Wednesday, July 13, 2011

My Five Favorite Wonder Woman Artists

Back during my Wizard days, somewhere in the neighborhood of 2006, I got assigned—or pitched, I can’t remember—a piece on Wonder Woman, a character I didn’t know all that much about aside from what everybody knows. The article was examining why a property as universally known as Wonder Woman had trouble sustaining the commercial success of contemporaries like Superman and Batman or even the burgeoning Green Lantern. I recall not being entirely happy with the finished product mainly because I found it to be a huge topic and couldn’t condense it into the space allotted, but I really enjoyed working on it because I got to chat with intelligent folks like Phil Jimenez, Greg Rucka and Allan Heinberg to get insight into the subject and learned a lot.

(NOTE: You can have a good conversation with Phil Jimenez about pretty much anything, but ask him about Wonder Woman and prepare to have your mind blown—also don’t plan to get anything else done that day)

The ultimate conclusion I reached on the question posed was that in many ways Wonder Woman had peaked early. More than any other character created in the 1940’s—including Captain America—she was very much of the era in terms of being designed with a specific purpose and thriving in a particular environment. There have been many great Wonder Woman stories told in print as well as through other mediums; in particular the classic Lynda Carter television series, but it was interesting to find how fondly remembered her Golden Age stories were by true fans of the character. With most properties, you find the 30’s and 40’s were a formative period but not so technically proficient; the original Wonder Woman stories have an undeniable energy to them and it also happened to be when the character achieved her greatest commercial success.

Basically, Wonder Woman got a reputation for being an equal point of DC’s “big three” triangle out of the gate and has been struggling to justify it ever since without the timelessness Superman and Batman seem to enjoy.

However, as I said, there are a lot of good Wonder Woman stories out there. In researching that article, I got to read quite a few. What I came to appreciate even more than the writing though was how challenging it must be for an artist to approach this icon and how impressive it is when they succeed. Created to be the female role model girls were lacking, Wonder Woman is the embodiment of feminism, but she’s also a beautiful woman in a form the idealizes—and often exaggerates—the female form. For an artist to walk the line between archetype and sex appeal with this character is an achievement that demands recognition.

Honorable Mention

The man who started it all deserves to be credited for a great design.

The most prolific Wonder Woman cover artist I can think of, and more or less defines the character for many, but I want to see interiors.

He can depict her as a beauty, as a fighter, and as a horror—see Final Crisis; one of the more versatile Wonder Woman artists for sure and he just misses the cut.

Nobody draws Wonder Woman like Frank Miller. His bold choices when it comes to the costume or how he composes her face are undeniable. His Wonder Woman is not a lady you mess with. She’s got a primal energy that speaks to her status as a warrior princess. He’s number five only because I see too much of too many of his Sin City vixens in his take; if he had an extended run to make a mark on the character, he’d most likely be higher.

As the designer of the bold “Mod Wonder Woman” redesign of the 1960’s, there’s no denying Mike Sekowsky has a major spot in the character’s visual history. Though I think it was definitely a good short term look rather than long term given the strength of the typical design, I look back at the “New Wonder Woman” as an era that featured very pretty art. Sekowsky had a knack for making something as simple as a white or black jumpsuit come alive through a strong use of basic shapes, dynamic inking and bold colors in the background to accentuate the figure. He drew great action sequences as well, really hurling Diana into the thick of it. Even before he took on Wonder Woman solo, Sekowsky spent years defining her look in Justice League of America and I would presume influenced many who came after.

For a guy who made a lot of at least his early reputation on doing exaggerated extremes when it came to super heroes with The Mask, Major Bummer, etc., Doug Mahnke for my money draws a great Wonder Woman because he makes her look down to earth. When Mahnke was on JLA, I loved his mammoth Martian Manhunter and his ever-shifting Plastic Man, but I always thought the way he managed to make Diana look pretty in a relatable way as well as dangerous but not bloodthirsty was pretty neat. I dug the little things, like how he drew her with straight hair that matted down—as hair would when it’s fairly consistently drenched in sweat—as opposed to the wildly curly or silky smooth manes other artists give her. He gave her a nose that made her seem both unique and exotic; her eyes were a bit haunted. He was also able to balance her figure between sexy and sturdy; he used smooth, heavy lines to convey that this was a woman who had honed her body as a weapon, but possessed a more grounded strength as opposed to a bodybuilder’s physique. To describe Doug Mahnke’s Wonder Woman in a word, I’d go with “enchanting”—she’s a lady you admire from afar, but think twice before getting too close to.

