October 10th, 2012
Being an irregular series wherein I spotlight some particularly beautiful cover runs, from some comics you might have forgotten about, or never seen before. This time it’s Comico’s surprisingly high quality 80′s JONNY QUEST run.
Jonny Quest, as a franchise, never really had an impact in the UK. Not the original 1960’s TV show, the subsequent 90’s updates or the computer games. In fact it’s probably more recognisable for elements of it that crop up in the post-modern lampooning of shows like Sealab 2021 or The Venture Bros. Jonny quest was/is a plucky blond moppet who accompanied his explorer dad, Dr Benton Quest on rollicking globetrotting adventures accompanied by his faithful dog Bandit, chum Hadji and all round tough guy Roger ‘Race’ Bannon. It was, as is to be expected, good, clean and relatively insipid fun more likely to create a nostalgic glow in a certain demographic than inspire any kind of critical reappraisal. File under Scooby Doo and move on.
Which makes the 1980’s Comico series all the more surprising for the relative sophistication brought to the storytelling and the stellar list of creators it attracted. This was a franchise tie-in to a then defunct kids cartoon that featured work from William Messner-Loebs, Adam Kubert, Bill Sienkiewicz, Marc Wheatley, Marc Hempel and Dave Stevens and many more, all under a steady editorial steer from Diana Schultz (soon to depart for Dark Horse, where she helped nurture a similarly solid creative roster). Between them they crafted engaging, charming stories that caught the flavour of the original series whilst adding a good dash of narrative sophistication. There’s a strong flavour of Eisner’s The Spirit to this iteration, with the shifting perspectives and cute narrative tricks and flourishes.
It’s shame that due to sizing constrictions I can’t scan the back covers to these issues as nearly all of them are a double spread, but nonetheless the artistic quality and diversity of them should be apparent.
The cover for the first issue, at the top of the post is by legendary Jonny Quest co-creator Doug Wildey. There’s a boldness and simplicity of his line work, Toth-like in its confidence. His depiction of Bannon and Jonny are as confident as you would expect, and the composition is elegant and effective. The hand-painted colour work, against the gorgeous thick black brush lines has the flavour of a pulp boys adventure novel. There’s also a lovely animation cell quality to it.
It’s Dave Stevens drawing a curvaceous pulp heroine (Jezebel Jade – another echo of Eisner’s cast of alliterative femme fatales). Really, he could do these in his sleep, but that doesn’t diminish the sheer pleasure of his gorgeous good-girl art. There’s also something cheekily subversive about the contrast between Jonny’s clean-cut perkiness and Jade’s salacious quasi-Betty Page curves. Steven’s smooth, impeccable brush work is always a joy to behold and given the paucity of his available work, it’s always a treat to find a bit more.
Here’s a piece of Adam Kubert work that showcases his early style where he was still heavily indebted to his Dad’s style (and really who can blame him?). Not only that but this cover (and story), seems to be the most direct homage to Eisner. The story of Professor Quiggly has all the quirk and whimsy of a prime era Spirit story and Kubert evokes Eisner in the, stylised cartoonish facial expressions, heavy shadowing and loose, confident line without turning to outright pastiche.
Ken Steacy’s airbrushed art has travelled from being cutting edge contemporary work in the 80′s to deeply unfashionable in the late 90′s and all the way back to becoming hip again in the garish neon retro-futurism of the Noughties. Steacy’s work could now sit comfortably alongside a Daft Punk video or the stylised vapidity of Drive. Either way I like the deep, vibrant palette he works in, and there’s something charmingly outdated about his character design. No doubt to Jonny Quest purists the sight of an airbrushed, angular JQ was horrifyingly gauche…
Look, it wouldn’t be the 1980′s if we didn’t have a cover from Billy The Sink, would it? One of the things I loved about Sienkiewicz in his prime was the sheer ubiquity of his work. One moment his art was gracing a prestige graphic novel, the next it’d be on the cover of an EPMD album. Or a Jonny Quest comic. His wild, angular artwork was a jagged fusion between graffiti, Jim Steranko and Alphonse Mucha. He brought art school energy and an anything goes experimentalism to mainstream comics, producing breathtaking work in Elektra: Assassin and the career best Stray Toasters. But I always loved the fact that his work would also grace comics like Dazzler, or this one – it gave his work a populist, low brow sheen that someone like Dave McKean always seemed to be struggling to get away from. Sienkiewicz never seemed embarrassed or ashamed by comics, rather he was trying to inject some life into an occasionally twitching corpse.
Bandit and Bannon never looked so cool.
At some point in Jonny Quest’s run, the rotating art team settled into Mark Wheatley and Marc Hempel, who brought a sure sense of design with them, and a fair amount of style. Marc Hempel is one of my favourite comic artists, whose heavily stylised work on Gregory and Tug & Buster is a high watermark of cartooning, combining the fearless experimental nature of 1950′s animation with a strong modern graphical eye. Here, their work together is more restrained, but is still bold and hugely appealing.
The composition of this cover is so assured it almost seems effortless. I love the almost geometrical layout and the way Bannon’s posture flows into the window’s reflection. I also love the little details – the backwards writing on the window, Jonny’s reflection, and the ominous silhouette of someone about to enter the room. The bright palette offsets the noir stylings to give the whole image a cartoony tone that suits the comic perfectly. Just a perfectly judged piece of cover art.
More Wheatley and Burchett art here, and another beautifully composed cover. Not for the first time I’ll mention Alex Toth, as it’s his deft, minimal line-work that springs to mind here. The loose confidence of Wheatley’s inks over Hempel’s lines is a fantastic example of artistic synergy, and the gorgeous pastel colours of the sky makes the whole thing sing. I also love the figure placement, slightly skewed perspective and the bizarre touch of the monkey mask. It’s just another fantastic image.
I’d also like to mention the back cover to this issue, which is just a great combination of image and text.
So there you go. A pretty ace selection of covers from an unusually strong tie-in comic, by some of the cream of the 1980′s comic scene. Well worth grabbing some issues if you find them.
Read the rest of the Cover Versions posts here