Practitioners 46: Jim Lee

Jim Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea on August 11, 1964 and emigrated to the United States with his family at the age of four, growing up in St Louis Missouri. In Lee’s St. Louis Country Day School his classmates predicted he would found hi sown comic book company. Despite this, Lee seemed resigned to following in his father’s profession of medicine, studying psychology at Princeton University, with the intention of becoming a medical doctor. However, medicine’s loss was certainly going to be popular culture’s gain as Lee became one of the most influential and well known artists on the biggest selling comic book of all time. One that founded movie franchises and supported an ailing Marvel in the late ’90s and found some of the most famous comic companies in the world to rival it.

Lee’s rise to fame with Marvel Comics was inevitable as it was undeniable. In 1986, as Lee was preparing to graduate from his psychology degree, Lee took an art class that reignited his fascination with art at a time when seminal work such as Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen was reinvigorating the American comic book industry. With the psychology degree complete, Lee did something, with the reluctant blessing of his parents, that shows incredible courage and clarity of mind and self belief. He postponed his medical degree. The rest is without a doubt comic book history. He vowed he would return if he failed to break the comic book industry. Not something that should’ve worried him.

Submitting examples to various publishers, Lee did not see success until a New York comic book convention where he met Archie Goodwin, comic book editor (regularly cited as the ‘best loved comic book editor… ever), artist and writer who introduced him to Marvel Comics. Now it seems hard to believe that Lee was not snapped up immediately by the first commissioning editor to spot him but Lee exposes the nature of the industry. Retrospectively, artists are professional, passionate and confident in the style they work in and seem undeniable masters of their art but even the most capable artist can be subject to the pressures, misunderstandings, bad luck and bad timing of the industry. Lee began on Alpha Flight and moved over to Punisher: War Journal, his work there inspired by Frank Miller, David Ross, Kevin Nowlan and Whilce Portacio, as well as Japanese Manga.

Then came the crossing of two similar talents, one more senior than the other as Lee filled in for regular illustrator, Marc Silvestri on Uncanny X-Men 248, which was, due to positive response and Marvel’s own enthusiasm for Lee’s style followed up on issues 256 through to 258 as part of the ‘Acts of Vengeance’. The timing of this was key as X-Men, under Claremont was not only ground breaking and beautifully written at the time, it was on a meteoric rise in terms of popularity, beginning to challenge the more mainstream titles of Spider-man, Fantastic Four and Avengers. Eventually, Lee became Uncanny’s full time penciller, working for the first time with inker, Scott Williams, who would become his long time collaborator. To cement his position as an X-men innovator, Lee co-created the smooth talking mutant thief Gambit, with Chris Claremont. Lee’s popularity crystallised in these months, becoming more and more representative of what fan’s wanted. He gained increasingly greater control of the franchise and in 1991, Lee helped launch the second X-Men series, X-Men (Volume 2). He did so, not just as artist but as co-writer alongside Chris Claremont, giving the book a more broad and cutting edge feel to it’s perhaps more thoughtful predecessor. X-Men 1 was raw edged, fun comic book pinned with the wisdom and knowledge of an older and more restrained writer. Lee pushed Claremont’s boundaries while Claremont restrained the more inexperienced artist to just the right degree. The result was comic book history and rightfully so. However, Lee redesigned costumes, entirely successfully for Cyclops, Jean Grey, Rogue, Psylocke and Storm as well as creating villain Russian Super Soldier Omega Red.

X-Men 1 (Vol 2) remains the best selling comic book of all time with sales of 8.1 million (and nearly £7 million). This was confirmed in a public declaration by the Guinness Book of Records at the 2010 San Diego Comic con. While one aspect of it’s success was that it was released with five different variant covers as well as a limited edition gatefold edition that revealed it all in its glory, the success was thanks to Lee’s distinctive, modern take on a fan favourite and the development of the X-Men in an exciting new direction. The variant cover trick became a weight around collector’s necks in years following with Gold and Silver foil, holograms and gatefolds every few months for some titles, but this first incarnation was about piecing together a piece of art, mass produced and available to anyone who wanted it. Only Jim Lee and perhaps one or two other legends of the industry could’ve commanded such a response.

