Friday, March 25, 2005

Canary in a coal mine

Some call it Good Friday, some call it Comic Art Friday. To me, any Friday that offers you some new beautiful comic art to admire, that's a good Friday.

Take, for example, this exquisite portrait of DC Comics' venerable heroine, the Black Canary, drawn by artist extraordinaire James E. Lyle. I consider myself a tough audience and not easily impressed, but the moment I saw this drawing, I was hooked.

For me, James captures an ineffable emotional quality in his subject — a bittersweet mixture of triumph and wistful sadness. I envision this picture of the Canary being taken as she's returned home from a long evening of battling the forces of evil and slumped wearily into a chair. The Mona Lisa smile suggests her satisfaction in whatever little victory she won tonight, but the wan, distant cast of her eyes reveals the high personal price she has paid in surrendering her life to the service of others. Anyone who thinks comic art is just about fisticuffs and bombshells should see this picture and marvel.

James Lyle told me that his inspiration for this portrait came by way of the old Police tune, "Canary in a Coal Mine." Thinking as only an artist would think, he wondered what it would be like to picture the Black Canary in a setting not unlike a coal mine, using as much black in the background as he could without losing the subject's outline or obscuring his own style. The result, I'm sure you'll agree, is masterful.

James's depiction of the Canary also spurred a conversation between us regarding the way female heroes are often represented in modern comics. You'll observe that the Canary here is a natural-appearing, substantial woman, not a stick-thin runway model with custom-installed pneumatic chest upholstery — and that, in my not-so-humble opinion, is as it should be. How many fistfights is a superheroine going to win if she's built like Pamela Anderson or Paris Hilton? Not many. Lyle's Canary looks solid enough to acquit herself with aplomb when the going gets rough.

All right, I hear you saying, Lyle can do the "good girl" thing. But can he draw an equally impressive male hero? Oh, my, yes. Here's his stunning interpretation of one of my favorite Golden Age heroes, Dr. Mid-Nite, who was a blind superhero two decades before Daredevil made being a blind superhero fashionable.

As with his Black Canary drawing, Lyle's technique here is incredible. Inking large expanses of black is one of the most difficult skills for a comic artist to master — it's easy to just slap the ink on the page, because the brushstrokes won't show in the published copy — but Lyle displays a veteran's mastery here. I wish you could see the actual artwork so I could show you what I mean. The stippling technique he uses here to create the billows of smoke has to be examined up close to be fully appreciated. As it is, you'll just have to take my word for how brilliantly it's done.

In correspondence and conversation, James Lyle identifies himself as "Doodle." Listen, even I can doodle. But I can't draw or ink like this talented artist can.

And that's your Comic Art Friday, kids. Good, wasn't it?

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