June 5th, 2009
Nice word that. It means ‘The interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects’.
Which pretty much perfectly sums up a good comics creative partnership.
There’s something about certain creator pairings that just produce magic. Sure, if you pair a good writer with a good artist there’s a good chance the comic too will be good. Sometimes however a writer and an artist fuse together and work so sympathetically that the work becomes transcendent – a holistic reading experience with two distinct artistic voices working together to create something perfect.
Ask anybody who’s collaborated on anything. It’s difficult. I’ve attempted to collaborate on comics with friends and colleagues, and have come to a simple conclusion - I work best alone. It’s daunting and often restrictive working from a script, with someone else calling the shots. Likewise as a writer it must be terrifying handing over your newborn script to an artist. One chimpanzee with a brush and your Watchmen has become Youngblood. Yet the friction between two creative visions can be the spark that gives the comics Frankenstein life. And sometimes, like I said, magic happens
1) Azzarello & Risso
Been hitting the 100 Bullets hard recently. I read it in big chunks and have been working my way through volumes 9-12. First up, I fucking love this book. It’s pure gonzo-noir played to the hilt. Black hearted, hardcore and totally brilliant. I’ll take it over the pantomime hysterics of Sin City any day.
What really stands out though is that it’s the work of two people working absolutely seamlessly together. Azzarello’s pitch-perfect dialogue and Risso’s stylish, sexy artwork combine to create an utterly convincing parallel noir universe. 100 Bullets features a large cast and it’s to Risso’s credit that each person has a distinct, recognisable look. Lono, Izzy, Cole, Graves and the rest all have a separate visual style that is totally in tune with their character. With the labyrinthine machinations of the plot it’s vital that the storytelling remains clear, and Risso manages this with aplomb. The background is packed full of grotesques and misfits; sleazy bars hum with sordid activity, boxing matches reverberate with violence and clamour.
Yet Risso is also adept at capturing the quieter, conversational moments. 100 Bullets is full of sequences where the players discuss the broader chess game at length. What could simply be a series of dull talking heads sequences are packed full of stylish angles and symbolic imagery. Body language and facial expressions are key in a series where literally no-one can be trusted, and again the artist’s loose, expressive style totally nails it.
A writer with a voice as unique as Azzarello’s needs an artist as capable as Risso. On Tucker’s advice, I picked up his Deathblow collection, and whilst it has a certain ludicrous charm it’s totally hamstrung by the nigh-on incomprehensible artwork. After the dry run that was Jonny Double, it was clear that Azzarello had found his artist. That work, whilst being a trifle slight, laid the groundwork of what was to come. Style, coolness and a heavy dose of the verbals. 100 Bullets exemplifies Azz’s best talent as a writer: his dialogue. His comics resound with convincing street slang and jittery hardboiled speech patterns. A big feature of 100 Bullets is its varied racial cast, and Azzarello and Risso between them turn in effective, convincing representations of ethnicity. It sounds patronising, but seriously, most mainstream comics are embarrassingly white-centric and ham-fisted in their presentation of colour. The black characters in 100 Bullets look and sound black; the Hispanic characters likewise.
Perhaps the best thing about the partnership on 100 Bullets is the sheer consistency of it. Both creators have been on board from #1 through #100 (barring the guest star packed #50) and have produced a remarkable body of work. Sure Risso may have improved as an artist somewhat, and Azz took a couple of arcs to really hit his stride, but barring that the comic has stayed at the same solid level for 100 fucking issues. Respect to that. Between them they’ve created a whole world of backstabbing, double-crossing and people getting fucked in all kinds of ways. Did I mention the sex? 100 Bullets is a refreshingly steamy book jam-packed full of lust and passion. Which is nice, considering most mainstream books have the libido of an episode of Teletubbies. Azzarello writes genuinely sexy scenes, and Risso draws up a storm. His women are curvy, his men are ripped but somehow it never feels exploitative or trashy. Or at least it’s the right kind of trashy.
And when it needs to be, man is this comic violent. Nasty. Any scene featuring psycho-of-the-year Lono has the potential to end in rape, slaughter or at the very least the removal of genitals. Risso’s cartoony artwork doesn’t flinch from the horror of an exit wound or the slice of a blade. I dare anyone not to be torn up by the fate of the trumpet player in Wylie’s story. Fucking horrible. Innocents are prey, schmucks end up six feet under. It’s a bad world, brought to vivid life by two twisted, brilliant creators.
