Tuesday, December 24, 2013

In Defense of Keith Giffen

As a kid growing up in the 80s, Keith Giffen's art was both a prevalent, and a polarizing presence in American comics.  Sometime in the early 80s Giffen went from being an unremarkable Kirby clone:

Defenders #49

To this:

Unfortunately, it turned out that this style wasn't exactly the height of originality either. Instead of Kirby, Giffen was aping a Argentine cartoonist little known at the time in the states, Jose Munoz:

In some cases outright plagiarizing whole panels of Munoz's work. This became somewhat of a scandal, but not enough for Giffen to no longer get work. 

Forgive the tangent, but as much as I like Giffen, Munoz was, and is, in every way a more talented artist than Giffen. There's really no comparing them. Take a look:

Munoz and Sampayo, Billie Holiday

But Giffen continued to get work. A lot of it. He was doing work for mainstream franchise characters for both Marvel and DC. While little more than a decade earlier  DC Comics hired Al Plastino to redraw the faces of Superman drawn by Jack Kirby at the height of Kirby's popularity, because Kirby wasn't drawing Superman "on model," they let Giffen draw Superman like this: 

Action Comics #579

Despite fan protests, they kept hiring him. Fan's protested not because he was plagiarizing another artist (whom most fans had never seen), but because a lot of them just plain hated it. But they kept using him. Maybe it was because he was good at meeting deadlines. Maybe he was just a really nice guy. I once read a quote from one of his peers, who gave Giffen the feeble defense of being a "homage artist." Whatever that means. 

But in the 80s, I'd never seen Munoz, so I hadn't yet had the opportunity to form a bias. I was wide open to Giffen, whose work didn't look like any other artist I'd ever seen, and I fell in love with it. I remember being particularly enthralled by a Menthor serial he did in one of the many, (and probably the best) T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents revivals. I think it was in one of these stories that I discovered later a couple of panels or figures that were direct swipes from Munoz. But still, Giffen had his own way of doing things:

These are from Wally Wood's Thunder Agents from Deluxe Comics

Dense layouts, sometimes with no gutters between panels, the images often oddly cropped, sometimes so much it was hard to decipher what was going on, but it was definitely his. It had it's own character and language. Lacking the draftsmanship of Munoz, Giffen instead distilled stylistic elements from Munoz's work to make his own symbol vocabulary.

While there was a good deal of experimentation happening in franchise comics at the time with artists like Miller and Sienkiewicz, what Giffen was doing was so different, his formal language so idiosyncratic, it had more in common with contemporary indy cartoonists like Ron Rege than what was being done then.

And sometimes his pages could be elegantly designed. This one-off he did for Spider-Man is a particularly good example:

Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #120

And other times the action could be completely incomprehensible:

Hex #16

Then his work could veer into complete abstraction, pure shapes and patterns: 

I have no idea

Video Jack #1

To the point where he went so far away from Munoz territory that there really was no comparison. Then there was the famous Giffen 9 panel grid. Here, again from Spider-Man:

Giffen would sometimes do entire issues with the same 9 panel grid. For his adaptation of Robert Bloch's Hell on Earth, he even went so far as to do a 16 panel grid:

With, of course, at least one close-up of a giant eyeball. That was Giffen. I don't know who colored this one, but the colors are fantastic.

Fans tended to respond better when Giffen was doing humor. His own creation, Ambush Bug had a cult following for a while.

And Ambush Bug's very close, but less successful cousin, The Heckler:

But Giffen scored better with fans with his run on Justice league, doing only layouts and plotting for Kevin Maguire's pencils, and J.M. Dematteis' dialogue. As long as he wasn't drawing, apparently. But once again, his layouts had a typically idiosyncratic approach:

And some time after that, Giffen aped...Kevin Maguire.

According to my sources, in an earlier incarnation of Legion, Giffen did impersonations of various other artists, but this particular impersonation is notable for its shamelessness. He just couldn't stop.

