The Pros and Cons of Greg Land

Likely the most controversial artist at Marvel, Greg Land is simultaneously hated by a vocal selection of the internet fanbase and a huge-selling creator both in stores and digitally. His art is pulled apart routinely in reviews, and yet he’s forged creative relationships with some of the most admired writers in comics today – including Matt Fraction, Kieron Gillen, and now Al Ewing.

He’s a man who has risen through Marvel consistently from X-Men projects through to the Avengers, and left a stamp on the way people approach artistry in comics. He also has a reputation for putting photos onto a lightbox and ‘tracing’ the images through onto his pages, resulting in work like this:

He creates conflict, and that’s interesting. Yet I’m not going to write him off completely, as I have in the past. He’s still an artist who actively pushes me away from anything he’s attached to, but at the same time there are signs that he’s improving within his own ‘style’ and trying to actively move his work forwards.

The main sign of this has come through in Mighty Avengers (and, perhaps, Uncanny X-Men before that). This newly-launched series by Land and Al Ewing is notable in that it sees Ewing utilise ‘Marvel Style’ in the way he writes the comic. What this means is that, instead of breaking down each page into a number of panels and then describing what should happen in each one, Ewing simply describes the page as a whole.

This was a style made famous by, I believe, Stan Lee, who worked on so many titles at once that he didn’t have time to detail each page – so instead he’d describe what he’d like to happen on each page, and then come along and add dialogue later. It’s a style of writing which changes the way a writer approaches their creative process. More importantly, it’s a style of writing which forces the artist into delivering an equal amount of storytelling in their work. When told precisely what each panel should be, an artist is delivering a requested item. When working Marvel style, the artist has more freedom to create whatever they desire, knowing the writer will catch up to them later.

And Greg Land’s work since he moved to Marvel style has improved. I am, however, stating this in terms of page layouts and movement – the anatomy and expression is still painfully non-existent. But in scenes like this, from Mighty Avengers #1, you get a sense that here is an artist who at least understands how to sequence a page and push a story along in a flowing, simple manner:

The page flies left and right at opposing diagonals, creating a hectic sense of the fight which is going on. The eye is led first one way and then caught by a slight item – such as the glowing effect on Power Man’s fist – which sends you back the other way. And within that chaotic structure, you can see patterns of flow within some of the characters. White Tiger flips over someone’s head and in the same movement – but a second panel – twists and kicks that person in the head. Sure, that’s not exactly going to be a very powerful kick, but action sequences in comics have never been constrained by reality.

What you get in this page – which I have to imagine comes at least half from Land’s imagination – is an example of how each character operates. This was a first issue, and an introduction to the characters. We see Luke Cage stop an attack and then reverse it on his opponent. White Tiger shows herself off as athletic and quick. Power Man throws a single punch which takes out his enemy. Very quickly and simply in the page, you get an idea of each character.

Marvel style has forced Greg Land to open up his panels and be more creative in his work, in turn making him more connected to his pages. You see, prior to this, some of his more notable work came through in books like Uncanny X-Men, in turn written by Matt Fraction and Kieron Gillen. And it led to work like this:

A cover that somehow got approved through editorial. You’ll note that one of the characters does not have legs – that’s Psylocke. The other thing that you need to know about Psylocke is that she’s meant to be Asian in appearance, although the photo-referencing done by Land has used a different woman entirely as the inspiration for Psylocke: Kate Beckinsale. As a result, Psylocke was drawn with white facial features throughout the run on Uncanny X-Men, which caused trouble especially for Matt Fraction, when the writer had both a white and Asian Psylocke fighting each other – and they looked the same.

The photo referencing is another area where Land has improved somewhat, at least. His initial work back in the days of Ultimate Fantastic Four seemed to indicate that he took his references from… dodgy places…

And frequently his female characters, when asked to show pain or surprise, would instead show… excitement? I think you probably understand what I’m referring to. Now, this variation of photo referencing isn’t a new style of artistry for comics – hugely admired artists like Alex Maleev are known to work in the same manner. What I think upset people so much about Greg Land’s style is that it seemed to draw from such unappealing places – he’s inadvertently suggesting a tie between characters that readers grew up with, and porn actresses.

By essentially ‘tracing’ images to the page and then altering them to form recognisable super heroines, he speaks rather strangely to the way in which we look at superheroes ourselves. He takes each one as an ‘item’ and places them into a scene, but has had a tendency in the past to not check that they fit within that scene correctly. As a result, onus gets placed on the colourists to try and make these assembled parts fit wholesale into a connected panel. And that must be a struggle.

When given scripts which ask him for certain things in specific detail, Greg Land’s art has tended to fall apart and fail to give an accurate view of a scene. It takes people out of the story rather than place them within it, because it so clearly looks like the sum of a number of disconnected parts. But the decision of writers – and I think this could well stem from Kieron Gillen, one of the first writers to get coherent work out of the artist – to work in Marvel style has moved Land’s work forward.

For me, this is still cheesecake at best, and anatomically insane at worst. At the same time, it’s nice to see that even one of the least-liked artists out there (who still SELLS comics to readers, remember, and is an asset to any book in terms of sales figures) still has at least some sense of artistry still present in their work. AT THE SAME TIME AS THAT? There’s the complete lack of expression in his characters, which still seems to be a problem. I think the following image sums up my reaction to Greg Land’s work:

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