Saturday, March 24, 2007

Musing on Gil Kane

I’ve been thinking about Gil Kane over the last couple of evenings, reading some of his Green Lantern and Atom stories in the second Crisis on Multiple Earths: The Team-Up’s TPB.

I say “thinking” rather than “reading” because that’s what happens with Kane’s comics. I'm usually pausing to consider some aspect of it – an arrangement, a figure, an expression.

Kane is a superhero comics artist to be studied and appreciated. I don’t know if he has a lot of fans, but I reckon he has his share of students.

I’m referring to his Silver Age DC work, in particular the superhero material as I’ve read it in the K.G. Murray reprints and other DC reprints, which means mainly his Atom and Green Lantern. He produced a large body of work over a long period, and superhero comics were only a part of it, but it’s the Kane I’m mainly familiar with, along with an occasional horror/mystery or western story.

One of Kane’s substantial contributions to the superhero comic was his flying figure. He contributed to our visual vocabulary, our understanding and imagination of how a superhero flies. His figures floated and glided in the air. Their backs arched. Their limbs had articulated joints. He drew bodies as they might operate in space with weight, balance, momentum. You sensed there was a point of propulsion before the shot in the frame.

Maybe it’s because his superhero bodies were athletic, rather than musclebound bulks like, say, Wayne Boring’s Superman. Boring’s Superman didn’t fly in space, he strolled upright, one foot in front of the other. He charged head-first through windows because he only knew one way. That was his goofy charm. Kane’s bodies look as if they were modelled on dancers. Did any other artist produce as graceful a superhero body in the Silver Age? Maybe Infantino and Anderson.

He was also an excellent arranger or designer of space. The so-bad-it’s-good school of superhero comics isn’t concerned with matters of depth of field, and doesn’t need to be. That’s a different aesthetic. For Kane, foreground and background weren’t enough - he needed a background, a middle ground and a foreground. The background might be sketched in, the middle ground square in the frame, and the foreground figure leaving or entering the frame. Action is barely encompassed within a Kane frame – it is often exceeding the border. This is evident in many of his covers and also his panels.

For all these qualities, he does not excite me as a fan. I’m not sure why not. Maybe it’s because he tends to draw eyes which look like they’re stunned. Maybe it’s because he’s an acquired taste. Maybe his art needs colour to be fully realised – a drawback of black and white reprints in considering certain artists who aren’t disposed towards spotting blacks.

His later DC work in the 1980’s is thoroughly refined and transformed. It’s recognizable Kane, but without any concession to smoothness or slickness or sheen. As unlikely as it sounds, there are even less blacks in this later work. I find it dizzying and distracting with an unexpected clutter and distortion, yet it is quite fascinating to see the progress of his line from the 1960’s.

There are artists who love their own work, and there are artists who are never satisfied. Kane was an articulate and considered thinker of comics, and I think of him as a restless artist who did the best he could in a genre he was probably not really interested in. I remember he described himself as a problem-solver, not an artist, possibly in his Comics Journal interview many years ago. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he was pleased to be described as an artist who made his readers think rather than just be fans.

PS Cover image above from GCD

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