Comic Criticism: A Call for Calm – and Common Sense

Death's Head II and X-Men Mini Poster by Liam Sharp

Death’s Head II and X-Men Mini Poster by Liam Sharp

Whether it’s the bad weather on both sides of the Atlantic, or simply a case of rising bile reaching a point at which those who appear to be bearing the brunt of it have decided to say “Enough!”, the past week would appear to have brought shone a light on both the best and worst of the worldwide comics community. In particular, the matter of criticism – or rather, what passes for it in some quarters, in reality little more than vitriolic, small-minded and shambolic comment that deserves no place in informed debate.

Someone once said to me, “There is no such thing as a bad or good book. If someone enjoys what they read, to them it’s a good book.” I can’t help but feel recent online vilification of creators – no matter what their talent level – is the kind of pernicious bullying some of our readers perhaps encountered growing up, given new opportunity thanks to the perceived anonymity the internet affords. Anyone can shoot their mouth off, either in hasty and ill thought response, or, worse, considered barb intended to wound. And it can wound, as Alan Moore, who has suffered fools with incredible dignity until this week, makes eminently clear in a new interview (…/last-alan-moore…/).

Here, Madefire co-founder Liam Sharp – a gentle giant of a man whose career in comics is as long as my own but with considerably more success –  makes a heartfelt and erudite statement on the subject of criticism that should, in my view, be re-posted or linked to far and wide… I thank him for permission to post his comments here.

“I HATE that trashy Image style. Hiding bad drawing with flashy technique….”

Oh boy. I’m so tired of hearing this.

The internet nearly broke yesterday with a battle around good drawing, bad drawing, technique, bad manners, being able to take criticism or not, and whether a certain artist did or didn’t deserve his success, and why we hate him, or not. It was epic.

I’m not going to go into the details. It got out of hand. My toes curled when I read all the comments. My heart sank. The entire original point of the thread was buried under a mound of vitriol which, justified or not, made me a little ashamed of my industry.

Comics are not all about good drawing. I’ve seen plenty of Jack Kirby anatomy that aligns to reality only in the most rudimentary sense, but we all know he was great.

The so-called Image style actually evolved at Marvel – and if you were around at the time you would have seen that all the guys progressing that style produced books that were the most interesting, dynamic and well-drawn (not that that matters) of the mainstream.

The guys that sparked this artistic revolution were brilliant stylists. Arthur Adams was one of the first to utilize hatching in such a bold way, playing with the way figures were drawn, and how best to show powers graphically. He inspired a legion of artists to try and do what he was doing (I remember J. Scott Campbell very humbly saying in an interview once “I’m not a Jim Lee clone! I’m an Art Adams clone!”

But it wasn’t just Arthur, it was Barry Windsor-Smith, with his amazing detailed and symbolic work on stories like ‘Red Nails’ that informed this new approach. We had grown up being blown away by that work and wanted to try it. It was also the pioneering work done by Scott Williams on the inks, who himself inspired a generation of inkers. And there had also been inspiration in the tight, increasingly stylized work of John Byrne and Terry Austin (who’s Starlord story with Chris Claremont remains a high water mark in my collection.)

Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri were the two guys that really inspired me the most during the time I was working on Marvel UK’s Death’s Head II. Paul Neary, the editor in chief, had introduced me to their work and wanted our Marvel UK work to share the house technique, and these guys blew my mind. Their X-Men work, before the shiny paper and Image days, even before Photoshop coloring, was just stunning. It possessed great energy, bold layouts and a real underlying ability that I found utterly irresistible. But even the work of the much-vilified Rob Liefield oozed charisma and vigor. He dared to put the impetus of the story before continuity, and anything else. I could see the appeal, and put it in a similar category to Todd McFarlane’s work of that time – who’s Hulk run inked by Bob Wiacek I absolutely adored.

(As an aside – regarding continuity, Simon Bisley made a virtue of not giving a damn about that in his seminal ABC Warriors work, and we all applauded him for it. Rules are made for breaking!)

