I. Anybody can produce art that is strange. What's most interesting about John Forte's work is that it is by its very nature strange. "Strange", where Mr Forte's art is concerned, occurs everywhere and all the time; it's not the result of an attempt to shock, or of gross incompetence, or an ignorance of a less-quirky tradition of comic-book story-telling. It's an intrinsic strangeness that exists even when the skies are blue and the teenage superheroes are - sort-of -smiling, just as much as it does on alien worlds populated solely by the statues of long-extinct mysterious creatures. It is, if you like, an honest strangeness, a constant and consistent effect of the choices Mr Forte made job-in, day-out. And as we've been discussing for a while now, the strangeness is generated by a wide variety of design elements and pen'n'ink achievements all working together to produce a world quite individual to John Forte's art. Where other comic books of the period, such as the thin gruel served out by the Batman stories from the Bob Kane school, can now be seen as the product of creators who were cutting corners and underestimating the potential of the stories they were churning out, Mr Forte was regularly turning in complex and yet charming pages of a fairy-story 30th century which deserve a great deal more respect and attention than they've so far received.
At the conclusion below of this final look at Mr Forte's LSH career, I'll put forward a checklist of techniques used by him which could still be adapted and applied to achieve a distinctive and useful sense of "normal oddness", but before then, I'd like to briefly discuss just a few of my favourite examples of his work. (I was intending to present far more than just the panels I talk about below, but I soon realised that I was behaving not unlike the bloke who insists on playing no other records other than his own favourites at the party. It seemed, on reflection, more appropriate, and more respectful of Mr Forte's work, to present and discuss just a few pieces. Then, should anyone ever be in some small way nudged towards considering Mr Forte's Legion work - should they not have already been familiar with it themselves, of course - there'd remain even more hidden gems for them to discover for themselves.)
II. John Forte's work always contained the capacity to convey a peculiar and touching sense of mournfulness. Here his skill at creating quite alien races from Earthly templates quite outside of the usual comic book tradition, combined with his affable style, has produced these doleful statues of an "all-dead" alien race. Mr Hamilton's script has Cosmic Boy describe these effigies as "weird monuments", but I doubt he could ever have foreseen quite how distinctly odd and yet endearing these statues would appear once Mr Forte had got to work on the matter.
The panel creates a sense of stillness and loss through the application of many of the inertia-causing techniques of Mr Forte's that we've been discussing. The panel is again divided in thirds, with each third containing two of the Legionnaires as they stand in a wide semi-circle at the front and bottom of the frame. The focus of the gazes of the young superheroes are fixed on the distant statues far away at the top-centre of the panel, giving an impression that the Legion has been placed in a huge alien graveyard of sorts, and one too substantial to explore with any ease. (It's an impression reinforced by the gaze of the large memorial figure at the right-hand side of the panel, which turns our attention back again to the scene just as our eye is ready to move on to the next panel.) The passive, still postures of the Legionnaires similarly give the reader the sense that this is a planet where the human scale, and human effort, are entirely unimportant. And if the somewhat strange perspective which afflicts the "strange abandoned building" to the top-right of the scene is by now a familiar matter in a John Forte scene, it also carries with it a feeling that this is an environment where odd things are happening, where even old empty buildings don't quite obey the everyday rules of ordinary life.
Most touching to me are the individual qualities of the memorials. The fourth statue from the right, for example, seems to have a serpent of sorts wrapped around it, while his arms have been lost with time. It's hard not to want to speculate about who the race depicted in these statues were, and what were their myths and symbols, and what was the tale of the turtle-lizard who came complete with a serpent wrapped around his belly?
And why did they all disappear?
These enigmas mean that the panel retains its power to move despite those rinky-dink space-boats in the foreground that the Legionnaires have apparently used to land on this planet of the giant civilised turtle-lizards, which says a very great deal considering how utterly unimpressive those sadly typical examples of John Forte's tech-designs are.
The work of Mr Hamilton and Mr Forte regularly feature such examples of dead cultures memorialised by some great markers of their lost makers. The city dwarfed by the cloud-high robots, to take one such scene which actually resonates better in the memory than it does on the page, and the scene above, where another race of aquatically-inspired aliens survives only in the form, once again, of monumental statues. It's a haunting panel in itself, set up by Hamilton's word-pictures - "... built by an inhuman race ages ago, and illuminated by perpetual radium lights .... " - and again our impassive Legionnaires serve as blank slates for us to project our own responses of awe and loss onto them. It is, I believe, a touch too crowded a composition to carry the same measure of despair that the first example above does, for the Substitute Heroes stand so close together that they seem to some greater degree protected from the world around them than the Legionnaires were. But it's still a quietly haunting piece.
