Pickman’s Apprentice: An Appreciation of Jacen Burrows

Pickman’s Apprentice: An Appreciation of Jacen Burrows

“It annoys me when people talk about “Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta” or “Alan Moore’s Marvelman” and I’m not going to enjoy hearing about “Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing“. I can’t claim to be an individual artist in my own right. The end result, the strip you see on the page, is the meeting between me and the artist.” (Parkin 128)

Collaborator with Alan Moore on Neonomicon and Providence, and before that the artist for Antony Johnston’s adaptations of Moore’s The Courtyard and Recognition, Jacen Burrows’ contributions to the final product are sometimes overlooked, both by regular readers and by attentive annotators too focused on the details of the script to properly appreciate how much Burrows brings to the creative partnership.

Jacen Burrows' signature, from the Women of HPL variant cover for Providence #3
On the right, Jacen Burrows’ signature on the Women of HPL variant cover for Providence #3

Jacen Burrows is perhaps best known to readers as effectively the house artist for Avatar Press, a comics publisher of the school that does not shy away from the standard taboos, no matter how grisly, violent, cannibalistic, or sexually explicit. Burrows’ work on the original Crossed (2008-2009, collected as Crossed, Volume 1) and its sequels in particular has been a byword for technical excellence in depicting a ghoulish subject. With his work on Threshold (1998-2006), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2005), Night of the Living Dead: Back From the Grave (2006) and other titles, he has certainly earned his place as one of the modern masters of the macabre.

I’ve always been drawn to highly detailed, clean work, defined by contour lines instead of heavy black inks, with a strong emphasis on realistic, tight perspective. Lately I have been trying to use more high contrast lighting for effect but at its core, my art will always be a clean line style which is why I get described as looking somewhat European sometimes, not that I mind. (“An Interview with Jacen Burrows”)

Stylistically, the influence of Matt Wagner (Mage, Grendel) and Timothy Truman (Grimjack, Jonah Hex, Conan) are apparent: Burrows eschews the exaggerated physiques and often sloppy anatomy often associated with superhero comics, preferring more realistic proportions and a greater variation in body and facial types. Burrows’ characters tend to have a high degree of facial symmetry and with a tendency toward strongly defined chins and brows, but the character designs remain very distinct.

Not the prevalence of widow's peaks, and high cheek bones on the men.
From Neonomicon #1, page 4. Note the prevalence of widow’s peaks; high cheek bones and squared jaws on the men, versus the more pointed jaw on Agent Brears.

Burrows backgrounds tend to be very detailed, and though page and panel layouts seem to be largely dependent on the writer, his schooling in perspective and visual rhetoric shows in his almost classical composition for covers and scenes, with balanced tableaux and vanishing lines that draw readers’ attention to the focus of the piece. This style has caused some critics to classify Burrows’ figures as “stiff,” lacking the usual motion-lines and blurriness used to imply movement in the scene.

From Understanding Comics page 112 by Scott McCloud.
From Understanding Comics page 112 by Scott McCloud.
From Providence #6, page 15. While Burrows eschews action lines, he does sometimes use multiple-images to showcase the passage of time.
From Providence #6, page 15. While Burrows eschews action lines, when called for he uses multiple-images to showcase the passage of time.

With respect to his covers especially, this “stiffness” may hark back to the classical “still-shot” openings and closings of EC and Warren horror comics that seek to capture a single gruesome moment.

Women of HPL variant cover for Providence #4. Note how the scene is centered on Leticia Wheatley,
Women of HPL variant cover for Providence #4. Note how the scene is centered on Leticia Wheatley,

As far as gore and grue goes, it can be honestly said that few artists in the industry get quite the mileage out of their anatomical studies as Burrows does—both in terms of making sure every organ and muscle is in its correct place, and for not shying away from the nipples and genitalia. Gore is relatively reserved in Burrows’ collaborations with Moore, while male and female nudity is more common, but in both cases Burrows’ compositions carry on the atmosphere of the work—whereas exploitation is almost the point of Crossed, with blood and violence often showcased, Neonomicon and Providence are much more subdued, so that when blood and sex do appear, they have much more impact.

