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Thinking About Brian Stelfreeze’s ‘Day Men’ And The Reascension Of The Comic Book Artist

On sale this week from BOOM! Studios is the first issue of Day Men, a new series that introduces readers to the human helping hands of the violent vampire elite who rule the world in secret. Written by Matt Gagnon (Freelancers) and Michael Alan Nelson (Supergirl), Day Men is a cool organized crime-tinged take on the enduringly popular vampire genre, but the major selling point for the series is that it marks the return to monthly comics of one of the American industry’s most talented but elusive artists: Brian Stelfreeze. Does the final product live up to the auspicious occasion? Yes and no, but that it exists at all might be more important.

Brian Stelfreeze is perhaps best known to ComicsAlliance readers for his standout contributions to Wednesday Comics’ Catwoman/Demon serial, a gorgeous run of painted covers for the 1990s series Batman: Shadow of the Bat, and for writing, drawing and coloring Marvel’s Domino in 2003. While Stelfreeze is active in the art collectors market and has produced covers and interior work here and there, the last time he drew a long-form comic book story was all the way back in 2005, when he created the WildStorm series Matador with Devin Grayson. Every one of those things is really cool and frequently very beautiful.

Stelfreeze’s work has a lot in common with that of his former Gaijin Studio mates Tony Harris, Adam Hughes and Dave Johnson: intricate detail, high-contrast compositions, heavy design influences, fashion-conscious characters, and a pronounced but sophisticated sexuality (some of you may not agree that last description applies to Hughes, but I think it does).

It takes a lot of time to imbue a page with the amount of visual information Stelfreeze likes to communicate, but in conversation with CA earlier this year, the artist said it wasn’t actually insufficient amounts of time but rather a lack of inspiration and artistic freedom that accounted for his long absence from monthly comics — a form he greatly admires, by the way, describing it as “the true hallmark of comic art and storytelling.”

Whatever was missing, BOOM! Studios was able to supply it to Stelfreeze’s satisfaction and in so doing made Day Men not just an important book for the artist’s career but also a significant marker in BOOM!’s publishing history. Specifically, even though BOOM! has a track record for working with the top cover artists and discovering great new talent (Emma Rios’ mainstream debut in the publisher’s Hexed  for example), Day Men is the first BOOM! series built completely around a marquee artist — as opposed to a marquee writer, which has traditionally been the case. It’s a strategy employed to great success by some of the company’s direct market competitors, and one BOOM! has followed up on with the recent announcement of legendary comics artist George Pérez’s exclusive contract.

I think this is a crucial aesthetic step BOOM! had to take in its evolution, and one that’s in line with what I sense is a significant shift in our industry in general. Not a shift away from writers, exactly, but a shift towards rediscovering and recognizing what comic books actually are: art.

Brian Stelfreeze and Darrin moore Sequence from ‘Day Men’ #1

As Edison Rex co-creator/artist and occasional CA contributor Dennis Culver articulated succinctly on his blog recently, “The art is the story. If you get rid of the art and are only left with balloons, you will have no idea what’s going on. Comics is art.”

Culver’s remarks reference a pervasive phenomenon in the American comics scene by which readers, critics and even some publishers and editors seem to contemplate the writing of a comic book and the artwork of a comic book in mutually exclusive terms, with the writer typically receiving most of the credit as author.

It’s a consequence of many factors. One usual suspect is Marvel’s very public elevation of a group of popular writers to “architect” status in 2010, a prestige not shared with any of the company’s artists (despite the distinctly visual nature of architecture). It was a problematic PR stunt that continues to ripple throughout industry gripe sessions even though the company seems to have left it behind. I do think the situation was mitigated somewhat by the fact that “architects” Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker and Jonathan Hickman all got their starts drawing their own comics, and at the time Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief was cartoonist Joe Quesada (likewise DC has split its leadership between Co-Publisher Dan DiDio, a writer and editor, and Co-Publisher Jim Lee, a cartoonist).

Naturally there can also be complications with editorial and freelancers who miss their deadlines, but I think the major culprit is cold, emotionless logistics, specifically those related to the aggressive deadlines needed to facilitate the even more aggressive shipping schedules we’ve seen in recent years, where some titles go on sale twice or even three times a month. It’s been a moneymaker for retailers and publishers because they sell that many more comics a year, but simply because very few artists can work that fast the workflow often necessitates employing multiple artists to complete story lines (or in some cases, to complete single issues) in order to get the product to the store on time.

