Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Best Comics Artist You've Never Heard Of

John Higgins, Beyond Watchmen and Judge Dredd: the Art of John Higgins

As the title suggests, Liverpool-born comics artist John Higgins is best known as colorist (“colourist”) on Alan Moore’s Watchmen novel, and elaborate handpainted watercolor strips in Britain’s Judge Dredd series. He doesn’t have name recognition like Frank Miller or Jack Kirby. Yet this book makes a persuasive case that we should know him: he’s collaborated on Batman, Doctor Who, the Terminator, Star Trek, and more.

Now Liverpool UP collates a massive selection of Higgins’ portfolio for an oversized book that’s half coffee-table art spectacle, half autobiography. The assortment ranges from his early days, paying dues on medical illustrations and line art for children’s game books, through prestige work on the best-known comics titles, for every major publishing house. The story of how he became John Higgins is as engaging as the visuals with which he peppers his memoir.

A school-leaver (what Americans call a high-school dropout) who joined the military to find discipline and guidance, Higgins found himself naturally using available time to draw. Eventually he completed his education at a prestigious British art college. But good-paying art jobs aren’t plentiful, not even in the 1970s, when ambitious young upstarts could schlep their portfolios directly to publishers’ doors. So he spent years paying industry dues.

Before the comics which became his mainstay, Higgins did multiple freelance jobs to develop cachet. He spends an entire chapter on his children’s line art, a style my generation will recognize from our family-friendly horror novels and game books. He shares a selection of cover art he did for science fiction novels. This selection includes full-page spreads at the end of most chapters, allowing readers to revel in the majesty of Higgins’ elaborately detailed art.

A recent watercolor of Judge Dredd in Higgins' distinctive, hyperrealistic style

This diligence eventually paid off. Artist Dave Gibbons discovered Higgins by reputation, then eventually met him face-to-face. So when Gibbons and writer Alan Moore created Watchmen, Gibbons knew exactly who to contact for colourist work. The trio collaborated to a degree seldom seen in the 1980s, a time when comics creators were salaried work-for-hire, and colourists about equal to pack mules. This collaboration helped start a new trend.

Higgins deconstructs the comics coloring process for untrained eyes. Though famous for his intricate watercolors, Higgins was forced to compromise for the industry standard in pre-digital comics, CMYK dot printing. As he demonstrates this involved some anonymous color separator, working for pennies per page, probably at a kitchen table in Illinois, literally distributing Doctor Manhattan’s eerie blue glow across the page with the corner of one thumb.

Over thirty years later, it’s easy to forget how innovative Higgins’ pathbreaking color work really was. Though he minimized bright primary colors for Watchmen, favoring muted tones and secondary hues, he lit scenes cinematically, bathing characters in one another’s castoff glow. But he took the exact opposite tack in The Killing Joke, oversaturating colors so everything appeared painfully bright, trapping readers in the Joker’s carnivalesque mindscape.

At times, Higgins was strictly a hired man. His art for cross-marketed properties like Carmageddon and BattleTanx, video games that needed the heft a printed comic provided, showcase his style, but only in serving another’s vision. Later, Higgins graduated to having greater creative control. His title Razorjack never found its commercial stride, but that’s probably an effect of media saturation; the art reproduced here is stunning.

Higgins’ survey of comics technology mingles with his life experiences, though he’s sparing in sharing his personal life. He laughs about finding his three-year-old daughter “helping” complete an early line drawing, with a green permanent marker. Nearly forty years on, he remembers the scene with good humor, though since he describes looming deadlines, I suspect it wasn’t comical back then. Such details, rare but apropos, give Higgins’ professional memoir a poignant touch.

And the art is spectacular. By his own admission, Higgins is best-known for images of monsters and carnage, from orcs and zombies in kids’ books, through the horror boom of the 1990s, and the noir pervasion of Razorjack. Here, his early-career work doing illustrations for medical journals shines: looking at a shuffling corpse, or a cyborg offering a child a flower, one can clearly imagine the bones and musculature necessary for that moment to happen.

It’s possible to read Higgins as only a memoirist of the industry. His autobiography, supplemented by powerful artwork, allows such casual consumption. But there’s something greater happening here, an investigation of how the medium’s capabilities change within one career. Though not famous, Higgins demonstrates why audiences love comics, by pushing the capabilities of the visual form.

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