No other superhero artist that I can think of regularly left so much space at the far right-hand edge of his longer, larger panels. It's a choice which often leaves his characters hemmed in far away from the promise of escaping into the next stages of the story. Here two of our heroes step rather gingerly through a "world devastated by atomic warfare", and nothing as much marks the loss and fear in the scene as Mr Forte's characteristic stillness and the sense of deathly quiet. A Gil Kane or a Jack Kirby would choose to show the scale of the devastation, illustrating the immense force of the "atomic" weapons which had been used. But Mr Forte simply shows us the world empty of anything that a human being might think fondly of while presenting the ruined city as a simple fact rather than as an means of extracting any excess of fear from the reader. There's a space here between how these ruins of atomic warfare are depicted and our knowledge of what caused that devastation, and that makes the whole piece all the more subtly upsetting; we can't escape into the awe-inspiring thrills of any Kirbyesque depiction of an atomic holocaust, and so we have to accept the fact of the planet's end rather than the spectatcular cause of it. And so the scene is much closer to the quiet fortitude and certainty of extinction that marks "On The Beach" rather than the chest-thumping histrionics of the last scene of the "Planet Of The Apes". In essence, the focus is on the terrible consequences of the bomb rather than the beguiling power of it, and it's all the more scary for it. This is a painfully empty, static world, even for Mr Forte's work. (Two of "thirds" here are empty of any figures or action at all, although the vertically integrating effect of the two skyscrapers in the centre of the panel still divides the space without a Legionnaire in it into two.) And our typically undemonstrative heroes fit perfectly with such a reading. The destruction is so complete that would be futile, even hubristic, for them to respond in any other way than keeping quiet and moving on.
III. From the end of the world to something considerably more enchanting, the panel above illustrates how brilliant Mr Forte was at depicting children, just as he was at projecting a child's view of the world. (I wonder how many contemporary artists could produce something as simultaneously touching and amusing as the above.) A panel as deceptively straightforward as this needs little explanation after all we've discussed, though again it's worthwhile to point how the far right of the panel beyond Dream Girl is quite empty again. With that apparently evil grown woman standing menacingly and confidently between the kids and the progression of the story, we're being told that she's standing between them and rescue, and that's she's powerful enough to bar their escape past her. That empty space is a mental mud-trap, telling the reader that the story's progression breaks down there; it's a clever way of getting the reader to worry how our super-tots will ever manage to return to the sober pinacle of LSH teenagerdom.
IV. So many of John Forte's strengths and apparent weaknesses are present in this final example that it's all I can do to not set a quick quiz here. (I can't resist; "How many of Mr Forte's usual array of techniques are present in this panel, and what effect do they have in combination with each other? 25 marks.") And yet here the work contains a few small innovations of the formulae which result in what for me is his most enjoyable single panel of his entire tenure on the LSH. Once again the reader's attention appear's to be divided into three sections, namely the Legionnaires to the left, the city to the right, and then the smaller figures being thrown through the sky above. It presents a strange challenge of reading; the word balloon at top right demands we first focus on Saturn Girl, whose orders galvanise Lightning Lad and Sun Boy into project their individual powers. Lightning Lad, being the dominant figure in the panel, then throws our attention off to the right, in the normal direction of reading for the Western eye, where his energy bolts flash in front of the hostile city. And then, wonderfully, our eye travels upwards again, to where the three tiny figures, representing the three most mighty Legionnaires, are being blown before the storm. I've never seen such a panel construction before! Where another artist might have tried to present this scene as a single event, with the three wind-blown and tumbling figures appearing in the background of the main scene, Mr Forte, as is his want, hives Mon-El, Ultra Boy and Superboy off into their own part of the panel and uses them to point the reader forwards to the next no-doubt exciting section of this story. In such a way, the panel becomes absolutely full of action and excitement. The power of the Legionnaires in the foreground is emphasised, the force of the storm is accentuated, and the lucky reader gets to dwell in a scene which is untypically both exciting and exacting to read. (A child's eye could focus on this scene for a good long while.) Even the typical Forteian stoicism of his Legionnaires becomes unquestionably a sign of determination rather than boredom or insouciance.
To my mind, it's a small triumph of design and skill, and a good point to break off this attempt to engage with Mr Forte's work. For if there's anybody who can't see a modest and yet considerable virtue in the above panel, well; no amount of extra words on top of all those I've invested above will help my case.
Huzzah! for Mr Forte! Three cheers for his splendidly individual, odd, and engaging art work!
V. So, in some alternative universe, where I've quite undeservedly lucked Jack-Black-like into a job at a prestigious academy training the comic book artists of the future, one of the year's major homeworks will be to apply the oddness-creating techniques of Mr Forte to a page full of superhero action, as well as perhaps a single horizontal panel of a extinct race and the monuments to them on an Ozymandias-evoking planet. I'd be sure, however, to make sure the students had a list such as the following, so they could remember how to mix and max from Mr Forte's considerable repertoire of strangeness-inspiring tricks;
- create your human characters from the realistic tradition, using considerable detail as long as it doesn't create too substantial a sense of individual difference, emotion or action.