The success of X-men saw Lee hungering even more for greater creative control over his own work, and as soon as in 1992, Lee accepted an invitation to join six other artists (Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio, Rob Liefeld) who broke away from Marvel Comics to start Image Comics, which would release their own creator-owned titles. Lee’s batch of titles included Wild C.A.T.s, which Lee pencilled and co-wrote, and other series created in the same universe, including Stormwatch, Deathblow and arguably the more successful Gen13.

Lee and his close friend, Valiant Comics publisher Steve Massarsky, arranged a Valiant / Image crossover, Lee’s characters being used, alongside those of Rob Liefeild. Four central titles would exist – two from each company – in single edition format, each edition known as a colour rather than a number, plus a prologue and epilogue book. Wildstorm produced Deathmate Black, with Lee himself contributing to the writing, illustrating the covers of that book, as well as contributing to the prologue’s interior links. The assignment was given to Valiant creators against their better judgment, in particular Editor-in-chief Bob Layton, who complained about Image’s inability to meet their deadlines. Deathmate Black came out a few months after Valiant’s Blue and Yellow installments, which had come out on time, and Liefeld’s Deathmate Red was so late that Layton flew to California to procure that chapter personally, and ink it himself in an Anaheim hotel room. Layton see’s Deathmate’s lateness as one of Valiant’s ‘unmitigated disasters’ and views that project as the beginning of the spectacular collapse of the 1990s for the comic book industry. A collpase that would pull in Marvel and a collapse that comics has not, if ever, recovered from.

Wildstorm continued on, expanding it’s line to include other ongoing titles. As publisher, Lee later expanded this by creating two separate imprints for Wildstorm, Cliffhanger and Homage (to be replaced again years later to reform as a single Wildstorm Imprint, now owned by DC).

Moving back, with Rob Liefeld, to Marvel for the Heroes Reborn alternate universe storyline of the mid-late nineties, Lee was given the opportunity to plot the new Iron Man and wrote and illustrated The Fantastic Four. Both used existing storyarcs and developed them, bringing them more up to date. The innovations on these titles, however, were arguably greater than the more successful Ultimate Universe that has existed since as an Imprint of Marvel, though that is more subject to greater popularity of the industry as well as greater sophistication in art and writing in modern comic books.

Lee returned to Wildstorm, where he would publish series such as The Authority and Planetary, as well as Alan Moore’s imprint, America’s Best Comics. Lee himself wrote and illustrated a 12-issue series called Divine Right: The Adventures of Max Faraday, in which an internet slacker inadvertently manages to download the secrets of the universe, and is thrown into a wild fantasy world.

Sourced from HERE Check out the gallery there for more awesome images. Thanks to Alexandre Bihn for the awesome scan.

In a typically astute and decisive choice, Lee sold Wildstorm to DC in 1998 because he felt that his role as publisher was interfering with his role as an artist. In an echo of the choice made many years previously, he put his calling first. In 2003, Lee collborated with Jeph Loeb for a 12 issue Batman run. Introducing a new nemesis from Batman’s past, ‘Hush’ was a tightly packed and neatly executed trip through the Bat universe. Lee’s images were sumptuous, his design work intricate, emotive and innovative. Lee, the artist, through all the pitfalls and difficulties of publishing had lost none of the values and passion he had when working on X-Men 1 more than 12 years before. He followed this up with ‘For Tomorrow’ a 12-issue story in Superman by 100 Bullets writer (and Bunker firm favourite) Brian Azzarelo, although this didn’t achieve the same level of success, Lee’s work showed a maturity and stillness that perhaps wasn’t visible in his earlier career. In 2005, Lee collaborated with Frank Miller on All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, a series plagued by delays. Lee’s work was spotless throughout, in particular a redesign of the batmobile and a gatefold image that folded out from the book itself that revealed the full scale of this Elseworld Batcave. While Lee’s contribution was near infallible, Miller’s writing was unsophisticated and cynical in most ways and alienated a great many readers. During this period, Lee returned to WildC.A.T.S with Grant Morrison. The gap between All-Star Batman and Robin 4 and 5 was one year and to date, only 1 issue of WildC.A.T.S (Vol 4 has been published. During thsi time, Lee also drew covers for the Infinite Crisis series.

Lee was named Executive Creative Director for DC Universe Online MMORPG. This was released in 2009, with Lee responsible for concept art for the project.

