Robot 6

Your Wednesday Sequence 31 | Carmine Infantino

Mystery In Space #71 (1961), page 6.  Carmine Infantino.

Carmine Infantino holds a rather odd position in the comic book medium’s critical consciousness.  Basically, he gets talked about for all the wrong reasons.  I can’t really argue that he’s under-recognized; among a readership who know the guy that first drew the yellow circle around Batman’s chest-bat but haven’t heard of Herriman he’s probably over-recognized.  The reason Infantino’s legacy has lived on is that he more than perhaps any other artist in comics history was in the right place at the right time.  Any one of the consummately professional journeyman cartoonists DC employed in 1956 could have been tapped to give reviving the superhero idiom a shot, but it was Infantino who stepped into that void, and it was his art that superheroes made their first steps toward industry domination on the back of.

But while that’s a nice story, and while Infantino’s art was certainly a wonderful match for the high-speed pastorals DC churned out in the early Silver Age, it’s not what makes him special.  If Jack Kirby was the superhero era’s great storyteller, Infantino was its great formalist, batting out page after page of pabulum stories that nonetheless managed to make a stunningly thorough exploration of layout, space, shape, and pacing.  Infantino never worked on stories that transcend their time in the same way that Kirby and Ditko’s comics of the same time do; his transcendence isn’t in the reading of his work but the studying of it, the lessons about pure craft they hold.

Infantino himself was using his drawings to study forms as much as tell tales — the form of drawing itself in addition to comics.  As above, the figures that are his sequences’ ostensible focus are frequently rendered as small as possible, dashed off with a kind of casual grace and left to the inker (Murphy Anderson here), to make make more room for his vast and gaping backgrounds, the main feature of which was their very lack of features, the yawns of negative space that filled his pages with a haunting, almost elegiac quality.  It’s rare that superhero comics manage to be truly stark; it’s rare that Infantino’s don’t.

An interview with Gary Groth provides a useful way into considering the formal qualities of Infantino’s comics.  “I would have preferred to have gone to school to be an architect,” the great cartoonist said in 1996.  “That was my really deep desire.”  And it shows.  Beyond the great attention to technological detail on view in panel 3, this entire page carries an architectural emphasis on efficiency and the value of space.  This page even reads like a building, with skyscraper-shaped panels that lead from bottom to top, streamlined shapes reaching for the sky.  Rather than lead the reader in the usual truncated zig-zag pattern of the gridded page, Infantino manages to make the eye do a great deal more movement by tracing a vigorous reverse-S shape with his layout.  The placement of figures is an object lesson in composition; the eye never has to pick up and start again from the first panel in a new tier.  Instead panel melts into panel, following a perfect, uninterrupted flow.

Infantino even manages to turn the immense amount of verbiage put on the page by writer Gardner Fox into an asset; as his characters bob and weave and contort their paths of movement to avoid the densely distributed text boxes, we follow them first up, then down, then up again.  The four full-figure panels on this page, bookending the close-ups at bottom left, are a marvel of form bent to function; in each one the characters mimic the action of the reader’s eye, leading us from one panel into the next so effectively that the directional arrows Infantino places between the panels are wholly unnecessary.  It’s a nearly free-improv approach to layout, one that takes the full rectangle of the page as space to be freely negotiated and moved through — but just as importantly, one that never muddles itself or loses the reader for a minute.

This kind of comics is Infantino’s alone; no one before or since has combined quite the same mixture of fundamental, craftsmanlike skill with such a dramatic flair for the unconventional.  And though he is and forever will be remembered as the guy who put the little yellow circle on Batman’s chest or the little lightning bolts on Flash’s boots, he also made things to be looked into rather than simply looked at, comics about people who almost seem to move

News From Our Partners

Comments

16 Comments

I’ve never actually been a big fan of Infantino, for no reason I can really express. Something lingering from my childhood, maybe (I used to hate Kirby then, too, and these days I’ve got his stuff tattooed up and down my arm). But I clearly ought to re-examine my opinion, because those last two panels in particular are just strikingly beautiful.

a true genius.

His Star Wars comics are great.

I remember Infantino for two things:

1) He was the artist that did the cartoon part on the Shazam! TV show.

2) He was the final artist on the Flash (Barry Allen) comic, and I always had a bitter taste of him because of that. I felt his drawing had gotten sloppy and was part of the fall of the series.

yah, later Infantino gets pretty rough. He refers to his career as an artist as an “unfinished symphony” because he had to leave and become publisher of DC right as he was hitting his late-’60s prime. Then when he came back a decade later his skills had atrophied and he’d had bigger paychecks so it never quite had the same spark. The ’60s stuff, though!

Infantino’s artwork was indeed exquisitely beautiful. I even love his more stylized golden era work too. The square jawed Jay Garrick/The (golden age) FLASH. Like Kirby, his art and talents shifted and adapted to the times he worked in. Definitely one of the GREAT pioneers/talents of comics!

Matt, how would you parse the relationship between Infantino and Steranko? Was Infantino a kind of proto-Steranko in his interest in the page as unit and formal experiment?

