Has photography in comics ever worked? There are those fumetti style sections of Nick Spencer and Christian Ward's The Infinite Vacation that use the cheesy photography to create an infomercial effect, but most examples are artists like Alex Maleev and Salvador Larroca who seem to be straight-up drawing over photographs to create comics where people who sort of look like real people do things that real people cannot — with varying degrees of success.
And there's nothing wrong with photo referencing. Few artists draw in a vacuum, and sometimes you gotta look at pictures of buildings to remember how to draw them or take a picture of yourself doing a pose so you can figure out how to replicate it through your pencil. But photography doesn't work as a replacement for drawing comics, and not because it comes off as really thoughtless corner-cutting, but because of its myriad limits. For one thing, as a photographer you're limited by physics, only able to achieve angles that your camera can get to, not to mention the limits of photography skills: if you were all that great a photographer, you probably wouldn't be doing comics, right? Then there are your resources: just going by what I see in the final product, it seems that artists are hiring people as "actors" for their characters and then forced to draw over staged, affected expressions and poses — hilariously paradoxical for the intended grab at "realism."
That last bit is the biggest problem of using photography directly in comic art. Often the medium that comic books get compared to the most is cinema, and that's for good reason — cinema captures motion and comic books are meant to create the illusion of motion despite the fact that they're a series of static images (unless, of course, you're using Marvel's Augmented Reality app). Once an artist starts splicing static, contrived images into the DNA of his or her art, we stop believing what's on the page and fall into the Uncanny Valley.
Which brings us to Greg Land, the artist (credited as "penciler") of Uncanny X-Men #12. He's somewhat reviled by comics readers as someone whose creative output amounts to presenting comics created almost entirely by tracing over photographs of supermodels and swiping poses from other artists — both of which you can verify by googling terms like "Greg Land worst artist" and "Greg Land tracing" — complete with "before and after" shots of his work and the models that served as "inspiration."
On a base level, it's easy to see how the less-discerning eye could enjoy this sort of thing. There's an undeniable gloss to a Greg Land comic. The X-Men are always shiny, as if every character has been chromed over — even Cyclops' ever-present stubble, which seems to be added for ruggedness as opposed to raggedness as one might expect — and there's a perfect sterility to Land's world, as if everything had qualities similar to a platter of dental tools. Even the centipede monster that the Thing and Luke Cage fight in this issue doesn't even seem like it carries any of the weird bacteria that a giant monster might have.
(Don't worry, I'll address She-Hulk's questionable pose in a moment)
The rest of the art team do their best to make the book look halfway decent. As far as I can tell, inker Jay Leisten exists to give Land's linework subtle crosshatches to create the illusion of being comic book art. Generally, however, Land's rotoscope effect still permeate. It turns out a glamor model is still a glamor model, no matter how many Photoshop layers you put on top of her. Meanwhile, colorist Guru eFX delivers the appropriate atmosphere only color can bring — muted greens for a parking garage (?) scene directed by the Wachowskis and bright reds, pinks and purples for the otherworldly locale of Tabula Rasa.
Land's tendency for drawing domino masks on Sports Illustrated swimsuit models is well documented, but what's worse than his ongoing challenge to the fair use doctrine is his inability to make it work in the comic's favor. In Greg Land's world all women pose as if waves are crashing at their feet, delivering a come-fuck-me expression as if David Hemmings were perpetually straddling them.
What should be a wry smile is blown up to the Michael Bay version of a woman smiling — an enraptured beam that makes a Winter Olympics-style ski jump over "turned on," diving teeth-first into a Patrick Süskind-esque ravenousness that can only be sated by the taste of human flesh.
What's worse is the lack of logic in his model choices. You've already seen She-Hulk unnaturally bent over in the face of a giant Sandworm, but have you seen how he actually draws her body?
I'm not sure which is funnier: her atrophied muscles or the fact that there's a green woman who decided to go fight crime in an outfit you could probably assemble at your local Old Navy. Even Frank Cho, whose art can generally be described as the word "male gaze" in 72-point font, knows that a character with a name like She-Hulk should possess at least a little more muscular bulk than the average woman.
As far as Greg Land's storytelling abilities go, they're extremely choppy, like — hm! — a series of photographs, or the worst of the classic James Bond movies where you can see the jerky jump cuts and general lack of action movie finesse we came to appreciate before we stopped appreciating them and let incoherence mask incompetence. As far as his fight scenes go in this issue, a lot of it seems to be the repeated effect smashing rigidly posed statues together and then smoothing over the cracks with lots of speed lines so that you kind of get the general idea of what it was supposed to be.
Otherwise, there's a perfunctoriness to his panel-to-panels where he obviously understands that he has to have all of these characters appear in every single one of the tedious rectangles comprising this scene or he'l
l get fired, but does not care to put in the work necessary to make the panels flow. So this kind of thing happens, where it seems like the fact that these panels share characters is more of a lucky coincidence rather than something that was intended:
Hilariously, Land's porcelain art is paired with a script by Kieron Gillen, a writer whose greatest strengths are the humor and character he brings to his comics, and this issue is no exception. Gilled writes an accessible tie-in to an event comic I haven't been following, where the focus isn't the punching, but the entertaining character moments. (I will never get sick of Namor sex jokes.) However, when Greg Land is drawing it, the canyon of effort becomes clear, like watching a talented singer in a bar band. All this to say I like what the words in the balloons seem to signify, but damned if I can match them with the pictures. I know it's work for hire and you can only care so much about stuff you don't own the rights to, but one hopes that Kieron Gillen's editors send him a gift basket every time Greg Land draws one of his comics.
Rather than giving this piece some kind of coda about how technical talent doesn't mean shit or how there are working artists in pop comics with less "expertise" but create more effective works, I'm just going to leave you with this question: just what exactly IS Emma Frost doing in this panel?
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.