From Neonomicon #4, page 10. Gore is relatively reserved in Burrows' collaborations with Moore, while male and female nudity is more common.
From Neonomicon #4, page 10. The protruding entrails is a detail worthy of pre-Code horror comics, and helps separate Burrows and Moore’s work from less graphic horror.
From Neonomicon #1, page 26 - Rather than cheesecake, Burrows and Moore can utilize nudity to invoke disgust and horror.
From Neonomicon #1, page 26 – Rather than cheesecake, Burrows and Moore can utilize nudity to invoke disgust and horror.

Burrows did a commendable turn as artist for Antony Johnston’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s The Courtyard (2003), but working directly from Moore’s scripts proved to be a different sort of job:

Garth’s [Garth Ennis] scripts read as fairly traditional comic scripts. He’ll describe the acting, actions and elements of a panel that must be there and generally leaves the layouts and angles up to you except in instances where camera direction is being specifically dictated for effect. Alan’s [Alan Moore] scripts take a totally different approach where each panel is being described as a finished picture. Elements are described by the location on the picture plane and even small details are described by their placement in the composition. Moore’s method of controlling the picture plane allows him to work in additional layers of subtext or to control the story flow from panel to panel in ways other writers don’t. You get a sense that every element is part of a greater design. But he also says in the script that he is just bombarding with details that you can choose to keep or toss as fits the story. […] I pride myself on trying to get as close as I can to the writer’s vision. It’s kind of a game for me. I think I must have a little OCD buried in the back of my mind somewhere that this kind of thing triggers. (“Jacen Burrows on Alan Moore’s Neonomicon – Avatar Interview of the Week”)

From the sample script pages revealed in the Neonomicon Hornbook, Burrows was not exaggerating the level of detail involved.

Script detail for Neonomicon, showing the level of detail Moore goes into for a single panel.
Script detail for Neonomicon #1, showing the level of detail Moore goes into for a single panel.

Beyond the character designs and control of the scenes, the script highlights one of Burrow’s most important contributions to Neonomicon and Providence: the sense of space. Some of the subtle but effective visuals and layout choices focus on shifting perspectives in the same space, with visual cues directing the readers’ attention rather than dialogue, forming an effective visual rhetoric.

Neonomicon #1, page 10. Notice the high degree of symmetry in the page.
Neonomicon #1, page 10. Notice the high degree of symmetry in panel 1, and how the page remains balanced around the center of the page, and how the different characters are framed by the features of the room.

But much of the realism of Neonomicon and Providence is due to the careful mapping-out that Burrows has done of each scene—perhaps most notable in the “revolving camera shots” that show different perspectives of the same characters in the same room from different angles, artfully concealing and revealing details for good effect—readers can picture for themselves that this is a real room.

Note how the "rotating camera" effect shows how carefully planned out the room is, and the lack of movement lines, giving the "stiff" appearance of the figures - as if each frame was a photograph.
Providence #1, page 5 art. Note how the “rotating camera” effect shows how carefully planned out the room is, and the lack of movement lines, giving the “stiff” appearance of the figures – as if each frame was a photograph. Even the light sources are taken into account, right down to the shadows on the wall.

All of the Alan Moore projects I have worked on have had unique challenges. For Courtyard we went with a vertical 2 panel format and for Neonomicon we went with a 4 panel horizontal grid which we repeat with Providence. It can make doing the compositions really difficult because you have a lot of story to convey in each panel along with limited options for where you place the characters in order to keep the dialogue flowing smoothly through the page. The more you work within these limitations, the more you improve your ability to compose the panels in interesting ways instead of falling back on certain angles and poses you’ve already gotten comfortable with. I really feel like my ability to visualize scenes in three dimensions has improved a lot since Neonomicon and it is because I couldn’t take shortcuts. I’ve also felt the need to push myself to present more of a realistic style over the years because it just feels more appropriate for the material in my mind. It was a difficult transition because I feel like I used to be able to hide a lot of beginner mistakes like wonky proportions behind cartooning. But when you are going for more of a realistic style it is all there, exposed. But it is also kind of fun for me to look back and see the evolution in skill between the projects. (“Dancing In Cthulhu Slippers Before The Abyss – Jacen Burrows On Providence, Plus Art Reveal”)

The sense of realism is important too in invoking the atmosphere of both Neonomicon and Providence. For the latter especially, Burrows said “we wanted to focus on a tangible historical realism throughout. […] Robert Black doesn’t live in a shady nightmare world; he lives in our world, which sometimes intersects with things that will horrify him down to his bones. There are definitely some opportunities to design and show some really scary stuff, but I think it is the contrast with the recognizable but still somewhat alien 1919 setting that amplifies the creepiness.” A large part of this realistic approach involved research into period views, clothing, furniture, and myriad other details. While his attention to anatomy is laudable for the realism they bring to the work, it is in these carefully researched and immersive designs and background that really shine in Providence.