What this practice does is make the comic’s writer the only consistent creative voice over a number of issues, so he or she naturally becomes the principal author in the eyes of the readers, retailers and critics. This is why we see the kind of reviews Culver describes in his blog post and those referenced by Jeff Parker, Declan Shalvey, Reilly Brown and Gabriel Hardman in this related post by Robot 6’s Michael May. When artwork is mentioned it’s typically only in passing, and even then only with respect to how it compliments the perceived work of the writer. That’s assuming the artwork is mentioned at all. The tendency is for people to think about comics as an assembly line instead of a collaboration.

Images from 'Fatale' by Sean Phillips, 'Daredevil' by Chris Samnee, 'Black Beetle' by Francesco Francailla, 'Saga' by Fiona Staples, 'Batwoman' by JH Williams III
Images from ‘Fatale’ by Sean Phillips, ‘Daredevil’ by Chris Samnee, ‘Black Beetle’ by Francesco Francailla, ‘Saga’ by Fiona Staples, ‘Batwoman’ by JH Williams III

But the truth is that many of the direct market books are assembly line products, where practical forces conspire to reduce the collaborative potential of comics to what Culver called “a game of Telephone.” Readers and reviewers are intuiting that some artists are dispassionate hired help because that is indeed the nature of many gigs. These artists are mercenaries brought in to execute a mission devised by a writer and then parachute into the next job.

(This is no picnic for writers either, by the way — ask some of your favorite Marvel and DC writers about sending in random pages at a time, writing issues completely out of order to facilitate multiple artists’ availability, and managing editorial indecision on a deadline and this whole thing will become a lot clearer.)

That the writer’s name traditionally comes first in comics credits probably carries some sentimental weight with readers. That Marvel solicits a number of its collected editions to retailers with names like Captain America by Ed Brubaker Volume 1 or Avengers by Brian Michael Bendis Volume 2 also contributes to this phenomenon. I’m not calling for a reversal (I’m not sure I would object to one either), but I don’t think things like this help:

 

And so as not to single out DC and Marvel, let me show you some repeat offenders from the creator-owned set:

 

 

 

Even Bryan Hitch, a visionary superhero artist whose influence is truly vast, has described feeling marginalized in the current climate: “Since Ultimates ended, I’d been less and less involved in a collaborative process at Marvel. They now had their various brains-trusts, architects or whatever the gang was calling themselves, and that was what led their creative process. It seemed a very closed shop and not what it was like when I signed up to do Ultimates at all. I felt like they wanted an illustrator not a creator, and that was very frustrating to me.”

I’ve spoken with several Big Two creators and staffers about this kind of thing and most say it’s an unfortunate reality of the brutal workflow necessary to meet the direct market as it’s defined today (things are obviously very different in indie comics and underground comix, where singular/consistent creative vision is usually paramount). But insiders have also told me the problem of artist under-recognition also lies with reader expectations for a kind of comic book that they say doesn’t really exist anymore.

There may be more great comic book artists working in the American industry today than ever before, and they’re in strong demand. Artists are offered so many lucrative and creatively enticing opportunities for smaller runs on high profile series or event comics that it’s less realistic to commit to a long-form project that even in the best of editorial and administrative cases still can’t be completed on a monthly schedule without fill-ins. Are the days of consistent writer-artist teams collaborating over many years really never coming back?

Probably not, at least not in the way some of us remember. We have seen less and less of that kind of thing at Marvel and DC, but another reason why is because that model of work has moved away from the robust machine of corporate superhero comics and into the more flexible realm of creator-owned with direct market competitors including Image Comics, Dark Horse and IDW Publishing (whose Rocketeer Adventures anthology may be the most artist-friendly corporate/licensed comic book since editor Mark Chiarello’s Solo for DC).

Take Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, who’ve created more than 25 issues of Criminal together and another 15 of Fatale. Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard are into the hundred-plus arena with The Walking Dead, as are Kirkman and Ryan Ottley with Invincible. Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris told a complete story in over 50 issues of Ex Machina. Vaughan did the same with Pia Guerra in Y: The Last Man. There’s one-hundred issues of 100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso. Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson have been at the Astro City game since the ‘90s. Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming have released over 80 issues of Powers since launching it in 2000. There’s 30 issues of Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. Another 30 of The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt. Guy Davis drew eight volumes of B.P.R.D. with Mike Mignola and John Arcudi. The list goes on and on.

