‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ Artist Sara Pichelli Is A Killer Storyteller
A lot has been made of the race of the new Ultimate Spider-Man, for good or ill. Comparatively little attention has been paid to the woman that will actually be drawing the new Spider-Man. Italian artist Sara Pichelli has been around the US comics scene since 2007, and made the jump to Marvel with 2008's NYX: No Way Home, written by Marjorie Liu. Pichelli has had a brief run on Ultimate Spider-Man already, but as of September's Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1, she's the official ongoing artist for one of Marvel's most significant comics.
If you aren't familiar with her work, I'm going to show you why she's a great artist for the new book, and the tiny details in everything from fight sequences to hair that make her art come to life.There are three things I particularly enjoy about Pichelli's art: the way she draws hair, facial expressions, and body language. The first two add a lot to the atmosphere of the comics she draws, and the third cranks her storytelling up to another level.
It may sound obvious, but every comics panel is made up of tiny parts that have to work in concert. The backgrounds must be properly lit, characters must be in proportion, there must be space for word balloons, and the moment that panel captures must be fluid enough to flow into the next panel without being awkward.
Adding tiny details adds verisimilitude to a panel, and allows the fake to becomes real. If you draw a stick figure and say it's of your friend Natalie, it could really be anyone. If you add Natalie's signature purse, hipster glasses, and specific haircut, then your friends can look at it and go, "Hey, that's Natalie!" Those additions make the picture more recognizable, even though it's still just a crude representation of Natalie. When characters are given accessories or little features, they become more believable. You accept them as having lives outside of the panels because they resemble something that you know in real life. This enhances a text.
The effect of how hair is drawn in comics is one of those details. Hair is an unbelievably personal thing in real life, where a new haircut can give you confidence and change how people approach you. If you've ever had a bad one, you know exactly what I mean. You only see a few haircuts in comics, generally. Women tend to have the same sex symbol haircut (rarely styled, but always generically luscious and full-bodied) that they've had since the '70s, and men are either closely-cropped or ready for an S-curl. Compare the unmasked heads of Superman, Batman, Captain America, Hawkeye, Giant Man, Ray Palmer, Barry Allen, Wally West, Hal Jordan, Nightwing, Red Robin, and plenty of other superheroes.
Pichelli, however, draws hair that is distinctive and unique. Black Cat's long, flowing locks are about as traditional as she gets, and even then, she throws a little impressionistic flair on Black Cat's hair. It flows and drapes all over Black Cat's body, subject only to the wind and whatever makes for a good composition.
Hair -- and how people style it -- adds expressiveness to characters and to their personalities. Without the wig, Black Cat's short hair cut suffers from stray hairs, the sort you have to blow away with a puff of breath. That's a very specific and personal move, and not everyone does it. Hair, in a way, is sometimes just another method of emoting.
When you combine expressive hair and solid facial expressions, you end up with something very, very cool. This page from Ultimate Spider-Man features Peter Parker, Bobby Drake, and Johnny Storm talking to Lana, a new classmate. The barrettes keep her hair pinned back and out of her face. Her hair's in control, unlike Black Cat's. Her hair, side-eye, and arched lip tells you all you need to know about how she feels about Bobby hitting on her. The cocked heads of Peter and Johnny reinforce what Lana's feeling.
All of these little things -- the tilt of a head, a stray bang, the curl of a lip, the distance of the camera from a character's face -- are aspects of body language. When done well, they lend a scene that you can fall into and believe in 100%. This is vitally important in comics, and can elevate an okay story into a great one. It makes all the difference.
Look at this image Pichelli drew of a woman driving while a man sleeps in the front seat. It's not from anything, exactly, but it's a story unto itself. The cigarette and trail of smoke suggests that the woman is calm, but on edge. The man asleep in the front seat is slumped like he's exhausted. The duffel bag is on his lap, instead of being thrown onto the backseat where most people would toss it. She has a wedding ring and nice clothes on, with her hair done up and pearls around her neck. He's got a bowtie. What's going on? Easy: there's money, or something, in that bag that neither person wants to let out of their sight, and the woman is driving them to safety. It's not a car chase. It's two people escaping in the dark of night. They just stole something.
This is what little details can do. They can turn one image into an entire story.
Of course, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man isn't going to be all hair and pursed lips. There's going to be webbing, fighting, punning, and action. But don't worry, Pichelli can do that, too. Take a look at this sequence:
Look at how Spider-Man's right arm controls Mysterio's position. Watch how Black Cat's center of gravity shifts as she kicks, dodges, and lunges forward into Spider-Man's web. Dig how Spider-Man tosses the Zodiac Key off-panel, but catches it on-panel, in a move that's so fluid you don't even realize he didn't throw it on-panel at all.
You want a good Spider-Man artist? You're looking at her work right now. If you want to dig a little deeper, you can find her at her blog, check out her cache of black and white art from her past works, or pick up Runaways: Homeschooling (with Kathryn Immonen & Christina Strain), X-Men: Pixie Strikes Back (with Kathryn Immonen & Christina Strain), and Ultimate Comics Spider-Man: Death of Spider-Man Prelude (with Brian Michael Bendis, Justin Ponsor, et. al) to see her work in action. Marvel.com is currently running a three-part sketchbook featuring her designs for Miles Morales, the new Spider-Man, too. You can see the first entry here.