Beast Week: King City #3 Cover

This week, the third issue of Brandon Graham's King City came out and it's got a cover by Marian Churchland. Like her guest work on Elephantmen this summer, Churchland's cover here has the strange effect of very much keeping in the tradition of the comic she's guest drawing and usurping many of its long-established traditions.

The tension of Elephantmen was always the very smart writing rubbing up against the very typical IMAGE style art--the art's really good, but it's full of muscles, guns, and boobs, so you know what I mean--and Churchland relieved that tension by providing art that was as sensitive and realistic as the writing. The series couldn't sustain itself if this tension were permanently resolved, but for a few issues, it was a delight.

"I grew to particularly like the Miki character, despite my initial grumblings about how drawing wasp-waisted big-tittied ladies is not my thing, and I wanted to do something with her beyond simply illustrating the issue."

That's a quote from Churchland's livejournal and it's an interesting way to enter the like, side-goals of her work. Namely, it seems to me at least, a polite, wise corrective to how most females look--and with Beast act--in most comics. Neither Elephantmen or King City are "sexist" or anything or even negative in their portrayal--I think there's an irony to the way the use absurd proportions for the women--but well, Churchland brings the female characters down to earth in really unprecedented ways.
Above is a terrible photo--sorry no scanner--of the character from King City that Churchland put on the cover. This is of course, Brandon Graham's version. Especially here, you're witnessing the ironic use of the "typical" female in comics art, as the entire point of the character here is to idealize her. To make her unreal, too attractive. She's like a rap video girl and that's awesome. It's also of course, it's own version of "feminism" in the sense that girls shaped like this are just as under-represented in popular media as "average"-shaped girls, but that's neither here nor there right now. The point is to just look at the way Churchland's retained the character and her characteristics, while also slanting the details towards her own interests.
Notice the spindly fingers and the boney arms here. All of these smaller features are aimed at contrasting with the awesomely giant ass the character has--something Churchland retains and maybe even enlarges--but they're also the reality of a particularly thin or oddly-proportioned person. And there are wrinkles in her clothes? Around the sleeve of the hand holding the cigarette. These kinds of details poke through and add a lot to the image. There's also the weird way that part of her arm--around the armpit--sticks out of the dress; it's sliding off provocatively, but also because maybe the dress doesn't fit her right.

For a grasp on rarefied form of "feminism" going on in Churchland's work--a feminism that is basically more like, coming at it from a point of view us dudes are unaware of or not sensitive enough to and nothing more--it's important to notice how indeed, the absurd proportions are keep intact. And also how, the clothes (a tight dress, thigh highs) are given some kind of earthy reality to them, making the outfit both a little more absurd and that much more attractive.

That napkin or handkerchief hanging halfway off the barstool, a nearly empty packet of cigarettes on top of it, is just a small touch of regularity to the image. The same way Churchland peppers Beast with grime on the toilet or numbers scratched on a wall, does she place these slabs of how-stuff-really-is into the image. These are the things glossed over or purposefully forgotten by a lot of artists--especially comics artists--because they de-idealize the image because well, that's the tradition of comics.

And now, the best part of the cover and indeed, the most actively "real": The reinforced toes on the stockings and the rubber soles of the shoes. This is most certainly the kind of thing a lot of people just don't think about, especially if you're a guy. I don't wish to paint Churchland into the corner of "female comics artist" but in a way, she's the proper kind of fact-checker, corrective to a male-dominated comics world. Most guys are not going to think about the toes of a pair of stockings or how even shoes you'd go out to a bar or club in, indeed have dopey rubber soles. When it comes to women's clothing, especially "sexy" women's clothing, all the seams and pieces are ignored for the greater whole. Part of this has to do with a general forgetting of the details, but it also has to do with a tendency to objectify and simplify chicks and chick stuff. Churchland's like "funk that!".

And the effect on the art is not only this subtly political stuff about gender and all that, but a wordless message to sensitive viewers/readers that the person behind the pen here really cares and really thinks about comics stuff and the real world. Churchland's work stands-out because of its careful attention to detail and its thoughtfulness. She doesn't lose track of the importance of things looking good--and in the case of this cover, looking attractive--but it's done on her own terms; wrapped up in the details so often overlooked, but a notable part of everyday living for any female.

The 24-7 coverage of celebrities and celebrity culture has brought about probably one hundred times the number of images we see of famous people. That's to say, the "on-the-fly" or live, untouched photos of someone now far outweigh the fancy, glossy, photo-shopped pictures in magazines. This recent photo of Rihanna, out somewhere or another reminded me of Graham's King City character and particularly, Churchland's variation: That mix of untouchable beauty/sexuality and palpable reality. Most comics art's the spread in Vogue, Churchland's art is the in-the-moment, dress a little wrinkled, candid shot.


Michael Lapinski said...

Well-put. I'm enjoying this week's worth of Beast and appreciate that you've brought Marion Churchland and her work into my comic orbit.

david e. ford, jr said...

i know i'm a bit behind the ball on this, as i am with everything right now, but a couple of details that you point out deserve comment. first, speaking of the ways in which churchland varied the girl's dimensions, this technique is reminiscent of lisa yuskavage's sway-backed beauties. yuskavage's portraits are another example of a woman visual artist taking a completely unprecedented tack in legitimizing representations of beautiful women while at the same time pointing out by exaggeration some of the tropes we've become inured to.

also, speaking of seams/soles/reinforced toes, this is one of the subtle ways in which it appears that churchland has been influenced by paul pope, without making drawings that look like pope's. i know his decision to put seams and combat boots on batman has been overplayed, but it actually reinjects a measure of actual masculinity into the representation of superheroes, which is bewilderingly absent more often than not.

i feel like i had something else to point out, but i've come down with a cold and my thoughts have managed to escape me. but yeah, these observations are totally on it.

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