The so-called ‘Image style’ revitalized the mainstream. It brought me back to US superhero comics, which I had given up on to a very large extent. It inspired me. It excited me. It was bloody good stuff!!! Out of this style came me, Travis Charest, the late Michael Turner, Finch, Capullo, and many others who went on to great things.

When the books went glossy, and the color got shiny and lens-flare-happy it was, to be fair, a step away from the genuine class that preceded. But these were changing times, and there are always birthing pains. At times it did seem that the stylistic excesses overwhelmed the drawing – but make no mistake: it is not easy to do! And when a style so dominates where else do you go? If not more, then what?

Too often this amazing time is painted as vulgar and over-blown. The artistry is dismissed, the creators seen as second-rate and sometimes deserving of mass ridicule. I think it can get incredibly personal in ways it never could, nor ever should, in the past. Once the worst we got was a stinging letter in a letter column – and that could cause mass alcohol consumption and self doubt for a stretch of time all by itself!

Comics can be great art by incredible artists – the world’s best in my opinion. But they can also just be bubblegum entertainment for people who just want to escape the world for half an hour and be transported somewhere magical. To judge all comics with the same expectation is futile and pointless. To mock or bully people who’s art you have personally decided is sub par seems mean-spirited. That they may not be paragons of virtue themselves does not negate our own behavior.

We should be better than that. We should be an example.

That’s just what I think. You may, of course, beg to differ.

• Liam Sharp is a British artist, writer and publisher who  made his debut in the late 1980s drawing Judge Dredd for 2000AD.  He later moved to Marvel UK, where he drew the best-selling Marvel UK title ever, Death’s Head II. Thereafter he began working mainly in the United States on books as diverse as the X-Men, Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, Venom, Man-Thing (for Marvel Comics), Superman, Batman, and The Possessed (for DC Comics and Wildstorm), Spawn: The Dark Ages (for Todd McFarlane and Image) and Red Sonja for Dynamite comics.

Liam has also worked on more mature themed books for Verotik, drawing Frank Frazetta’s The Death Dealer, and a strip originated by Stan Winston called Realm of the Claw.

In 2004 he established MamTor Publishing with wife Christina. This saw the launch of the critically acclaimed and award-winning anthology Event Horizon, and the prestigious collaboration with Mother (London) Advertising, Four Feet From a Rat, which appeared as a quarterly comic in Time Out magazine. This led on to work on three major advertising campaigns for the Coca-Cola Company, as well as producing art and design work for Strange Beast, Passion Pictures, Knuckleheads, Shots magazine and Red Arrow Entertainment amongst others. He also worked on designs for the movies Lost in Space, Small Soldiers and the animated series Batman Beyond.

He co-founded the digital comics publisher Madefire in 2011, and continues to write and draw comics to this day, including Captain Stone is Missing and more.

• Inspired by the power of storytelling, Madefire’s goal is to be the place where the myths of the 21st century will be created. We are guided by the “creators-first” philosophy, and one of our aims is to help creators tell their stories using the Motion Book Tool. If you’re a creator, contact the company at Visit the Madefire web site:

About John Freeman

Editor, writer, curmudgeon and founder of downthetubes, John has worked in British comics publishing for over 25 years, starting at Marvel UK as the designer, then editor of Doctor Who Magazine. He worked on the Marvel's "Genesis 1992" books with Paul Neary, which included Death's Head II and Warheads; has written comics for Marvel UK, Judge Dredd Megazine, Lucky Bag Comic, STRIP Magazine and ROK Comics; has run the Lancaster Literature Festival; created a virtual 3D chat world for VZones; been Managing Editor at Titan Magazines, editing titles such as Star Trek Magazine, Star Wars Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine; edited some of Titan's British comics collections including Dan Dare and Charley's War; currently works for audio comics publisher ROK Comics as an editor and writer; and is also writing "Crucible" as a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and "Death Duty" with Dave Hailwood for the digital comic 100% Biodegradable.