Wednesday, April 14, 2010

2010 Doctor Trap Commission by Andy Kuhn

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For the most part, I've been telling my tales of hunting commissions in Artist Alley at Comicpalooza 2010 in sequential order, and since this is the last related post for the foreseeable future, I'll try to take some time to fill in gaps left previously.

Now, owning entirely too many comics already and with a blog to feed, my goal for attending the con was to acquire as many pieces of new art involving obscure but important Martian Manhunter-related characters as possible. It makes me sad when I run web searches for images of these characters I love, and come up with nothing but scans I took (or worse, when even they fail to materialize.) Further, I didn't want to just grab a bunch of cheap sketches from unknowns, instead focusing on artists I was familiar enough with to associate their style with the perfect character match.

My first contact was with the biggest name at the con, Ethan Van Sciver. As great as it would have been to get an insanely detailed head shot of Prof. Hugo along the lines of his take on Hector Hammond, he had been scheduled to draw the first modern appearance of Manhunter's old Silver Age pet/sidekick years ago. Since his continued involvement fell through prior to completion, I felt the day had finally come to unveil EVS' Zook, which took about 3 1/2 hours to get completed (along with a string of other pieces, of course.)

That project initiated, I held off on joining the line for Humberto Ramos for a bit. I checked in on old school fan favorite Bernie Wrightson (a tall, lean, older gentleman with unkempt hair and glasses,) but he was only selling prints. One table over was J.H. Williams III, a smallish bald fellow with dark glasses and a graying goatee. I'd been a fan of his since his earliest days, and told him so. I felt he was the only artist at the con I thought could pull off the Manhunter's most important foe of the Silver Age, Mr. V (a.k.a. "Faceless," a.k.a. a fat man in a bad suit with a featureless mask.) Williams had reinterpreted an old Infinity Inc. villain, Mr. Bones, into the director of the Department of Extranormal Operations in his short-lived series Chase. John Ostrander later turned Director Bones into a liberal conspiracy nut proxy for Mr. V in the Martian Manhunter series, so you can see my thinking. Unfortunately, what I heard was that Williams was not doing sketches, so I shook his hand and moved on. I ended up in a nice chat with inker Rodney Ramos, as well.

I eventually took my place in line, because there was no way I was going to miss out on having Humberto Ramos sketch Professor Arnold Hugo, my favorite Martian Manhunter villain by quite probably the most perfect artist match possible. At the next booth over was Andy Kuhn, an artist whose work I enjoyed on Firebreather. Kuhn was on my short list for commissions, but unlike with everyone else, I wasn't sure who I wanted him to draw. Kuhn was having a fairly lively conversation with a convention goer about his willingness to confess to swiping elements from other artists' work, and how his love for drawing monsters (preferably to the exclusion of most anything else) had determined his career path. All told, I spent over an hour getting that leg done, but you can't beat the instant gratification of seeing a piece of art begun and ended before your eyes.

Tired of standing in one place and conflicted about where next to spend my ever-dwindling funds, I hit the dealers room for a break. There, I met David Malki, who I thought might do a nice Marco Xavier. Still, like Mr. V, there wasn't much to work with for "mustachioed guy in nice suit" that would differentiate him from, say, Tony Stark. Instead, I got a dirt cheap and quick sketch of a guy in a nice suit with an enormous head. That worked out well enough, so I bribed a second sketch out, deciding to go ahead and have David Malki draw Marco Xavier.

That silliness out of my system, I was ready to put down real money for some more serious pieces. I was torn between two artists once associated with Rob Liefeld's Extreme Studios. Since most of the early Image artists were the bastard children of the Bronze Age and '80s manga anyhow, I wanted one of these two to handle characters from the first era when villains needed to be as idealized as the heroes (but drawn with a bit more modern pizazz then frequent '70s artist Dick Dillin.) I knew somebody had to draw the genocidal madman who destroyed almost all life on Mars, but struggled to decide which of the two would have the honor. One took home $100, my mailing address, and art reference. The other, Marat Mychaels, would draw a Commander Blanx bust shot. Blanx was the last character I felt compelled to get drawn by the artists available, so I could finally relax on that front.

Right after I paid Mychaels and was given a schedule of a half-hour, I went back to Andy Kuhn's table, flipping through his books of prints. It was getting late, so I wasn't looking to get anything too fancy. Kuhn was offering sketches of your favorite characters retching on an actual barf bag for $25, so I thought it would be cute to have J'Onn J'Onzz hurl his milk and cookies. Kuhn asked if he could draw J'Onzz in his Natural Martian form, which I said was fine with me, so long as there were bits of Choco in there. My mind had flashed to Darwin Cooke's "MMM... OREOS" sketch, and thought this would make a satirical pseudo-sequel.