- produce stiff, largely-impassive and similar figures differentiated by colourful and distinctive costumes. (If you must reach for sophistication, focus on individual hairstyles and height.)
- only show emotion when it is absolutely demanded by the script. Don't dwell on it. When it's over, it's over, and it should be over in a few panels time at most!
- juxtapose these blank-slate but realistic characters against backgrounds which contain naive elements, especially where perspective is concerned
- and skewed perspective should be used to inform readers that what looks like an standard representation of a comic book world is something odder entirely
- never layer a scene with different events occurring at the same time without breaking up the action according to Forte's rule of thirds
- remember to slow down time for the reader by turning their attention away from the "escape" point of the panel's right-hand edge, and wherever useful, have as your eye-focusing vanishing point a scene of emotionally-unintense importance near the top-middle of the page.
- don't be frightened to increase the reader's sense that escape from the moment shown in the panel is impossible by leaving the right-hand third of the panel empty, or blocked off by a dominant figure, or containing a face looking to the left.
- don't show a character doing something if you can show other characters watching them doing something instead.
- avoid focusing the reader's eyes on scenes which are unnecessary upsetting or exciting. If that's not possible, have stoical emotional-control panel-front and choose the moment just before or just after the most powerful view to illustrate.
- If one super-powered character is using their powers, try to have them all doing so.
- make sure your panel layouts are predictable and traditional: 6 panels in two-panel vertical rows, each occupying a third of a page, with a long horizontal panel four or five times a tale.
- concentrate on wide and mid shots. Remember that focusing on a large emoting face, unless it's the Emperor Nero, is only going to end in an unnecessary emotion of some kind.
- When designing technology, don't care about realism. When attending to xenobiology, draw extravagantly from the open-house mix'n'match options offered by Terran lifeforms.
- Remember that sex and violence are dangerous matters which your audience should be protected from.
- When in doubt, ask yourself two questions: 1 - what would a young child see?, and 2 - If it doesn't look like it's real, does it at least look like it's engagingly strange?
VI: We humans have a terrible tendency to regard anything which doesn't survive as inferior, as if the shark and the crocodile were markers of excellence, and the dodo and the quagga weak and irrelevant accidents of biology practically begging to wiped from the fact of the environment. But not everything which survives is beautiful or useful, or even morally defensible. (Of course, that which survives is mostly just the most deadly competitor on the field of play.) Jon Forte's world isn't any less beautiful and beguiling because he didn't leave a school of his style behind him, and it contains, as I hope you'd agree, lost and apparently self-contradictory secrets which could well do with being unearthed and put to use on occasion today.
And it's worth remembering that even those things which appear to have been entirely lost have a habit of turning up in unexpected places. Sometimes we find a coelacanth being sold in a South African fish-market hundreds of thousands of years after it was supposed have been wiped from existence. Occasionally, the unexpected survives so far out of sight that it's hard to believe it's still there, but as with Paabo's discovery of Neanderthal DNA in some modern humans genetic code, there's always the hope that what was thought lost might be in some small way quietly influencing the future. And if some of us can perhaps have shadows of gentle, flower-gathering, grave-maintaining Neanderthal dreams at night, then I'd quite like my John Forte moments too.
For I was wrong about Mr Forte's work. Seven days ago, when I started these pieces on his art, I thought his pages occasionally contained single moments of a unique character through an accidental fusion of craft and chance. In essence, if not in every detail, I was accepting the school of thought that judges his work to be "wrong". And I was wrong. Though I've focused here just on his large horizontal panels, I can now see there's a strange, effective and counter-intuitive beauty running through much of his LSH art. I stared at John Forte's work, if you like, and it stared back, and you know what? It really did make me happy.
Please accept an open invitation to offer up a word or two of your own favourite John Forte panels, horizontal or not, in the comments here. Although I started off these pieces on Mr Forte by noting how little favour he's received from professionals of a later vintage, I'm aware that I'm hardly the only John Forte-booster on the interblognetweb. "The Comics Treadmill", for example, ran a whole string of pieces full of a warm appreciation of Mr Forte's work a few years ago. So, even if it's a few months or even years ahead, I love to hear what other Forteian watchers have thought.
Thank you for everyone who's dropped in to read a line or two in one or more of these pieces on Mr Forte. I have no idea what's coming next on TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics, beyond a suspicion it may concern "The Authority" during that titles' pomp, but whatever, it will involve thinking and comics, I promise you, so I hope I may see you here again. I wish you a splendid day!