Lee’s meteoric rise did not falter there, as he has now taken a position alongside Dan Didio as Co-publisher of DC Comics. Despite obvious concerns, Lee maintains that this will in no way effect his capacity as a creative. He cited two projects, Dark Knight: Boy Wonder – a follow up of the Frank Miller series he had worked on and also a painted cover for Giuseppe Camuncoli’s layouts in Batman: Europa 1. Neither projects have surfaced yet. The Wildstorm imprint was officially declared ended by DC in September 2010.

With DC’s enormous revamp of it’s entire line, A-List artists were brought to the forefront to work on the most prominent titles. With a Justice League movie in discussion /pre-production at present DC was always going to put JL first in their choices of creative teams. The illustrious team of Jim Lee as penciller and Geoff Johns as writer is certainly, still, a cocktail that no true fan of the artform can ignore. If anything that is Lee’s great talent. Enduring popularity. His art work remains so fresh and clear, and so respresentative of what people want from their books – in spite of changes in the industry itself – that Lee has proven himself a Practitioner who has wandered away from the thing he is most beloved for, but like a much younger, more south east asian Peter Cook, retains a place in every fan who ever saw his work. This is testament to Lee’s enormous talent. His offers to put out projects reveals a conflict of interests that has taken him away perhaps too much in the last two decades, however he is a brave artist who pursued greater goals. Without finding ourself in the same situation who are we to say we wouldn’t pursue those same goals…. however Lee’s example is certainly a cautionary one. Swathes of exceptional artwork, pages and pages of classic comic work haven’t seen the light of day. From the top down the industry runs on one thing – putting out the best books possible. While we can never undermine someone’s right to do whatever they want – what would we have given to see more Lee?

Advertisements

Practitioners 44: Andy Lanning

Andy Lanning is a British comic book writer and inker, known, most credibly for his work for Marvel Comics and DC comics and in particular as collaborator with Dan Abnett. For an inker to make the leap to writing one of the foremost titles currently being put out by Marvel, as part of their Cosmic run, is impressive. His association with Dan Abnett has gone from strength to strength for years.

Lanning wasn’t always an inker though, at the spark of his career with Marvel UK in it’s earliest days, he found a position as penciller on the short lived, Jake and Elwood Blues inspired, futuristic Sleeze Brothers was a comic book limited series published by Epic Comics, between August 1989 and January 1990 – a run of just six issues. Written by John Carnell, it followed the titular brothers through a futuristic earth filled with extra terrestrials, pollution, crime and corruption. It was neatly drawn with a warner brothers-esque style with a semi realistic twist. The art style was arguably on par with other artists – Bryan Hitch for instance – who went on to become much more prolific and well known artists – working with Abnett and Lanning much later on their 15 book run on Wildstorm’s The Authority.

Working consistently alongside Dan Abnett, no one has ever been more of a fix-it guy on so many varying projects. He drops seamlessly into whatever position is necessary on any given project, pencilling, inking, co-writing and writing – he’s either the most prolific hanger on or one of the nicest, most capable people in the industry. To be able to work alongside so many names of the industry, including Abnett who alone is responsible for the sales of more than 1.5 million novels and hundreds of thousands of comic books, he has to be a hell of a guy to work with. Bouncing ideas backwards and forwards past him must be akin to a Chinese / South Korean ping pong final at the Olympics.

Lanning’s partnership with Dan Abnett began early on, with a Judge Anderson: Exorcise Duty for the Judge Dredd Annual 1991, with art completed by Anthony Williams. Lanning found popular acclaim inking Liam Sharp’s pencils for the industry shaking Death’s Head 2. A title with more than 500,000 preorders DH 2 was a flagship example of success at a boom time for comic books that’ll never be seen again. His sublime work on Liam Sharp’s detailed and precise and exacting illustrative work shows an incredible attention to detail. With Marvel UK Lanning was involved in Digitek (with John Tomlinson and painted art by Dermot Power) and Codename: Genetix (with Graham Marks, Phil Gascoine and inks by Robin Riggs in 1993)as part of Marvel Uk’s second generation wave of titles.

Lanning graduated to Marvel mainstream with Punisher: Year One (with Abnett, Dale Eaglesham and Scott Koblish) and the Avengers West Coast replacement, Force Works (again with Dan Abnett), which featured Iron Man, USAgent, Scarlet Witch, Wonder man and a long disappeared alien warrior guru named Century. Force Works was elevated some time later into an animated series.

