I often say that my influences are always changing according to my mood. There were times when I loved grunge, today I enjoy the Britpop from the ’60s. It’s no different with comics.
When I started to get interested in the production of comics, I was like any teenager from the 90s, cracked on Marvel superheroes. The big kick to it was reading the issues made by the duo Stan Lee / Jack Kirby, who in essence were slightly sophisticated pulp comics. I started reading these stories in the ’80s, through republications by Abril (a Brazilian publisher) and, in the following decade, I was fully submerged in the plots and the creative teams.
However, something always caught my attention beyond that genre. It was when, at that time, I discovered authors such as Robert Crumb, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Jeff Smith, Peter Bagge, Art Spiegelman and The Hernandez Brothers. Nowadays these authors are the cream of the crop in adult comics in the United States. They had been awarded numerous times and their work is recognized as influential. But at the time, some of them even fought for space and their work wasn’t so popular as nowadays.
From this early influence, others were adding up. And thus it came the time when I had to leave the superheroes a little aside to absorb new viewpoints. In fact, as I have always been very eclectic, I never failed to accompany superheroes. I just added other genres to my bedside reading stories (like underground comics and european albums ).
Of the names mentioned above, the list has evolved. Today I am still discovering many authors and styles. I think I have never seen so much variety and richness of artistry as in the last decade. From my early influences, what remained was the work of Daniel Clowes that, to me, is the best artist of the decade. His work in Ghost World and the Eightball anthology is simply scathing. Bluntly, he deconstructs the American middle class (in the vein of Robert Crumb) and plays with the stereotypes, often with a surrealism and acidity similar to the best work of the Cohen brothers.
Wilson, his latest work, showed that Clowes reached artistic maturity and aged as one of the best wines. The perplexing story of the protagonist who, longing for happiness, just to ignore the impact of his actions, shows the selfishness of modern man, who, by pursuing self-gratification at all costs, makes it difficult to have any kind of relationship with others. In the end, like him, we also “understand”.
Clowes has a clean, economical and minimalist style. His characters live in the suburbs, and can not be judged by appearances. At first, they are normal people living the american dream, but as the stories develop, we realize all the contrasts and problems inherent in them. Clowes’s stories are full of humanity. Not an optimistic humanity, but something closer to the real, more visceral, full of flaws. The pessimism often coexists with poetry. It’s very strong, catching you by surprise.
What strikes me the most in Clowes’s style is the retro mood, containing a variety of scenarios populated by stereotypes. His characters are portrayed as loser nerds, dysfunctional housewives or loner mods. It’s like if you took a comic book made in the 60s, with a very academic drawin, and the argument had been made in our time, with stories aimed at an adult audience. Behind the nostalgia, hides the brutality. The look and message are antagonistic, which generates an absurd and welcoming contrast.
Similar to Clowes, but following other pattern, we have the work of Charles Burns (Black Hole, Xed ‘Out and The Hive) and Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve, illustrations for the New Yorker). I haven´t quoted other similar artists, because these are my references today.
Adrian Tomine is well known for his illustrations for the New Yorker, but has an anthology published by Drawn & Quarterly called Optic Nerve, which began in the 90s and deals with various subjects such as rock, youth and social criticism. The style is also academic and vintage.
Charles Burns is a case apart. He comes from a generation before these two artists. He began his career at Raw, published by Art Spiegelman, and in the ’90s he began his most ambitious, award-winning work: Black Hole, about a group of young people from Seattle in the 70´s infected by a strange disease. His comics are subversive, strongly influenced by rock music, and populated by all sorts of monsters. His characters are psychologically complex and displaced to the extreme, and it is often difficult to be indifferent to their anguish, even more so when we realize that – in Burns’ work – happiness is transitory and tragedy is inevitable. I strongly recommend reading his work. Generally you can find good deals on Amazon.
To further shorten my ramblings about artistic influences, could not forget two artists whose styles are opposed to those cited above: Craig Thompson, Jeff Smith and Brian Lee O’Malley.
Craig Thompson, for me, is an artist who’s hard to ignore. His extensive books like Blankets and Habibi, besides presenting a very expressive art, are extremely long. No wonder that, occasionally, the author ends up stopping in hospital for problems such as tendinitis.
Besides the quality of his stories – extremely powerful and personal – one sees a delicacy in his drawings that turn them apart from the academic style or nihilisms inherent to his contemporaries. Its lines, inked with brushes, are very organic, giving a smooth design that make his pages almost alive. His compositions are almost naturalists in relation to the coldness of Clowes, Tomine and Burns.
Looking at his pages, it’s hard not to imagine the way he touched the paper sheet with the brush, to ensure the end result. It’s possible to perceive the pleasure he had while doing his job.
Jeff Smith is one of the most influential cartoonists of the 90’s. With Bone, he demonstrated that a comic book could be something more than clenched teeth and people dressed in tight spandex. Bone has a childish style, with much use of black and white and smooth shapes. The decoupage of narrative and character designs give the impression that we are watching a static cartoon. Smith would later adopt a more adult vibe in Rasl, which to me is almost a masterpiece. Rasl is a story that unfolds slowly, and in every panel it gets more and more intriguing. It’s about parallel realities and government conspiracies. The protagonist of the story is completely marginalized, an anti-hero in the purest sense of the word. I don’t need to say anything more about Rasl. You better read it to believe it.
To me, Jeff Smith is almost a father to many artists trying to escape the industry standards. His light and loose style and his extremely visual narrative make a bridge between the animation and comics. When I was at NY Comic Con 2011, his panel was one of the busiest. In a few minutes the line had been discontinued due to the amount of people wanting to see this big icon.
Brian Lee O’Malley is the last influence. His style somewhat resembles the manga, but has an identity of its own as well. You can notice a whole pop vibe in his comics, which are extremely dynamic and vibrant. Even with all that speed and fury, he also has personal stories as well – located in the world today, but with remnants of the ’90s. Lost at Sea, his first work, is a graphic novel which is very deep and depressing. With Scott Pilgrim, he managed to achieve an enviable mastery not only in plot as in building characters.
Brian’s characters are the ultimate word in fashion. It is not surprising that many blogs try to recreate thoroughly the look of his creations in the real world. Possibly he makes a very detailed research to create the concept design of his characters. The work of Lee O’Malley catches the eye and is very stimulating. Be sure to check the re-release of Scott Pilgrim in colorful glory. The visuals are stunning.
My influences do not stop there. There are several other artists. But if you asked me now who are my idols, heroes and design professionals who Irespect the most, I would cite these guys out there before you could finish the question.
In 10 years, I might be worshiping new heroes and extracting lessons from their experiences to use in my work. But for now, these are my main influences.