Whatever Happened To Barry Windsor-Smith In The Comics Conversation?
When a comics creator quietly disappears from the scene, I assume they’ve moved on to bigger and better things. Comics is a weird, frustrating business maybe most especially for the creative people at the top of the field. I assume an artist of Barry Windsor-Smith‘s caliber has been working quietly on well-paying, non-disclosure agreement art jobs in film, video games, high end commissions, or alternate reality viral adgames.
I’m a comics fan and when one of my favorite creators moves on to more lucrative work and stops making comics, I don’t like it for my own selfish reasons. I’ve been waiting a decade for that next Barry Windsor-Smith comic.
According to barrywindsor-smith.com he’s been working on a graphic novel called Monsters, which began life as a Hulk story which he’s repurposed into something that, from the glimpses we get on his site, looks a lot more interesting, like his repurposed X-Men: Storm story, “Adastra in Africa.” The difference here is that Monsters has had a much longer gestation period and is much further from completion than the Storm story was when it got the Barryverse makeover. Adastra says and does things that are out of character for her, but are closer to Windsor-Smith’s take on Storm. The Bruce Banner stand-in from the Monsters pages seems much further removed from his model.
In spite of his long absence from the field, I’m genuinely surprised by how little his work is discussed in comics circles. His work is revered, but it seems mainly among creators and readers over a certain age. He was a hero to one generation of creators, then gone from the discussion. Why don’t the kids talk about BWS the way they talk about other creators of his era?
Looking for evidence of BWS’s influence. In 1970s and early 1980s it seemed ubiquitous. The BWS influence was front and center for the early black and white boom. You see it in Cerebus, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Jim Lee has a good bit of it — his costuming, his figures, his faces, his linework. But Jim Lee is an old-ass man. Though he is still active as a penciller, he’s management now. I know BWS is in there somewhere in the DNA of the other first-generation Image guys, like Rob Liefeld.
There’s the oppressively hatchy-hatchy linework; no complete lines, just broken lines. Windsor-Smith’s approach to technology is not quite Kirby. It’s… something else. There’s a similarity in the coloring. BWS’s work both preceded and was concurrent with Image, like how the Kinks both preceded and was part of the punk scene.
His Weapon X was practically the bible for what was to come in the ’90s. As art director he was half of the driving force of Valiant Comics, so he was, in a way, Image’s strongest competitor. His color sense was all over that line of books. He was probably too whimsical, had too much of a sense of humor (or was not humorless enough) to really dominate the ’90s comics scene, but his work from that era is highly readable and enjoyable in 2013, the same can’t be said for much of what the Image superstars produced at that time.
His name isn’t one you hear too much. People my age and younger seem to have largely forgotten him.
When I first encountered his work, I found the surface of his drawing style difficult to get past. Not my cup of tea. It was a bit too fussy, overwrought, effete and over-rendered. The faces seemed a little too odd. I’m not sure if there’s a direct influence, but Frank Quitely’s approach is similar. His idiosynchratic anatomy, the shape of faces, the hatchy-hatchy. He is also similar to BWS in the way that is most important to me, what won me over as a fan in spite of my initial revulsion to the surface style is the way the characters he creates live and breathe on the page. They go where they please, and this is demonstrated on page-after-page of digressions in the narrative that are in the collected versions of his Storyteller comic. It seems that for every page that sees print, there are a number of outtakes and cut scenes where the actors in his dramas are doing things he’d rather they not do. To create characters with that degree of life and autonomy should be the goal of every storyteller no matter what medium you work in.
I’d suggest one reason BWS isn’t imitated much is because he shook his stylistic tics early. I’m not talking about his very first Marvel work, like his X-Men issues or work on Nick Fury, Daredevil and early Avengers issues that he drew in a Kirby style with Steranko layout strategy. It’s a really fun combination that I mourn the loss of a bit when he drops those influences and becomes his own artist. It was the odd sloppy work of an eager newcomer with unrefined skills.
Sometimes the wrong stuff looks so much better than the right stuff. It’s awkwardness adds an energy to it. It was a nice style while it lasted. He’s said in interviews that it never occurred to him to draw a comic the way he normally naturally draws; his classical training. He assumed if you were going to draw a comic book, it should look comic-booky. Once he realized you can draw a comic however you want, that’s what he did.
He began drawing in an intensely detailed style that still had the awkwardness of an amateur, but issue by issue grew more assured and cohesive. By the time he drew The Song of Red Sonja, they were almost completely gone. When he returned in the ’80s there was no trace of those quirks. They’d been replaced by full on art nouveau, which had previously been confined to the edges of his work, a rug design here, a painting on a vase in the background there.
His storytelling is too subtle to be imitated or to stand out as its own thing. His Conan looked like no one else’s, certainly not the beast man in Howard’s books. He was lean and long, more like Tarzan than Conan. The faces were really one of a kind, a long face with an odd proportion system.
Large eyes that are so close together as to be almost touching each other. There’s a large space for the nose, but the nose itself is impossibly tiny. The full lips are the part you still see imitated by second-generation comics pros like the Kuberts and John Romita jr.