Moving over to DC shortly afterwards with a run on Resurretion Man (with Jackson Guice), The Else world One-shot Batman: Two Faces (with Anthony Williams), Abnett and Lanning (or DnA as they are otherwise known) found a home with DC’s resident spit curled former-resisdent of Krypton, Superman with Prime-Time, The Superman Monster, Return to Krypton and Strange Attractors (on which he worked with Gail Simone as well as Abnett). It was the title for which Olivier Coipel became famous that raised the status for both Lanning and his writing partner as they took on Legion Lost, a reimagining of the debunked Legion of Superheroes title, that later became the ongoing Legion. In many ways Lanning maintains his Mr Fixit role in almost every job he undertakes, working alongside the big names of the industry and putting out consistent and notable writing. Impossible as it is to discern where Lanning ends and Abnett begins, it clearly works – as Abnett has worked diligently beside Lanning on almost all major projects (excluding his 2000AD output) for the last 20 years. To maintain a working arrangement like that for so long is notable in that as the profile of the two writers became greater, one would have stood apart as the creative mind. However, in 20 years, no cracks appear to have shown in the partnership. If anything both have had increasing fun obliterating universes together.

Based on Abnett’s other work (with Warhammer 40k), Lanning appears to be the populist and more comic book orientated, perhaps the thing that brings Abnett’s writing into line with audiences with less of a need for heavy weaponry and enormous armies. However it braeks down, Lanning’s partnership with Abnett clearly spawns enthusiastic and impressive ideas and narratives including some of the best character zingers ever heard. The pair have improved and enhanced their reputation in comic books by simplifying and man handling their characters and allowing events to take hold that other titles fail to. Effectively an editor’s potential worst nightmare, when handed a sand box that they have creative control of the effects are absolutely brilliant.

Lanning and Abnett collaboarted on the ongoing Nova series for Marvel in 2007, following the cataclysmic Nova series from the previous years Marvel Cosmic crossover Annihalation. Lanning and Abnett were handed the scenario whereby the Xandarian Nova Corps would be destroyed completely within 12 pages by the incoming Annihalation wave. triggering an intergalactic war. Some might have balked at the idea but this was Lanning and Abnett’s Raise en dentre. Grabbing the Xandarian Nova Corps helmet by the polished brass, they didn’t destroy the Nova Corps, they really Annihalated it. Thousands of Starships pummel the Nova Corps unexpectedly during a Corps meeting and rather than holding back slightly and allowing certain survivors to pick themselves up from the rubble and try to carry on, Lanning and Abnett killed every single Corpsman but one, our very own Richard Rider in less time than it usually takes to have a two headed character discussion. Rider doesn’t simply get knocked aside, he survives because he’s effectively at the heart of it. He spends four or five panels flirting with a fellow Corpswoman only for her head to be smashed to pieces and is sent hurtling backwards down to the planet below, trapped in the flaming wreckage of the Corps hall he was just in and had tried to fly through in order to escape. Issue 2 sees a battered and injured Nova, trapped under rubble in a quiet tableau of post apocalyptic destruction, snow and ash falling from the grey sky. He spends the rest of the issue scrambling through the rubble, a beautifully rendered example of the pause after immense death, tempered with Nova’s obnoxious banter with the discovered Novacorps Artificial Intelligence. Lanning and Abnett are patient and confident writers, allowing the events to breath and never afraid of the possibility of tragedy, carnage, laughter or brevity to take place within a panel of each other.

In June 2008, Abnett and Lanning announced they had signed an exclusive deal with Marvel and they have served the populist hulk very well. They piloted the Annihalation: Conquest storyline, in which the Phalanx take advantage of the vulnerability of post Annihalation wave societies and block off Kree space. This became a more paired down sequel to Annihalation, focussing very deliberately on very, very specific figures. From these, the title Star Lord, a reimagining of the adapted character that appeared in the late ’90s spawned a new Guardian’s of the Galxy title.

