It’s an innocent word on its own. It just means someone’s look or appearance, effectively. That definition isn’t much different when it comes to comics art. For an artist, it’s what you bring to the form, the vibe and energy you realize on the page within your work. It distinguishes you from your peers and, in many ways, becomes your identity in comics. You might not have it from day one, but gradually, it becomes yours and yours alone.
There are many flavors of style an artist can bring to comics, each of which is valid, and each of which has its own strengths. Just think of all the talents out there in the comics space today and how different they can be, all while still being incredibly effective. Julian Totino Tedesco can channel Norman Rockwell as he covers a comic with Chris Samnee’s Toth-like minimalism inside of it. Faith Erin Hicks can marry the energy of manga with the playful cartooning of Jeff Smith. Stephanie Hans might break our hearts with her painterly work while Dan Mora amazes us with his lively lines and even livelier character acting. It’s incredible. Readers are lucky in 2021. There’s a broader mix of styles coming from a greater number of talents than we may have ever seen in comics before.
And yet, the very idea of style can work against artists in surprising ways. Despite its innocence, this word is a loaded one for many on the direct market side of things. It can completely change the perception of a competent artist if their look doesn’t jive with a reader’s vision of what comics are and how they should look. Your work could be labeled as “bad” amongst fans or even ill-fitting for certain genres amongst those in charge — not because of actual storytelling weaknesses, but because your work happens to show influences outside of the accepted norms within the market.
It can be a four-letter word, a bridge too far, a formula no one wants to mess with. And it’s a known issue, something creators with styles that fail to match the “usual” are all too aware of. When I asked Kyle Starks, the cartoonist behind Old Head and Sexcastle, about this subject, he responded with certainty, saying, “A good portion of direct market consumers absolutely prioritize aesthetic over storytelling.”
It’s a subject I’ve long been fascinated by. So many of my favorite artists and titles aren’t ones with looks that are so a) easily defined or b) fitting of the accepted standards of the market. And it’s especially interesting because it’s a focused phenomenon, one that primarily exists in the purview of the direct market. 1 Within the works we see each Wednesday at comic shops, there has long been a box you belong in as an artist. And it could change everything for you if your style resides outside of it.
It’s also a topic that comes with a million questions tethered to it. How big of an issue is it? What kind of impact does it have? How does it affect the approach of artists? Why is it a thing? And perhaps most crucially, is this idea changing as the readership and the shape of the comics industry does? Those sound like some good questions. Let’s try to find some answers.
In discussions with artists, two commonalities quickly stood out: one, this is definitely a thing; and two, they understand why it’s one, at least to a degree.
“Style is everything,” cartoonist Zander Cannon of Kaijumax said. “It has a completely overwhelming effect on whether you believe what’s happening, whether you empathize with characters, whether you want to spend time in this world, etc. I think art style is the single greatest factor that gets books picked up in the first place — both to be published and off the racks.
“People will stick around for good writing, but if the art vibes are off, a book will really struggle right out of the gate.”
Farmhand cartoonist Rob Guillory gets why readers would focus on style when it comes to art. He described it as “the car readers have to ride in to experience a story.” This changes how fans engage with comics entirely. Where the difficulty really lies in Guillory’s mind is in how it can limit what fans will read, as if one style is wrong and another is right.
“The problem is, some readers will judge the car from the outside at first glance, never get in and miss out on the ride of their lives,” Guillory said. “Many art styles, mine included, aren’t built to be ‘pretty.’ They are built to drive a story forward.”
While there are always exceptions to this, as Frank Quitely and Samnee were mentioned as artists who have stylized looks yet still earn their flowers from fans, 2 it can be a pervasive belief that can affect not just how artists are perceived but also how they view themselves. That’s especially the case for those newer to the industry. Take Max Sarin as an example. These days, they’re known as a wondrous cartoonist, someone who brings bundles of life and energy to projects like Giant Days and Wicked Things. But they had a hard time envisioning a path in comics originally, if only because of how they viewed what comic art had to be to connect with readers and publishers alike.
“I grew up thinking there was only one type of style to draw comics if you wanted to (do) anything ‘serious.’” Sarin said, saying they originally believed, “’I need to draw all the characters with ten thigh- and arm-pockets and sexy nonexistent waists!’”
The mental aspect of crafting art cannot be underrated here, especially for new generations coming in. When you aspire to work at a direct market publisher like Marvel or DC where everything might have a certain look, it can weigh on you when your natural style doesn’t quite fit. An artist could end up believing their style is “wrong” when it’s perfectly valid — especially when you can really tell a story. The narrow vision of what comic art should look like in certain segments of the industry can lead to negative self-reflection from artists or even leaving comics prematurely because they believe that there’s no place for them. Feelings like this are what led to Sarin never even apply for DC, Marvel or other major houses. They were “sure (those publishers) would not find my style appealing.”
Also known as the land of comic shops. That’s where the focus will fall for this piece. It just doesn’t feel like this issue is as pronounced outside the direct market.↩
As someone who has interviewed both of them and done a lot of research in preparation of those chats, I will note that even they have their detractors based on the subject of style. Quitely’s faces are “weird” and Samnee’s too “cartoony,” to some. Sure!↩