I fear this is fated to prove a perennial complaint of mine, till either my skill fails me as a writer or else till the entire comics industry itself ceases to operate: There is rarely, if ever, sufficient reason for a single story arc to share multiple artists – particularly pencillers. To be clear, I’m not referring to a series of vignettes, as per Max Landis’ American Alien, wherein separate artists are assigned to self-contained stories each selected specifically to fit a certain tone (e.g. Nick Dragotta for childlike jocundity; Jonathan Case for young adult angst).
Rather, I’m referring to the kinds of cohesive narratives which are split into single issues only out of continued convention, but which are written to be read together in trade. The final issue of Final Crisis is a famous example, where, after five issues of JG Jones providing cover-quality interiors, Doug Mahnke’s drastically different pencils were interspersed throughout the climatic conclusion. Ultimates #6 was the most egregious example in recent memory, with Christian Ward’s amateurish scribbles proving far inferior to industry superstar/series regular Kenneth Rocafort. The fact that Marvel kept the latter as cover artist is quite nearly fraudulent, and I’d not have purchased the issue had I perused the preview pages – but alas, caveat emptor! Yet even when the replacement artist is every bit the equal of the primary penciller – as per Phillip Tan substituting for Bryan Hitch with Justice League of America #5 – the practice is still unacceptable.
Trinity #3 (DC Comics)
Such is the case with Clay Mann subbing for Francis Manapul in Trinity #3, part three of the “Better Together” storyarc. I’ve long been enthralled by Mann’s work. It was his interiors which first sold me on Ninjak, which quickly proved one of the best new series of 2015. I’d even made panels from such my cover and profile pictures for Facebook – an honor not frequently or lightly bestowed. And his work on Trinity is almost the equal to his tenure on Ninjak, hindered only perhaps by panel layouts decidedly derivative of Manapul’s – they’re visually intriguing, but obviously originate from an imagination alien to the artist’s.
Some will excuse the practice as an inevitable consequence of DC’s double shipping schedule since the Rebirth relaunch. I could retort with the example of Wonder Woman, which (before I dropped the book – I couldn’t say now) was alternating artist and arc with every issue, so that the pencillers were able to maintain their monthly pace and each storyline retained visual harmony. But this solution serves only to confuse readers with its strange sequencing and offers no advantages over the old monthly method of each separate storyline being segregated to its own series.
Nay, DC’s double shipping is no excuse, but instead precisely the problem. While Rebirth represents something of a renaissance for DC (literally and in actuality), with titles such as Hal Jordan, Superman, and Red Hood a return to form for their eponymous heroes, neither Jordan’s climatic clash with Sinestro nor Red Hood’s faceoff with Black Mask would have been any less excellent no matter how many weeks or months passed between issues.
As a gamer as well as a comic reader, I find comic fans’ and publishers’ obsession over regular shipping schedules particularly puzzling. Perhaps it’s to the industry’s disadvantage that it’s no longer defensive regarding its reputation as a medium with artistic merit. The constant question a few years back of “Are video games art?” resulted directly in the deluge of games criticism and a vibrant indie scene whose sensibilities have permeated mainstream production. Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s old adage “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad,” has become the mantra of all but Madden, with even the once perennial Assassin’s Creed no longer an annual affair after the rush to release resulted in inferior quality (cf. Assassin’s Creed Unity). Miyamoto’s quote is obviously applicable to comics as well. A delayed issue is a few weeks from being good; a bad issue is bad forever. Or if not bad, at least uneven and inconsistent.
Final Crisis will, with any hope, be in reprint till the earth runs out of trees for paper and pixels for iPads. But every single one of those reprints and digital copies, even those being studied in schools hundreds of years hence, will still have those same out-of-place panels by Mahnke. And while Trinity might not have the same long lasting impact, it’s precisely the same problem on a smaller scale. Reading the trade, moving from the last page of what was issue #2 to the first page of what was issue #3, the art will suddenly shift without any aesthetic reason for it to do so. Critics seeking to interpret the intent of the artist(s) in doing so will be resigned to declare such a shift lacking in purpose – unintentionality itself being a hallmark of poor art.
Comics may be commercial art, but so are cinema, literature, and video games, none of which would be considered disposable. The comics published presently must be made with futurity in mind. They are today’s tapestries and vases, the repositories of our modern mythology, meant to preserve and pass down the very essence of who we are as a culture and what we value most. Marvel and DC, having been entrusted to safekeep the stories of our people’s pantheon, consequently have obligations to more than merely their parent companies and shareholders’ stocks. No one is asking them to sacrifice profitability, merely not to neglect the “Art” half of “Commercial Art.” If shipping schedules and changes to creative teams interfere with the artistic merits of the final work, then those are practices which should be made anathema throughout the industry, beginning with the Big Two.
All in all, Trinity #3: good, not great.