impact in a general sense. Kirby’s a phenomenon as well as an inspiration. But nobody says they want to draw as well as Kirby. His work is like this kind of wall; it will never get better, it will never get worse. It’s just there–it fulfills itself.

My work is more like a promise. My work says, ‘here’s the road Here are some of the things you can see along the road. And there’s no end to it’

My impact, I think, is on a very personal, individual level. If you do good work and you succeed, the things people take away from it are as individual as they are. The depth of the work was sufficient to reach different sparks in each person.

In a sense, my work said you now have permission to do great art in comic books. That if you think you’re only worthy of producing fine art or becoming great in another field, I now present comic books as potential. The challenge is, this is what I’ve done; what can you do?”

Obviously, Neal Adams’ project did, in a sense, signify the end of the Silver Age… But then, so did Steranko’s, and I have to say I would have preferred to see the book culminate with J.S’s design-revolution, rather than N.A.’s “gritty photo-relevance”. Isn’t a work of art supposed to be a “Wall”, i.e. unique, “Other”? Memorable for what it is, rather than for what it teaches? Gene Colan or Neal Adams? Who’s more interesting? Can there be any doubt? Who the hell wants to go to drawing school when they open up a superhero comic?

Still, it’s an interesting book and very much worth your time!

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About David Fiore