Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Ultimate Zaffino Post

Any one of these problems requires real work and skill to resolve satisfactorily. Zaffino at his best could handle them all and make the effort invisible, freeing the reader to get lost in the story. His technique changed over time, growing more impressionistic, but he always seemed particularly interested in creating brooding moods and capturing remarkable subtleties of light and shadow. He'd create dense lattices of cross-hatching out of the most apparently casual lines, slapped down across his forms, lighting his figures in a way I'd never seen in comics before. The technique looked maniacal in flat reproduction. God only knows what the originals must have looked like.

Steve Lieber

His work does not instruct, it questions.
John Paul Leon

It was 1994 or 1995.
I was a teenager and I liked comic books, especially superheroes.

I purchased a past issue of Star Magazine, a monthly anthology title consisting exclusively of Marvel stories.

My attention was all for Spiderman: Sub-City by Todd McFarlane. The other “big” story published in the same issue was called Seven Block, written by Chuck Dixon, art by Jorge Zaffino.
It didn’t look like my cup of tea. There were no superheroes in it.(1)

I’m thirty-two now. I still read and enjoy comic books. My tastes changed a bit, though.

First influences

Jorge Zaffino was born on June the 13th, 1957 in Buenos Aires, where he would live for the rest of his life.

His father Jose Zaffino was an art instructor at the Pitman Academy.
It was him who enrolled Jorge in private group art classes taught by renowned Argentine art instructor Julio Juaregui and it was again his father who got him under the wing of brothers Enrique and Ricardo Villagran, in whose studio he initially worked as an unpaid assistant, at the early age of 16.

Magazines such as Creepy and Eerie, considered by many cartoonists to be the finest anthologies ever produced, introduced young Jorge to the works of artists like Alex Toth, Gene Colan and Frank Frazzetta.

Among his favourite artists there would be Hal Foster and Milton Caniff and laterin life expressed his admiration for the italian Sergio Toppi (it is also clear he was familiar with the work of Alberto Breccia and Hugo Pratt).

But the true role models for him where Cezanne, Howard Pyle, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Caravaggio and Velazquez.

He was almost obsessed by the way light interacts with the objects. He would copy hundreds of Rembrandts in order to figure out how it works,
Gerardo Zaffino.


After a year of washing brushes and erasing pencils for the 
Villagran brothers he got his first shot at drawing for the studio, doing pencils and background art and his output quickly earned him the appreciation of his fellow studio artists.

At 19 he was already producing work for Argentina's comic publishers serving as an artist for series like Nippur de Lagash, Tierra de Elfos, and Wolf. Hi style knew a remarkable evolution

(note the evolution between the pages left to right)

the chance for a breakthrough In the early 1980s, when Ricardo Villagran travelled to the US and brought along a few art samples by the studio artists to shop around.

In one of these occasions Chuck Dixon envisioned Jorge’s work for the first time. He was blown away. He wanted to work with the guy.

One of the articles I used to research this piece says that later:

“Zaffino visited Dixon in America, using money he had saved from his studio work and from a series of children's book illustrations done for friends.”

This detail might seem incidental, but its inclusion suggests that affording that trip wasn’t easy and conjures up the sympathetic image of a very modest working-class fellow.

Zaffino en Dixon finally got to work together on the three-issue series Winterworld, published by Eclipse in 1987. 
It would not go unnoticed.

American Breakthrough

During this period, I was working to turn the Punisher into a major leading character. One of the Punisher projects I had in the works was a graphic novel written by Jo Duffy. The Punisher character and Jo's script seemed like good matches for Jorge's dramatic and moody style. Jorge teamed up with Jo and the result was the very successful Assassins Guild graphic novel. Jorge's work was brilliant. I remember being blown away whenever Jorge mailed in a new batch of pages. Other editors and artists would sometimes visit my office and dig into the flat files to get a look at Jorge's latest work.
 Carl Potts 

After Assassins Guild, Zaffino teamed up again with Dixon on a second Punisher graphic novel, Kingdom Gone, in 1990. 

His career in the US would continue with the Marvel Series Critical Mass, where Zaffino and other artists illustrated the scripts by writer Dan Chichester.

