Practitioners 55: Chris Bachalo

Chris Bachalo has pushed the boundaries of what’s acceptable in modern day mainstream comic books to the extreme. Highly intricate, cartoonish page layouts depict insidious caricatures of popular characters. With blade like precision, Bachalo creates highly detailed dream sequences from whatever writing he’s handed. Forming a visual world of monsters, uggos, bandits and vagabonds throughout his career he has sent out Superheroes dressed for the streets. Pushing the concept of the superhero closer to street level has made Bachalo a hero of mainstream comic book readers deserate for an alternative interpretation of their favourite characters. After almost 20 years working with DC and Marvel (as well as a brief stint on his own title with Image imprint, Cliffhanger) it’s fair to say Bachalo has achieved exactly that.

Bachalo was born in Canada August 23, 1965, Portage la Prairie but was raised in Southern California. Perpetuating the idea that many great comic book artists arrive at their calling because of weaknesses in their preferred fields, Bachalo had grown up wanting to be a carpenter until he discovered he was allergic to dust. He attended the California State University at Long Beach, where he majored in graphic art and illustrated a number of underground comics.

Following graduation, Bachalo found work pretty much immediately with DC Comics. His first published assignment The Sandman #12 (1989) – however he had already been hired as regular artist for Shade, The Changing Man, revived by writer Peter Milligan with a greater adult orientation. With clear black and white definition in his work, Bachalo demonstrated the influences of Sam Keith (artist and writer on Maxx and Zero Girl, with a liquid attitude to realism in his artwork), Bill Sienkiewicz (Eisner Award winning artist and writer best known for his work on New Mutants and Elektra: Assassin, utilising oil painting, collage and mimeograph) and Michael Golden (famous for his work on Marvel’s 1970’s Micronauts as well as his co-creation of characters Rogue and Bucky O’ Hare.

Initially, Bachalo’s work was visibly influenced from many different directions as he began to try to find his own style. This leant itself nicely to Shade as it was a kaliedoscopic, dream-like character and loaded with abstract ideas. Bachalo’s work has always held a certain dark and teenage self-conciousness, reminiscent of rock cultutre of the early nineties – something which strangely has carried forwards with his development – somehow always representing very well the graphic representation of youth at the time. As the design work of a less disenfranchised youth became more assured, brighter and more heavily influenced by street design, graffiti and graphics so too has Bachalo’s work. Most likely coincidental it is this that has catapulted him into the most mainstream family of books there are today.

His early 90s work is minimalist with strong, thick lines, quirky characters and little concern for realism. Never shying away from detailed landscapes but showed a rare inclination towards pages with many small panels, something that deepens any artist’s involvement in a piece.

In 1993, Neil Gaiman selected Bachalo for the Sandman miniseries: Death: The High Cost of Living, starring the Sandman’s older sister. The popularity of Sandman at the time and the strength of the series itself bolstered Bachalo’s visibility significantly. The creative team reunited once again in 1996 for Death: The Time of Your Life. Apart from returning breifly to DC in 1999 for the Witching Hour with Jeph Loeb for it’s Vertigo Imprint, Bachalo’s future lay with the other side of the comic industries fermament. The X-Men were calling.

Bachalo’s introduction to Marvel was during his tenure at DC comics, illustrating X-Men Unlimited #1 – an anthology to the ongoing X-Men comic books. Based on the noise generated by his introduction in this book Bachalo ended his time on Shade and made a permanent transition over to it’s big rival. His first project was as part of the forward thinking and innovative 2099 universe, reinventing popular Marvel characters into a corporate nightmare of a future. His particular nightmare blended his own dual fascinations of steam twisted tech and metaphysical beings with Ghost Rider 2099. A technological reincarnation of the Spirit of Vengeance, Bachalo’s rip-snorting, highly detailed blend of twisted perspectives and steam punk edge furthered Bachalo’s influence with what was, otherwise, a more minor title in the 2099 universe. He also drew a cover for Runaways.