In this Lanning and Abnett have hit their stride absolutely. With a play pen involving some of the most notable characters in the Marvel Universe, they decided to opt for a Green Nymphomaniac murderess, a smart mouthed hero of the Annihalation wars, a warrior built to kill gods, a fallen space mage with schizophrenic tendencies and a talking Raccoon. The inclusion of Rocket Raccoon alone is worth a pat on the back and a pint in the hand. Rocket Raccoon was last seen frequenting 1980s Marvel comic books, being chased by Keystone cops in an absurdist forest surrounded by oddball creations. It was hard to see how the character existed then, let alone could find a place in modern comic book teams. But Rocket Raccoon returned, found in a Kree holding cell, he befriended Groot, a walking tree king so he could use him as a platform for his heavy ordnance. As tactical leader of the team, Rocket is one of the finest examples of writing outrunning the lunacy of a plot. Rocket, along with all the other members of the team are written sublimely. Private progress reports give each character their own distinctive voice and has seen Guardians become one of the most talked about series in years for fans in the know.

Lanning and Abnett have a habit of taking crackpot ideas and breaking all the rules, to positive effect. Their run on War of Kings, described usually as the Cosmic aftermath of Secret Invasion dwarves the events that took place on Earth. With the apparent death’s of Cyclop’s new-found brother Vulcan you would think they were resolving an unfortunate creative choice from the X-men universe (Vulcan wasn’t well liked and leadened the X-men universe immeasurably) until you realise that the External’s King Black Bolt, an iconic and famous figure in books, often stood beside Reed Richards, Namor, Iron Man, Captain America as pillars of a character filled universe dies with him, blowing a massive hole in the side of creation from which nasty things pop out for the Guardians to deal with. The death of a long standing Shi’ar leader (and X-men regular) in Empress Neramani and the raising of Gladiator as new Emperor of the Shi’ar state is plotting that had been denied for nearly 20 years. These character’s were seemingly immovable on the chess board of Marvel’s tactical board. Lanning and Abnett set fire to the Chess board.

But more than that, the love story between Ronan the Accuser and the External’s Crystal is thought provoking and engaging as the clumsy Accuser finds himself out of his depth but slowly charms the warm and emotionally open Crystal to him with his honesty. Gladiator’s struggle with his obvious rise to power is touching as a picture of man who’s devotion is to the seat of power but comes to understand that his future is at the service of his people. It’s powerful stuff, more than acceptable for a historical, political play or romance but it is found in the pages of a comic book in which a Raccoon bounds about the panel shouting insults at his fellow team mates as they fight at the edge of space. They have brought back the multi layered space opera unexpectedly and I know that we at Beyond the Bunker will continue to read it for as long as Lanning and Abnett continue to put them out. Long may they write of Empire building in far distant galaxies. They could even show a certain bearded film maker a thing or two….

X-Men First Class: Meet the Class 1


Banshee: Sean Cassidy in X-Men (introduced as part of the second gen X-Men in Giant Size X-Men 1 along with Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Warpath and Storm). Banshee lived on in the comic books for some time, a stable, reliable side character and came into his own as leader of Generation X (alongside Emma Frost) in which he, Frost and Sabretooth kept the next generation of kids out of the way of the Phalanx. In X-Men: New Class he’s almost the only character placed pretty much in line with continuity in the books as his age in the sixties reflects the age he’d be now (relative to Prof X). A mainstay of the books for some time Banshee was killed trying to stop a plane crash.

Havok has occupied most of the theories surrounding the decision to start at the beginning. Havok’s most notable feature in X-Men is that he is brother to Scott Summers (Cyclops) and has always lived slightly in the shadow of his brother. That clearly isn’t the case here as Cyclops is part of the modern day canon of the previous movies. At the X-Men: First Class panel at MCM it was a question aimed squarely at the writers. All they could say was that Havok is related in someway to Scott. Hard to figure out where they’re going with this but if a franchise is built hopefully all will be revealed.

The inclusion of Mystique is an interesting choice. Most viewers of previous X-Movies’d be aware that Mystique has a very clear resolution to her plot line. Her association with Erik Lensherr in this adds a neat reference point to both sets of movies (with the Wolverine Origins franchise sandwiched in the middle).

