Rich Kreiner’s Yearlong Best of the Year: Supermen!

Posted by on February 6th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

“The Comet,” story and art by Jack Cole.


Before Romanticism officially got the notion of individualized self-expression off the ground throughout the West, prior historical eras in various arts had their “period styles” in much the same way that geographical areas had their regional flavor. These were rough, if generally shared, notions about artistic creation that were relatively uniform among often anonymous aesthetic practitioners. These ages had common ideas that informed the way creators approached their artistic projects and that helped refine the qualities of the completed work. Think of the scores of unknown composers of medieval plainchants or the nameless painters of early chapel frescos throughout the Mediterranean.

This notion of “period style” seemed to make a comeback — Romanticism be well and truly damned — with comic-book production in the late ’30s and ’40s. Reading the histories of the medium centered in New York City during those days, there appeared to be a prevailing guiding creative principle, a “period style,” and that style was fast. Among publishers of every stripe, across companies and imprints and shops and titles, the shared value most rewarded was funnies by the bucketful.

I can’t think of a better single volume of what the period style of fast looked like in practice than last year’s Supermen! anthology. Yes, there’s an added winnowing by genre but that just sharpens the sense of the reductive visual and narrative requirements that were standard for the hot new gravy train that hit the business.

Supermen! is what fast looked like printed up. All those panels composed as straightforwardly as advertisements and as easy to apprehend. All those figures in middle distance, swimming in solid, colored backgrounds. All those bodies with erratic proportions skewed by weaknesses in anatomical understanding and aggravated by outright blunders in drawing that would take too long to fix. All those bland faces in heroic shorthand with features made less distinct still by goggles and masks. And that’s the better artists.


“The Claw Battles The Daredevil,” story and art by Jack Cole.


With such a compelling imperative as pay pegged to speed, it’s a wonder that any of the wage slaves could convey a sense of a developed personal style that didn’t flow directly from unaddressed graphic shortcomings accelerated to Doppler-inducing rates. But of course they did: the occasional statuesque figure from Lou Fine; the textured, all-but-sculpted forms of Basil Wolverton; the irrepressible comic dynamism of Jack Cole as his Daredevil battled the Claw (less with his character The Comet, what with his hair-trigger murderous impulses and all); and the all-but-indescribable glories of Fletcher Hanks whose “Fantomah the Mystery Woman of the Jungle” and “Stardust the Super Wizard” make him appear as an “outsider artist” which, among the cartoonists represented in Supermen!, is really saying something.


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One Response to “Rich Kreiner’s Yearlong Best of the Year: Supermen!

  1. All cartoonists should aspire to be FAST!
    or, even better, LOOSE!
    I feel that both these stylistic elements have evolved well since the 30’s and 40’s–
    FAST and LOOSE is still alive!
    from the artists mentioned above (Cole, Wolverton, etc.) to Harvey Kurtzman to Guy Davis and Darwyn Cooke and Matt Kindt–
    FAST and LOOSE has gained greater complexity and beauty over the years, though I assume it is employed by choice rather than necessity.
    I don’t know how quickly these guys actually work, but I admire the spontaneity of their art, rooted or inspired perhaps by the forced spontaneity of comics’ Golden Age.