Sunday, January 17, 2010

George Tuska, Comics Artist

Why Weren't the Tuska's Looser?

Lately Ger Apeldoorn has been posting a retrospective of work by George Tuska, one of the underrated comic artists of the 50s and 60s. Ger has a fine collection of both newspaper and comic book pages. I strongly recommend taking a look.

Seeing this work reminded me about an aspect of Tuska's work that puzzled me ever since my unsuccessful trip to New York in the 1980s seeking work from Marvel. Art director John Romita gave me photocopies of pencilled pages to ink as samples. He chose work by the tightest pencillers, so I went home with covers by Gil Kane and Jack Kirby, and interior pages by the Georges Perez and Tuska.

(At left is a page from Iron Man #8, in which Tuska got a better-than- average ink job from Johnny Craig.)

Tuska was the regular Iron Man penciller. He was almost always inked by Mike Esposito. Like most fans back then I found the book capable but dull--a judgement often applied to Tuska's work in general. Personally I'd always had a soft spot for Tuska, having grown up with his Buck Rogers newspaper strip. In college a collector friend introduced me to Tuska's crime strips for Lev Gleason. I gained a new appreciation for the artist. The crime comics showed a skill range that wasn't always obvious in Buck Rogers. Still, based on his Marvel art and his occasional appearances at Harvey and Gold Key, I'd concluded that Tuska was a competent artist with a somewhat simple, cartoon-oriented style that didn't belong in superhero comics.

(This page from Crime Does Not Pay is typical of George's Lev Gleason work, though some other strips were heavier on backgrounds. Two Gleason trademarks: some guy hit some other guy once a page, and the #@$%! dialogue was so heavy there was little room for the art.)

I wasn't ready for what I saw in his Iron Man pencils. They were beautiful! The first surprise was how fully they were rendered, sometimes almost to the point of being tonal drawings. Many pages, especially the "street clothes" pages, featured elaborately worked out light and shade. The action pages burst with both enthusiasm and careful drawing. The stuff knocked me out. I diligently (though unsuccessfully) tried to do them justice. One page I especially liked. Tony Stark was out of costume and floating in the East River. A tugboat rescued him, after which he returned home to maunder awhile. The lighting on this page was worthy of the finest Caniffist. Several months later the comic came out. That wonderful page had become a bland nonentity indistinguishable from the other equally lifeless pages in the issue. It wasn't like Esposito pulled a Colletta and ignored Tuska's pencils. The backgrounds were complete and the shadows were still there, but somehow all the life had been sucked out of them. Looking back I wonder if it was even possible to do them justice in ink.

(This pencilled panel, lifted from Kurt Busiek's website, is from later in Tuska's career. It's nice, but looser than the ones I remember.)

I came away with a new appreciation for Tuska's craft, but I was also puzzled by the disparity between these pencils and the way Tuska drew when he inked his own work. The assembly-line specialization of American comics encourages the presumption that "nobody can ink his own pencils." But whether an artist's inks are weak or strong, stylistically they usually resemble his pencilling. In Tuska's case it was almost as if two entirely different ways of thinking informed pencils and inks. Inked Tuska drawings were two-dimensional: postery, outline-driven, cartoon-like if you will. The Tuska pencilled drawings were three-dimensional, driven by light and form--illustration-like you could say.(This Scorchy Smith daily from 1959 is inked in the Buck Rogers style Tuska also used for his solo comic book work.)

A couple of years ago I found Tuska's official website, run by a relative or a friend or somebody with access to the artist. It was my chance to hear the artist's own thoughts about his differing styles. The webmaster passed my question to him and I received a cordial reply. Unfortunately my enquiry must not have been as clear as I thought, for Tuska answered an entirely different question. I felt it would be rude to press the issue, so I didn't write back. Now I'll never know.

I wish I had copies of those pages. Back when I did them, in the days before scanners, it was a big deal for a starving fanboy to find a copy shop and pay for oversize copies. I returned the copies with my inking samples and that was that.

(Postscript: I must confess that seeing those Iron Man pages prejudiced me, probably unfairly, against Mike Esposito's inking. This surely isn't fair to a major figure in the history of American comics, but when one starts out as a fan it's hard to shake the fannish propensity to judge artists by unrealistic standards.)