During the 90s, he changed styles yet again, trading all those dark spotted blacks for near incomprehensibly dense contours with Trencher:

Which fit right in at Image Comics, with their splashy exaggerated action over substance line of creator owned books. Though it wasn't exactly a huge hit.

Now Giffen has given up drawing altogether except for occasional layout work, sticking mostly to scripting. At least I think so. I haven't read any of his new stuff. But I think I'll always prefer the old stuff. 


  1. Good post, but Muñoz is Argentine not Spanish

  2. Anonymous12:06 AM

    Muñoz was an exile from Argentina as was Sampayo. Not sure if it was self-imposed or... I think he lived most of his life in Spain. I'm continuing to love Giffen's work as I've discovered his "Muñoz style." I don't think it really looks so much like that work. I think it's influenced and maybe he copied a few things, but the feel of Giffen's work was always more angular. I think if you look at Eddy Current you may see Giffen's influence on McKeever. His work vastly changed from issue to issue especially the Transit Comic which came out before EC. Either way Giffen I think later on influenced a handful of other artists. I see Chris Bachalo and obviously McKeever being influenced by Giffen's Muñoz years. Nothing wrong at all in my opinion.

    1. Anonymous3:02 AM

      Munoz moved to Spain in his early 20s and apprenticed with Hugo Pratt. His early Sinner art is a lot like Pratt's work.

      I've seen Munoz discuss the Giffen thing a few times and it was the direct swiping of panels, which ended up with Munoz's wife appearing in Ambush Bug as a background character.

      And the Comics Journal did a big article where they did panel-by-panel comparisons so you could see how often stuff was just lifted whole cloth.

  3. I agree that Giffen had his own thing going on (as described above), but I also think it was, in part, a poor or failed attempt to ape Munoz, thus the occasional obvious swipe. I think the swipes, because of just how shameless they could be, did color his career, more because of this trend of lifting other people's styles than the individual swipes, and because of this he was unfairly dismissed by fans and critics, a case of throwing out the the baby with the bathwater. That period of his career that was Munoz inspired but at the same time very Giffen, whether he was an influence on other artists or not, was uniquely fertile and worth a look, which is why I wrote this essay.

    However: I actually met McKeever years ago as a kid at my first (and only) San Diego Comicon, when he did his first Eddie Current. I too, mentioned Giffen as a possible influence, and he insisted this was not the case. He said a lot of people had mentioned this and it seemed that he had grown irritated by the suggestion, but this was way back in the late 80s. Maybe later he embraced Giffen as a influence, but I kind of doubt it. Probably just coincidence or zeitgeist, but the similarities are very much there, as you mention.

    Thanks for the info about Munoz and Sampayo!

    I don't typically publish anonymous posts, but you had some intriguing things to say. In the future, I'd appreciate if you leave at least a first name as a point of reference.

  4. Only reason I didn't want to post my name is cause it may bite me in the ass one day since I love McKeever's work so much and because of him I went on to find out about Giffen which I had been familiar with from the Lobo stuff mostly because I also dig Bisley's early work. Bisley's work is what really turned me on comics. His Judgment on Gotham was a masterpiece in technique, but unfortunately the story was nothing but average. It was fun and it worked for Bisley since his stuff has a lot of humor.

    It's funny how we are so crazed at to finding faults in artists for using other people's styles or whatnot. Especially the fans. Artists are not gods, but talented people who work really hard (the good ones) on trying to make the very best work they can. I find it frustrating how we are suppose to magically come up with our own styles in our work. It's really hard and I think most artists especially the early stuff is always reminiscent of someone earlier. We all got inspired by someone or various and that made us continue on the path.

    The whole Frank Miller/Jim Lee/Deathblow thing was sickening to me. I was excited to see Jim Lee's super tight stuff get looser in that comic from the 90's and Miller called him out and messed it all up. Then years later seeing Muñoz's "Sinner" it becomes so obvious Miller borrowed some stuff from him and possibly McKeever a little from his EC days. I heard an interview from McKeever that Frank Miller once told him he looks at his stuff before he begins his work. Wow!

