The Artists of the Decade
by Bonita del Rio
For the past four decades, the Legion of Super-Heroes have been depicted by some of the best and possibly some of the worst artists in DC's history. Many of these artists influence future artists and almost every fan speaks of these one or two of these artists with breathless admiration, but very few of them actually influence the future of these teens from the 30th century. Who are the world builders of the Legion's universe? Who are the artists that created the strongest mark on the future of the DC universe... not the future artists, but the future itself. Who are the developers of the characters, the technology and the very universe the Legion inhabits? Every decade, there has been one artist who stands out as the leader and the others, no matter who has the superior talent, follow their ideas and the images until the next decade arrive. This article examines each decade, especially the artists who create it to determine who was the Artist of the Decade.
Yes, the Legion did start in the 1950's, but with only two stories in that particular decade, it's easy to place them into the next. During the first period of the Legion of Super-Heroes, we see the group grow from three known members in the first few stories to26 by the end of their Action Comics run in 1971. We also see the Legion, originally a throwaway concept, spark the imagination of the fans who write letters for more stories about the teens from the future. Mort Weisinger, recognizing the winners he has, introduces them to his other young hero, Supergirl, and replaces the Bizarro World back piece in Adventure with the Legion. Eventually he allowa The Legion to take over the whole book before he exchanges Supergirl's and the Legion's spots in Adventure and Action respectively. During the 1960's, the artists of the Superman stable are guided heavily by the DC house style, and the style forced a similarity amongst them all which might not have been! there otherwise.
The first artist who graces the Legion is Al Plastino, The first three members are introduced: Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl and Lightning Boy. Other Legionnaires are there, but they are only in shadow. Al Plastino gives the founding members their first uniforms. All three uniforms, no matter how garish the colors, have motifs that the Legionnaires use throughout most of their careers. Cosmic Boy is wearing the four circles and the black vest effect. Lightning Lad/ Live Wire is wearing twin lightning bolts and gloves. Even Saturn Girl is wearing the high collars and tunics with tights that she will favor for most of her career. However his future is clearly derived from the 1930's view of the "far-flung world of 1964" which isn't all the far flung in 1958. The Legion is using jet packs to fly and those will be gone soon in favor of flight belts. So Plastino's lasting mark is a vague idea of costume design. Considering that Chris Sprouse uses the bisecting motif to develop ! the Legion costumes of the 1990's, that's quite an important contribution. However, he's not the Artist of the Decade.
George Papp is the next artist to draw the Legion. He refines the founding trio's appearances so that they look much like they do throughout the sixties. He also creates Mon-El's and Star Boy's early costumes and Lana Lang's Insect Queen outfit. Again, the world building is negligible. Papp is not the Artist of the Decade.
Jim Mooney is. When the Legion visits Supergirl in these early stories, she often follows them to their native century. There, we meet a majority of Legionaries and they appear in the costumes they will wear until the turn of the decade. Supergirl digs the tunnels that will later be the subway system for the entire planet. During these stories, we also see the first glimpses of ordinary people watching the annual Legion parade, which uses anti-grav floats, on Three-D TVs. Mooney also designs the upside down rocket that was the Legion's first home.
After Mooney, comes the very talented Curt Swan. He is perhaps one of the most technically gifted artists in comic books when it comes to human anatomy and human faces. He is also one of the earliest Legion artists to use dramatic "camera angles" and odd panel constructions to heighten the suspense of the story. Part of the reason for the camera angles is because a young Jim Shooter sent in his story ideas in a springboard format, and therefore the young TV charged mind worked with the older graphically skilled artist. Because of these traits of anatomy, camera angles, and his fine consistency over his nearly sixty-year career, those fans who fell in live with the Legion who do know about artwork cite him as the greatest Legion artist of all time, and that will make his contribution far more compelling than the fact he designed Ultra Boy's costume.