It was with Scott Lobdell, Uncanny X-men scribe, that Bachalo introduced a new youth team to the X-canon. Generation X lurched out of the Phalanx Covenant crossover bizarre and idiosyncratic because the creative team wanted to avoid the recent trend in superhero teams, where every member of the team represented a stock character. Generation X became a hit with the series’ namesake due to Lobdell’s realistically cynical and emotionally immature teen characters and Bachalo’s atypical artwork. Bachalo illustrated the series through much of its first three years, taking a break in late 1995 and early 1996 to illustrate the second Death miniseries, Death: The Time of Your Life.

During his time in Generation X, an unusual influence began to appear in Bachalo’s work. While still intricately detailed. Influenced by the unlikely inspiration Joe Madureira, his characters became more cartoony and manga-like, with large eyes, heads and hands. He gravitated towards extremes in anatomy, drawing characters that were previously portrayed as bulky, short or thin as even more so. This elongation, bulk out and caricature of easily recognisable characters in Marvel would make Bachalo a staple and an unusual choice for major events.

In 1997, Bachalo left Generation X folr Uncanny X-men, arguably the industry’s most popular title and his new found inspiration’s previous assignment – where he remained for more than a year until the end of 1998.

In 2000, Bachalo luanched Steampunk, a comic book series deliberately inspired by the genre of fiction of the same name, which emulates early science fiction by intentionally applying self-conciously antiquated and deliberately awkward solutions to modern design. Written by Joe Kelly, the series came under heavy critical fire for it’s obscure artwork, small panels, detailed panels and muddy, dark colouring which many felt made it difficult to tell what was happening. Kelly’s writing at the same time was not as straight forward as many readers would have preferred at the time. Conversely however, the hardened fan base for the title, which was brought out via Image’s creator owned imprint, Cliffhanger, supported it for the same reasons. Regardless, the luke-warm response to the title saw it end prematurely at issue #12 – it’s intended 25 issue run sliced in half. It is currently available in two reprinted trade paperbacks, Steampunk: Manimatron and the perhaps aptly named Steampunk: Drama Obscura.

Following his aborted tenure with Cliffhanger, Bachalo returned triumphantly to the halls of Marvel, completing occasional work on various X-men series including the new alternate universe, Ultimate X-men, Ultimate War, Grant Morrison’s New X-Men (collected in New X-Men vol.5: Assault on Weapon Plus and including one of the finest examples of a single issue story). In New X-Men Bachalo realises a scene beautifully envisioned by Grant Morrison in which Wolverine and Sabretooth find themselves at the urinals of the Hellfire Club – a no violence rule allowing a moment of barely contained aggression between the two of them. Bachalo’s combination of clean, crisp lines and perspectives – mixed with the organic, intuitive detailing of the figures and the characteristic elongation and exageration of the two figures brings the light but knowing humour of the scene beautifully forward to such a pleasing degree that it might well be one of the finest combinations of writing and artwork in a Marvel comic book of all time. Not an understatement (though obviously a matter of opinion) and the sequel to the Age of Apocalypse Crossover.

Bachalo's current assignment - the X-Men come of age in Wolverine and the X-Men

Bachalo was also the artist on Captain America for 6 issues (21–26, running December 2003–May 2004 cover dates) pencilling a divisive run written by Robert Morales. In an attempt to humanize Steve Rogers, the pair managed to split fans opinions fairly resoundingly with both leaving the title – Morales 10 issues short of his intended contract for the series.

From 2006 to 2008, Bachalo was the artist for the X-Men title along with new writer Mike Carey after completing his final story arc for Uncanny X-Men (#472–474). He was often filled-in for by artist Humberto Ramos, however.
Bachalo has also pencilled (and coloured) a number of cards for the Vs. collectible card game. These have been renditions of both Marvel and DC characters.

On top of his continuing work for Marvel, Bachalo finished issue #7 of Comicraft’s Elephantmen, an issue 4 years in the making. The issue was done entirely in double-page spreads and marks his reunion with Steampunk writer Joe Kelly. The issue’s story, “Captain Stoneheart and the Truth Fairy” also represents Bachalo’s first work outside Marvel and DC since his fill-in issue of Witchblade.

Bachalo has also been one of the four artists who was originally part of the Spider-Man Relaunch. Brand New Day, along with Phil Jimenez, Steve McNiven and Salvador Larroca.