    Unfortunately artists are to egocentric especially ones that got success early on. Like a child actor who didn't ever know what it was to struggle in Hollywood. I wish artists would be more honest, but in our society of all ego and confidence the small few that actually seem humble are few and far between.

    I find McKeever then when you met him maybe was getting a lot of early success with his EC book being nominated for one of those comic awards I forgot which one. He got beat out by Art Adam's Pokey's Summer something? Pretty lame. Either way it was insightful to read your article. I added some more booked to read and see what other surprises Giffen has in store for me. I also heard the Comic's Journal really handed to him. I plan to order some of those issues, too. Right now Ambush Bug or the Son of is what is keeping me up. It's freaking hilarious. It's a pretty original comic. Reminds me of McKeever's Broccoli Man a little... LOL!

  5. I read some of what The Comics Journal had to say about Giffen and I don't think it was fair. They also criticized Tom Scioli for aping Kirby, which I think was totally uncalled for. Tom Scioli, as he has proved in recent projects, has his own thing going on.

    When I met McKeever, Eddie Current had just been published by Slave Labor. Nobody had heard of him. I must have been about 13. He was very insistent that Giffen wasn't an influence, but maybe Munoz was? Who knows. That's intriguing about Miller's interest in McKeever. I had no idea!

    I think you're thinking of Gumby's Summer Fun Special written by Bob Burden. I think that might be my favorite thing that Adams ever did, and I've always been a fan of Burden, a genuinely funny writer. I am fond of Adams' line, but wish that he didn't draw women the way he does.

    The problem with Giffen was the way he serially borrowed from other artists. His Maguire period was particularly obvious after having just written a popular run of Justice League that had also been drawn by Maguire. Early influence is one thing, but he didn't really own his style as he should have. Clearly he had his own voice in the work he did during the early to mid 80s, but after that he never quite got a foothold, going from one style to another without making any of them his own (with the possible exception of Trencher).

    I can see where Miller was influenced by Munoz, but Miller's style is very much his own. I'm not a fan of much of his present work, but I do think his influences are eclectic enough that he's established his own unmistakable identity.

    As for Deathblow--I never followed that, or knew about Miller's take on it, but when I did see it, it was obviously Lee doing a Miller impersonation. Lee brought his own draftsmanship to the table to some degree, but it didn't have much Lee in it otherwise. I'm not much of a fan of Lee in general, but I think that may have been a mistep--maybe one issue as a tribute, but an entire series? I can't really blame Miller for calling him out.

    The artists I admire and have a genuine interest in, do find a way to establish their own identities outside their influences. Their uniqueness is what makes them appealing. There are also artists heavily influenced by others that I still enjoy. But I do believe in finding your own way by looking to a broad range of artists both within, and outside your chosen field is the best way to go. In fact, I think it's that very eclecticism that prevents you from borrowing from any one artist too much. If you're looking at a lot of different artists, No one influence sticks. There's too much good stuff out there to get fixated on any one artist. If you keep your sights broad, style comes, and inevitably reflects the variety of your interests. Of course we all have favorites. Just don't try to BECOME your favorites. I've gone down that road before, and it only goes so far. Eventually you have to find your own way. Inevitably, whoever you're trying to imitate does them, better that you do them.

    Thanks so much for digging up all these older essays and making such thoughtful remarks! I'm glad you enjoyed them.

  6. Very cool. No sweat. I'm just very interested in the "drama" in comics. Better than celebrity drama to me. Nerds vs. a way.

    Miller also had some issues with this guy MIchael Netzer who did a Batman 4 issue series where it was obvious he was influenced and he admitted, but Miller still went off on him and Tim Sale.

