It's weird, the way that fan-favorites go in and out of style. The creator who once was on top of the world and who was the subject of endless glowing articles in the fan press becomes obscure, forgotten, a mere footnote at best in comics history.
This happens again and again. It's a rare Jim Lee or John Romita Jr. who stays on top for a long time. Much more common are the cases of artists like Stephen Platt, Lee Weeks or Joe Madureira, who had their brief moment of popularity and then moved into other industries or faded into the background.
This is especially true for creators who go back to the pre-direct market era. It's hard to remember that Bernie Wrightson and Frank Brunner were stars at that time. Heck, we all kind of know intellectually that Neal Adams was once considered the greatest artist in comics back in the day, but it's hard to reconcile that fact with him being the guy who produces the insanely odd Batman: Odyssey.
Another artist in that dubious club is P. Craig Russell, an artist whose gorgeous illustrative style was once the talk of the comics world when he drew the War of the Worlds series that was written by Comics Bulletin's good friend Don McGregor. Russell was much beloved and discussed for his amazingly beautiful illustrative approach to comics, an approach that provided a beautiful contrast to the violent and sometimes horrific stories McGregor produced.
But after that series was cancelled, Russell faded in the public's memory. He still produced breathtakingly beautiful comics art, of course: you probably saw his work on the Sandman story "Ramadan" or on random issues of Conan, the hardcover Fables anthology or the graphic novel adaptation of Coraline, among other places.
But Russell is also producing comics art of his own choosing, including a series adapting the Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde. Based on the evidence shown in this slim but breathtakingly beautiful volume, Russell is still producing material that is strikingly gorgeous.
The story in this book is a parable: the tale of a great statue plated with gold that watches over a city. Children love the statue and parents use the statue as an object lesson, but no one gives thought to the statue itself. That is, until a curious swallow lands at the statue's feet and begins to see the sorrow and pain that the statue feels as it loos out at the injustice and poverty in the city. The statue gives all it can, and in its destruction finds joy.
The story is heartwarming and rather timely as we consider the complex political and economic debates that encircle our world these days. The Great Recession has hit us all in one way or another, and generosity sometimes seems to be the first attribute that disappears in a great downturn.
But wonderful as Wilde's story is, the real star here is Russell's wonderful art. For anyone who knows the man's work, you will recognize his ornate and pastoral style immediately. As always, Russell's art is filled with a sensuous attention to beauty in its depiction of gorgeously rendered forms. Russell's cartooning shows a master's understanding of just how much detail to include in a scene. His cityscapes are sometimes mere outlines, but those outlines have depth and complexity provide exactly the right amount of context for the story.
His illustrations of pastoral nature are even more striking. Russell illustrates an early sequence in which the swallow falls in love with a simple swamp reed with such panache and conviction, and such wonderful coloring by the Kindzierskis, that this absurd idea works in its context. That moment fits the story and is sold so well by the creators that it's surprisingly moving and cute.
It's especially intriguing that Russell does something that almost impossible in this comic: he gives life to the story's main characters, a bird and a statue. Somehow Russell manages to convey the emotions that the swallow feels, using the techniques of a master to show small subtleties of feelings on the bird's face that emphasize its passions. It seems almost impossible that we should feel for this winged creature, but Russell demonstrates the skills of a Disney animator in the ways that he fully brings out the depth of feeling that the bird feels.
But P. Craig Russell's ultimate achievement in this book lies in the way that he somehow gives life to the statue of the prince. I keep paging though this book trying to discren how Russell manages to pull off this trick and actually manage show the statue's emotions, but the truth of that skill eludes me. He somehow magically uses judicious camera angles and shading to emphasize feeling, and brilliantly makes the emotions come alive. I guess that proves Russell's artistic mastery and his remarkable ability to compose a scene perfectly.
The masterful art of P. Craig Russell makes this book special. In his use of classical techniques and allusions, perfect use of camera angles, and a thoroughly intelligent approach to page design, Russell shows that he is still one of the greats of comics art — fan favorite status be damned.