Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Black Summer by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp

Juan Jose Ryp is a real cartoonist, which alone sets him apart from most of the artists working on contemporary super-hero comics. Their focus is on stylish and stylized figure drawing, but Ryp has a genuine style that expresses an all-encompassing vision of the world.

In big picture terms, what Ryp is doing isn't revolutionary. In the context of Eurocomics or even American horror comics, Ryp's work wouldn't necessarily stand out. However, Ryp drawing a super-hero comic is a bit like Gene Colan drawing a super-hero comic: because their styles are not conventional within the genre, they can give us a new perspective on the familiar.

Ryp doesn't fetishize figure-drawing. He gives background and characters an equal emphasis: major and minor details delineated with the same clarity. In his work, the human body becomes just another thing (which is what made him the perfect artist to draw Robocop), subject like every other thing to wear, tear, and destruction. The theme of the comic might be "things fall apart", or, given that this is a Warren Ellis super-hero comic, "things fly apart at tremendous speed with hell of a lot of violence and gore involved".

And the way Ryp draws gore is closer to the way Johnny Ryan draws puke than it is to the way other horror/action artists depict violence. His gore is specific gore: bits of flesh, splatters of blood, splinters of bone are all clearly differentiated, all carefully, clearly realized.

Ryp's style helps to give this comic an underground edge that it wouldn't have had it been drawn by Bryan Hitch, Gary Frank, or Steve McNiven. It makes Black Summer a counter-cultural super-hero comic. It's his style that makes the opening image of the Oval Office covered in blood, viscera, and barely identifiable bits and pieces of bodies more than just a provocation and into a nightmarish vision of wish-fulfillment.

And Ryp handles the more conventional super-hero comics elements with just as much skill. There's a extended sci-fi fight between the central villain and a bunch of fighter jets that beats anything in the Iron Man movie.

The story here is familiar: a riff on the super-heroes changing the world for the world's own good premise of The Squadron Supreme (a premise which Ellis has already explored in Stormwatch and The Authority and probably some other places I haven't looked). And, for people who've read a couple of other Ellis comics, most of his standard themes, concerns, and ticks show up. What's more distinctive to Black Summer is the way Ellis uses this set-up to question the idea of what Thomas Sowell dubbed "the quest for cosmic justice", as opposed to the idea of working towards specific, situational justice*. It's "wanting to help actual people" vs. "wanting to realize ambitious, idealistic goal" (or as one character puts it "to be big, to know everyone, for everyone to be good"). And Ryp's art - where the whole is created out of lots of little, specific details - perfectly complements this theme.

*Although I'd note that Ellis' take on the issue is closer to that of John Guare's in Gardenia and Lydie Breeze than it is to Sowell's.

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