Who Knows Where I Came From

I’ve become obsessed with the idea of identifying artists being responsible for my visual sense. The idea came from a talk that Lucasfilm Creative Director Doug Chiang gave at Star Wars Celebration, in which he made an offhand reference to Ralph McQuarrie being the man singlehandedly responsible for his visual sense. It’s likely a simplification that just so happens to play into the Star Wars of it all — McQuarrie being the artist behind the iconic concept paintings that every fan of a particular generation is all-too-familiar with — but the idea has stuck with me, and left me wondering who my visual artists would be. Where does my sense of visual information come from?

I go to obvious personal touchstones, instinctively: Julian House and Rian Hughes as graphic designers (Chip Kidd, too, but I often overlook him for some reason); Dave McKean, Kent Williams, Gustav Klimt and Mark Rothko as illustrators or visual artists. Martin Parr’s photographs. Eddie Campbell’s comics.

But all of those ideas feel too late — I discovered most, if not all, of those people when I was in my 20s. Who and what was essential to me before then? The answers are almost entirely comic-based, unsurprisingly, and the answers are for the most part faintly embarrassing to me now: John Byrne was the comic artist to me through, at least, me being 14 or 15. I remember his Superman and his Legends as being as if I was seeing those characters for the first time, and although I was too young to have read his X-Men when it was coming out, Classic X-Men felt iconic and “right” when it reprinted that stuff for my generation. He has to be recognized as being a core part of my visual sense to some degree, even if I feel a level of embarrassment approaching shame to think of it now.

Other early options are more obscure, if no less fundamental. Jose Ortiz’s work appeared in all kinds of British comics that I read, and his casually grimy work felt real in a way that few other things I saw did, or even could. Slightly later, and post-Byrne, Steve Yeowell’s Zenith felt like a revelation with each new series through the third — to this day, I still thrill at the memory of his brushwork, or his seeming unerring ability to know when to use tight, controlled linework instead of something messier and more expressive.

It feels to me as if there’s a hidden component in there, but I couldn’t tell you what it is, or even where it would be. I’m sure it’s going to be something I’ll keep picking at for some time. Once you start retracing your steps like this, it becomes a preoccupation that’s hard to undo.

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