Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Musing on Curt Swan

I was out last night with some local comics fiends for a regular fix of beer, pizza and comics chat, and amongst the many and varied topics we covered was Curt Swan, so I thought I’d jot down a few of my own musings on Swan. I find him an interesting and attractive albeit subdued and understated artist. Maybe these qualities and attributes have contributed to my belated appreciation of his art in the last 5 years or so, even though I’ve been familiar with his work ever since I was a kid.

In the 1960’s Swan and Infantino exemplified mainstream DC just as Kirby and Ditko were the spirit of Marvel. Swan’s clean, uncluttered, and generally mild aesthetic was a contrast in style – even ideology – to the vibrant, energetic, barely harnessed, idiosyncratic stylisations of Kirby’s power fantasies and Ditko’s neurotica. Swan was the straight man – think of his mild-mannered Clark Kent in a suit – to Kirby’s cosmic Galactus, to Ditko’s tormented Peter Parker.

When I think of Superman as measured, in control, temperate and proper, I am also thinking of Swan’s art style. It’s a realist, conservative aesthetic, and his Superman is a similarly conservative figure (and for once I do not invoke the term pejoratively!)

This is not to suggest that Swan’s Superman is not an exciting action figure. Nor should it be taken to suggest he exhibits a limited emotional range. Far from it. Rather it is to contrast his portrayal with the other popular contemporaneous Silver Age versions, especially those of Kurt Schaffenberger and Wayne Boring, each of which are quite distinctive, heavily stylized and idiosyncratic renditions.

To my mind there’s a few standout inkers on Swan, especially in the early pre-Murphy Anderson days, such as George Klein, Ray Burnley and Stan Kaye. I'm not fond of his post-Anderson inkers, although I concede Al Williamson and Bob Oksner shouldn’t be lumped in with the likes of Frank Chiaramonte and Tex Blaisdell, just to name a couple of the bland culprits in the 1970’s – and I must mention Jack Abel is a particularly unsuitable embellisher for Swan in the late 1960’s.

I’m not the only one to name Anderson as my favourite Swan inker. For a few years the Swanderson Superman looked like the fully realized adult Superman. He was an older, paternal figure with humour, wisdom, decency, goodwill and, well, humanity for want of a better word. He may have been a slightly old-fashioned figure – he was not hip - but he was no sap. He was not quite as dashing or swift as the Shuster version. He was still a power fantasy, but he was not an advertisement for steroids. The musculature was evident, but it looked to be bulging under a costume made of cotton rather than spandex. Neal Adams may have been prone to visualising him as a particularly anguished figure in this period but the team of Swan and Anderson was able to balance that portrayal with a broad emotional range and a maturity. He even developed more prominent forehead creases than he had under Klein’s watch!

Having said all that about his inkers, I find it interesting that on the basis of the few illustrations I have seen in which Swan completed the art himself, it would appear that the ‘real’ Swan was barely represented in the decades his fans came to recognize him. His own touch is less dominant or bold or clear. There is a certain lightness and featheriness of line and shading which prevails in his solo work. It does not appear to be ideally suited to the crude colouring techniques of regular comics books of the time with their dependence on clearly demarcated ink lines and white spaces to be ‘filled in’. Maybe this is why he nominated the fineline work of Al Williamson as one of his favoured inkers of his own pencils.

What I have found most revelatory about Swan in recent times is discovering his early non-Superman work for DC. It’s easy to forget that he produced art for non-superhero titles such as the early issues of House of Mystery and Gang Busters. It is customary to think of Swan in the context of other Silver Age DC/Superman artists, but I think it’s very interesting to see Swan brush shoulders with the likes of Ruben Moreira, John Prentice and Mort Meskin.

I now think Swan’s forte may have been the small panel, and it is evident in this material. The six- to nine-panel page would seem to be his preferred scale (and commensurate with his temperament.) The small figure is where he seems at home in this early period. They are always well-proportioned and deftly detailed, whereas some of his larger figures can lose some of their classical proportions. I think of the contrast between his Superman in the 1950’s Jimmy Olsen series as inked by Burnley, which is in a similarly small scale, compared to some of the larger figures inked by Klein, with their occasionally oddly foreshortened arms and legs, and heavy outlines as if the art was blown up from a smaller original scale.

Maybe this is why he was such a dab hand at the heavily populated Legion of Super-Heroes series, although I seem to remember reading that he found this a difficult assignment for precisely this reason.

In the sample scanned above even the two-thirds page splash panel is broken up into smaller components simulating 4 panels.

This is another reason why I appreciate Anderson on Swan. Anderson had a way of accommodating the larger panels and scale, smoothing out here, topping up there, balancing all over the panel and page. Subsequent inkers flattened Swan, spreading him out evenly over the page, but losing too much of the depth of field.

And of course, he was the ideal choice for the two-page newspaper strip style instalments in Action Comics Weekly.

The non-superhero 1950’s Swan work is rarely reprinted, so I’ve listed just a few reprints in the K.G. Murray comics featuring Swan’s Gang Busters and House of Mystery stories. In some cases, the reprints may be as difficult to find as the DC issues!

Oh, and a clue to help identify early Swan art – he regularly drew the middle fingers closed together, and the other two fingers apart.

The Secret of the Matador's Sword!
House of Mystery #12, March 1953
All Favourites Comic #11, March 1959

The Wishes of Doom!
House of Mystery #10, January 1953
All Favourites Comic #26, August 1961

Friday the 13th Club
House of Mystery #4, June-July 1952
All Favourites The 100-Page Comic #3, November 1957

Twenty Floors of Felony!
Gang Busters #27, April-May 1952
All Star Adventure Comic #31, February 1965

The Jack of all Crimes
Gang Busters #38, February-March 1954
All Star Adventure Comic #38, April 1966

The Man Who Could Change People
House of Mystery #15, June 1953
All Star Adventure Comic #25, January 1964

The House Where Evil Lived!
House of Mystery #3, April-May 1952
All Star Adventure Comic #25, January 1964

Heroes of the Highway
Gang Busters #26, February-March 1952
All Star Adventure Comic #31, February 1965

The Phantom's Return!
House of Mystery #22, January 1954
All Star Adventure Comic #32, April 1965

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