Starting with New Avengers #51, Bachalo will provide variant covers for the creative team of Brian Michael Bendis and Billy Tan to bring use the “Who will be the next Sorceror Supreme?” storyline.

When Richard Friend inks Chris Bachalo’s pencils, the piece is signed “Chrisendo”, a portmanteau of the names “Chris”, “Friend”, and “Bachalo”. Antonio Fabela is a regular colorist of Bachalo’s work.

Pictured some way above is Bachalo’s latest assignment, a critical and fan hit by the name of Wolverine and the X-Men. It’s the next generation of X-Men back at Xavier’s School for Higher Learning under the tutelage of the ol’ canuckle head and it seems pre-fitted to Bachalo’s specific style. Anarchic, high octane and cartoonish, Bachalo’s lavish imagery has found a great home for his brief tenure in these pages. Writer Jason Aaron even going o far as to create BAMFs – small Nightcrawler-esque imps – that create havoc everywhere they go in order to harness Bachalo’s habit of dropping unusual midgets into otherwise mundane panels.

As his graffiti style of comic book art would suggest, Bachalo will leave an indelible and lasting mark that brightens up everything around it. An anarchic and chaotic practitioner – Bachalo is an artist who has caused the mainstream comic industry to adapt to him – something that has furthered the pursuit of great stylistic innovation in mainstream comic books. Bachalo so much pushing the envelope as setting fire to the envelope and feeding it to the little toothy deamons that hide at the edge of his pages.

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Practitioners 48: Frank Miller (Part 2)

With the monumental success of the Dark Knight Returns at DC, Miller himself had returned to Marvel as the writer of Daredevil. Following his self contained story ‘Badlands’ pencilled by John Buscema in #219 and writing #226 with departing writer Dennis O’ Neill, Miller teamed up with David Mazzucchelli, crafting a seven-issue story arc that redefined the character of Daredevil. Miller often takes his marks from his previous projects and this was no different. Having offered DC’s Batman a dark and brooding future in the Dark Knight Returns it came now for Miller to obliterate Daredevil’s present. Daredevil: Born Again (#227-233) chronicled the hero’s catholic background and the destruction and rebirth of his secret identity, Manhattan Attorney Matt Murdock, at the hands of malevolent Wilson Fisk, also known as the Kingpin. Taking Murdock to the edge by losing his job, his identity, his ability to continue as Daredevil – Miller had Murdock do something unexpected. Cope. Rather than destroy Murdock completely and have him fight back from the bottom, Miller proved him a different type of hero. Not unbreakable and ultimately vulnerable but unflappable. This wasn’t the last time that indominitable trait has surfaced in Miller’s central figures. All others afterwards have stood defiantly in the centre of battlefields against unstoppable numbers or survive being hit by cars amidst rain mottled gunfire on a darkened street. Though Murdock was the last of these figures that could exist in the real world, a lawyer and a reasonable human being. Whether it be Leonidas of Sparta with his unbounded rage, Marv with his alcoholism and violent compunctions or Robocop with his unrelenting pursuit of the law the other characters are subjects of their worlds, also created by Miller. Outside of them they would be redundant. As such, Miller’s work on Daredevil is probably his most subtle.

Miller and artist Bill Sienkiewicz produced the graphic novel Daredevil: Love and War in 1986. Featuring the character of the Kingpin, it indirectly bridges Miller’s first run on Daredevil and Born Again by explaining the change in the Kingpin’s attitude toward Daredevil. Miller and Sienkiewicz also produced the eight-issue miniseries Elektra: Assassin for Epic Comics. Set outside regular Marvel continuity, it featured a wild tale of cyborgs and ninjas, while expanding further on Elektra’s background. Both of these projects were well-received critically. Elektra: Assassin was praised for its bold storytelling, but neither it nor Daredevil: Love and War had the influence or reached as many readers as Dark Knight Returns or Born Again.

Miller’s final major story in this period was in Batman issues 404-407 in 1987, another collaboration with Mazzucchelli. Titled Batman: Year One, this was Miller’s version of the origin of Batman in which he retconned many details and adapted the story to fit his Dark Knight continuity. Proving to be hugely popular, this was as influential as Miller’s previous work and a trade paperback released in 1988 remains in print and is one of DC’s best selling books and adapted as an original animated film video in 2011.

