Practitioners 20: Olivier Coipel

Olivier Coipel is a French comic book artist who has set the world of comic books on fire (several times at the behest of the script) and was described by Marvel Editor-In-Chief as being one (of very few) who has the qualities that make a ‘future superstar penciller.’ With clean compositions even in the heat of superhero battle, Olivier represents the French habit of ensuring that the emotional information in a panel is communicated as effectively as the physical. His intricate character design and attention to detail are unusual in an artist that can also turn on enormous set piece panels featuring superheroes clubbing each other on castle ramparts, shadowed by flying battleships (as in Marvel Crossover Siege, 2010, for instance).

Coming to prominence and frankly significant controversy as the artist of the DC Comics book Legion of Super-heroes while under the safe hands of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning (who later joined Marvel Universe to create Bunker favourite the Guardians of the Galaxy), beginning with the Legion lost story.

A spread from Seige (Marvel, 2010)

Legion of Super-heroes is not one of DC’s all time big hitters but has a loyal and regular following. Hard to believe though it is now Coipel recieved increased criticism on his run with Legion. His artwork slightly less sharp and contoured the fans felt that his style was ‘too rough and unrefined’ leading to a significant number of prominent critics to pan his first major work. One prominent critic (unnamed even went as far as to call him ‘Ol’ Scratchy’. In spite of this Coipel continued to draw the series when it was relaunched under the new title ‘The Legion’.

Leaving DC in 2005, Coipel signed an exclusive contract with Marvel Comics in January 2005 and has had a significant amount of pencilling work to date. With a huge amount of expectation placed on him right from the go – Coipel was asked to kill the Avengers under Brian Michael Bendis. The flagging title was gaining lower and lower sales figures and a new approach had to be introduced, and in that testing ground new talents were introduced. Coipel introduced Flashback pages to the final issues of Avengers alongside master Marvel penciller David Finch (X-Men, New Avengers).

While Finch went on to create New Avengers series some months later, Coipel released one of the most assured and impressive visual storytelling pieces in comics. Straight out of the gate (only stopping for a single cover design for Black Panther 16), Coipel was assigned the pencilling duties on House of M; in which Coipel would have to build the Marvel Universe from the ground up; utilising designs from throughout the Marvel universe. There was no doubt that this was going to launch Coipel into the limelight – no doubt what Marvel wanted – House of M incorporated every title in the Marvel Universe for four months; the culmination of all these events took place under Coipel’s pencil line in the House of M mini-series. He didn’t fail to impress, with grandiose scene making and exceptional characterisation – he captured visually the demanding emotional effect on the central characters of the Marvel Universe as they reeled from the effects of the reality shift. Wolverine talks momentarily on the deck of a renovated Shield battlecruiser over New York. In it his and Mystique’s reactions are perfect and refined, reflecting intimately on their faces the subtexts introduced by the script. And when Wolverine throws himself off the deck of the ship the skyline of New York moves up to meet him; his face still registering the conversation and revelation that has occurred to him; he has made matching draftsmanship and illustration perfectly together, seamlessly to form a memorable visual moment. Few artists could have realised better the agony in Peter Parker when he discovers that his wife is dead and his child shouldn’t exist in a harrowing and emphatic moment in comic history; no doubt lost soon to its lack of relevance to continuity.

It was in this series that Coipel’s unique sense of space and composition became obvious. In panels crowded with fighting super humans, Coipel finds space and clarity in the maul. His assured use of the panel, allowing open space, even accounting that which has to stay free for dialogue speech bubbles is nothing short of masterly. His use of free space brings the eye firmly down to bear on its intended target – the character or event. But rather than carrying the eye off panel and out and onto another page the detail fixed in his choices of moment holds your attention and makes the book you are reading significantly more engaging.

His mastery over physicality, anatomy and expression is exceptional too (expected perhaps from a French artist given the artistic traditions of his home nation) as each character is given different baring and expressions under numerous circumstances. His facial expressions can echo a perfect moment caught in a photograph in an entire play and roll from panel to panel – endlessly engaging.

Coipel was engaged in New Avengers (Variant cover only), Ultimate X-Men 61 (variant cover only), a story in the New Avengers Annual 1 and Stan Lee meets Spider-man, for which I think Dan used some artwork for the upcoming Stan Awards article last week.

Astonishing Thor Gatefold (Marvel, 2009)

But it was Thor he fell on. Working on the reintroduction of a Thor series with J. Michael Straczinsky. Set in the American Midwest, the new Thor series gave Coipel the opportunity to realise wide open skies and landscapes in the towers of Asgard as it hovered 15 feet over corn feilds. His subtle character designs and nuances worked well with the title, allowing a well realised group of all-too Human and otherworldly characters; most notably in the town meeting in which panel reveals the Gods of Asgard sitting politely on one side with the small nearby town’s population looking whistfully back at them from the chairs on the other side of the room. Every expression, costume and detail well realised. A cinemotgrapher would sit back and smile if any shot appeared as well realised in a blockbuster movie.

Coipel rounded it off with Seige, another enormous crossover event to announce the company’s creative direction with the ‘Golden Avengers'; a return to heroic age. Coipel’s work in Thor put him great stead with this book. Asgard was under attack by the corrupted Shield forces under Harry Osborne; now beyond the President’s control – allowing the cast of the heroic age of Marvel (and Nick Fury and Maria Hill) to unite and stand against a clear, black and white enemy. This was Marvel’s announcement of a return to simpler ideals and an acknowledgment of heroes and it was beautifully realised by Coipel. His friendly, clear and emotive style enhanced the events considerably.

Norman Osborne goes nuts!! (Seige, 2010)

Coipel is the new breed of comic book artists; in which cinema plays an enormous part. In a future in which the demands on an individual artist are to create as close to a photorealistic portrayal of the wonders in a comic book – Coipel will represent a spearhead in beautifully realised, perfectly poised and utterly engaging superhero and comic book fiction. He is due to return to Matt Fraction’s Thor this year.

VIVE LE FRANCE! VIVE LE REVOLUTION!!

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