Who’s influenced by BWS? Nobody I can think of under 40.
I think the barrier that keeps his work from being adopted by a new generation is the way his work is recolored. I blame the widely available reprint volumes, like Weapon X, but most especially the Conan reprint volumes Dark Horse puts out. Now keep in mind that at the time they thought they were doing these old stories a huge service, giving them a state-of-the-art makeover, the kind of expensive, careful color treatment they’d never had.
Unfortunately, the color reprints of Conan obliterate Windsor-Smith’s line work and created a barrier for our generation to appreciate his work. If you don’t have access to the expensive original newsprint versions, you’re unable to read these stories the way they were intended. Conan as reprinted with the hues of blood and mud. The way they were colored in the Marvel originals, sometimes by the artist himself, the colors reinforced the rhythm of the story. A knockout panel. A panel all in green. Subjective color. The color gives it a readability that is crucial for his pictures to function as comics.
He didn’t survive the transition to the way books were colored in the 2000’s, therefore the perception of his earliest, most famous work has suffered. This is where I first encountered BWS. I like Conan and I like barbarian stories. I’d heard BWS did some of the best. I checked out his Dark Horse Conan reprint volumes. Not for me! The final two stories, “The Shadow of the Vulture” and “The Song of Red Sonja,” were good stories, but that was about it. Then I eventually picked up the Red Sonja issue in its original form, and it was a revelation. On newsprint, with that color, the story sang in a way that only barely came through in the reprint version. I started picking up issues where I could. And yes, stories that didn’t really do it for me the first time around in the reprint volumes, became my favorites. The difference was the color. Color creates a reading rhythm. If applied incorrectly, the story you tell will be bad. For that Marvel Comics second generation (BWS and Steranko) color was very important. There’s a reason those auteurs took an active hand in it as early as they could. If color creates a reading rhythm, color becomes a writing tool. Different color tells a different story.
Take a look:
On the left is page 7 issue 7 of Conan the Barbarian from 1971. On the right is the same page from the Dark Horse volume. The coloring on the right is going for the verisimilitude of a night scene. The colors are muted and secondary. This is the color you get when you lay a night time color layer over everything. It’s the comics equivalent of “day-for’night” filming. It flattens the whole scene. It creates a convincing illusion of night, of rods and cones kicking in, but it is not inviting. It makes you view this as a photo rather than a tableaux you can wander around in. The reader is less likely to linger, more likely to quickly scan over. In panel 6, the illumination from the sword clang has no effect on Conan or anything else in the panel, thus the sound it makes, the action moment as a whole is diminished. The placement of reds and yellows throughout the page add a rhythm in the original. Grays and dull browns dominate the page on the right. The dominant color, blue is huddled in the center, keeping the eye from spending time on the panels around the edges. When Conan enters the treasure room in panel 9, there is a sudden warmth from the variety of colors, the greens, reds and yellow. In the reprint, the cold night dominates that panel as well, keeping it from feeling like a new moment. No color is allowed to shine through without it’s complement mixed in, too. Blues become teals. The old color is far from perfect, often full of technical mistakes, but it reads beautifully.
The new color drains all the wonder out of this ancient cityscape. The sky is blue, grass is green, and mud is brown. The island is no longer surrounded by water, but my more grass. The new colorist is shooting for realism going as far as softening the linework in the far background, but the purple mountains, blue background buildings and orange sky in the original actually create a more convincing illusion of depth. The similar tone of all the colors in the reprint has a flattening effect.
The big moment of the story, the genuinely terrifying snake god appears. The sequence is rather Miller-esque in its slow motion and the calligraphic background. The gold works nice against the red and white, as opposed to the “gold on gold.” Its orange tone pops against the background as opposed to blending in with it. What is the purpose of color? To flatten things or make things pop? With modern coloring there is a larger range of colors available, yet here, just the middle range is used.
Windsor-Smith’s decorative flourishes, the things that became the hallmark of his style, are lost here. The original colorist(s) made an effort to color the various decorative elements separately wherever possible, the drawings-within-drawings of the carpets, painted vases and tapestries. The new color flattens those elements into non-existence.
The dark intensity of the black linework in the reprint is so far removed from the other colors that it seems to exist in its own universe.
The same type of recoloring was done recently to Kirby’s Tales of Asgard. It’s not to my taste but I’ve talked to people who love it. For Kirby, his work was so bulletproof, you can color it, ink it any way you want, and it still works, but most artists’ work is not as smashable as Kirby’s.
There’s a reason some of us go a little too far in our fetishization of old school comics coloring: it works. The smaller range of colors come with a unity, a harmony. Just because you have access to a photographic range of colors doesn’t mean you have to try to imitate photographic color. We’re only just now beginning to understand the things that can be accomplished with the coloring tools we have at our disposal.
Today’s Conan comics, the run that started with Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord, are colored similarly to these reprint volumes, but the color works for those comics because they were drawn for this type of color, drawn by modern artists to be colored by modern colorists. BWS did not. He drew for the color of his time. When he eventually took control of the coloring of his work, it entered a new phase that was uniquely his own.