Heavy Liquid #5 (1999), page 3 panel 1. Paul Pope.
Much as I ballyhoo completely individual drawing styles ("shorthands") in this column, I don't think they're necessarily a prerequisite for great comics art. Plenty of beautiful, boundary-breaking comics have been produced by artists whose eyes weren't on the style of the drawings as much as the page designs and compositions (Steranko, Marshall Rogers), or who haven't worked through their influences and into pure expression (early Moebius/Gir, early Frank Miller, Carmine Infantino, et cetera). But as good as those comics can get, and it's just as good as anything else, they come second in immediacy to the artists whose very lines and shadows flash out the name of their makers. The artists with the emblematic, unmistakable styles pretty much always arrive at them after years of refinement and journey: check out the more or less basic genre-isms of early Kirby, early Mignola, early JH Williams and see what I mean.
I'd imagine that's why Paul Pope hit comics like such an utter thunderbolt: a few formative THB issues, two somewhat uncertain graphic novels, a silent sojourn into Japanese comics... and then suddenly it was all there on the page, a rich, unadulterated visual world that's only had to undergo minor tweaks since. Pope's bullet-train progression is like if Kirby had suddenly appeared in '64, done a few run-up Thor and Captain America issues, and then dropped the Galactus Saga. Where it differs from Kirby and his ilk is the progression it took, which involved more subtraction than addition. Pope began with a slightly mainstream-inflected fusion of manga, Eddie Campbell, and Jacques Tardi, but he didn't add muscles and dots and beams of light like Kirby did, or levels of realism like Williams. Pope scraped it back and back until all that was left were the robustly physical figure drawings, the crooked shadow-shapes of buildings, and above all the thick, seamy marks of his brushstrokes.
That brush line is the real thing, the emblematic, immediate quality of Pope's art. Gorgeously, this panel displays nothing but. There's the crackling trail of ink, veering right to the edge of control, blooming outward and tapering in with the whims of the horsehide and paper grain as much as the artist's hand. There's the splatters over the blank spaces, the raw excess of drawing this way, pre, completely unpredictable. There's a deep impressionism (perfectly fitting for a Parisian skyline shot), with the three-dimensional shapes of buildings jutting up at us before collapsing once again into the flat chaos of total line. There's Kirby in the brawny zigzags and thickly formed shapes. There's an awe-inspiring discpline fighting through the tangle in the perfectly gridded-out streets in the middle, and there's a kid's-drawing spontaneity and headiness in the slashed, crude brushwork on the outskirts to the right. The Eiffel tower reimagined as a Steranko power-beacon. The skies opening up around it. Stripped of Pope's hotly human figures, starkly tinted in a flat, haunting blue, it's massively cold, alien even: the in-story view from an orbiting satellite done to perfection.
What strikes me the most about this panel is how well it functions as a thesis on minimalism's secret identity: maximalism. Pope subtracts figurative elements until there's almost nothing left: a few recognizable edifices, a towering shape in the distance, vague right angles, perspective, nothing else. But there's more line, more shape, more being shown in this picture than any George Perez or Alex Ross you care to show me. The writhing, completely abstract mass of brushstrokes just below the skyline on the far right isn't all that different from the type of configurations that routinely show up on like, the arms of Jim Lee characters. What elevates Pope's patch of hatch is the context it's given, its identity not as an addition to something that's already there, but as a figurative element stretched to the very edge of identifiability. Only in tandem with the rest of the picture does this burst of total line spring into focus.
And that's true for any section of this frame -- the panel can only get over as a total image; there's no picking out the best-drawn figure or most detailed background element here. Cut it in half and it falls apart. Take out the skyline and it falls apart. It's unified, one single environment, all one. Pope has subtracted until nothing can be subtracted any more, but there's still so much here. Drown in it.