Friday, December 12, 2008

It's on My Shelf -- Maybe It Should Be on Yours!!

Consider this the first in an ongoing series of book reviews spotlighting various comics histories. We’ll look at books about particular artists, companies, eras, etc. Sometimes each of your three hosts will fly solo – at other times we may chime in on another’s review (just because we can’t keep quiet about our love of this literary genre!). So buckle in, and maybe even start scaring up some loose change!

For the kick-off I thought we’d examine one of my favorite subjects: the life and work of Big John Buscema! A recent release paying homage to the master is Dr. Emilio Soltero’s John Buscema: A Life in Sketches (Pearl Press 2008; msrp $24.95). I purchased this tome just a few weeks ago at one of my local comic shop haunts.

I’ll have to say up front – it is difficult for me to give any sort of review of this book without comparing it to two previous biographies of Buscema: J. David Spurlock’s John Buscema Sketchbook (Vanguard Productions 2001; msrp for the signed/numbered hardcover $39.95) and the out-of-print The Art of John Buscema by Sal Quartuccio and Bob Keenan (Sal Q. Productions 1978).

Perhaps it’s because both Quartuccio and Spurlock included lengthy interviews with Big John, and there is additional material from and about Buscema in many of TwoMorrows Publishing’s various magazines (Comic Book Artist, Alter Ego, Back Issue, et al.), that I just find Dr. Soltero’s lack of text to leave his labor of love looking more like unfinished potential. Don’t get me wrong – despite what I thought was a bit of a hefty price tag, I am still happy to have purchased this book. It’s an extensive collection of John’s sketches (many from the backs of comic pages he was penciling as a hired assignment) and roughs that fits in the palms of my hands. But I have a confession to make – I’ve been pilfering scans of John’s artworks from Ebay dealers and other websites for years. I’ve amassed quite a digital collection of pencil/inks, roughs, covers, and finished pages – perhaps over 500 images. Soltero’s work (with no recently-discovered interview material) just wasn’t much different (nor compelling) from what I already own.

Soltero does include snippets of interviews with Sal Buscema, Neal Adams, Ernie Chan, Kevin Nowlan, Juan Gimenez, and even a comic convention panel featuring John Buscema responding to questions from Jim Shooter. But these are generally short in length, and don’t necessarily illuminate the accompanying illustrations. And while no one could argue the importance of Sal Buscema or Chan (or the authority of Adams), where are others who were John’s contemporaries – creators like Stan Lee, John Romita, Roy Thomas, Marie Severin, George Roussos, Tom Palmer, or Dan Adkins? Even researching and securing permission for use of existing interviews/tributes would have added to this book.

Spurlock’s book benefits from organizing Buscema’s sketches into chapters such as Warriors, Women, etc. Quartuccio’s interview covers many aspects of John’s career and really deals with then-contemporary work such as John’s assignment to Marvel’s Wizard of Oz adaptation and the How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way book. John’s art serves simply as examples of his prowess but does help to move the interview along. While Soltero certainly has no dearth of any type of Buscema’s work, it’s displayed pell-mell throughout the book with no real flow to it. Also of note is the frequent inclusion of rough panels and pages from the Conan story, Isle of Pirates Doom. This is a nice touch, but begins to wear on the reader after awhile – could the author not have secured similar panel/page samples from Buscema’s Fantastic Four or Avengers work, either of which there is a treasure trove of material?

But if you are a true fan who enjoys John’s renditions of major Marvel characters (and even a JLA rough to boot!), his Tarzan and Conan work, animals, women, and just generally mean-looking barbarians, wizards, and guys in suits, then this book should find it’s way to your library. I know I’ve come across as overtly negative toward my recent purchase. Please understand – there are few bigger Buscema fans than me. But because of that, I want more, more, and more about Big John. Where’s that long lost interview, that colleague who after all these years decided to tell a few new anecdotes? Perhaps that wasn’t at all Soltero’s intent with this book. He does, after all, remark in his introduction that in his opinion the Quartuccio and Spurlock books fell short in including the vast amount of sketchwork that he has been able to give the reader. So I guess it depends on what you’re after – if it’s a vast display of John’s beautiful renderings, then this book is for you. If it’s a lesser amount of drafting but with information about the man and his career, then I’d urge you to seek out the Spurlock book from Vanguard.

