Thursday, February 19, 2015

Comic Artists I Love: Scott Morse

I was introduced to Scott Morse’s work in Oni Double Feature #7, which I picked up because it included the second part of P. Craig Russell & Troy Nixey’s adaptation of a Neil Gaiman short story, “Only the End of the World Again.”  In that issue, Scott Morse’s “Volcanic Revolver” was the second half of the double feature, and it seized my brain with its comic-narrative clutches like little had before.  I can’t remember if that short story indicated that it was part of a larger story, but that short put Morse squarely in my sights as a creator to watch out for. 

Scott Morse is a singular artist whose work stands out among the myriad artists working in comics.  Whereas the influences of most comic artists are self-evident, often a legacy to those artists who came before and easily discovered in the back issue bins, Morse’s are not as easy to find, until you look outside the comic book field.  Morse comes from an animation background, having studied at the California Institute of the Arts while also citing Maurice Noble – long-time associate of Chuck Jones, whose most notable work can be found in many Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoons – as an artist who had a profound effect on his work.  And it is this animated style that is Morse’s signature and his strength. 

As a cartoonist, Scott Morse’s work is supremely pleasing and easy to look at, conjuring up memories of one’s childhood in his deceptively simple linework, which delineates almost cherubic characters through the proportionality incorporated into his figure work.  It’s a style that welcomes readers into the story, easing them into Morse’s narratives – as a comic artist who also writes most of the stories he draws.  Once readers move more deeply into any give story, they often find that Morse the writer is interested in more mature themes than may be apparent from a cursory scan of the work of Morse the artist.  It’s subtle, and could possibly be jarring for some, but Morse is masterful in the way he deftly balances the “cuteness” of the art with the serious tone underlying much of his work – a serious tone, I should point out, that is also balanced by the very human, as well as very humorous, scenes he infuses these stories with.  This juxtaposition of readers’ expectations with the gravity of the story not only allows Morse to put forth ideas that might be difficult to broach in a more “realistic” art style, but it also makes those weighty moments become more resonant, lingering in the readers’ minds after the final page is turned. It’s a powerful approach to comic storytelling that I find invigorating and impressive.

Morse is a cartoonist who has also played with format, in his work.  With Spaghetti Western, he worked in the landscape format.  In Southpaw, Morse created a square book that had a single image on each page, which was smaller than the standard comic size.  In Notes Over Yonder, Morse crafted a wordless tale that has more emotional depth than every single superhero comic book of any given year – with rare exceptions.  Much of his recent work, Strange Science Fantasy being a prime example, is drawn in the “widescreen” model popularized by Bryan Hitch.  In his magnum opus, Soulwind, Morse played with a variety of artistic styles – scratchy lines heavy with ink in the King Arthur portions, lush brush strokes reminiscent of Asian paintings in scenes with the monks and the child, and multiple other approaches depending upon the scene – that not only enhanced the narrative, but also showcased Morse’s range as an artist.  And, in The Barefoot Serpent, Morse bookended a sepia tone story of a young girl who lost her brother to suicide with lush watercolor images recounting the life of Akira Kurosawa, himself a survivor of suicide and depression.  Morse is an artist who seems to thrive on inventiveness, which keeps his art vital and timely.

As stated above, Morse is an artist who tackles important subjects. Looking at his body of work, one can find common themes running throughout much of what he has created.  Ghosts drift through much of his work, as seen in his creator-owned work like Visitations and The Barefoot Serpent, as well as work-for-hire assignments, such as “The Delusions of Alfred Pennyworth,” which ran as a black and white backup in Batman: Gotham Knights #34.  Often, these ghosts reveal truths meant to ease the burden of those left behind, to help seal the fissures that can erupt within families when a loved one is lost.  These stories are emotionally engaging and all too human, and I think this, above all else, is what attracts me to Morse’s work.  His work is eminently heartbreaking and relatable and, in the end, uplifting. 

Since that introduction in Oni Double Feature #7, I have gathered a near-complete collection of Scott Morse’s work.  From modern westerns to high fantasy to science fiction to Batman and Spider-Man to human drama, Morse is able to work within these various genres with consummate craft and heart that is enviable and always entertaining.  Very few artists are able to work across genres with such ease and at such a high level of artistry.  Rather than just playing out the plot, Morse always has something “to say” with his work, and I find very few comics – or stories, in general, regardless of medium – as engaging and entertaining and thoughtful as those of Morse’s oeuvre.  It is a feat to be lauded and appreciated. 

But all that aside, what it ultimately comes down to is that I love Scott Morse’s art and his storytelling, and anytime I see a new book with his name on it, I get it, and I read it, and I am enriched.  Check his work out.  You won’t be disappointed.

SELECTED BIOGRAPHY (some of which may be out of print):

The Complete Soulwind – published by Oni Press
The Barefoot Serpent – published by Top Shelf Productions
Magic Pickle – published by Dark Horse Comics
Strange Science Fantasy – published by IDW
Batman: Room Full of Strangers – published by DC Comics

Volcanic Revolver – published by Oni Press


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