The Meaning And Impact Of Marvel and DC Comics’ ‘House Styles’ (Or Lack Thereof)
Thumb through DC Comics’ new releases this week and you’ll find the above image — a teaser for the upcoming Batman: Eternal weekly series — in the back pages of a good many of them (all the books I saw, in fact).
I had to look up the artist who drew it. It’s Detective Comics artist Jason Fabok, but it could just as easily be Tony Daniel, David Finch, Guillem March, Ivan Reis, Adrian Syaf, or a handful of other current DC artists. Like it or not, this is, with a few exceptions, just how DC Comics look now.
DC Comics has had line-wide looks to its artwork over the years, particularly at the start of the Silver Age and in the years after Neal Adams came on the scene. But the company never seemed quite as regimented as Marvel’s house styles have been in the past few decades (even considering DC’s order to redraw Jack Kirby’s Superman faces in the ’70s). Indeed, until recently, the last thirty years of DC could be characterized by a broad appreciation for cartooning of all kinds, with artists as night and day as Dan Jurgens and Bill Sienkiewicz not only working within the same product line, but even collaborating on the same books.
That’s changed with the advent of DC’s New 52 line. There are a few exemptions — Snyder and Capullo’s Batman, Azzarello and Chiang’s Wonder Woman and JH Williams’ Batwoman come to mind, as do DC’s digital-first offerings, which are managed by an altogether different editorial office on a different side of the country — but it’s plain that the DC of today adheres devotedly to an aesthetic well represented in the Batman teaser above.
ComicsAlliance editor Andy Khouri put that fact in pretty stark relief on Twitter Tuesday:
Fascinated by current DC’s fidelity to such a specific aesthetic. If you don’t like this teaser, you don’t like DC. pic.twitter.com/WKxnN0ejYP
— Andy Khouri (@andykhouri) November 19, 2013
Andy’s observation closely coincided with something said by Axel Alonso, Editor-in-Chief of DC’s rival Marvel, in the “Axel in Charge” column on CBR last week: “From David Aja to Jamie [McKelvie] to Esad Ribic to Mike Allred — seeing such a variety of artists cutting lose says loud and clear that there’s no house style at Marvel.”
Alonso is correct, but it’s still kind of crazy to hear a Marvel EiC say such a thing so unequivocally given Marvel’s long history of having very well-defined house styles. In the 1960s, Jack Kirby would sit artists down and teach them the Marvel way — in some cases, even doing breakdowns for them. Look at the work of John Buscema or Don Heck and try not to see the Kirby influence. Additionally, one of the major looks we associate with cape comics from the 1990s was mostly Marvel’s doing, too, being heavily influenced by the success the Image founders enjoyed after leaving Marvel to form their own companies with their own pervasive styles.
One of those Image rebels was current DC Co-Publsher Jim Lee, who quite naturally has a lot to do with the look of DC’s current superhero offerings. His influence is perhaps most prominent in the work of top DC artists Tony Daniel and David Finch, both of whom came out of the ’90s Image school Lee helped create, where Daniel worked for Todd McFarlane Productions and Finch worked for Marc Silvestri’s Top Cow. It’s this style which pervades the majority of the line. As such, the end result has been what Andy said: You either like the look of DC Comics or you don’t.
In the ensuing twitter discussion, someone (sadly, I don’t remember who) observed that DC has some of the same management — certainly the same Editor-in-Chief, Bob Harras — that Marvel did in the mid-to-late 1990s. That may certainly play a part in explaining why so much of DC’s line has such a consistent aesthetic, and one that some have argued is reminiscent of Harras’ time at Marvel. But there’s something else to it, too, and I think it comes down to business philosophies. Or at least, differing ideas about what comics ought to be.
Go back and read Marvel’s comics from the 1960s and you’ll get the feeling they’re part of a cohesive unit; pieces that would eventually become a gigantic universe of characters and places. No matter what title you read from the ’60s, they all have a similar feel and energy. That was partially because the company was only publishing a handful of titles (for several years, it was prohibited from publishing more than eight) and those books were produced by just a small handful of creators.
In what I think is a misguided way, a similarly cohesive line seems to be what DC is going for with the New 52. One thing I remember people saying about the revamped line upon its launch in 2011 was how tonally similar everything felt — with the exceptions being books that were either grandfathered in (like Batwoman and Batman Inc.) or staffed by creators with enough sway to pull things in their own direction without substantial pushback (Grant Morrison’s Action Comics comes to mind). But for the most part these were and are 52 comics which DC’s leadership shape very deliberately with a view to a dominant house style.
Which is a valid approach, except when it doesn’t work. We have more than two years’ worth of reports of DC creators quitting or getting fired from books over disagreements with editors to prove that the line-wide aesthetic has problems, at least creatively. Personnel changeover has been with writers more than artists, but there’s obviously a house style for story and characterization in the New 52, just as much as there is for artwork, and they inform each other.
With Marvel Now! and All-New Marvel Now! (I’m anxiously awaiting DoublePlus Brand New Oven Fresh Marvel Now! in early 2015), DC’s competition took a completely different approach, one that seems to have been a sort of shoulder shrug and an “OK, let’s do it.” There is no longer a monolithic Marvel. If you’re not all that into X-Force, or the way X-Force is drawn, that’s not really going to have that much of an effect on whether you like any of the other dozen X-Men titles coming out. The philosophy seems to be to publish enough books, vary them very liberally, staff them with idiosyncratic creators with distinctive visions, and chances are a reader will find several different titles that appeal to them.
Of course, Marvel’s “All-New” approach has made some readers furious, too. I’m a big fan of Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye, but there are other people who believe the current version of the title ruined the character because he’s depicted so differently from the Hawkeye who was in Kurt Busiek’s Avengers so many years ago. In the Marvel of 2013, Hawkeye isn’t meant to speak to Marvel as a whole. It’s meant to speak to Hawkeye.
Now, that may seem positively anti-Marvel given the publisher’s original methodology outlined above. After all, Marvel is the company that has embraced and even leveraged its homogeny and interconnectedness for its entire existence — and it continues to do so in its movies, it has to be said. But on the comics publishing side, it seems the Marvel of today has conceded that it just publishes too many comics for a singular creative vision to be feasible for readers or for its talent pool, so the publisher’s instead elected to make something for everybody. By most measures, this approach is a success, with contemporary Marvel books earning rave reviews, nominations for prestigious awards, commercial rewards (such as they are in American comics) and driving the direction of the company’s hit films.
Only DC can say what its metrics are for success, but as the company presses on with its efforts to make the New 52 books a uniform whole, turning away a number of creators and readers in the process, and producing what very often are some outright dour comics, the company may just be proving its chief competitor’s philosophy right.
Of course, there’s a counterpoint, too. Valiant seems to be doing just fine with what I’d call a fairly consistent house style, though I can count the number of books it’s publishing on my hands. But if the ’60s success of Marvel means anything, there’s certainly something to be said for starting small.