Infantino did all his formalism to serve content, no matter how banal that content might have been. You get the sense he’s more interested in the page than the story a lot, but he’s always thinking about how he can pull a veil of excitement over the bland stuff he’s illustrating. Steranko was writing for himself so he was always at least engaged, no matter how bad his stories were (and boy, they were pretty bad). But also Steranko could tailor his stories to the more showpiece-y formalist tricks he’d thought up, not vice versa. Steranko is more sizzle, Infantino’s more steak. Even if the steak doesn’t taste super great a lot of the time.

My dream Infantino project is a comic-book adaptation of ‘Mad Men’.

I really, really detested Infantino’s late-70s work at Marvel as a kid. Howard the Duck. Star Wars. Star-Lord. Uniformly awful. Years later I realized that he was the same guy who drew the early Flash 2 strips and appreciated his style a lot more (and saw a lot more of his early work), but I still strongly dislike that Marvel work.

Thanks for this post thought… a classic page and good analysis.

EDIT: It also didn’t help that he was often (so I recall) teamed with the very “rough” inks of Klaus Janson (whose work I also didn’t like as a kid, compared to someone as precise as Steve Leialoha, who preceded him on HTD, or Terry Austin, who inked Byrne on Star-Lord before Infantino & Janson took over… talk about an ungraceful transition!).

Other than his cover layouts, I was never a big fan of Infantino. To me, he was a second-tier artist. He was the first comics artist whose style I could immediately recognize, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. (If a ten year old boy can spot an artist’s idiosyncracies, that’s probably not a good thing.) One Infantino story page looks pretty much like another. The empty backgrounds with distant, flat cityscapes are a dead giveaway.

But when Infantino stopped drawing Flash, it was no longer Flash. DC should have killed Barry Allen right then. Other artists always made it seem like an impostor running around in Barry’s costume. I’ll always treasure Infantino’s run on Flash.

Likewise, nobody could ever replace Infantino on Adam Strange, either. Flash and Adam Strange are good examples of why strips should be retired when the original artist leaves.

Where Infantino really shined, though, was on the many great covers he designed (did layouts for) at DC. Many of them were developed into full drawings by Neal Adams, Nick Cardy, and other artists. And the covers Infantino completed himself never shown as bright as when Murphy Anderson polished him up on the inks.

Infantino’s covers are what rank him as one of the most important comics artists of all time. The only cover artist who had a greater and more lasting impact was Kirby. If I was to rank a Top Five cover artists, it would be:

(1) Kirby
(2) Infantino (including layouts he did for Adams, Cardy, and others)
(3) Neal Adams
(4) Joe Kubert
(5) John Buscema (whose layouts were in the Kirby style, but with more graceful drawing)

An anecdote I read in a book about Infantino related that Stan Lee once asked, “How come Neal Adams’ covers for DC always look better than the ones he does for Marvel?” The answer was, at DC, Adams often worked from Infantino layouts.

I also appreciate many of the things Infantino achieved as DC publisher, especially all the giants and 100-page spectaculars, which were full of great reprints, enabling me to read and learn about the greats of comics history. Infantino’s most brilliant stroke as publisher was bringing on Joe Kubert, Joe Orlando and Dick Giordano as editors. If only Infantino hadn’t been so shabby to cancel Kirby’s books prematurely…

@ Scratchie

In this TCJ interview (http://www.tcj.com/the-carmine-infantino-interview/) Gary Groth straight-out tells Infantino that he finds his late Marvel work mediocre. Infantino agrees and admits that he was less than fully engaged.

I always feel like that “arrow leading to the next panel” trick is a sign that the layout is failing, although he pulls it off about as well as he can.

The last two pages work well to show the space and emphasize these two characters soaring through the air. But he’s breaking the 180 rule pretty badly, and he really should have reversed angle. The camera is now in front of the figures, but they’re still moving right-to-left. I had to work a moment to reorient myself.

Grace, indeed.
The Corbusier of comics.

Regarding the 180 from panel 4 to panel 5, this seems to have a sort of grammatical/rhythmic function.
Time has passed, the characters focus has changed, they’ve turned and left.

There’s some great Infantino/Anderson work on the one-offs in Mystery in Space going back to ’57 or so.
One in particular, I wish I could remember the title, is about an astronaut who is young and driven to explore.
He takes his family across the galaxy but, as the years go by, his wander-lust diminishes and they settle on some planet much nearer than he had originally aspired to go.
By this time his son has developed the urge to travel (innovate/transcend) and we see a life-cycle of inspired youth and resigned maturity.
It’s one of those gorgeously constructed and substantially inspired gems which are the ostensible pay-off for sifting through reams of 1950s genre anthologies.
Kind of, concept-based SF meets a sort of humanist realism. A melancholy air laced with sanguinity. (I’m really not doing it justice)
I’ve tried to find it again, more than once, to no avail. The splash alone is just sheer harmonious pleasure.
Basically, I’m writing this in the hope that someone knows the story I’m talking about and can tip me (and others) off as to its whereabouts.

P.S: Those late 50s Infantino & Anderson DC SF pieces seem, to my eye, to be a huge influence on about half the artists who worked on 2000AD in the early/mid-80s, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the writers were also digging on that stuff. Definitely the closest precursory affinity I’ve found among the US comics prior to the ’70s.

If I come across a more wonderful phrase than “high-speed pastorals” this week, it’ll be a good week.

Leave a Comment

 


Browse the Robot 6 Archives