Then the wonderful decision is made: The Legion should have a regular series. John Forte, the artist of the Bizarro World series, becomes the Legion's first regular artist. Although he has a command of facial statement and architecture, his anatomy renderings are stiff and unyielding. There is no sense of motion or composition in his art. After Jim Mooney's and Curt Swan's early stories, this must be a let down to the earliest of fans. Forte continues as the series regular artist until Adventure #327, after which Jim Mooney and George Papp begin taking over the pencils until Adventure #340, when Curt Swan took over and penciled his first regular Legion story: "Computo the Conqueror". This is hailed as the "Golden Age of the Legion", the period where story and art were as perfect as it could be. Granted, these stories do carry their intensity even to an audience (who appreciates plot and good art) of today.
Swan and Mooney draw for most of the Shooter era, and then turn the job over to Pete Costanza in Adventure #362, the first Mantis Morlo story. Of the sixties artists, I consider him to be almost as wooden as Forte, but with less future sense. Fortunately, Swan returned in #365 until #372, when Win Mortimer took over with the balloon like bodies and psychedelic background. With Jack Abel inking, Mortimer penciled the Legion throughout the end of its Adventure run in 1970 and its fourteen issue run in Action Comics backslot. While the artwork remained consistent, the stories did not. An eighteen year old Jim Shooter went to college, and E.Nelson Bridwell found himself writing the Legion until they found a writer willing to work on the Legion, Cary Bates. This was in 1971.
The 1970's do not start off well for the Legion. They are moved from Action's back slot to rotating with two other feature in the back of Superboy. Cary Bates is still writing stories about the super-hero club the Legion outgrew in Shooter's day. The group is heading for oblivion and in need a miracle. It gets two: One is a letter written by Mike Flynn decrying the Legion's fate that resounded throughout fandom, the second is a fan-artist-turned-pro by the name of Dave Cockrum. Dave Cockrum brought the Legion into the Seventies. Their 1960's costumes and sci-fi backdrop were updated as well as the Legionnaires' physiques. Frumpy was out and sexy was in. Even the buildings and spaceships became sleeker. Cockrum brings a dynamism to the storytelling as well with panel designs and an attention to detail that added to the overall design. These were many of the same traits that Cockrum brought to the second-stringers known as X-Men during their revival. Cock! rum recounts his days as a Legion artist in Legion Archives vol. 10.
After Cockrum left, Mike Grell carried on the dynamic stylings and sexiness of storytelling. He is one of the most controversial of the Legion artists. To those who grew up with Curt Swan's fine sense of anatomy, Grell's people are freakish parodies of humans. To those who loved the cinematic style of Cockrum, Grell was a fine successor, in some views, even triumphing over his predecessor.
Grell's successor, Jim Sherman, also has a fine sense of detail, but it is obscured for most of his run by Jack Abel's inks. He takes the Cockrum and Grell costumes and manages to abbreviate them even more. It is when he works with Bob McLeod, the man who creates the New Mutants with Chris Claremont, that his pencils and details really show. Unfortunately that was for three stories near the end of his run. Sherman had a secondary artist who regularly worked on fill-ins and back issues, Mike Nasser AKA Mike Netzer. Nasser (as he was known then) had a blocky style that didn't go well with Sherman's ultra sleekness, however he was much better than what lay ahead for the Legion. The first clue of what would happen was in Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #227, when Gerry Conway wrote the (ack!) definitive Pulsar Stargrave story. With him is guest artist Joe Staton, whose blocky style makes Nassar look positively sleek. As of S/LSH #243, Joe Staton is ! the permanent artist and would soon be joined by Jack Abel as the permanent inker. Abel's health is failing at this time, so he can't be the regular inker, so Joe Giella, Murphy Anderson, Frank Chairmonte, and Joe Clallen are also Staton's inkers. Staton, who proved himself in the sf/fantasy ring with E-man and some Green Lantern pieces, is a bit of a disappointment for most Legion fans. The dynamics of storytelling died, the costumes were shabbily drawn and the human anatomy showed everyone that Grell isn't the only inaccurate artist in the business.
