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Comic Book Art: Redefined and Rediscovered

There was a time when it seemed every young artist scrambled to become a comic book artist in that golden hey day when the industry was booming, churning out title after title in a roiling sea of diamond-cut foil covers, when mainstream and independent companies alike were running strong. Roughly around the time the Internet became a household staple, things changed dramatically: comics started going online and sale of paper books dropped. Already cutthroat, the industry became a feeding frenzy of genuinely talented individuals scrambling to make a dream into reality. As in any field of entertainment, the competition became fierce for paying jobs and what was once an over-saturated market became a boneyard of dead story lines. Times changed for distributors, major companies shaved their offered titles and the search for work turned many artists away.

In some ways this downward trend was good for the comic book world in that it trimmed the fat - of which there was plenty - and sent the mainstream giants like DC and Marvel tripping over themselves to reinvent old characters and pay more attention to those who were well-loved, giving us better movies. In other ways this dashed the hopes of many and quite a few less talented pencilers and inkers fell to the wayside so that even their hobby outlet was lost to them. Unfortunately excellent talent also continued to struggle; those with true knowledge and skill but not the right amount of flash for mainstream tastes had to look elsewhere for livelihood.

With fewer books to be drawn and many smaller companies being bought out or folding up and independent companies reducing print, things started to look bleak. Happily, not all of the genuine skill shriveled up and blew away; they just found different outlets. One such intrepid artist is Jesse Hamm.

A Change of Scene

While there is a school or two that specifically teaches comic book art style, technique and philosophy, most comic book (or sequential graphics) artists are self-taught and learn by observing or being inspired by life around them. Jesse's creativity is also fueled by such ambient inspiration. Artists like Frank Frazetta with his freer style that allows the imagination to soar and Alex Toth who is well known for his character designs with Hanna Barbara like Space Ghost and considered one of the greatest comic artists of all time. Ralph Barton and Georges Beuville round out the list and if you are familiar with the names, a style might be emerging: bold, stately lines, clean work and a sense of motion in every piece of art.

Amazing art and technique does not guarantee a job and while Jesse can claim an impressive number of published work including the acclaimed “Good as Lily” and his own book “Comics To Bore and Confuse You,” it was not enough to sustain him especially when he married his long-distance sweetheart Anna, a young woman he met off a comics list-serve who was living in Sweden at the time. After a number of trips between countries, the two are celebrating their sixth wedding anniversary. To meet the demands of a growing family, Jesse, like so many others striving to break into the comics scene, turned to other aspects of his talent and finds more income in commission work (where a client asks for specific scenes and personalities almost always connected to established comic characters but can include an original creation), graphic art, portraiture and illustration involving health and safety. Illustration work for various manuals is a common source of income for struggling comic book artists. Indeed, the direction for such talent commonly leans to their preferred form of expression being relegated to the side as a hobby in spare time.

In With The New

As often occurs, trend begets trend and in deference to the artwork and stories on back burner, Original Graphic Novels or OGNs, have risen to fill a gap amongst the artists as a group. Here, original means material not previously published and characters unfamiliar to the public. Previously graphic novels have been overwhelmingly either compilations of numerous comic book issues or illustrated adaptations of popular films or novels. With no inherent pull to engage in the adventures of a beloved superhero or literary personality, these projects are truly a labor of love. As they are such side ventures and rarely sustain an artist, many tend to be sub-par, rushed or spartan in their detail. Regardless, there are more of them on the shelves these days indicating that art and story will always find a way. It is hopeful that this movement will also flower, maturing into a profitable outlet for comic book artists and revitalize the industry in a new and broader direction. It would certainly be nice to have the expanse and scope we enjoyed in the mid 1990s just prior to comics going online.

This is not to say all hope is lost; there is a still a place for comic book art and artists and while diminished, the kingdom still thrives, just more selectively. The real struggle has been and still is for the creator who wants to project her own voice and not be tied to the mainstream engine for recognition and income. Such has always been the plight for the artisan in any field of imagination and entertainment, likely to remain unchanged. But just as every trend comes around again, so has the love of comic books seen its up and down on the merry-go-round of societal fancy for decades. No doubt that when the chance presents itself next, such gifted story crafters like Jesse Hamm will leap forward and grab hold tight, riding the chance to delight us all with memorable new personalities and adventures.