Just as I was paying Kuhn though, I saw the piece he was currently finishing on his table, of Red Sonja. Impressed, I asked what he was charging for that, and he replied "$50." I was like, "hold up, new plan, I want one of those." You could tell by his body language Kuhn would druther have taken in half the price for three-quarters of a small head shot and a bunch of vomit squiggles, but he agreed nonetheless. Previously, I'd allowed an artist to choose between two characters I wanted from him, but in this case, I just fanned out all my reference and let Kuhn have his pick of the litter.

Let me explain. I really do enjoy Andy Kuhn's work, but I hesitated so long to employ him because his style is aesthetically similar to the longest lasting Manhunter from Mars artist in history, Joe Certa. Not so much the first decade, mind, but Certa's last few years of experimenting with a looser, more expressive style. Andy Kuhn's art is almost too on the nose to draw the various beasties from the Diabolu Idol-Head period, like he and John Arcudi had already worked on a revival in an alternate dimension 1990s. It's like asking Paul Sorvino to play a mobster, or R. Lee Ermey to play a drill sergeant. On the other hand, if I'm going to get a piece, it might as well be an obvious home run.

Kuhn asked about several of the characters, but ultimately held on to my reference for B'rett and Doctor Trap. Once again, Kuhn asked if he could draw B'rett in his Natural Martian form, but I didn't feel he'd be recognizable like that. B'rett only appeared once, decades before "Natural" forms had been conceived, and in a black and white piece the only identifiers he would have are his gun and resemblance to J'Onn J'Onzz. I asked Kuhn when I should come back, and he told me 45 minutes to an hour. I figured I could swing by at six, an hour before the con ended, and pick up both of my remaining pieces.

While my friends rested, I remained on my feet, thumbing through cheap back issues. On the hour, I picked up Marat Mychaels' dazzling Commander Blanx. Extreme Studios artists don't have the best reputations for timeliness, and he's one of the few still working for Rob Liefeld, but he'd obviously long since finished to glorious results.

Next I swung by Andy Kuhn's table, where his head was down, doodling a little sketch. I asked him, "so, who did you choose?" He didn't appear to hear me, so after a moment, I asked again. This time, he slowly glanced up, and declared Dr. Trap. From there, a pregnant pause as he went back to his doodling. I stood there, confused, wondering when he was actually going to produce the finished piece. Kuhn eventually explained that he liked to figure out what he was going to do before he started drawing, so his full figures didn't get cut off halfway down the page. I nodded, comprehending, yet still dazed.

I went back to my friends, and explained that Kuhn hadn't started drawing yet. My friend Dave thought I meant he was working on the layouts, to which I queried, "do you know what a thumbnail is...?"

Needing to kill another "forty-five minutes to an hour," I realized that next convention, I was going to get all my commissions lined up as early as possible. We were all tired, hungry, and everyone but me was long past bored. We trekked down to the parking lot to put up all our stuff. My girlfriend showed off her new car, and we discussed the gun show and Shell fuel-efficient go-cart racing demonstration going on inside or just outside the convention center. Only in Texas would steampunks and goths have to shuffle past rifle-toting teabaggers signing up people for the NRA next to a picture of Barack Obama sporting a Hitler 'stache. Off to one side, Bernie Wrightson had a cigarette break. My friends left ahead of us to reserve a seat at a restaurant, and my girl and I headed back upstairs.

At around the forty-five minute mark, I finally strolled back to Kuhn's table. There in stark black and white was a wonderful piece that made all the waiting worthwhile. I chatted up the artist a bit, but he was still working out some touches. Personally, I'm a solitary guy, so I'd hate to have someone hover over me as I worked. Some artists are more sociable, and starved for company in their isolating field. I felt like maybe I should have hung out with Kuhn more. I did bring my girl over to see, and with her heavy Spanish action, her innocent "That's it? sounded more like "That's it?" I wanted to clasp her mouth shut with both hands, but instead played it off, mentioning that I thought some of her beloved Mexican Marvel Comics of the 1990s had Kuhn art, and stammering about the trouble I'd had getting a copy of the first Firebreather trade.

Kuhn made it clear he wasn't finished yet. A red marker materialized, and he added in a few missing details to Trap's costume. Kuhn used an unusual type of art board that brought out the rich darkness of his markers, where standard paper would have rendered them gray. It occured to me that if he had a yellow marker, maybe he could have pulled off B'rett after all. Next, Kuhn added a red border, which I wasn't sure about, but red shock lines and a blood splatter really sold the violence of Dr. Trap's character. Then Kuhn kept going with the red-- the figure, the background, the little tree branch-- all red.

