Happy holidays, dear readers! I hope you’re enjoying Black Friday, or finally dredging up your social willpower (and finances) for the upcoming Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa cycle. In honor of this uniquely busy period in our lives, I’ve decided to take pity on you and provide an easy, breezy, lightly sexy read for you to enjoy.
But don’t thank only me for this small slice of mercy. You should also thank a wonderful online tradition that I’ve been enjoying as the holiday season ramps up. Specifically: artist discourse online.
Now, there are far too many artist discourse threads currently circulating the likes of Twitter and Tumblr to summarize them all. It’s a diverse medium, after all. But lately, a notable point of contention has returned, a rather modern concern over reference photos. Being an artist is not just about physical skill; it also requires a sizeable amount of imagination and innovative creativity. It is these latter two qualities that enable the successful artist to construct the appropriate layout for each comic page, thumbnail a scene, render the environment, create interesting character designs, and set everything up with compelling coherency. This is to say nothing of the physical act of art, which for centuries involved the laborious gathering of physical materials and hours of hunched over, laser-focused concentration. As you can imagine, it can be a lot of work!
Digital tools have flattened the numerous materials previously required for professional comic art to a computer, a tablet, and software, if the artist so chooses. These tools allow artists to complete art assignments in mere hours and days, rather than months and years. Plus, thanks to the internet, artists might no longer struggle in learning how to draw a horse. Or in figuring out the mechanical logistics of a space ship based on kitchen appliances (as cool as that can be)! Instead, there is an endless supply of photos and stock images on virtually everything imaginable. By tapping into these limitless resources, artists can both improve their skills and draw some pretty kickass comics. It seems like the ultimate win-win situation.
At the same time, there is admittedly a tightrope that artists must walk on when using references. On one hand, a reference can serve as a necessary foundation for their work. Yet their referenced art should not turn into mere replication, nor should it stray into outright tracing.
But what is the “appropriate” amount of reference photo use? The need to define this important distinction has driven many heated debates about artistic integrity, skills education, and even the business pressures within the modern art industry. And taken together, all these factors create an ouroboros of thorny issues that are difficult to untangle.
At the very least, there seem to be a few examples of blatant tracing universally condemned as bad practice. Admittedly, my comic book industry knowledge is pretty limited when it comes to these kinds of scandals. But there is one artist whose tracing work I have long been horrifically familiar. I’m talking about the one and only Greg Land.
For all those blissfully unaware readers, Greg Land is a 20 year veteran of the American comic book industry. His humble beginnings started with marketing himself at Midwestern comic cons and doing artwork for the indie-published StormQuest. In the late 1990s, he graduated to minor cover and interior gigs at DC Comics, most notably on Birds of Prey and Nightwing.
But Land didn’t become a household name until he made the leap to Marvel Comics around 2005. The next seven years were the most prolific in Land’s career. He was the artistic lead on multiple X-Men and Ultimate Universe titles, such as X-Men: Phoenix – Endsong, Ultimate Fantastic Four, and Ultimate Power. During this time he also worked with numerous heavy-hitter writers, including Jeph Loeb, J. Michael Straczynski, Mark Millar, and Brain Michael Bendis.
Unfortunately for these creative partners, it wasn’t the storylines that were discussed among comic fans. Land’s artwork on these books often stole the show, but for the absolute worst reasons.
For one thing, his artwork of female characters suffers from those typical features we can succinctly refer to as Cis Male Artist Wet Dreams. All his fictional women are young, thin, smooth, shiny, and blandly sexy. They also happen to look like one another — and not just in a “Same Face Syndrome” kind of way, but rather multiple examples of recycling his previous work of different characters.
Further, as multiple readers have pointed out over the years, Land relies a little too heavily on reference photos. So much so that he is, in fact, outright tracing over them. This means that readers have had the pleasure of seeing celebrities such as Sandra Bullock in their comics…
And, in perhaps the most blatantly horny examples in comic book history, porn. Like, actual expressions and positions from porn. So much of it, and all of it drawn so badly, too. There almost are no words to describe it.
For what it’s worth, Land has never tried to deny his professional tracing habit. Quite the opposite, in fact. Throughout his career, the artist has confidently discussed his heavy usage of reference images from a diverse set of media:
At the same time, he has apparently questioned the outrage surrounding his work. After all, an artist has to base the foundations of their work on reality, right? So you can base your art on Sandra Bullock or the original Birds of Prey television cast, but jazz it up with your own style to make it original. In other words, as long as you’re not just copying a naked Pamela Anderson onto an indie comic book cover, tracing from your references should be fine. Right?
Absolutely right, according to the man himself. Unfortunately for everyone else, the comic book industry and the art world-at-large have been left to struggle with these issues. It cannot be denied that digital art has revolutionized the craft for the better. But the catch-22 is the enabled proliferation of bad art practices, of which Land’s cavalier tracing is, in comparative hindsight, a minor infraction at best. And as our digital tools continue to progress further, the boundaries that define originality and that aforementioned artistic integrity will only become more frustratingly porous.
Land brought us all to stand on the precipice of this brave new era of art, but he didn’t take the plunge with us into the turbulent waters below. Instead, he’s continued to enjoy his comic career – not as frequently as he did in the early Aughts, mind you, but he still gets Marvel variant covers every few months. And much like fellow artist Rob Liefeld, you can’t deny that Land’s art has improved over the years. As the great Oprah says, let’s at least celebrate that.
Despite his many years of tracing, it is interesting to now consider him a trailblazer in the world of digital art. But indeed he is, even if his impact has been less than positive and extremely horny. Personally, the lesson I’m taking away from the Great Greg Land Comic Book Debacle is the need to generously support artists in their education and working conditions. Additionally, I’m going into this holiday season making sure I support and encourage artists who use reference photos, and specifically those who elevate those photos to make horny artwork that is legitimately sexy. Art is hard work, and there’s no shame in the admittance of needing help to get an image right. Plus, there are far too many great artists out there today, and I think we can all agree that their horny art is worth its weight in gold.
12/1/2019 Edit: This article previously misattributed A Salvador Larroca drawing of Iron Man to Greg Land, due to the artists’ similar tracing styles. We have removed the image and updated this article accordingly.