From Providence #1, page 9.
From Providence #1, page 9.
Building on the southwest corner of 5th Avenue and 14th Street - via Google street view
Building on the southwest corner of 5th Avenue and 14th Street – via Google street view

I drove myself a little crazy with my efforts to try to be accurate when possible. Everything from locales, to props, to clothing, it all had to be researched. What does a coffee pot from 1919 look like? What kind of summer hats were popular with ladies before the fashions of the roaring 20’s took over? With architecture, for example, I would get on Google Street View and trace the path of the character looking for background elements, then try to look up the specific building’s addresses on real estate sites to see if they existed in 1919. And certainly in Manhattan you can do that but when you get to places like Athol or Salem, you have to take more liberties. […] Alan writes in such detail, describing not only their actions and details about their appearance but also giving me enough bits of background, personality and nuance that I would start developing a look in my mind before I ever set pencil to paper. But with Robert Black I really drew influence from the illustrations of J. C. Leyendecker. He was a brilliant, massively influential, golden age illustrator in his day who paved the way for artists like Rockwell. So I studied a lot of his illustrations in hopes of capturing that classy opulent style. (“Dancing In Cthulhu Slippers Before The Abyss – Jacen Burrows On Providence, Plus Art Reveal”)

Such appreciation for detail is a sentiment which Lovecraft applied to his own work:

But I think that there is a profound aesthetic value in realism so developed as to give the reader a sense of the underlying rhythms of things–a realism which hints at longer streams of essence & vaster marches of pageantry than the span & substance of the outward events, & in which detail serves either to indicate basic trends or to enhance the convincing life-likeness of the foreground. Such a realism must be accurate in its depiction of life & motivations, & must be detailed enough to give a sense of actual substance to the outward events shown, else it will not have enough contact with any deep sense of truth to form the unifying or liberating desired. No avenue can lead us away from the immediate to the remote or the shadowy or the universal unless it really does begin at the immediate–& not at any false, cheap or conventional conception of the immediate. (Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft 3.195)

While Providence may be unique for its extensive research into historical details, Burrows has also evidently studied up on a somewhat more obscure topic for these Moorecraftian collaborations: the art of the Cthulhu Mythos. From The Courtyard to Neonomicon to Providence, while Burrows has often applied his own imagination to crafting Lovecraft’s alien entities, it is clear that the Crossed artiste has devoted time and effort to both Lovecraft’s original descriptions of the various entities, and to at least some of their popular depictions in books and roleplaying games, most especially evident for the depictions of Shub-Niggurath or her young in some of the Providence variant covers.

xxx
Left: Jacen Burrows’ Pantheon variant cover for Providence #5. Right: Dark Young from S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Cthulhu Monsters, by Tom Sullivan

These covers too are where Burrows can spread his own personality a bit more:

Early on it was decided that there would be a running theme for each set of covers. Covers that show specific locations, portraits of major characters, the women of Lovecraft, the Pantheon and the Dreamlands. And Alan decided the subjects for each of those, but how to depict them has been largely left to me. I’ve really enjoyed the Portrait/Women covers because I get to show a little extra personality or show them in their element in ways I might not get to do in the narrative. And drawing the monsters is always fun, but my favorite cover so far is probably the Dreamlands shot of Ulthar with the streets full of cats for issue 5. I always enjoy drawing animals. (“Dancing In Cthulhu Slippers Before The Abyss – Jacen Burrows On Providence, Plus Art Reveal”)

Providence #5, dreamscape wrap cover, by Jacen Burrows
Providence #5, dreamscape wrap cover, by Jacen Burrows

Works Cited

 

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