    I like Miller and his DKR is as good as you get doing a mainstream book. I wonder what it would've been like for that not to be a Batman book. I guess his Holy Terror kind of shows you. His Strikes Again was pretty awful ina lot of ways.

    He's like Jack Black. He brought back something that existed before and made it his own. What I have an issue is how he would be offended by Jim Lee, Sale and Netzer for using some of that. I don't know where Eduardo Risso comes into the whole thing, but he's been doing his thing for as long or longer than Miller. He may have been directly influenced by Muñoz, but I don't have a lot of information on that since the interviews I have read with Risso his influences never come up.

    There is a slew of older artists, Toth and Hugo Pratt I am not super familiar with. I have just seen their work a little. I also like Breccia I have his whole Swamp Thing run and his Batman Black and White was my favorite. His quality in line was amazing in that short story. I may be generalizing, but I find a lot of Japanese stuff very similar and perhaps they see some of our work in the same way, but I don't think they have this been ego thing Americans have about being influenced by someone. I think it's a good thing if someone carries out your legacy in a way. It's fun connecting the dots in a way. If the money aspect wasn't there I almost think all the animosity would kind of go away or subside some.

    In my case I would be humbled by that, but then again I lashed out on some artists once for ripping off some of my ideas for concepts they ended up painting, but ideas and styles are different things and just because ideas are not copyrighted doesn't mean they should be copied, but that's another story onto itself.

    Trencher was too weird for me. Most of the time the coloring jobs (in many of the 80's and 90's comics especially) were awful and so the art comes out a certain way. Even today some of the computer work is still horrendous. I think you have to know how to paint to color and most of the people out there have neverpicked up a paintbrush. So Trencher suffers. I liked Giffen's Lobo Infanticide better.
    There is a little bit of Bisley in there. I find it funny. He just kind of thinks to himself, "I like that...I can do that."
    And he does. I'm sure Michelangelo was copied thousands of times in his lifetime, but only one is remembered. Raphael. He was kind of obsessed with him. I think he was also called out on it...LOL. Actually if I'm not mistaken.

    I think it also has to do with how alive is the person you are biting. If it's a dead guy or an older guy you can kind of get away with it. Also if your audience is way younger to remember the person.

    Bisley = Frazetta/Corben/Sienkiewicz seems to work since Frazetta was the bigger influence and the guys in the kids in the 90's at least from my perspective didn't think too much about Frazetta. Later on I was pretty obsessed with him aswell. Bisley is another guy that calls out people. Not by name, but after he got big everyone and their mother was doing a Bisley take especially overseas with the Judge Dredd stuff. I just read an interview and some of the images they put up were not even Bisley's art, but other's who were influenced by him. Greg Staples and Jim Murray and Jason Brashill. I told them about it. It funny.

    Anyways I won't bring up another conversation on this topic.

    I'm just really intrigued by Giffen. I'm glad you posted this and I found it.

  7. Anonymous9:21 AM

    Hola, I'm Muñoz.
    My main influences in drawing (or at least the arts n' artists that I think and rethink and resee daily inside me): H. Pratt, A. Breccia, S. Botticelli, V.Van Gogh, M. Caniff, F. Robbins, F. Masereel, and, and, and...and lately, the drawings of the Chauvet Cavern in the South of France. Yes, each of us is a derivated product of other excelences. Always. And thanks a lot for the other people's talents, it's marvelous to see the windy breath of wonder blowing in certain moments, in certain souls and hands. Then you should try to find, to add you path, to invent your personal entertainement, your little meaning...Down those meaningful and sentimental streets a not so commercial artist could go, why not?Truly thanks to everybody.

  8. Anonymous1:30 AM

    Unknown and dear Jed:
    in the last few seconds I've been reading that little piece of tragicomic knowledge of yours that I caught in my morning's electric deambulations: "Don't talk me of Missis Rowling"...Wonneful, good luck, amigo.
    And good pleasures and works.
    (Still the old gaucho Muñoz)

  9. Thanks! If you are indeed, Munoz, I'm a very huge fan!

    1. Anonymous11:06 AM

      Of course that I'm Muñoz, thanks again, Jed, give my souvenirs to Mc Keever.

