Thursday, October 12, 2023

Keith Giffen Is Dead And He Was Better Than Anybody

Keith Giffen died.

He has been sick for many years, so it's not a surprise but, still, I'm sad.

If you look him up, you'll notice in all the comic book news site eulogies, he's weirdly hard to summarize. They'll say he created this or that second-tier character or contributed to an influential run you may or may not have read on a comic book you may or may have not have heard of.

This is fitting--Keith's style, like his art and writing--is hard to pin down.

Here's the splash page of one of his comics:

Again: this is what they call the splash page --the big announcement page to get you excited.

Batman's face is in shadow, Robin's facing away and would be unrecognizable if this were a black-and-white comic, and it took me, a huge Giffen fan, like, minutes to realize that what's going on here is there's a blue-clad figure (Clayface) in a hat holding a knife up to stab Robin. 

This is everything they tell people not to do in illustrator school. And Giffen was great at it.

Nobody can use the traditional comic bro vocabulary to explain why his comics were so good.

He also just kept evolving. All of these are the same guy:

Defenders 50, from the beginning of his career
Legion of Super-Heroes #1 when Giffen was a fan-favorite
Dr Fate limited series, when he started getting weird
Near the end of his first Legion run
His soup-to-nuts creation The Heckler

Another later-career all-Keith joint, Trencher. Scroll back up to the Defenders and compare
Throughout his career, Giffen was dogged by accusations of copying other artists--but this misses the point. Giffen was mr anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better. Or at least weirder. He was like the Ridley Scott of comics--Oh you made Barry Lyndon you say? Here's The Duellist. You made Dark Star? Here's Alien. Ben Hur? Fucking Gladiator. You made 2001? Star Wars? I made Blade Runner. 48 Hours? Thelma and Louise.

The early work--like that Defenders page at the top--owes a clear debt to Jack Kirby, but the dense, dark designs and schematic presentation are far too deadpan for Kirby. Keith caught a lot of slack around the time of that Dr Fate page for copying Argentine artist Jose Munoz--but Munoz had that loose, indie sensibility--he didn't have Giffen's full-color design sense. 

And what Giffen did with Munoz's style...
...he summons a bodiless mouth in mid-air to annihilate Batman with green vomit. Meanwhile, what's Munoz drawing? Some guys playing jazz?

I mean, if he's not going to use his style why not let Keith borrow it?

The next page down Giffen's starting to be influenced by Kevin Maguire...

...but whatever the fuck Colossal Boy's lonely shapechanging wife is doing to herself in panel two, Maguire would never. And that snap screwball-comedy transition to the angry-eye close-up? Pure Giffen.

A major reason Giffen's going to be hard to summarize is he did exactly the opposite of the conventional wisdom about what we're all supposed to like in comics.

If I was to try to summarize what that was, I'd say it was this sort of thing:
Ahhh, the podcasters sing, the storytelling. That story sure did get told. That robot definitely busted through that wall and Batman sure does look concerned about that explosion.

We're supposed to really like that. It's clear, it's accessible, it's emotional, it's simple, it's open, it's...meh.

Ever since Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics came out people have been talking like there's something to understand. Like: it's a fucking comic, dude. It's a form literally designed to be understood by schoolchildren. It's never hard to understand comics.

People praise comic artists so often by saying "the storytelling is so clear you don't even need to read the words to understand it, it leads the eye across the page".
Who cares? Giffen realized the eye would always get across the page sooner or later because there are panels and the page is a picture the person reading wants to look at because they bought the comic on purpose to look at it. Comics aren't rocket science.

Giffen went hard the other way. He made gorgeous patterns of color blocks and shapes on the page--and if they didn't tell the story all by themselves--oh right, there's word balloons.
What does it mean? Where is the story going? Who cares? Keith Giffen built comics as labyrinths of color, shape, continuity, reference, collage, image, jokes. They didn't invite you to understand, they didn't have epic character arcs of Campbellian heroics, they invited you to come get lost in the funhouse.

Keith Giffen's comics make you go "What the fuck is this?" and honestly--if you think how everybody who loves comics loves them because they picked up issue 456 of some random comic which was part 3 of a 6 part arc that got finished in some whole other series the next year by different people or loves them after finding some manga with a mythology that you have to get through 4 fanslations a Wiki and an anime to understand--that is what a lot of people want. They want to peel the arcana apart.

I loved Keith.

I hope someone picks up where he left off.


Zanon said...

Great obit on a wonderful artist. I discovered him with Trencher and worked backwards, and seeing his style change was so enjoyable. He did break all the rules but you could not take your eyes away.

Laricg99 said...

Thanks for writing this Zak. I didn’t know much about Keith Giffen’s before reading your post, but as a comic book fan I did recognize the name and do remember flipping through some issues of Trencher at my local comic book store and being struck by how colorful, energetic and different the artwork was. Based on your post though I’d like to check out more of his stuff. RIP Keith Giffen