Pow! A portrait of the comic book artist Mike Zeck in Ringling College showcase
“Comic books will ruin your mind.”
Wrong! “Comic” or not, it’s a serious art form. For proof, feast your eyes on “POW! The Comic Art of Mike Zeck” at Ringling College.
Zeck, a 1967 Ringling grad, is the star of this show. Curator Tim Jaeger unfolds his work chronologically – from his early illustrations for Charlton Comics, to his superstar creations for DC and Marvel. The result is a portrait of a comic book artist. And his legacy as a visual storyteller. That’s exactly what Zeck is.
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Because comic book art is all about the story.
Like film, short stories and spooky campfire tales, it’s a narrative medium. The key difference? Comic book artists have no limitations. They can fill up the blank page with anything imaginable. Monsters, gods, superheroes, cyborgs, lost worlds? It’s all good – with no budget cap. Visual storytellers like Zeck enjoy infinite possibilities. And just a few inviolate rules.
Rule 1: ‘Your story means nothing if nobody reads it.’
Why do people read novels and short stories? To quote John Irving, “to find out what happens next.” Fanboys (and girls) flip the pages of their comic books for the same reason. What glues their eyeballs to the page? A powerful story. And Zeck delivers.
He knows his inky creations aren’t art for art’s sake. It’s art for the sake of storytelling. Each panel teases you to look at the next panel. Which teases you to read the one after that. What happens next?
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Zeck’s art is static. But it feels like a movie. His dynamic eyelines and compositions pull you in. His work feels alive. And there’s magic in that.
Rule 2: ‘Readers love cool characters. Especially when they fight.’
Character in conflict is the beating heart of every story. Zeck knows that, too. In Virginia Woolf’s fiction, that could be a battle in a lonely woman’s mind. In Marvel Comics, it’s superheroes and supervillains beating the crap out of each other. Over the top, yes. But not childish.
“Iconic” is far more accurate.
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Zeck helped spawn his share of iconic characters. Venom, for example, Spiderman’s Jungian shadow. A devouring, alien emptiness. Not friendly, not from the neighborhood. An empty suit, that sucked your soul.
This malign entity oozed into the Marvel universe in 1987. “The Amazing Spiderman #294” was the issue; “Fearful Symmetry: Kraven’s Last Hunt” was the storyline. J.M. DeMatteis wrote it. His words sketched Venom’s outlines. Zeck revealed Venom’s face and form. The writer was grateful.
“Because Mike nailed the plot elements so perfectly in his pencils – every action, every emotion was there, clear as a bell – I didn’t have to worry about belaboring those elements in the captions or dialogue.”
Comic book artists are also charged with other creators’ icons.
Zeck’s imagination didn’t spawn Captain America, G.I. Joe, and The Punisher. He still had to put them on the page. That’s a heavy responsibility. Fans love these characters. Give their heroes a silly makeover, and they’ll attack. But if you don’t find an original take, they’ll be bored to tears. Zeck always does. He makes other artists’ characters his own. And that makes them interesting. G.I. Joe is not my cup of tea, folks. But damned if he doesn’t look cool on Zeck’s boards.
Rule 3: ‘Feed the printing press. Get your story in print – or go home.’
While serving story, comic book artists also feed the hungry printing press. Nowadays, that’s as easy as pressing SEND and uploading a digital file. In Zeck’s heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s, it wasn’t so easy. This exhibition digs into his pre-digital prehistory. You’ll see acetate overlays, registration marks, white-out, and actual ink on Bristol board. Zeck’s art from that era wasn’t ones and zeroes. It was more like a cut-and-paste collage.
Physical. Tangible. Real.
Old-school, hands-on, comic book creation. The digital dawn of the 1990s didn’t kill this approach. But it’s rare these days.
The computer turned the comic book industry upside down. But it didn’t change everything. Sure, you can pull up a comic online and read it on a digital device. That’s still a fringe niche. Comic books still live or die in print. They’re still books. Ink on paper. Spit out from a printing press.
The print medium demands clarity and simplicity. Sequential art designed for print is no exception. The original work could be digital or physical. Either way, the rule still applies.
Zeck honors that rule. Its logic drives his composition and character. And it’s as simple as black and white.
Imagine a comic book cover. Bold, splashy color is the likely mental image. Comics definitely catch your eye with color. But colors are always printed last. Black-and-white art is the skeleton. Inked first, printed first. If that art is strong, it looks great in print. If it’s busy or weak, it looks like hell.
The walls are packed with Zeck’s monochromatic art. It’s strong, all right. Each character is always distinct, even in a complex composition. You always know exactly where they stand, what they’re looking at, and where they’ll move next.
Zeck clearly knows what he’s doing. And clearly loves it.
The exhibition’s creators do, too. Their show has panache. Animated characters leaping around on flat-screen TVs. There’s even a proud Ringling College publisher’s insignia. And glass cases full of comic collectibles, of course.
The comic book fan community is alive and well at Ringling College.
“Yeah, it’s true,” says Jaeger. “We all love this stuff – I’ll freely admit it. And we wanted to create a family-friendly exhibition with multiple doorways leading in. Comic book aficionados will love Zeck’s work. Art historians can sink their teeth into it. Cartoonists can steal Zeck’s techniques. Boomers who grew up with these comics can go back in time. And an 8-year-old Batman fan can love seeing Zeck’s work right now. We’re all fans, too – and that’s what we tried to express here.”
I’d say they succeeded.
‘POW! The Comic Art of Mike Zeck’
Exhibit runs through March 25 in the Ringling College Lois and David Stulberg Gallery, 1188 Dr. Martin Luther King Way, Sarasota. Meet the artist 5-7 p.m. Jan. 21. 941-359-7563; ringlingcollege.gallery
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Comic book art by Ringling College grad Mike Zeck on display at school