Sharon: I'll chime in here...I have the Spurlock book and as Doug says, it's quite informative about Big John's career and techniques and contains a great interview with John. Its only flaw, to my mind, is that it does not contain repros of his penciled costumed superheroes work in it; there's no Avengers, or the Surfer, or Namor, or... well, you get the idea. But it's a handy overall guide to Buscema and contains beautiful illustrations of non-superheroes. Okay, back to Doug...

Either way, you really can’t go wrong. I’ve said it before – there are few who could be called master in the four-color field, and John Buscema is near the top of any list of that nature.


Rick Tucker said...

After buying the Vanguard book and finding it very disappointing I was tempted to buy the new one from Emelio Soltero, but it sounds like this is too much in the other direction. I think John deserves the BIG BOOK treatment and not these efforts. My problem with the "sketchbook" from Spurlock was how boring it was. Details of the man's life and work habits does nothing for the reader especially if your an artist looking for some shared wisdom. The art reproduced was sparse and not terribly representative of his greater works.
This new book with interviews by guys like Adams, Chan and others just sounds like a waste of print. As for the subject matter of the samples I'm encouraged to know it's not just more superhero samples. I'm sick to death of comic works and artists in America constantly being represented by their daily bread and not by the work they loved. That's not to say John phoned that work in but the reason he took on Conan was to do something he truly loved and the fact that that too became a grind is indicative of the big comic companies treadmill aspect, cranking out titles to feed the fans who believe quantity trumps quality.
Gil Kane gets the same treatment. Both of these men deserved better fans and better opportunities.

Doug said...

Rick --

Thanks for the comments!

First off, I agree in general with your comments that Buscema and Kane (and even others) have never received the attention that, say, Kirby has. Now I'm not naive -- I realize that Kirby is the be-all-and-end-all of the Marvel Age. But other giants, like the two you mentioned, always seem to fall short in the "comprehensive biography" category. I'd really like to see something about Buscema along the lines of what Evanier recently did for Kirby -- John's art is that important to me.

I also agree that from everything I've read, John's true loves for pencilling were the non-super-hero stuff. But even that's hard to believe, because in virtually every interview I've read, the man simply seemed to hate what he did. Personally, I think that's a bunch of hogwash -- accounts from his reaction to Stan's verbal-shredding of his Silver Surfer #4 pencils belie a man passionate about his work. We need some third parties who were around him (his brother Sal, perhaps??) to tell us what his heart was really like.

Anyway, to the books in question. I guess my point about the Spurlock book was that, in comparison to the Soltero book, it is better. As I said, I save a lot of the images of John's work that show up on Ebay. I have a treasure trove of his doodles, roughs, finished pages, etc. So the Soltero book, while a neatly packaged "portfolio", wasn't much different from things I already possess. But for the Buscema enthusiast who doesn't have such a collection then the Soltero book might be right up your alley. My main point about Spurlock's book was its organization and the fact that it has text. Now, if you don't like the text, I still have to say that in my opinion it is far more satisfying than the text that Soltero provides us.

So, bottom line -- I wouldn't order this sight-unseen. I would try to find it at your LCS or at a Barnes & Noble, et al. Then you can make a better judgement as to whether or not it's worth the $25 pricetag.

Thanks again - hope to hear from you on some of our other (or future) topics.



Dr. Pym said...

Big John is my favorite Avengers artist. In fact, I think the Thomas/Buscema pairing on the book was its peak. He drew a gorgeous Janet van Dyne! I will certainly head on over to Borders or Barnes & Noble, and pick this little guy up.

And thank you for the msrp that you guys add to the books! It is particulary helpful in comparing prices, especially since finding a decent priced book in bookstores is usually a toss-up...

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