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.

Practitioners 13: Liam Sharp

Liam Sharp has tackled X-Men, Hulk, Spider-man, Venom, Man Thing (for Marvel) Superman and Batman (for DC) and Spawn: Dark Ages for Todd McFarlane.

Sharp, more famous than near any other to come out of the early ’90s Brit invasion with Marvel UK took to the heights very early in his career, riding on top of an enormous success with Deaths Head II. Easily the best in his class on the original Death’s Head he was the obvious choice for the character. He met with success perhaps too soon – elevating him more quickly perhaps than he was comfortable with – leaving him scolded slightly by the industry he had been raised up by. From this Sharp has rebuilt an independent comics career and now uses his distinctive and enthralling illustrative style to bring clarity to popular culture – looking like Gods, facing demonic adversaries and carrying massive guns.

Born in Derby in 1968, Liam Sharp is one of the foremost names to come out of Marvel UK, arguably the most noteworthy at its peak – as primary artist on Deaths Head 2 – where he made his name. Having cut his teeth on the original Deaths Head series under Simon Furman, he was handed the artist position on its follow-up Deaths Head II. This suited Sharp as he created a skull faced blue goliath, cable dreadlocks and metal codpiece firmly secured.

To see it for the first time was rock and roll in comic form reborn; reminiscent of Bisley at his best with both the Kubert brothers (of X-Men fame) rolled in. A seven and a half foot time travelling cyborg with a right arm of liquid metal that could form into three weapon functions (blade, claw, crazy ass space cannon) and 100 disparate personalities. The counterparts of Marvel UK; Dark Angel, Digitek, Warheads etc while popular were just trying to keep up. This in no small part was due to Liam Sharp’s stunning artwork.

Sharp’s painted cover for Overkill and Deaths Head 2 and the comic strip that went with it (serialised in both Deaths Head 2 and Overkill in the 90s) features some of the best realisations of the X-men to ever be put to print – possibly the best outside the title itself. His rendering of Cyclops (broad, handsome, powerful) Wolverine (short, sinewy, rough) Beast (bestial, wild) and Psylocke (beautiful and oddly passive) standing abreast his central character and Puck made the two less established transatlantic cousins indiscernible in design and realisation next to the world’s most famous X-Team.

Whereas a panel by almost any other artist carries you to the next; a Liam Sharp panel pacifies you and forces you to stray about the page irrespective of where the next speech bubble is. Muscles burst with potential; on Male and female characters alike. Its Conan sensibilities with every panel; whether in the pages of X-Men (Sharp was responsible for X-Men issues leading into the Age of Apocalypse) or Gears of War (based on the X-Box game).

His women are undeniably pneumatic, irresistable to an artist so adept with Human anatomy. Testament (2006-2008 with Dennis Rushkoff) illustrates clearly that Sharp has a clear sense of proportion when needed – however for his most distinctive and popular work he simply switches it off. He extends the anatomy and physiology to a logical conclusion. Although his characters exceed usual shape there is a plausibility to their shape – never completely extending their forms beyond the edges of potential Human growth. His men are Conan by default, his women are Red Sonja.

His female characters would be perfect examples of Good girl art but there’s none of the accessibility that is prevalent in that form of art. There is an innate and overpowering sexuality in the characters and yet its not a lingering one. Its not porn – most obviously as his men are as perfect specimens of the form as his women. Sharp’s point? Maybe that you can draw any physical shapes – why linger on imperfection. Why not present God-like perfection every time?

It was on Incredible Hulk, arguably the pinnacle of his career up until this point – joining a title made legendary by Peter David, its resident writer. It would have seemed the perfect choice given the shape of the title character however it wasn’t to be the match made in heaven that was anticipated and the run was short lived. Upon joining, Sharp spoke to Peter David about his likes and dislikes in drawing. He explained he disliked drawing cars and buildings and that a character he really liked was Man-thing. And Lo, the introductory piece saw Hulk in the Florida Everglades facing Man-thing (generating an indelible cover of the two facing each other in the swampland that epitomised Sharp’s styling and illustrative roots). Banner’s job however was as a mechanic, creating a need to draw cars and buildings immediately in a part of the world unfamiliar with Sharp. It became clear that it was going to be a struggle and that Sharp was perhaps unprepared for the expectations placed on a comic book artist. In a title like Hulk, after the central character, it would be impossible not to build the infrastructure around him continuously and it was clearly representing a challenge to the new artist. Peter David had reservations – uncertain that his writing matched Sharp’s artwork – but a letter to Bobby Chase from the inker on Hulk put paid to Sharp’s position with the book. Unable to find an alternative artist at such short notice, Sharp had to complete a further two issues – depicting the Abomination (happily another goliath) – though an exhausting experience knowing that his run had ended. The cover of Hulk 427 saw Sharp offered a Man-thing series with Marc DeMatties.

Given more creative opportunities with DeMatties Sharp felt more comfortable however the Man-thing series ran only for 12 issues. From his monumental beginnings with Marvel UK he was finding the world of commercial comic books more competitive and demanding than anticipated.

Undeterred, in 2004, Sharp started his own independent publishing company, Mam Tor publishing with wife Christina McCormack and published the artbook Sharpenings: The Art of Liam Sharp. The company launched Mam Tor: Event Horizon, featuring art by Glenn Fabry, Brian Holguin, Ashley Wood and Simon Bisley among others.

Becoming penciller for controversial Testament series with DC Vertigo with writer Frank Tieri he then went on to Gears of War – a title perfectly suited in style, design and content for an artist of Sharp’s capabilities and talent. Big men, big guns, big scope, desolate environments and blood thirsty action.

In September 2008 he was offered an exclusive deal with DC.

Sharp is an unnatural talent with a clear idea of how things should be done. He has found a niche and is recognised for it. If you want a mountainside gun fight between heavily armed death faced doom bringers, a hard bitten cannon wielding bodybuilder and a chewed off beauty queen from Caveman Monthly go see Liam Sharp. If one of Liam Sharp’s characters hits you, you’ll know about it. If you see one of his pages – you’ll be hard pressed to remember it.

If you think this blog has been too long – screw you. Liam Sharp was the reason I picked up Overkill at 13 and the reason I’m doing what I do now. Those looking for realism in their comic books aren’t the only ones reading them. Those looking for the raw, aggressive and visceral presented like it was standing in the room, are fans of Liam Sharp.