Miller had also drawn the covers for the first twelve issues of First Comics English language reprints of Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub. This helped bring Japanese manga to a wider Western audience.

During this time, Miller (along with Marv Wolfman, Alan Moore and Howard Chaykin) had been in dispute with DC Comics over a proposed ratings system for comics. Disagreeing with what he saw as censorship, Miller refused to do any further work for DC, and he would take his future projects to the independent publisher Dark Horse Comics. From then on Miller would be a major supporter of creator rights and be a major voice against censorship in comics.

Miller, like many of his colleagues had had enough and declared that he would only work through Dark Horse, preferable because it was an independent publisher. Miller completed one final piece for Marvel’s mature imprint, Epic comics. Elektra lives again was a fully painted one-shot graphic novel, written and drawn by Miller and finished by his long term partner Lynn Varley (who had coloured the Dark Knight). Miller has had a complicated relationship with Elektra, having killed her off once but brought her back several times since – of which this is the first in a story of Elektra’s resurrection and Daredevil’s attempts to find her. Released in March 1990 it marked the beginning of a decade of great change for Miller. This was the first time that Miller had inked for himself, dispensing of the brilliant Klaus Janson.

Meanwhile Miller was working on an amazing piece of pulp comic book artwork, Hard Boiled. In it, Carl Seltz, an insurance investigator, discovers he is also a homicidal cyborg tax collector who happens to be the last hope of an enslaved robot race. Drawn by the inimitable Geoff Darrow, Miller’s script encouraged incredibly meticulously detailed design work and a happy nightmare for any eyeballs brave enough to brush over it. Effectively, Where’s Wally if you are looking for a robot nipple or a discarded bullet casing instead of a fool in a bobble hat, it is a visual feast. Published by Dark Horse Comics Frank Miller and Geoff Darrow won the 1991 Eisner Award for Best Writer/ Artist for Hard Boiled. A largely forgotten piece now outside of collectors, Hard Boiled was a diamond made of corrugated Iron and blasted with a blowtorch.

At the same time again, Miller teamed up as writer with another even more legendary artist, Dave Gibbons and produced Give Me Liberty. The story is set in a dystopian near-future where the United States have split into several extremist factions, and tells the story of Martha Washington, a young American girl from a public housing project called “The Green” ( Chicago’s Cabrini–Green). The series starts with Martha’s birth and sees her slowly grow up from someone struggling to break free of the public housing project, to being a war hero and major figure in deciding the fate of the United States. After three series, according to Dave Gibbons himself at last years Kapow! – Martha Washington is dead. But those three series allowed Miller to flex his satirical muscle, using it forcefully on the political structure of the United States and its major corporations.

Falling out of love with the movie making process during ‘interference’ on his script writing duties on Robocop 2 and 3, Millr wrote Robocop vs. Terminator with art from Superman artist Walt Simonson. In 2003, Miller’s screenplay for Robocop 2 was adapted by Steven Grant for Avatar Press’s Pulsaar Print. Illustrated by Juan Jose Ryp, the series is called Frank Miller’s Robocop and contains elements of plots from both Robocop 2 and 3.

In 1991, Miller started work on his first story set in Sin City. His time in LA had brought about the same effect as his time in Hell’s Kitchen New York, only this time with an imaginary city populated by every dreg and lowlife you can think of. Every corner now a dank shadow for a mugger or rapist to wait, every street a setting for a murder, a shooting or a car chase. This was noir darker and with only two colours consistent throughout. Sharp black against a savage white. Using innovative silhouette techniques by colouring in the shadow to form figures, buildings and compositions.

The first Sin City ‘yarn’ was released in 1995 under the name The Hard Goodbye. Sin City proved to be Miller’s main project for the rest of the decade, as, responding to demand, Miller continued to put out more Sin City yarns. With it, Miller helped to revitalise the crime comics genre – giving way to other sprawling crime epics like Azzarello and Risso’s excellent 100 Bullets.

