The art of Frank Miller has certainly changed over the years. In the 1980s it was always highly consistent from panel to panel, containing a somewhat rigid form with stark line-work, which used prominent negative space and thick inking to evoke dark, noir-ish sentiment. Nowadays, Miller’s pencils are something much more freeform and inconsistent, more abstract and grotesque, containing an almost daringly flamboyant nonchalance. I think both styles are amazing. Miller is undoubtedly one of the great artists in comics history. And while some might label his more recent oeuvre negatively, I see it as an evolution of his style into something beautiful and fresh. Not many artists can (or try to) attempt altering their style in such a way, especially so late in the game. Yet, many people hate Miller’s art now. Maybe they are linking his gross racist politics and xenophobic beliefs to his art, but I’ve chosen to separate the artist from the man for the purposes of this stylistic analysis. There is something to their complaints, though. Miller’s recent work is hard to grasp. Could it really be… bad? Is Miller phoning it in? Or is there something else at play here?
A few months ago, pro colorist and creator of the stupendous Bartkira Project James Harvey defended Miller’s new sloppy art style as I have, but went one step further in an attempt to silence the haters. Harvey claimed that it was DC’s lame color choices that have literally painted Miller’s new style in a negative light. Can color be that important of a factor, so important that it makes or breaks pencil-work entirely? Yes indeed, color is damn important. If you don’t think so, take a look at Emil Gustafsson Ryderup’s re-colorization of the Killing Joke movie and tell me I’m wrong. Back in the 1980s, Miller’s then wife Lynn Varley colored almost all of his projects, adding a subtle flair that breathed life into Miller’s characters and gave both depth and sophistication to his stunning pencils. But for Miller’s more recent publications, DC house colorists seem to have selected minimalism when something more garish and Warhol-ish might have better suited the inks and pencils. Similarly, with Miller’s recent works, DC house colorists seemed to go bananas with weird computerized layers when it might better have suited the covers to be toned down a bit. With this in mind, Harvey argued that Miller’s bold new style requires bold new coloring techniques that must equally be applied when appropriate. Harvey said that the only reason so many people think Miller’s new visual style sucks is because the poor coloring brings out the worst of it. Below are images (taken from Harvey’s Tumblr) of recent Frank Miller covers that show the contrast between Harvey’s own versions versus what DC actually published. Big difference, eh?
Shortly after Harvey publicly displayed his Miller covers and
gave the finger to wagged his finger at DC higher-ups, DC’s number one colorist extraordinaire Nathan Fairbairn, angrily weighed in on the controversy via Twitter, adding fuel to the fire.
Beyond saying that Harvey was unprofessional in his critique of DC, Fairbairn pissed all over Harvey, going on to say that Harvey’s busy coloring overpowered the images, a big no-no in the professional coloring world. He also stated that legends like Miller and Neal Adams insist upon either old-school minimal coloring or the latest house-style background layering, no matter what.
In between brutally trashing Harvey, Fairbairn made some great points, which were especially insightful coming from such a respected industry insider. I love Fairbairn. He might even be a legend like Miller one day as he is certainly talented enough and has worked on the best mainstream titles with brilliant minds attached to them. But overall, his ranting list of complaints registers as petty and defensive, like someone toeing the Warner Brothers line big-time. I commend any creator that stands up to the corporate overlords, even if it is merely to make a suggestion or to try to change something teeny-tiny. Change is a good thing when it comes to the Big Two. If artists and writers don’t shake things up a little bit, this industry is dead in the water. Many fans think this industry IS ALREADY dead in the water. We need evolution and progressive thought.
Is Fairbairn right or wrong? Do busy colors overpower and ruin the integrity of the author’s original intent via pencil and inks? Last time I checked, the colors were just as important. Busy or not, overpowering or not, if it looks good then IT LOOKS GOOD. And in my humble opinion, Harvey’s covers of Miller’s recent stuff look DAMN GOOD.
As far as Miller, Adams, and all the other old codgers insisting on minimal coloring… I’m sure they all do. Fairbairn is probably right about that, I don’t doubt it. But this is where publishers and editors should step in! This is where the collaborative process should be more involved. Say what you will about the scripts, Miller and Adams are making wildly awesome books right now when it comes to the visuals. If they aren’t willing to fully commit to the wildness of their own illustrations, I think the art does suffer and does lack something. It becomes disjointed and awkward. But who am I (or any of us) to really say what should or shouldn’t be done? Once we cross that line, then we begin to take away or automatically devalue the artist’s true vision. Subjectivity comes into play as well. It’s not a 100% science we are dealing with, which leads to the heavy animosity that Fairbairn and Harvey both seem to carry on their backs.
In the end, though, I’m siding with Harvey on this one. I mean, his versions of those covers are dope as hell. Get a clue, all you corporate stooges at Warners and Disney. The future is now. And it’s not just a kaleidoscope of technicolor, it’s about widening the creative eye to apply color with as much careful thought and deliberation as the rest of the team that scripts, pencils, inks, letters, and does breakdowns and layouts. Fairbairn, as one of the brilliant leaders (and genuine visionaries) of the comic book world of coloring, should be embracing revolutionary shake-ups instead of feeling threatened by them. And even if we agree to disagree, surely a more civil dialogue between talented artists could spawn new paradigms, and that in and of itself would be beneficial to the medium. My hope, moving forward, is for all mainstream comic book creators and publishers to be open to at least acknowledging alternate perspectives.