Zaffino developed elements in his style which were already surfacing in Kingdom Gone: his detailed cross-hatching left in favor of bolder, only deceptively casual-looking patches of black.

"I think Toth always fed his simplicity," said  Zaffino's son Gerardo in an interview: "Although he covered the pages with lines, the composition was very simple. I remember watching his pencils and saying, 'Hey, when are you going to finish them?”

A taste of this “looser“ style are to find in projects like Hoover (with Carlos Trillo), Hellraiser, the Conan story The Horned God, and Seven Block, (these last two once more with Dixon)

Seven Block (a 45-page one-shot for Epic, the creator-owned imprint of Marvel Comics) especially stands out. Dixon's writing is incredibly tight (one of his best efforts in my opinion) and Zaffino manages to create a sense of dread throughout the piece with a fearless use of blacks.

When I saw the artwork for the first time, on the pages of Star Magazine, I did not like it.
I skipped Seven Block entirely and actually did not read it for another year or two.
It wasn’t a super hero story; it utilized a palette of “acid” colors and was too dark, too realistic. It almost looked like the art was Xeroxed several times: gritty, rough and black.

I liked bright colored comic books where heroes where clearly defined.

Though I wasn’t that keen on the then popular  “Image” style and preferring artists like John Byrne, Neal Adams, John Romita Sr., Kevin Maguire or Mike Zeck, Jorge was another category to me.

At the top of his game

His work displayed a raw power that is unmatched. He was like Joe Kubert in that you can see his 'hand' in the work. What seems like delicate and deliberate line work in reproduction would be revealed, on close inspection of the pages, as brutal and varied ink lines that looked as though they were thrown down casually. But they weren't. Jorge worked hard to achieve that look of spontaneity. Often he would finish an entire sequence only to tear it up and start over again.
 Chuck Dixon

This is the kind of quote that works very well, but that I often take with a grain of salt.
It seems to adhere too much to the stereotypical portrait of the struggling artist. In reality not many of them, when working on deadlines, can afford that kind of integrity and trash an entire sequence.
Still, I believe Dixon is no liar here. Especially if you compare the early stuff Zaffino produced with his later art, the evolution is staggering. HE clearly worked, and worked hard. The kind of sensibility his son and peers describe is clearly the one of someone CARING very much about his art.
It seems to me (and that is why I feel a particular affinity with him) that he considered every panel, every illustration as a challenge or a riddle: “How do I render this?”

Artist working with a “realistic” style have to face this kind of issues: how do I get it RIGHT? How to I suggest this texture, this movement, this light? And how do I do it using only black and white?

And on top of that, there is storytelling: body language, facial expressions, clarity in composition and blocking of the scenes. Maybe is because of this that Jorge thought of himself more as an Illustrator, because he was trying to resolve a stylistic enigma first.

Basically do not consider myself a storyteller. I can give you names of guys who are, such as "Lito" Fernandez, Altuna, Frank Szilagyi. They enjoy the genre and are narrators. Because cartooning is not about nice drawings, it's about telling a story. is rather a matter of creating an atmosphere than tell a story.

Jorge Zaffino

Funny is that he had an uncommon sense of composition (the balance in many of his pages is worth being studied) and an amazing storytelling craft: what happens is very clear on the page.

Bad Timing

As the 1990s proceeded, Zaffino got himself a place within the mainstream American scene, working on the ongoing series Terror Inc. for Marvel. Zaffino began the series at the height of his ability. Though his skills never wavered, his work had changed by the seventh issue.

Dixon attributes that to the monthly deadlines “Jorge wasn't built for”, while his son explains the troubles were of a more personal nature.

He spent time reflecting on his art and his personal life. "Jorge had not been well for many years, as he suffered from a persistent depression which is the reason for his producing so very little work these last years," said fellow Argentine comic artist Quique Alcatena to Comicon.com's Splash.

"This perhaps excessive professionalism brought him into conflict with deadline-minded editors, and Jorge got fewer and fewer jobs. Moreover, he was in a search for utter simplicity and synthesis in his line - he reneged from the more elaborate work he produced in the late '80s as being too cross-hatched, a fact which did not fail to earn his peers' applause, but which did not make him reader-friendly."