Practitioners 25: Mark Millar (Pt 2)

Mark Millar is a media operator, while his peers have a natural talent for recognising the effect of what they do and cross mediums in their choices of content (Morrison in particular can ascribe a lot of his success to his cinematic, literary and popular culture referencing across his comic book work) noone gives you the feeling that they’re not operating on a comic book scale – that the medium is considered too small for the individual involved. Indeed, Millar has expressed a want to break out of the confines of the comic book industry. A belligerent creative child at the heart of commercial companies, it was unlikely that the traditional and watchful Warner Bros (home of Bugs etc) would tolerate such an enfant terrible. Indeed, where novels are a breeding ground of controversial and broad opinions and a fevered battleground of freedom of speech, Millar made clear that comic books at the turn of the century enjoyed no such freedoms.

Nemesis, Superior, Hit-girl and Kick-ass (Millar's most recent characters) by Leinil-Yu

Detailed in the last part on Tuesday, there were offered a couple of examples of Millar’s run on the aggressive and controversial Authority title for Wildstorm (an imprint of DC, a subsidiary of Warner Bros). At this stage, with Millar’s Authority pouring in money from buoyant sales DC balked at the destruction of cities and high death tolls in the aftermath of 9/11. With ferocious fan interest and critical acclaim Millar’s Authority suffered an unexpected at the height of its popularity, internal editorialism. DC misjudged the mood of America. While there was shock and anger from the events in New York, networked globally, the general American was facing new realities that European, Asian, African and Middle Eastern nations had long been aware of – that their borders were no longer safe. The war machine beginning to roll into slow motion under the Bush administration, looking for targets belayed a more mature attitude in readerships in the US. A renewed awareness of their vulnerability to powers greater (or more insidious) than their own. A culture of wry and interested fatalism and assured realism was born in the wreckage of 9/11 among certain sections of American society – particularly in the more informed and connected East and West coast and in comic readership. Embryonic at the time – it is now perhaps more visible in the lack of interest in Marvel’s attempts at introducing a new Golden Age of Heroes. Finally, that period in comic books has passed and Millar represented it far better than most with his aggressive, edgy and deliberately sardonic style. DC didn’t agree and Millar began to bite at the chains that bound him, eventually swapping, following some well paid projects for Marvel, to the New York entertainment giant in 2001 to create the Ultimate Universe.

The Ultimate line was an imprint of Marvel comics introducing the Marvel Universe if it was formed today. What was created was a much more hardbitten and edgy number of heroes engaged in political, military, social and personal strife – though the imprint of Stan Lee’s original concepts of character fuelled titles was perhaps put at the bottom of the list of priorities – this was more a love letter to the movie industry and may well have instigated the wholesale redevelopment of major Marvel characters; Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and the Avengers to the big screen.

To begin it was Marvel’s most commercially successful title; the X-Men that was renovated to Ultimate status. The characters now more belligerent, obstinate and teenage than Lee’s incarnations, Millar imbued them with the all-knowing arrogance of teenage Mutants. A total reboot, X-Men was the first title to begin to represent its predecessor as the title inevitably followed the numerous characters plot to the most obvious conclusion; a coherent team of mutants trying to battle the world. While recreating many of the scenarios and plots from the original series; Weapon X, the Nuclear Plant detonation from Issue 1; Millar struggled (perhaps unsurprisingly) to supersede the mainstream series, most likely because it had been the home of some of the foremost artists and writers of the previous quarter century and Marvel’s most innovative title. It was fun though, bitter and harsh at times but with a self conscious teenage cool and a moral ambiguity in the leaderships of both the X-team and the Brotherhood of Mutants (sensibly without the somewhat detrimental ‘Evil’ in the title). The title proved popular and Millar moved to expand the Universe with his incarnation of the less developed Avengers. This was to be his best move.

While all this was taking place; an independent book written by Millar and drawn by J.G. Jones was in preparation. Wanted was released in 2003-2004 and tore a hole a mile wide across conservative comics, kicking them and DC firmly into touch. The lack of belief DC had shown in its readership was proven by the success of this book; featuring a world only populated by Villains – the heroes wiped out some years previously. Opening with bisexual orgies, graphic assassinations and cheating girlfriends the protagonist secretly hates; the patented anger brewed up with the previous years of censorship came spewing out. Featuring characters like Shit-head (formed from the fecal matter of the most evil people in the history of man), Mr Rictus (a skull faced sadist) and Fuckwit (a superhero clone with Downs Syndrome), the protagonist Wesley Gibson electrocutes and rapes celebrities, kills hundreds while ingratiating himself with the Fraternity of Super-villains. It went astronomical, a readership hungry for a challenge snapping it off the shelves as quickly as possible. The intention of Millar was to create a wry and morally and ethically void space in which to populate his darkest writing to date. Ferocious, unforgiving and incredibly unapologetic Millar is every parent’s worst nightmare and every kid’s dream writer. Any book that ends with a full page spread with the central character’s top half leaning in aggressively and shouting ‘This is me fucking you in the ass!’ is to be reckoned with.

