Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Art Discussion Month 2010: Mek #1-3 by Steve Rolston

[Continuing Art Discussion Month 2010. 31 days, 31 artists, a whole lot of discussion. The explanation behind my choice of comics and the archive can be found here.]

Mek #1-3. Written by Warren Ellis. Pencilled by Steve Rolston. Inked by Al Gordon. Coloured by David Baron.

The first of five three-issue minis written by Ellis whose art I'll be examining. Apparently, Eric Canete was originally meant to drawn this, but that fell through somehow. Going from Canete's angular, intricate art, which I've described as looking like math (Canete draws like math being the line I like to use, because it sounds cool), to Steve Rolston's simpler, more cartoony style seems like a big jump, but I think that that's what required. Anyone working in a similar style to Canete would be seen as Canete Lite, but Rolston is such a big jump and brings such different skills to the project that he can escape Canete's shadow with ease. (Ironically, over the years, Canete's art has moved toward a more cartoony style...)

Mek is about a technological subculture, people who install 'mek' in themselves. Often sex-related or just stuff like artificial eyes or communication devices. Sarissa Leon was one of the people at the forefront of the movement and has since 'sold out' by going to Washington and being an advocate for the movement, something that some think puts her out of touch. She's returned to Sky Road to figure out how her ex-boyfriend died at the hands of 'bad mek' (weaponised mek). Pretty simple.

One of the biggest strengths Rolston brings to the project is his ability to draw human expressions. There's a softness to his characters because of his style that contrasts well with the technology of the book. People look soft and human, the technology looking unnatural and foreign in them to a degree. There's a larger contrast between the flesh and the metal/plastic with Rolston on art.

However, his technology doesn't look as cold or sterile as you'd want either. It's also softer, simpler, more attractive. There's a positive there since you get a better idea as to why people would want to adorn themselves with mek since it doesn't look too offputting. It's an odd contradiction: it looks wrong, but not so wrong that it isn't attractive.

That said, I'm still not sure that Rolston is a good fit for the story. His art has never turned me off really, but it also distances the reader from the world a little too much. He doesn't convey the grime and grit of Sky Road as effectively as you'd want. That cartoony style adds another barrier to the world depicted, which is meant to be like ours only a decade or two down the road at most. Because of that, I think you need a more realistic style that reflects the real world stronger. I don't want you to take that as 'cartoony art is worse than realistic art,' because that's not my intention. I merely think that a more realistic art style would suit the material better. One sequence where a man uses his mek to turn into a dog basically wouldn't have been more effective with a realistic art style.

I'm not sure I've seen Ellis work with an artist with such a cartoony style before, which could be what throws me or makes me back off a little. But, there are moments that seem cribbed from other Ellis comics. A police officer that Sarissa consults with, in one panel, reminds me of the way John Higgins drew Watfod in Hellblazer, smarmy look, rubbing his hand with the other... Sarissa has the strong, elegant look of an Ellis heroine, not entirely dissimilar to Jakita Wagner of Planetary. It's obvious that Rolston examined other Ellis comics to get a feel for the visual style of his books.

As I said, he's fantastic at facial expressions. He uses so few lines to get across exactly what a character is thinking. Sarissa is the main focus of the story, so Rolston spends the most time showing her and a lot of how we understand her is through his visuals. In any given scene, we know what she's feeling because of Rolston's art. She is a little guarded with her emotions, but they still come through because of small, subtle things.

The page layouts are very basic and simple, presenting the story in an easy to read, direct fashion. He's good at panel-to-panel movement and establishing the environment/setting of scenes. In that respect, I don't see many (if any) flaws. David Baron's colours are straight forward and done in solid blocks for the most part with a little bit of progressive shading. Bright colours often, even when it's dark... he definitely adapts to Rolston's cartoony art.

What makes this book stand out is Rolston's art, which is strong, but doesn't necessarily match up tonally. Ellis isn't a cartoony writer often and Mek is a bit more straight forward in its connections to reality, so Rolston is automatically at a disadvantage/place where he needs to prove himself. But, I like his art. His Sarissa is strong and connects with the reader. There's a real softness and humanity in his art that brings out the same quality in Ellis's writing -- something that's usually there, but isn't necessarily highlighted by artists. I can understand people who aren't a fan or think Rolston is a bad fit, but I definitely disagree.