To some degree he couldn’t have chosen a worse period to enter the American market. The nineties were dominated by people like Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld. It seems that the American teenagers wanted only splash pages and in-your-face gonzo action.

Even I did not like the art at first!

It is interesting the way I changed my opinion.

It was 1997. I was sixteen. I was attending Art school and by that time my taste in literature and comics was changing.

I used to play a role-playing game with some friends, called Cyberpunk 2020. The stories took place in a dystopian urban future, a cocktail that blended the apocalyptic visions of the approaching century from authors like Philip K. Dick, Williams Gibson, Rod Sterling, and movies like Blade Runner, Mad Max, Escape from N.Y., Soylent Green, The Terminator, as well as mangas and/or animes like AkiraThe Ghost in the Shell with some Pulp Fiction and The X-Files thrown in for good measure.

The game master's story arcs and ideas, combined with our style of playing (we were keener on acting than on rolling multi-faceted dices to see who would win a fight) made me think that, if put down on paper, our adventures would be really fun to read.

The gruesome resolution to a very tense scene we played one day had potential for a great comic book moment. and I decided to make a comic book out of our adventures (or at least attempt to).

Because of that, I had to figure out what the art would look like.

I went through my comic books collection l
ooking for references,and that creepy looking Seven Block came to mind. Even though I didn’t never really read that story until then, those panels had somehow grown on me.

I slipped the magazine out of the shelf and digged in to it.

And boy, was I mistaken the first time around!

The art was simply beautiful. Probably it had to do with me being an art student by then. Having to deal daily with drawing from life, I was finally able to see what Jorge Zaffino was doing with his rough, sketchy style.

What stroke me was that compared to a lot of other argentinian or italian artists who drew with a similar "impressionist" technique (i think of 
 (Hugo Pratt and Ivo Milazzo) where the shapes are defined by shadows and light rather than by lines, Zaffino had a "solidness" a presence I usually did not associate with this style.

The only fair equivalents I could find were John Buscema (when he did Conan) and maybe Alberto Breccia, but both were a lot more "baroque", or Tanino Liberatore who (to me) is a lot less skilled in composition and storytelling.

(Do not get me wrong, I love all of the above and I think they all are great artists, but on some lenghts Zaffino seemed to beat them all -still in my opinion)

Jorge had it all: a solid classic background, knowledge of anatomy and a fresh style, not caged by pointless nice artistic gestures.


Unbeknownst to me, around that time Zaffino was focusing more on his painting and essentially left the US mainstream scene, illustrating books published in Argentina.

His last little story for the American market (once again by Chuck Dixon) was an 8-page jewel for the short lived Batman Black and White anthology.

Here Batman and a never-so-beautifully-drawn Commissioner Gordon look new and classic at the same time. He capture them in realistic poses, without taking the magic away from them. A trick only David Mazzucchelli managed to succeed with in Batman: Year One.

Jorge died of a heart attack on July 12 2002.

I was struggling with how to turn my thinking into strictly black and white. How to create depth? How to render the form on an object or figure? Studying Zaffino's work aided me in ways I will always appreciate. He answered many of my questions, and started me on asking new ones.

Tommy Lee Edwards

This is a late tribute to an artist's artist. Someone who may be shamefully forgotten because of his (relatively) small body of work, but who has left nonetheless a long lasting impression on a lot of other artists, many of which he never met.
I discovered a handful of fellow Italians (respected professionals like Gigi Cavenago, Roberto Zaghi among others) who have the same reverence for him.

Because of the stature of Zaffino among “connoisseurs” and the scarcity of originals, it is not that easy to find originals to buy and apparently those who possess one wouldn’t give it away.

I wanted to write longer and touch on every aspect of his art, but there are at least two good reasons not to do so:

1) There are some very good posts about the artists by other bloggers/reporters/artists worth reading that examine different facets of his art.

2) If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this gallery can count for millions. Enjoy the work of the man himself instead of reading my attempt to describe it.


(1): Time did justice: I regard now Sub-City as one of the dumbest things I've ever read. Worse even than MacFarlane's debut as a writer: Torment, where at least he tried to create a style and to a convey sense of, well, torment.
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