Foster Children, by Elayne Riggs
It’s finally official. On Saturday in San Diego, IDW announced a new project based on Peter David’s Sir Apropos of Nothing series of novels, to be written by Peter with art by Robin Riggs. “Art” as in pencils, inks and colors — or, as those wacky Brits say, “colours.” Don’t ask me why, they have enough trouble pronouncing words correctly without trying to spell them right as well. Anyway, Robin and I are both pretty excited about this miniseries, and not only because the offer came at the same time as my current job offer so it means we both get to celebrate employment at the same time.
First of all, it’s Peter, whom we’ve both known for a long while and who’s an absolute delight even though he’s never introduced us to his equally-famous friends like Harlan Ellison and Billy Mumy. Secondly, I love the character of Apropos… well, not exactly “love,” he’s kind of a despicable rogue, but I love his adventures, and I love the conceit of a character who’s supposed to be secondary and an afterthought suddenly being the protagonist of his own stories. It’s kind of like if women were lead characters in their own right instead of love interests and fridge fodder! What a concept!
Anyway, the other reason I’m loving the idea of Robin doing a Sir Apropos comic book series is, even though it’s going to be parodying bits of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, art-wise Robin wants to bring to it a sort of Hal Foster Prince Valiant vibe. I think the first story Rob and I ever did together, a 2-pager called Sailor’s Wife, had this sort of feel to it, and the whole medieval atmosphere worked really well with his penciling style.
So Rob has been immersed in Foster these past few weeks, going over all his Prince Valiant collections, studying them for inspiration and visual ideas. He even taped together a number of 11 x 17 sheets to make a page (see photo) the size at which Hal Foster originally worked. It’s easy to see how much more illustrative you can get when you’re working 30 x 40. But it takes a true master to know how to draw so that no detail is entirely lost in the reproduction.
One thing that surprised me was how much the strip’s vibrant colors were lost, literally faded on the 60-year-old newspaper tear sheets. It’s a very different color balance not only from the reprints, but from the original color guides. And in some cases the collections aren’t quite there either, as they haven’t been able to shed greys (k-tones) which tend to reproduce poorly in reprints. Being able to compare all these different versions has given Robin a lot of insight not only into how things were done in the day (and reprinted later) but how he wants to approach the coloring in Apropos.
Being a comic book artist today means being able to draw upon any or all of these magnificent influences and interpret their work through your own prism. After all, as with just about any creative profession, we’re all the sum of our influences. Like most artists, Robin has a style of his own. Also like most artists, that style is in large part a mixture of other artists who’ve left a very lasting impression on him. Foster is certainly one, along with everyone from Neal Adams, Bernie Wrightson, Don Lawrence and Frank Bellamy through John Byrne and Frank Miller, with a large amount of Alan Davis to hold it all together. It’ll be interesting to see which influences readers see in the Apropos series. Chances are, depending on those readers’ knowledge base and background, different ones will spot different things.
When I started noticing Robin’s inking, I saw a lot of Mark Farmer in it, which made sense as they share some of the same antecedents. I didn’t even see the influence of his mentor and sometime boss Paul Neary because I was less familiar with Paul’s work.
Interestingly, because Foster’s art was largely unavailable to Robin growing up, he came to most of it as an adult, which is often the way readers find out about the legendary artists of the past. Most of us come to comics through contemporary stuff and then work our way backwards as our interests dictate. I wonder if it’s that way with artists as well, that they start by studying and even aping their more famous peers and eventually broaden their professional horizons.
What’s been really interesting to me is seeing all the unlikely places in comics where you can find Foster’s influence playing out. Once we went to a convention in Toronto and had dinner with a number of pros, among them Yanick Paquette, who observed during the meal, and you need to picture this said with a flourish in a French-Canadian accent, that “we are all Neal Adams’ children.” I’m thinking that makes many modern artists Hal Foster’s grandkids.
Like his contemporaries Alex Raymond and Milt Caniff, Foster didn’t have a history of comic books upon which to draw for his work. These artists’ professional lessons came from the great illustrators of the late 19th and early 20th century. [At Ithacon a few years back, Robin had the chance to sit all day with the great Al Williamson — himself influenced largely by Raymond but also by Foster — who kept shaking his head at all these old greats whose names Rob hadn’t previously heard! It reminds me a lot of when Trina Robbins talks about famous female cartoonists of a century ago, and few in her audiences have even come across their names.]
And in turn, these greats inspired other names which still resonate among the most acclaimed comic book artists of all time. For instance, you can spot bits of Foster’s influence on John Buscema, Frank Frazetta and even Joe Kubert, among others. Now, think of all the people those gentleman have in turn influenced. Talk about paying it forward!
Delving into the world of Hal Foster, and those who admire him, has been very educational for us both. I particularly like all the different places wherein Foster’s art has been reprinted. After all, what comic book artists do is all about reproduction. As Robin notes, with a good original you can please a handful of people, but with good reproduction you can please hundreds of thousands. So it is with spreading the influence of the great artists of comics’ earlier days. Your audience may not know whom you’re homaging, but if your storytelling and your underlying construction are solid that’s almost a secondary consideration. The important thing to remember is that, in a way, we’re all their children.
Elayne Riggs blogs at Pen-Elayne on the Web and still has her husband autograph a copy of each of his comics for her.