  10. I never thought about it that way before, but of course Giffen is a homage artist. Always, to some extent or other, Kirby. But moving from influence to influence, as if seeking to find himself in the styles of others.

    Incidentally, I don't see the problem with the desert explosion. It seems pretty clear to me.

    Except he wasn't. His Maguire phase clearly wasn't aping. He'd learned something from the man, but if you ask me his work from that period was better than Kevin's. Maguire had a technique that he stuck with, never experimenting the way Giffen did. I like it, it's great, and I really don't see enough of it. But Giffen is another animal entirely.

    Yeah, he learned from working with Maguire. That's the way it should be. But he never copied the man's style. He incorporated what he'd learned into his own style.

    And frankly, the man is so good at imitation that the one period he deliberately avoided doing so? I wouldn't call it awful, because I loved it. But looking back, I can see that his work was starting to grow stiff and lifeless. I would hate to see that happen, as it did with Wilson and Trimpe.

    I'm glad he stopped holding back.

  11. And yes, there is such a thing as a homage artist. Just ask Ron Frenz.

  12. We'll have to agree to disagree on most of this stuff, but I didn't say Trencher was awful, just a bit hard to follow since there wasn't a lot of contrast. It looked great, though! I think you misunderstood me at least in part--I said there was abstract quality to that desert scene, not that it was unclear.

  13. I've always enjoyed Keith Giffen's work from his Perez-ish, Legion of Super-Heroes and more so when he switched to his Munoz style. Hell on Earth had a big visual impact on me. Once I discovered Jose Munoz work (thanks to that Comics Journal article), I became of fan of his Sinner, Billie Holiday and Joe's Bar comics.

    Reading through these comments, I wasn't aware Miller mentioned Lee and Netzer as copying his style. I always wondered if the Sin City title, 'That Yellow Bastard' was meant as a innuendo racial insult to someone of Asian descent.

  14. Anonymous3:12 PM

    I liked Alack Sinner that was already published in France by Casterman so I knew and appreciated Muñoz'art years before it crossed Giffen's path.

    It didn't bothered me at all when Giffen started to borrow heavily from Muñoz' art style which I had instantly recognized. On the contrary, I found it fascinating to watch Giffen evolves as I was avidly looking for all the work he produced through the mid 80's to the early 90's (and beyond).

    Yes, Keith got himself obsessively influenced by Muñoz but, at the same time, h still retained some of his previous influences, especially Kirby's dynamism and storytelling before he quickly reinvented himself to reach a fine balance between his many influences.

    I was so in love with his work on the 5 year gap Legion and on the Heckler. Great stuff. If you read me Keith, you let me down when you quit. Don't go and try pretending… That was never the other way around.

    Anyway, thanks to both Keith and Jose for all the fun that came and will come.
    Long live the comics.

  15. I've just found this article via a LSH Facebook group.
    I've thoroughly enjoyed reading both the article and the correspondence. I'd never heard of Munoz until today, and this has made fascinating reading.
    While I like Ambush Bug, I remember being disappointed when Giffen's art style changed so radically, so quickly, from the clean lines of the 80s Levitz/Giffen LSH run to the later style. I don't criticise Giffen for changing his style: he obviously had a need to change, and any artist should follow their instincts and not be shackled to whatever they are expected to deliver by the industry or the fans. However, I still wish he could produce his art the way it was done circa LSH 300.
    With hindsight, I realise that it was always very "flat" but maybe that was down to Mahlstedt's inking (don't take that as a criticism either - it's just a particular style). It certainly fitted the near-Utopian, clean and shiny future gadgets and worlds that he was depicting. I just wonder what those pages would look like if given the modern computer-aided graduated colouring treatment!