The Legion is an exhausting job and even Joe Staton can't match the constant deadlines. His fill in artist was Ric Estrada, an animation artist turned to the still pages. This man is my very definition of a lousy Legion artist. Here was the return of the balloon bodies. complete with Jack Abel inks and a total lack of future sense. Staton finally leaves the book after 30 issues and he's replaced by a young artist Jimmy Janes in LSH #273. Janes is a remarkable artist because of his ability to be a great realist in one panel and flat and Busema-ish in the next. There is no consistency in his work and there are several panels that reveal his copycatting and other cases where he proved his inability to follow through the common sense of a science fiction series: For example, every time he showed a woman with long hair wearing it outside of her full spacesuit (an invitation to vaccuum exposure, although it would be several years before we get that treat in a Legion! book). His fill-in artist is Steve Ditko, the artist who brought a comics revolution with his co-creations of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange in the 1960's, was now an uninspired wash-up in the late Seventies. There is very little say about these sad stories, except that with space scenes and magic battles, Ditko's forte, it proved how far this father of the industry had fallen on hard times. Again the Legion finishes the decade on a down note, though a decidedly better one than the last decade.
For the Legion, the eighties begin with the appearance of Pat Broderick, late of Micronaunts fame. Finally, The 30th century has a world builder again and probably the finest cover artist the Legion has ever had. The covers were gripping, dynamic and intense, able to make kids stare at them for ten minutes and then buy a book they have little knowledge about. He is dynamic on the inside too, but Pat has had enough with casts of thousands, and asks to be allowed to revive Firestorm. He leaves the Legion after five issues and the Legion finishes off its second complete decade with a great loss. In his place after having done a few back pieces is a Kirby clone who evolved into a Barry Windsor-Smith clone in terms of his people. In terms of his world building he drags the 30th century screaming and kicking into Star Trek's 24th century with the use of speculative technology and special effects, such as zip-tones and surprints, to brin! g an intensive graphic style that awed the reader and inspired scripter Paul Levitz to many great stories, especially The Great Darkness Saga. I write of course about Keith Giffen. From LSH #287 (which became Tales of the LSH) through the first few pages of #307 and Baxter LSH #1-2, this was perhaps the most visually distinctive and dynamic time for the Legion. At LSH #307, Giffen decided he was tired of his BWS routine and decided to "study" Alex Toth's style for his remaining eight and a half issues.
He then gave the newsstand book to Dan Jurgens, a LSH fan from his early fan days and to the Baxter book, he gave his layouts to a talented young artist named Steve Lightle. Dan is already a pro and has his timing and layout skills intact. Lightle, on the other hand, has a phenomenal pictorial talent but no sense of timing and needed a bit more training in layouts skills. For three issues, Lightle drew the pictures over Giffen's layouts. Then he broke out on! his own. The people were prettier, the layouts were gorgeous and Lightle enjoyed adding bits and pieces of continuity and worldbuilding through the crowd scenes, as well as bits of humor. Unfortunately, Lightle would get so into the craft of artwork, he couldn't keep up with his deadlines, that's when Ernie Colon became part of the Legion of Substitute Artists. In three issues of the regular book, plus the Legionnaires 3 mini-series, Colon drew the Legion in his linear style. It is competent work, but not what I want to see on my Legion books.
After it became apparent that Lightle would not be able to handle the deadline pressures on the book, the editor thanked him for his work on designing Tellus, Sensor Girl, Quislet and Polar Boy's best outfit as well as over 100 pages of work, and sent him on his way. Replacing him is an out of work Marvel artist named Greg LaRocque. Again, LaRoque is good with the character bits and pieces, but his characters were stiff an! d I dunno, Marvelized somehow. As he became tired of the book after 30-odd issues, he was replace by the once and future penciler, Pat Broderick for a few issues, then came Keith Giffen as Kevin MacGuire. Keith finished up the first Baxter run and decided to become Keith Giffen as Alex Munoz for the five years later incarnation. Welcome to 1989.
