By Mike Pascale

I’ve noticed that when people write or speak of Past Masters, they tend to use various modifiers and descriptors. After awhile, the same bunch of words show up again and again. These include: Good, bad, best, worst, overrated, underrated, hot, cold, favorite, least favorite, love, hate, talented, untalented, genius, and hack?any one of which can itself be modified with a word rhyming with “shuckin’.”

Two other common modifiers include one that usually applies to music (“That story rocks!“) and another with vacuum cleaners (“That art sucks!“). How a script or artwork is able to make people dance or help clean carpets escapes me, but it’s a popular term, one which I confess to using myself on various occasions. (Internet message boards are always fertile ground for these seeds of critical wisdom.)

While it is both human nature and God-bless-American to express one’s opinion freely and openly regarding such subjective things as comics, it is equally anathema to both to actually turn on one’s mind to discern the differences in terminologies used in such expression. Discarding the ten-dollar woids, I’m saying we comic folks don’t often think ’bout what’s we like vs. what’s we think is good. But we oughta.

For the average person, there’s really no difference between something they like and what they perceive as good. (I’m using “they” instead of “he/she” simply because it’s easier to type.) They like Simonson art, Simonson’s “great”. They hate Byrne art, Byrne “sucks.” They’re from Boston, the Sox are “great” and the Yankees “suck.”. Plain and simple. But if you think about it, they’re not always the same thing. Especially with what we call Masters.

Can you think of an artist or writer whom fans, critics and/or other pros praise but whose work you don’t care for? Or one that you really like but most others disdain? I sure can. And I’m here to tell you it’s perfectly normal, just like masturbation (everyone does it but no one talks about it).

Let me pick four Past Masters that span a stylistic spectrum: Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. All four of them are “great.” I “like” two of them.

What makes Jack Kirby art “great” is its boundless imagination and creativity, heroic/godlike archetypal figures, emotive power, balls-out action scenes, seamless storytelling, visual flow, and dramatic dynamism. What I “like” about Kirby art are all those things, plus it gives me the sense that I’m “there”?it draws me into each panel so that I don’t feel like I’m looking at art, but rather am part of it. (Something that I look for in all art I like.)

What makes Alex Toth art “great” is its unique sense of design, distinct character, crystal clear and crisp storytelling, expert pacing, “normal” figures and “less is more” approach to drawing?a kind of minimalism that conveys a scene with fewer rather than greater lines, all of which are deliberately and thoughtfully placed. What I “don’t like” about it is, in fact, the two biggest things that make it “great”: the look of the figures and the minimalist drawing. The people just look boringly normal rather than better-than-normal (though I do like some of his romance work, where they’re more idealized); and they appear “flat” to me (visually and emotionally) so that I just don’t care about them. Because of that, it doesn’t draw me in like others; it just kinda lays there. Does that mean I don’t think Toth is a Master? Of course not. I can see what makes it truly great?it just doesn’t appeal to me.

(Think of an onion dish prepared by the greatest chef in history with the world’s best onions; if you absolutely hate onions, you just won’t like it, no matter how good it is. Same with art.)

What makes Frank Frazetta art “great” shares some of the qualifications in Kirby’s: the dynamism, the larger-than-life figures, the incredible action; but it’s done with an added dose of intensity, sensuality and naturalism that makes it even more impactful. The consummate, passionate rendering of anatomy, form, shadow and mood gives it a three dimensional quality that seamlessly gels with his style so that I feel I’m in his world. And those are the exact things I “like” about it.

Finally, what makes Boris “great” is his absolute mastery of materials and technique, the lifelike, photographic look of the figures and backgrounds, the attention to detail rendered in same, the clarity of composition and the overall slickness of presentation. And, like Toth, the “greatness” aspects are what turn me off. Though I greatly appreciate and admire such facility of technique, along with the work involved in replicating photos?I’ve had to do it several times over the years, and it is not easy?I just don’t care to look at something that looks like it’s been copied from life, regardless of added fantasy elements. (I found doing it tedious and stultifying? which is probably why I didn’t like it.) Rather than the artist drawing me into the scene, I feel like he’s showing me a snapshot. I’ve always subscribed to the philosophy, if you want something to look like a photo, take a damn photo and be done with it! But for some people, that’s the look they love.

I’m always interested in what makes certain art “great” even if I’m not into it; in fact, I sometimes study such work to appreciate what the artist has accomplished. But I still don’t care for it?and I try to know why. Doesn’t have anything to do with the artists themselves, mind you, just the art and my tastes.

So the next time you get stuck in one of those vacuum cleaner debates about who “sucks” and who doesn’t, see if you can separate your tastes and preferences from your knowledge and reason. See if you can pick out what those fans and critics are seeing that you aren’t, and figure out why you’re not noticing. It may not make you dislike it any less, but it may help you tolerate it?and in the process, tell you something about yourself that’ll help you articulate what you like to someone else. Which will help make all of us “great.” (Even those who aren’t Yankee fans?)

© 2004 Mike Pascale

[Artwork by Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo copyright by their respective copyright holders. Bru-Hed by Pascale/Armstrong, ©1994 Schism Comics.]

Note: Clifford Meth will return next week.

Mike Pascale is the creator/artist/writer of Bru-Hed?, “America’s Favorite Blockhead” and Nasti: Monster Hunter?. He’s currently working on projects for Aardwolf Publishing when he’s not being a storyboard artist or fill-in columnist. He hates baseball but loves the Yankess.



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