fredag 5 augusti 2011

Modern Masters Vol. 3: Bruce Timm

Eric Nolen-Weathington's Modern Masters series features substantial interviews with great comics creators, which is something I always appreciate. (By "substantial", I mean that Nolen-Weathington gets into the details of what makes the creator tick, his influences and how he approaches his craft, but doesn't go into various theories about this or that more esoteric subject to show off or to make himself look "intellectual", something that put me off the early Comics Journal interviews.)

Anyway, this book highlights the career of animator and comics artist Bruce Timm, and does so very very well. Timm tells about his start in the animation business and his initially unsuccessful attempts to break into the comics industry, who his major influences as an artist were, and the learning process that would eventually lead him to some very successful projects – like the animated Batman, Superman and Justice League shows. That would have been enough to make this a reasonably interesting book, but elevating it to very nearly must-read status is the fact that he and Nolen-Weathington also discuss the creative process behind his work in detail, and that it is richly illustrated throughout by Timm's designs and storyboards. It then wraps up with 20+ pages of pinups in both color and black-and-white, but that is unfortunately the weakest part of the book. The pinup girls and the posing heroes don't stand out in such a manner as to become really interesting; you've seen it all before, and Timm's artistic talent isn't mainly in this territory IMO; while he certainly draws pretty (if cartoony) girls, they're usually not sufficiently erotic nor rendered beautifully enough to  merit the full-page treatment – even though he is very good with colors.

On the other hand, when presented in connection with the interview in the book and in a slightly smaller format, I often find his drawings quite beautiful. Timm presents himself in the book as storyteller first and foremost, and I would agree with that – his drawings work best in the context of a story.

Black Canary. Note how beautifully the he spots the blacks on her
sleeves to tell the story of both the creasing and the texture of the fabric.

In a special, shorter chapter, TImm enumerates his greatest influences among comics artists – Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, John Buscema, Wally Wood, Alex Toth, Frank Frazetta, Jim Steranko and Mike DeCarlo – which isn't really surprising when take a careful look at his art and his storytelling. From Kirby, for example, the staging and poses, from Kurtzman, the pacing of the storytelling, from Buscema muscle shapes and posing, from Wood shadows and lightplay, etc. I would have thought that there might be some Frank Robbins there as well, but nope – though Robbins is mentioned later on in the interview.

Timm's road into the animation and comics businesses is interesting, but it's when Nolen-Weathington turns the subject to the whys and hows of creating the various shows and comics Timm has produced, and goes into the details of some of particular episodes, that the book really shines. First of all because Timm himself is very forthcoming about what is done and the reasoning behind various choices, but also – credit where credit is due – because Nolen-Weathington knows the subject matter well and is able to engage Timm in a dialogue on it. I've noted that comics creators often appreciate it when they're interviewed by somebody who actually knows what he's talking about and can ask intelligent – sometimes even perhaps slightly provocative – questions. Nolen-Weathington falls in this category, and I doff my hat in his general direction.

Timm tells about the selection process to get the right lineup of Justice League members that can play off each other in the best fashion; how he starts out with pretty clichéd dialogue as more or less "placeholders" in a story, going over it towards the end to polish it up, retaining the general meaning but moving towards better dialogue, and how sometimes because of unforeseen time constraints, more of the clichés will remain in the story than intended; how him penciling a story a bit loosely – because a lot of what he does, he does in the inking process– and then handing it over to somebody else to ink to save time might not always work out because the inker has too much respect for his pencils and can't let loose on his own; and many other interesting tidbits about the creative process in both animation and comics, and throughout it all, you're also offered a cornucopia of excellent illustrations. Of course it's warmly recommended.

Look at how beutifully the highlights of Talia's black hair shows off both shape
and, yes, texture.  (I got some strong Steranko vibes off this picture, I might add.)

(If you don't have the money to spend on buying books, you can do what I did and borrow it at the specialized comics library in Stockholm, Serieteket. And they're on Facebook!)

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