We were treated to far too much Giffen as Munoz and then Giffen left in favor of Jason Pearson, another man who starts off over Giffen's panel layouts. During this time, he became cartoonier and cartoonier. Jason also has no future sense. Circe walking around with a baseball cap that had a grenade attached to it was almost as silly as Papp's spaceship with an accelerator in Adventure #348. Then the Legion got another newcomer Stuart Immonen. Stuart's art is both realistic and created with very few lines. It's pleasing style on the characters almost made the lack of wonder in the space scenes.
While Stuart is depicting the adult Legionnaires in one book, the Legion's younger counterparts were starting up their own book with Chris Sprouse as their penciller. Chris Sprouse designed the looks for the Legionnaires and the thirtieth century that are still being used today. His fine line style bore a touch of manga influence , but not nearly as much as his replacement, Legionnaires artist Jeff Moy has. Because Chris is such a meticulous craftsman, his artwork also takes a lot of time. With K.C. rushing him, he feels unable to do a good job and left. During his time, Colleen Doran subbs for a few issues. She may have even took over the book, but she is doing Legion stories in Valor. I can't praise Colleen's art enough, but the inker the editor teamed her, John Nyberg, with was not the best choice. However, the time of the two Legion teams is slowly fading. Chris Taylor and Chris Gardener help see the young team thr! ough the end, and Jeff Moy, along with artistic chameleon Lee Moder, take over the books as the Legion continuity reboots, and stay the artists until lately, when Moder left after Legion #100 and is replaced by Jason Armstrong.
At this time, I find Jason's art somewhat Ramos-type manga-ish and somewhat forgettable. In fact, nothing stands out in my mind as I write this, except that word has it that he's ready to leave the book. The current Legion artist that I wish was more forgettable is Chuck Nauck. His style is Jason's style turned up one notch, which makes that characters even more blocky and uncomfortable to look at. However he leaves the Legion quickly to work with Peter David on Young Justice, and has been on the book for almost four years.
Of course, there were many more Legion artists over the decades, but they did only one or two pieces, and I decided since I'm doing a decade-by-decade analysis, I didn't need to include those that caused such a small impact on the Legion. Among these "non-influential" artists are Carmine Infantino, George Perez, and Stan Woch.
The 21st Century
The Legion has had one major artist in this new decade/millennium: Olivier Copiel, who is sleek and is graced by Andy Lannings' inks. Maybe "graced" isn't quite the word, as Lanning tends to make murky art murkier. I tend to like my human characters' faces to be human and after over a year, Copiel is starting to learn how to draw faces.
Is he the artist of the decade? It's hard to tell with only two major story arcs, even though the Blight and Lost storylines make it clear that Abnett and Lanning will be the writers of the decade. Also Copiel has not redefined the look of the Legion or its universe, so he has yet to meet my criteria. Mike McKone is supposed to be his fill-in artist, but that will not place him in position to be the artist of the decade. My guess is that artist won't show up for another few years.
Over the past four decades of Legion stories, the Legion of Super-Heroes has had many artists, but only five have had such an influence that their artistic impact has been felt not only during their issues, but for the decades to come. Alan Plastino, Jim Mooney, Dave Cockrum, Keith Giffen and Chris Sprouse have all left their indelible marks on the Legion by creating specific artistic eras and by shaping the thirtieth century by shaping the visions of those who come. As we enter the fifth decade of Legion stories, the questions we'll be asking is what will modern science fiction and techonologies do to enhance the Legion? What trends in the next ten years will excite the artists? Who will be the next Artist of the Decade?
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This piece is © 2001 by Bonita del Rio.
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