2) Milligan & McCarthy
Once in a while an artist comes along who changes the game. Step up Brendan McCarthy. Although his total output may only total a few hundred pages, his work is consistently brilliant. Visionary is perhaps a better word. His vibrant neo-psychedelic work seemed ahead of it’s time in the early 80′s, and it still does now. From early forays into sci-fi with 2000ad (his iconic take on Dredd is up there with MikeMcMahon’s), he soon found his way into brain-bending weirdness and cosmic oddness. His partner in crime for the most surreal of these excursions? Peter Milligan.
Both creators came out of the Punk/New Wave pop culture of the late 70′s/early 80′s, and their work is infused with a sense of style, colour and iconoclasm. It took someone with a strange brain to match McCarthy’s flights of fancy, and Milligan was most definitely the man for the job. The comics they produced were dazzling, irreverent and funny. Freeform storytelling shorn of the boring self-indulgence of underground head comix. Milligan & McCarthy were embracing the mainstream. In fact they were making sweet sticky love to it, trying to fuck it into some brave new shape. Superheroes were the perfect vehicle for their inspired lunacy, although they weren’t like any superheroes you’d seen before.
Strange Days was a short-lived anthology by the pair, with occasional assistance from like-minded partner in crime, Brett Ewins. Despite its brief run I really can’t emphasise how seminal this comic was. M + McC conjure up some brilliantly deranged work, from the Mad Max via Lewis Carroll fantasia of Freakwave to Mirkin the Mystic, a dry, debauched Wildean riff on Dr Strange. Best of all was Paradax (see above). Before Zenith, Tank Girl or the Intimates came Paradax, a thoroughly modern superhero – lazy, obnoxious and media savvy. It was a wild strip that indulged McCarthy’s penchant for drawing ludicrous characters to the max whilst remaining a witty, sarcastic look at the spandex set. But it was mainly just fun. In fact all the comics produced by these two were essentially fun – pure pop-art celebrations of the elastic four colour world of comics. Except Skin. That was about a thalidomide skinhead called martin Hatchet. It was still colourful though. And banned! Paradax hummed with life, and its blatant disregard for continuity or realism, and willingness to fuck with the fourth wall placed it ahead of the game. Their particular style of storytelling totally influenced a generation of young British creators, who went on to produce similarly irreverent work in Deadline.
The main reason to read the comics though is to soak up the bizarre worlds the two create. Milligan demands a floating island/ship shaped like the Mad Hatter’s head, McCarthy serves it up. Milligan requires a man with saxophonic face implants – McCarthy knocks it out of the park. You literally can’t imagine any other creators matching the sheer, unbridled fizzing creativity that exists between them.
In the 90′s the two collaborated on the seminal Rogan Gosh, for the short-lived but well-loved UK anthology Revolver. Rogan Gosh combined Indian superheroes, the death dream of Rudyard Kipling, and the lives of two contemporary teenagers. A heavily psychedelic piece of work, it looked absolutely incredible. It matched Milligan’s dense multi-faceted story perfectly and McCarthy went to town with his designs for the Indian superheroes. It’s some of his finest artwork, and the longest single piece of work he has produced. The strip captured the heady, trippy atmosphere of the early 90′s in England. Raves in fields, Aztec hooded tops, acid and ecstasy. Colour, energy and insanity. It was picked up by Vertigo and released as a one shot, but it remains elusively out of print now – a shame as it’s still an utterly unique read.
The two also collaborated on Sooner or Later for 2000ad, a one page strip that dealt with the misadventures of one Mickey Swift, an unemployed teen in (then) contemporary London who ends up blasted in to the future to search for work. It was freewheeling Swiftian satire filtered through a twisted sci-fi lens, and allowed both Milligan and McCarthy to indulge their weirdest impulses. Easily one of the most original strips to have run in 2000ad’s history, it remains frustratingly uncollected.
The last collaboration by M&McC was the controversial Skin, the aforementioned tale of a thalidomide skinhead growing up in suburban 1980′s Britain. The strip revelled in the potentially inflammatory nature of the material, making Martin an aggressive, pissed off protagonist. His pain and anger are evident throughout the strip, although he never falls into the role of victim-of-the-week. The strip is packed full of period detail and reminiscence, and McCarthy’s impressionistic, pastel and paint artwork is a step away from his usual style. It’s still a vibrant strip, and culminates in an extremely grisly end sequence. The creators approach the subject matter in a committed and ballsy manner, and the strip is refreshingly obnoxious and unflinching in it’s portrayal of a disabled character. Originally planned for the UK ‘adult’ anthology CRISIS, it ended up published by Tundra, but now remains…yup, out of print.