James McAvoy as Wesley Gibson in the much-toned-down movie version of Wanted (2008)

Millar is troubling for that reason – his bouts of self control working for commercial giants are interspersed with pure filth and its hard to tell who he is. The knowledge he goes to church every Sunday only deepens the confusion as he represents so little of what is good or ethical about comic books. He represents shameless populism and crowd pleasing. His thinking far deeper than content, Millar has proven, having now been given a stage big enough, that he will stop at nothing to crowd please. Although a great and powerful writer, he lacks the sensitivity and at times subtlety of peers like Morrison and Moore but will stoop as low as the public needs to. His books are the equivalent of throwing the christians to the Lions at the colliseum and feel at times like the breakdown of the medium at the same time as being the bleeding edge and the expansion of it.

His take on the Avengers, the Ultimates, represents the epitomy of modern, advanced and knowledgable writing that transcends the format of comic books and expands its reach. Where the Avengers title – holding tight throughout the nineties and naughties to its showcasing of Marvel’s most heroic and impressive characters – was losing steam, the Ultimates upped the ante and caught the popular edge of the characters within the title. What ensued is a high concept, high octane, gripping and effecting story of disparate heroes representing many fields, Military, special ops, science, media, big business, liberal politics and mainstream politics trying to get on. Brilliantly, Ultimates shows that the characters that have cooperated so effectively in their time in Avengers would create such strain amongst themselves that they represent a larger liability than the threats they pose. Effectively the tale of a political / military complex trying to justify its own existence it spends most of its time fighting off threats within its own ranks. However the set pieces, rendered beautifully by Bryan Hitch – in which the team occasionally rally to combat real threats to the world are truly monumental. There is some poignant character writing within too, most notably involving the emotionally crippled Bruce Banner and the man-out-of-time Steve Rogers.

A scene from Ultimates 1 Volume 2 (2003) by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch

After 33 issues, Millar left Ultimate X-Men and wrote the number one hit title Marvel Knights Spider-Man in 2004, He also co-wrote the first six issues of Ultimate Fantastic Four with Brian Michael Bendis. He later returned to that title for a 12-issue run throughout 2005-2006, and created the Marvel Zombies spin-off title in his first and final storylines.

But it is his Millarworld movements that interest us here at Beyond the Bunker as Millar is using his considerable weight to focus the comic book industry back towards Britain. Writing Kick-Ass, while in parallel, British film makers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman made a motion picture version secured the success of both by shoring up the other. Both were british made (though Kick-ass was published as a Marvel Imprint) and have kick started a smaller, more quiet UK invasion back from the US. From the success of this Millar launched Clint, in association with Jonathan Ross and Frankie Boyle (both oddly British comedians), an anthology title in the style of 2000AD. Largely hyper-violent and named deliberately to look like the worst kind of swear word from across the room it can’t be accused of being high brow but it does appear to be working. There is no doubt that Millar’s efforts are reinvigorating the UK comic industry and whether this is sustainable is up to him and us frankly. While his motives are unclear and open to great speculation in the halls of comic conventions in the UK – he has reopened a door thought closed by being the most highly valued writer of the last ten years. His writing has excited, enthralled and challenged a very wide generation and expanded the interest in comic books to the wider population (though unfortunately not to 90s levels) but why are we putting all this on one man? Perhaps because he has proven he can handle it and come back with more. Millar might be the revolution we’ve been looking for and like all revolutions you have to applaud its effect if it moves things forwards and not linger too long on the man forcing it forwards and his motives except to applaud that he has and achieved something something special for himself and potentially for the entire UK comics industry. You can’t be bothered by Iconoclasts if you’re not an icon and within this industry that Millar is absolutely an icon for the 21st Century.

Kick-ass with his ass kicked... (Kick-ass, 2010)

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.