Teaming up with John Romita Jr, an artist comparable in style to Miller himself, Miller returned to the Daredevil canon. This time rewriting again the creation story of Daredevil and provided additional detail to his beginnings. Miller also returned to superheroes by writing issue #11 of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. In 1995, Miller and Darrow on Big Guy and Rusty the Toy Robot, published as a two-part miniseries by Dark Horse comics. in 1999 it became a cartoon series on Fox Kids. During this period, Miller became a founding member of the imprint Legend, under which many of his Sin City works were released, via Dark Horse, Miller did any number of covers for many titles in the Comics Greatest World / Dark Horse Heroes line – immeasurably valuable as one of the most recognisable and popular artists in the world.

Written and illustrated by Frank Miller with painted colors by Varley, 300 was a 1998 comic-book miniseries, released as a hardcover collection in 1999, retelling the Battle of Thermopylae and the events leading up to it from the perspective of Leonidas of Sparta. It played on the most basic Miller themes to great of success – those of honour, self determination and bravery in the face of great adversity. 300 was particularly inspired by the 1962 film The 300 Spartans, a movie that Miller watched as a young boy. In 2007, 300 was adapted by director Zack Snyder into a successful film, with Miller and Varley’s visuals the basis of the look of the entire film. Entire panels were effectively populated and animated digitally in a way that saw it leave an indelible mark on cinema goers minds. Even now, 5 years later, 300 is the film that prolific actor Gerard Butler is asked about most – most notably because of the notorious ‘eight pack’ on his stomach developed in order to match Miller’s incredible artwork.

Finally putting aside his dispute with DC, Miller picked up the pen once more for the giant and wrote the sequel to The Dark Knight, Batman: Dark Knight Strikes Again. Released as a three issue miniseries it was universally panned by critics and fans for beinga shadow of it’s predecessor and introducing too many obscure characters. In 2005, he took on writing duties for another alternative universe Batman story for All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, with Jim Lee on pencils. This also proved to not turn out as intended – somehow the characters unsympathetic and uneven – the Dark Knight himself unpredictable and aggressive. Jim Lee’s visuals also struggled to put across the hard edged nature of Miller’s script which hindered the expression inherent in it. A rare team up, it was perhaps ill advised – although both are clearly at the same level in their careers, neither had worked with someone like the other.

Miller has said he opposes naturalism in comic art. In an interview on the documentary Legends of the Dark Knight: The History of Batman, he said, “People are attempting to bring a superficial reality to superheroes which is rather stupid. They work best as the flamboyant fantasies they are. I mean, these are characters that are broad and big. I don’t need to see sweat patches under Superman’s arms. I want to see him fly.”

Miller’s previous attitude towards movie adaptations was to change after he and Robert Rodriguez made a short film based on a story from Miller’s Sin City entitled “The Customer is Always Right”. Miller was pleased with the result, leading to him and Rodriguez directing a full length film, Sin City using Miller’s original comics panels as storyboards. The film was released in the U.S. on April 1, 2005. The film’s success brought renewed attention to Miller’s Sin City projects. Similarly, a film adaptation of 300, directed solely by Zack Snyder, brought new attention and controversy to Miller’s original comic book work. A sequel to the film, based around Miller’s first Sin City series, A Dame to Kill For, has been reported to be in development.

Miller is no saint. In the renewed scrutiny over his existing projects, popular culture has balked at his depiction of female characters in particular. In Sin City almost every female character is a prostitute, victim, psychologically damaged or a killer. His depiction of women in his books is reminiscent of Noir conventions – and the men represent those conventions just as clearly. However, in the case of the female characters those conventions have perhaps become outdated and have less place in popular culture as a result.

With the poor critical response to his two most recent books and the furore throughout the comic industry over his statements about the Occupy Movement in the US, Frank Miller is perhaps a practitioner for his time. However, equally his work is, almost completely, a perfectly timeless collection, that may fall out of favour at times and find great recognition at others. Regardless, at the time – almost every comic book fan knows the adventures of Leonitus of Sparta, Robocop and Marv and in comic book stores all over the world copies of Martha Washington and Hard Boiled sit, hidden and waiting to be discovered by someone in that way that all great literature should be. But no one moves through the comics world can say they aren’t aware of The Dark Knight Returns, a book that will outlast Miller himself in terms of bringing generations of future readers, if not joy, a steady dose of gritty, hard won realism. And really, you suspect, that’s just the way Miller wants it.