3) Morrison & Quitely
Yeah yeah. Big surprise. Very much the men of the moment, what with the recent release of Batman & Robin, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely are two creators whose collaborations never fail to smack the proverbial gob. Morrison must be a hard bastard to draw a script for, and when paired with a lesser artist his complex hyper-condensed stories can be rendered confusing and illogical. It takes someone of Quitely’s phenomenal talent to really do justice to Morrison’s expansive, restless imagination. More than this though, when the two work together the stuff they produce just feels so complete, so well realised that you can almost reach out and touch it. Morrison writes scripts with only Big Frank in mind, and you just know that no other artist could do them justice.
Their first major collaboration, Flex Mentallo, remains the absolute benchmark for Prismatic Age storytelling. An absolutely amazing treatise on people & superheroes, life & death, magic & loss and muscle mystery, it’s one of the best superhero comics of the last 20 years. Emotionally resonant and ultimately life affirming stuff. Without Quitely’s solid, candy coloured characters and wonderful imagination it simply wouldn’t be the same. Flex Mentallo is a modern myth and a fairy tale, and the art had to create a sense of genuine wonder – that feeling of world-expanding joy when you first opened a comic. Quitely achieves it in spades. Tangled up in copyright hell, it’s still uncollected and remains a holy grail for the modern comics fan.
Their initial arc on New X-Men immediately established the new status quo - Morrison’s vision of the X-Men was more discernibly sci-fi – the spirit of John Wyndham and David Cronenberg infused Professor X’s school, and the world seemed on the brink of seismic genetic change. Once again Quitely was the perfect collaborator and his X-Men were a bold move from the cross-hatched Jim Lee school of mullets, body armour and knifegunschains that had dominated the X-books throughout the 90′s. Quitely’s X-Men were recognisably human, or in the case of Beak, Angel and the rest of the special class disturbingly mutated, and the book looked stunning. Later in the series the two produced a silent issue, featuring a trip into Cassandra Nova’s brain that highlighted Quitely’s talent for intricate experimental layouts, something that would be fore grounded in their next major collaboration, WE3.
The Incredible Journey…with guns. You can see why Hollywood’s sniffing around this particular property. We3 takes the silent issue of X-Men and runs with it. Although there is dialogue it’s fundamentally a pet’s eye view of the world (admittedly they are very heavily armed pets). Morrison and Quitely use this as an opportunity to experiment with form and panel structure. It’s phenomenal stuff and a genuinely fresh way of telling the story. At one point no.2 (the cat) cuts through a group of soldiers, actually jumping between panels, not just breaking the fourth wall but actually shredding it. Although it’s chiefly Quitely’s show, Morrison’s minimalist script is pitch-perfect. The pidgin English the animals speak is by turns funny, insightful and occasionally heartbreaking.
Next up came All Star Superman. So much has been written about this series it doesn’t really need bigging up again. Suffice to say it’s the best superhero comic of the new millennium, and the absolute culmination of the ongoing Morrison/Quitely team up. Suffice to say that this comic made me love Superman. Hell it made me believe in Superman.
Quitely elected to go for widescreen landscape format panels for much of the series giving it a sense of scope and wonder in tune with Morrison’s epic story. Yet the devil was in the details, as the slightest gesture or facial expression told a thousand words. It was a comic of genuine tenderness and Quitely’s delicate pencils aided this tremendously – Morrison could be sure that the artist would nail the required emotions for a scene and subsequently allowed the script to breathe. It was also a comic with Sun-eaters, parallel universes and city-shattering battles, and naturally Quitely came correct. Morrison unleashed his ever-fertile imagination but also tempered this with a solid sense of form and structure, giving us his most focused work in a long time. All Star Superman was like no other super-comic on the racks and represents some of the very best work either creator has produced.
Morrison’s had a couple of major collaborative partnerships over the years. I very nearly wrote about him and Steve Yeowell who produced my absolute favourite very superhero story Zenith in the pages of 2000ad, along with the Beardsley-esque Sebastian O for DC. Another very good example of creative harmony. Quitely took it though because it seems that between them they’re pushing boundaries and producing better work all the time. The new Batman & Robin comic looks set to continue their winning streak and it seems nicely fitting that the two have finally gotten their hands on the Dynamic Duo.