I’ve encountered no bigger Wonder Woman fan than Phil Jimenez, and he brings the enthusiasm as well as the work ethic that comes with that distinction whenever he works on the character. He doesn’t draw every wisp of hair or every star on her costume because it’s his job, he does it because he loves it and he’s afraid to do her a disservice. During his run on Wonder Woman—notably as writer as well as artist—his Diana always seemed to tower over the rest of the cast—as she should—but as every bit the Amazon princess she is, not an awkward giant. He was—and is—excellent at framing the scene, her posture and her outline so as to emphasize her strength without detracting from her beauty. Phil doesn’t skimp when it comes to using as many lines as it takes to tell the story of the characters he’s drawing, but with Diana he also knew when to stop and let what he had on the page finish the job; he does a tremendous job of getting her face to “act,” whether it’s anguish over the loss of her mother, joy at the prospect of a new love, or rage en route to delivering an ass kicking. In his Wonder Woman stories—which are among my favorites—Phil seemed to delight in bringing in huge ensembles, be it dozens of Amazons or every female hero and villain in the DC Universe, but he never let the guests overwhelm his star; there was never a question that Diana was front and center and you believed she belonged alongside Superman and Batman. It was also Phil’s birthday yesterday—he only gets better with age!

When I spoke at the beginning about the Wonder Woman stories I read while researching her that really made the character shine for me, I was talking about a few, but mainly George Perez’s run on her title. Rebooting her post-Crisis, Perez didn’t just make some costume tweaks or a change to the origin, he reinvented the entire world of Wonder Woman from the ground up. If you’ve followed George Perez’s work—and I have—you know among his many incredible qualities as an artist, perhaps nothing stands out so much as his unparalleled attention to detail. He will draw every piece of rubble in a fight scene; he will squeeze a hundred characters into a panel where most would put two. He brought this all-or-nothing approach to Wonder Woman as both writer and artist, mining every aspect of the character for story—warrior, teacher, ambassador, foreigner, daughter, hero—and sparing nothing when attacking her visually. His Diana was one who possessed statuesque and intimidating beauty, but a naive innocence in her eyes that made you trust her and want to protect the most powerful woman in the world. In battle, he made her formidable, with a grimace that you believed would scare a war god, but at peace he bestowed upon her a smile that said everything would be ok. My descriptions are lapsing into pretty sappy poetry here, but frankly that’s what Perez’s brilliance inspires in me as a fan. He also never settled to depict Wonder Woman in merely her iconic costume or to make a change and stick with it; he drew the heck out of the classic look and owned it, but he’d also create variation both subtle and bold as the occasion required, be it armor for war or a stately look for diplomacy. George Perez imbued every single character that appeared in his vast Wonder Woman cast with a singular energy and vitality, creating a diverse gallery of faces rather than an army of clones, but none shone brighter than Diana herself; nobody touches the master on this one.


Emily said...

Hi Ben,
Just wondering how I can contact you about doing a review of my book.


Ben Morse said...

Emily, if you're on Twitter, direct message us your contact info to @TheCKT

MarkAndrew said...

So Wonder Woman is my favorite of the big-name DC heroes, and I have spent hours and hours thinking about stuff like this. So I'm glad you brought it up!

Harry Peters is by far my # 1 and not just 'cause his name is hilarious to type.

His stuff comes off as both bizarre - bordering on surrealistic - and playful. And while he's not the flat-out cartoonist that Jerry Robinson and Kirby are, but he captures a sense of movement with a panel really well. He just seems like he has a really interesting and unique view of the world that he's transcribing to page.

I LIKE Perez mind, but he draws overly-realistically - Or, to be completely precise, he doesn't use any sort of sfumato or contrast between backgrounds and foregrounds that mimic how the eye actually perceives the world. Everything element of every drawing is equally defined - And that contrast of clearly vs. poorly defined areas on the comic page is a lot of what artists use to define mood... Which means that Perez is a really truly crappy "mood" artist.

Compare this to Peter's work - or Frank Miller, or Doug Mahnike. You can figure the tone and mood of their stuff right off the bat. You can figure out genre, tone, and all kindsa stuff from just a quick glace at a single page.

He's also not a particularly good cartoonist, either - He doesn't go for full-the-fuck-on Neil Adams exaggeration, and never stays with one character long enough to really drive their emotions home... There's just too much STUFF on the page, all the time, for his work to have that much emotional impact.

Although I see what you're saing about detail, and I agree... Although thinking about it, I'd call that a sub-set of his overall skill at design. Perez obviously thinks in terms of entire pages, rather than single panels or characters or a manga-style-story! first! approach. And they're awesome looking pages! Even if they were blank panels, they'd still be interesting arrangments! And the detail is part of that... Sure, he's willing to do a hell of a lot of drawing, but he's also smart enough to find out where to PUT all that crap on the limited-size comics page and make it un-cluttered and clear.

So I'm not saying he's a bad artist, but - weirdly - he's just not very modern compared to the other guys on your list. Peter's an early twentieth century surrealist at heart - he's not drawing how things feel as much as how things look - and Perez is.. what... a pre-Raphaelite? He draws things, and he arranges them well, but he doesn't seem to be drawing ABOUT anything. said...

Really helpful data, lots of thanks for your post.

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