Comics: The True Descendants of Classic Art

25 May 2015

Fine art has evolved in many directions, but comic book art has retained a strain of DNA from classical times. The heroic Greek gods were the forbearers of our modern superheroes and the portrayal of those heroes has carried on in the tradition of how modern artists portray comic book heroes. All artists who study anatomy will most likely find themselves at the foot of the ancient Greeks, renaissance artists, and other classics. But where "fine artists" deviate from that school of figure drawing, comic artists hold fast.   As a professional comic book artist I know how much I look to classic anatomy and I'm not alone--its extensive influence is felt throughout the industry.

Captain America by Lee Bermejo. David by Michelangelo.
Captain America by Lee Bermejo. David by Michelangelo.

The idealization and exaggeration of the human form to create an awe-inspiring figure is not a copyright held by Marvel Comics. Artists like Michelangelo discovered and developed the keys to creating an imposing pose or stance. Like the statues of old, a superhero is depicted in muscle revealing costumes to show their physical power and strength. Looking at the proportions of a typical renaissance statue, one sees large hands, powerful muscles, and a tall stature. One has merely to open a current issue of Thor or Superman to see these very same proportions. 

The use of extreme foreshortening widely used in comics is not unlike the exaggerated proportions of a classic or renaissance statue like the Laocoon or David. Standing next to and looking up at these figures has quite an effect, as many of us know. They loom over mere mortals, they were meant to be worshiped. Does typical gallery art produce this effect? Not so much. But the rendering of dynamic poses has survived through the ages and appear to this day in popular culture in the form of comics.

Hercules and Spider-Man by Adi Granov. Laocoön and His Sons Hulk by Adi Granov.
Hercules and Spider-Man
by Adi Granov.

Laocoön and His Sons

by Adi Granov.

A comic book artist's training is firmly grounded in classic anatomy. A glimpse at any superhero comic will attest to the amount of figure drawing being done. Think of it this way: one comic equals 22 pages of art. Each page contains several illustrations with multiple figures. The characters must be consistent and recognizable to the reader. Absolute mastery of human anatomy is a must. And that ability--to draw the figure from any angle--is a skill heavily dependent on anatomical canons and proportions, and the study of the heroic figure takes an uncontainable path straight down through the history of art leading to the comic book page.  

The Avengers by Adi Granov.
The Avengers by Adi Granov.
Zeus, Batman, Dionysus, David, the Silver Surfer--they all share a common origin in their mythical stories and their visual representations. The heroic figure not frequently found in modern galleries is very present in comic book stores. Rows and rows of cover images still capture the human imagination. Comics have a history and they too have evolved, but the resemblance to classic artworks is uncanny. We no longer have portraits of kings and emperors with muscle-molded armor or in full figure regalia ready for battle. No, most art has strayed far from this form of depiction. Figures seen in galleries aren't done that way at all. It is Wonder Woman, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk who are the descendants of classic art. I heartily believe that the true descendants of classic art aren't found in fine art galleries, but in more popular venues like the cinema, video games, and the comic racks. What say you? 

More of my thoughts on comic art and images of my own work can be seen on my blog.



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KatPaints wrote
on 16 Oct 2012 7:17 PM

Thank you. Could you recommend some sources for studying anatomy other than life drawing?

Lee Oaks wrote
on 17 Oct 2012 12:18 AM

Good question KatPaints, because it is difficult to answer.  Life drawing is by far the most educational paths to learning anatomy.  But here are some other ideas:  

Memorizing the names of the bones and muscles.  Just as you would in an anatomy class.  If you know the names of femurs and deltoids you will be more likely to draw them.

Sculpt your own muscles out of clay and place them onto a skeletal model.  You will literally feel each and every curve of the shapes you create giving you a more in depth understanding.

Draw the skeletal system over life drawings.  Where are the bone protrusions visible?  Where are they covered with deeper tissue?

One book that was a big help from me, but that others detest, is "Dynamic Figure Drawing" by Burne Hogarth.  Some of the lessons led me to much more accurate anatomy.

Everyone focuses on the muscles.  But my eyes were opened when I studied the skeletal system.  My drawings became noticeably better after that.

Keep drawing and observing!

frizzlerock wrote
on 18 Oct 2012 8:06 PM

very good article. and i like your ideas for figure drawing.

Joseph Louis wrote
on 16 Aug 2013 9:32 AM

Mr.Mike excellent article, the truth that I have solved some doubts!!! ;-)''''

auramac wrote
on 16 Dec 2013 1:09 AM

Most of the comic art today distorts and inaccurately portrays the human body. It is a joke, Cartoonists from years ago, the so-called Silver Age, not only knew their anatomy but their art would move and jump from the page- most importantly, telling the story.

desembrey wrote
on 16 Dec 2013 4:49 AM

KatPaints - Andrew Loomis' "Figure Drawing For All It's Worth" is the book you want to read and work through.  Much more useful a text than Burne Hogarth's worthy tomes.

on 29 May 2015 4:00 PM

I hope this is a joke.