Images from ‘A Tale of Sand’ by Rámon Pérez, ‘Wonder Woman’ by Cliff Chiang, ‘Hawkeye’ by David Aja, ‘Young Avengers’ by Jamie McKelvie and Mike Norton; ‘Day Men’ by Brian Stelfreeze, “Edison Rex” by Dennis Culver

Many of us have fond memories of the great superhero epics that unfolded over years, co-authored by writers and artists whose visions seemed totally in sync. It’s because of that aesthetic consistency, that harmony of collaboration that those works endure, and the same is true for their creator-owned counterparts. These books are the ones that stay with you, the ones that tend to win all the awards, the ones that you can give to your friends and create a new comics reader. Hell, even if you don’t even like them, you still come away with a profoundly more visceral reading experience than can usually be found in the kind of assembly line production comics Culver describes, and that alone should make them more rewarding.

It may just be the conversations I’m having with my friends and contacts in the industry or even my own wishful thinking, but I perceive a change in people’s tastes. It was vividly borne out by last year’s numerous Eisners honors for Rámon Pérez’s A Tale of Sand and Daredevil by Mark Waid and Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin, both of which exemplified thoughtful, idiosyncratic visions by empowered artists. The same can be said for this year’s nominees, which are dominated by Fatale and Chris Ware’s Building Stories.

The quality of this type of book is not lost to Marvel and DC, who’ve of course invested in creative collaborations for a long time with their Icon and Vertigo imprints, and they’ve turned into the skid admirably with recent superhero books as well: Daredevil by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee; Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and David Aja; FF by Fraction and Michael Allred; Captain America by Rick Remender and John Romita, Jr.; Young Avengers by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie; Batwoman by JH Williams III and W. Haden Blackman; Wonder Woman by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang; Batman by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo; and special projects including the artist-led Savage Wolverine book, DC’s Wednesday Comics, Batman: Black and White and the digital-first anthology series like Legends of the Dark Knight and Adventures of Superman.

Story is art. Style is substance. A comic is not a comic until it is drawn. All of these company-owned books invite the comic book artist to take his or her rightful place on the storytelling stage.

Page from ‘Day Men’ by Brian Stelfreeze and Darrin Moore

Day Men is part of this trend and as I said before, a first for BOOM! Studios. It’s true that Gabriel Hardman and a legion of other fantastic cartoonists have been involved with the company’s Planet of the Apes and Adventure Time books for quite a while, but Day Men marks the company’s biggest commitment to a star artist on a wholly original project. It’s likely as much a consequence of BOOM!’s economic growth as it is any philosophy or trend, but the point is it’s a good thing.

While Day Men’s “Created by” credit is reserved for Matt Gagnon (also BOOM! Studios Editor-in-Chief) and the story is co-written by Michael Alan Nelson, the company and Stelfreeze stress in all discussions about Day Men that the artist is fully involved in the creation of the book. You can see that investment on the page. Stelfreeze’s storytelling is crisp and efficient, but also stylish and dramatic. He makes conscious choices as to which scenes can benefit from an ornate presentation and where he needs to go sparse. His weirdly hypnotic, angular-yet-curvy style consistently informs every detail of every page, which makes the fantastical world of the comic seem real and immersive. He wants you to care as much as he does about this violent, sexy world of vampires and the men and women who work for them in the light of day. Maybe you’ll want to revisit that world or maybe you won’t, but you’ll know what it’s like to be there.

That’s what I come to comics for; that transportation to another place that seems incredible yet utterly true. Stylists like Dean Motter, Fiona Staples, Steve Rude, Francesco Francavilla, Sean Phillips and Mike Mignola bring you into their peculiar, imaginative worlds with their beautiful images and storytelling abilities, and Stelfreeze is definitely a member of that school. It’s obvious at a glance that he has a creative stake (no pun intended) in what he’s doing with Day Men, and that’s what makes the reading experience rewarding.

Day Men is a book that exists because a publisher told a talented, dedicated artist, “Here is some money. Show us what’s on your mind.” I want readers to support more of those.

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