I'd explained to Kuhn that fellow con guest J.H. Williams III had created Dr. Trap, so we all walked over to introduce his interpretation. Williams liked it, and I was very careful not to touch it on the way back to the car, as the black and red ink was still wet on the glossy 10" x 16" art board. It was an impressive piece of art.


Tom said...

You saved the best for last. Even though I haven't read any of Dr. Trap's appearances yet, I already like this guy. I gather from your Vile Menagerie entry that he debuted in the short-lived series, CHASE, and later appeared in an Ostrander Martian Manhunter story.

I've begun reading the Ostrander series, which uses Cameron Chase as a supporting character. I haven't read her own series, but your blog entries about it make it sound kinda' interesting. Did you like it?

Count Drunkula said...

Wow... that was a long story... ;)

That's a really cool sketch. Worth the wait, I'd say.

My only knowledge of Dr. Trap comes from your write-ups on this blog, but he strikes me as a very Hannibal Lector-esque character. For Martian Manhunter stories told in a crime noir/mystery setting, Dr. Trap would be a wonderfully scary villain. Hopefully we can see something like this in the future.

Diabolu Frank said...

Tom, you put it together about right. Dr. Trap figured prominently in two Ostrander stories, a flashback to J'Onn's days with the Justice Experience, and the final issue of his solo series. He was alluded to throughout the very solid Chase series as well, with his origin story being a recommended highlight. I wonder how Liss will respond to Trap, since he is technically a "period" character, though exactly what period (late '60s? '70s? Early '80s?) is fairly nebulous given his ties to Cameron Chase's biography. Unless she starts aging in real time, I mean.

Ryan, I'm having a week of tidal waves and droughts, text wise. This one was a case of trying to summarize the entire con, establish a timeline, fill-in stuff I'd previously left out, and give the convoluted story of the Kuhn piece. I still have one more piece in the wings, but that post will be fairly brief and straightforward. As for Dr. Trap, he's a bit under powered, but very nasty and inventive. As Director Bones is a more effective revision of Mr. V, Dr. Trap serves the Prof. Hugo role for our darkened times. He's a bit too... overt to work in a classical noir, but he'd be fine for a vicious thriller along the lines of No Country For Old Men.

Count Drunkula said...

Very nice analogy. I would love to see something like that.

LissBirds said...


That was my first reaction. :)

Having not read the last issue of the Ostranader series (or maybe I read it and forgot the details), I only remember this guy from Alan Kistler's writeup. I only gloss briefly over your charcter writeups so as to avoid spoilers, unless I already know the character. He really looks like a villian who belongs in Gotham city to me. Plus you can't escape the similarity with the Bond villain. I think he's just a little too overtly violent for my taste, a la Mr. Zsasz. Maybe it's just a gender thing but a guy with big steel teeth ain't doing it for me. (But those squiggle-trimmed bell bottoms are a little campy, so maybe he's got some promise.)

It's a great sketch, though, and very dynamic (I'm trying to figure out what kind of red marker can lay over black ink like that...some kind of paint marker), and that time working on the layout paid off. What exactly did J.H. Williams say?

The Hugo sketch is still my favorite of the lot. :)

Diabolu Frank said...

Liss, that went down as expected. A nod to the vintage fashion, but a pass on the grim character. In his defense, Dr. Trap can trace his lineage back to the great Golden Age villain Iron Jaw, who was also mighty violent. As Lecter knock-offs go, I like Mr. Zsasz, as well.

I have trouble naming a favorite, especially as I still have a piece out, but Hugo is definitely one to beat.

J.H. Williams was generally congratulatory, but Kuhn (who explained he at first thought it was a Wrightson design) did most of the talking.

LissBirds said...

Yep, you guessed it, Dr. Trap is too dark and I mentioned the bell bottoms. I getting too predictable? I guess I'm getting old and set in my ways already and well on my way to Andy Rooney-ville.

One of these days I'll get around to reading Golden Age stories that have villians like Iron Jaw in them. Or just reading Golden Age stories, period. That writeup on Comics Make No Sense about the Young Allies smashing floating heads gave me some really odd preconceptions about the Golden Age that I need to clear up.

Diabolu Frank said...

Preconceptions? The short version is that the Golden Age was insanity with a casual mean streak, while the Silver Age was inanity with good intentions. One was primal, but crude while the other was polished but distant. The differences are really striking.

rob! said...

GREAT piece.