Spider-Man’s a character introduced in a visual medium, so it’s important sometimes to consider the art. This is a character that has had runs by some of the best artists in the comics industry: Steve Ditko, the John Romitas, Ross Andru, Gil Kane, John Byrne, Marcos Martin, etc. And then there are prominent artists, who had briefer stints: the likes of Alex Ross, Steve McNiven, Darwyn Cooke, Bill Sienkiewicz, Eduardo Risso, etc.
These artists had a variety of styles, although it mainly falls into several categories, each of which has a different effect on the reader and the storytelling.
I’ve been able to come up with four main types of Spider-Man artists, although there are two categories that are more popular than the others. I call these Dynamic and Street-Level.
I’d almost say this is the standard superhero art format. The people whose adventures are depicted are generally handsome and attractive, while the fight scenes are usually bright and intense. John Romita Sr, Mike Wieringo and Mark Bagley would belong in this camp. They draw Spider-Man as a science hero, doing amazing things while fighting individuals with visually impressive abilities.
The second kind of Spider-Man artist is Street-Level. These are the guys who seem to be a better fit for drawing Batman than Superman. There’s a more down-to-earth quality, even in the superhero slugfests, and a disproportionately high number of scenes are set at night with characters obscured by shadows.
The bad guys are often going to be the types who can exist in the real world: mafia goons, carjackers, crazed gunmen with ski masks and shotguns, etc. The artwork could often be just as powerful in black and white. 21st Century John Romita Jr. and Lee Weeks would fit in this group of pencillers.
The next classification of Spider-Man artists would be Ditkoesque. I use that term because I’m having trouble coming up with a better name for the approach of Steve Ditko and those he influenced. There’s a clean almost cartoony style, although the layouts and perspectives could be quite unconventional. Even with the unusual techniques, storytelling remains paramount, so that the reader doesn’t need to read the text in order to follow what’s going on. Examples of those following in Ditko’s footsteps would include Marcos Martin, Mike Allred and Javier Pulido.
One interesting thing about the Spider-Man comics is that the first artist wasn’t in the traditional dynamic category. Ditko was in a class of all of his own. Of course, it’s worth remembering that AMAZING SPIDER-MAN became Marvel’s best-selling title under John Romita Sr. When Ditko was on the book, it was outsold by Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four. That’s obviously nothing to be ashamed of, but it suggests that the traditional will be more popular than the off-beat, even if the off-beat was part of the series in the very beginning.
The final art category would be Weird. In this case, clarity of storytelling isn’t as important as conveying a particular mood. Usually it’s a horror-inspired tone, with the oddity of the pencils reflecting the strangeness of what’s going on with the characters. These pencillers are more likely to do side-projects—mini-series with particulary experimental editors, or stories in anthology titles like ULTIMATE MARVEL TEAM-UP or TANGLED WEB—than to draw AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, although that was a feature of the Brand New Day era. Chris Bachalo, Brendan McCarthy and Ted McKeever would fit into this category, which arguably includes Todd Macfarlane’s solo work on the adjectiveless SPIDER-MAN. Another phrase for these types of artists would be “highly stylized.”
Some people are going to have preferences for one style over another, and that’s perfectly appropriate. Likewise, you might have preferences for a particular approach when it comes to street-level comics or whatever, and that’s also fine. By figuring out the styles, it gives a sense of what the artist is trying to do, and how something that may appear to be a mistake—exaggerated features, unusually low or high number of splash pages, etc.—can be the result of a conscious decision, even if you don’t care for what they were trying to do.
A few Spider-Man pencillers could fit into several of these categories, especially at different points of their careers. Ramos seems to be more of a dynamic artist when he’s on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, although he was much more comfortable as a weird artist when he worked with Paul Jenkins.
There are some other categories, but some are a bit more obscure, usually occurring when someone with a distinctive voice is asked to bring that style to the Spider-Man comics. Darwyn Cooke’s two issues of TANGLED WEB fit a cartoony fashion remniscent of a Disney/ Warner Brothers form of animation. Peter Bagge did a one-shot in his alternative comics approach.
The groupings are subject to change. If a lot of artists start working in a particular style, that is likely to become its own category. If we start getting more manga-influenced Spider-Man comics, or hundreds of issues with a grafitti-influenced hip hop style, these could become major types of Spider-Man art.
The question of artistic styles has been complicated by the schedule of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN in the last few years. 2007 was the last time there was one consistent artist on the title; Otherwise, it’s been a rotating team with occasional one-offs. This does raise a lot of questions for the people in charge, as well as Spider-Man fans. Presumably, we all want competent artists. And we don’t want rush jobs with multiple artists on the same issue. But, how much does it matter if the main stories in a trade paperback are in the same “style?” Would it bother you if a trade paperback has a two issue storyline by Adi Granov, followed by three issues by Giuseppe Camuncoli and a single issue by Eric Canete? If you prefer that the series generally have one “house” style, what type of exceptions would you allow?
I’ll admit that having a consistent style isn’t a priority for me. I could understand trying to preserve artistic consistency on the book if AMAZING SPIDER-MAN were just one of several monthly titles. But at the moment, it seems like too restrictive an approach for a character that can work in so many different methods. Your mileage may vary.
What do you guys think of these divisions? Would you group the artists differently? Do you have better names for the styles?