Art Comics

The beauty of art references in comic books

There is a very thin line between fine art and comic book art. What differentiates them is their audience, how they are perceived by that audience, and the medium they are expressed through – that’s it. 

by Vineet Gaikwad

That’s precisely why a middle-aged struggling comic book artist trying to make it in the suburbs of New York might relate to the life of Vincent Van Gogh. Comic book artists may belong to a different genre of art, but since they know the efforts and hardships involved, they are often known to reference famous artists and their artworks in their comics. 

From ancient hieroglyphs to the Last Supper, comic book artists have made several art references in their comics that often go unnoticed. In this article, we are going to list the best of these so that you, too, can appreciate the beauty of art references in comic books. 

Avengers art appreciation

Art variants aren’t exactly new in the world of Marvel Comics. The series was released in 2012, and it was mostly artists trying out their renditions with their own unique twists to the original comic covers and panels.  

However, some artists went beyond and created original art variants that pay homage to famous works from various art periods. From ancient hieroglyphs to Seurat’s ‘Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’ and Easter Island’s Moai Statues to Van Gogh’s self-portrait, artists made a brilliant effort to replicate the original art styles of several influential artworks that changed the course of art history.  

Source – Marvel

Each of the art variants was created by its own unique artist, such as Christian Nauck, Greg Horn, Julian Tedesco, etc.

In 2020, on World Art Day, Marvel decided to honor the artworks even further by curating a handful of the pieces in their comic gallery. 

Comparing the original with variants, it is truly astonishing how all of the pieces managed to capture the true presence of the artworks they were based on while also retaining creative aspects on behalf of the comic book artists. 

For example, each member of the Avengers in the hieroglyphic variant is shown striking their signature pose with the over-brooding presence of Captain America to signify his leadership in the team – pretty similar to Queen Nefertari’s extensive presence in her own artwork of ‘Queen Neferteri playing Senet,’ 1279-1213 BC. 

Source – Marvel

Jacen Burrows’ Crossed: Family Values series

Jacen Burrows released the second volume of his Crossed book series called Crossed: Family Values from 2010 till the end of 2011. While the Crossed series itself is pretty gruesome, the second volume is where Jacen took things up a notch in terms of violence and gore. 

The volume is based on a religious family who escape their North Carolinian ranch to survive in a mountain compound against the outbreak of the Crossed virus (which causes people to turn into homicidal maniacs). 

Left – Crossed; Family Values #2, Right – American Gothic, 1930

The reason this plotline is relevant to our article is that Jacen Burrows uses several famous artworks, especially those set against the backdrop of country or rural landscapes, for all the covers of his issues after #2. It works out pretty well for his comics since they are also set in the countryside.

Left – Christina’s World, 1948, Right – Crossed: Family Values #4

The artist used several contemporary artworks as direct references for his covers, often adding his own dark twist to them to stay faithful to the content of the comics. You must’ve already seen he referenced American Gothic, 1930, and Christina’s World, 1948, but he also referenced Army@Love – Vol.2#4 and Nighthawks, 1942 in other covers of his series.   

Leonardo da Vinci’s significant influence

Leonardo Da Vinci has had an immense impact on the world we know today – not only in art but also in modern engineering, science, and biology. He was a multi-dimensional pioneer whose genius was stunted by the limitations of his time. 

His most significant works are known worldwide, even to those not particularly enthusiastic about art. While we have paintings like the Mona Lisa and Salvator Mundi, considered priceless in today’s world, the artwork that has been referenced the most in the world of comics is, surprisingly, The Last Supper. 

The Last Supper

The beauty of referencing The Last Supper is you not only reference one of the most famous paintings in the history of art but actually use it to show who the most important characters are in the story, from the center going outwards. What’s even better is that these references have been shown to go hand-in-hand with the actual symbolism and context of the original painting. 

A panel from Legion of Super-Heroes #2 294  

For example, the above painting shows Ol-Ver, a member of the Legion of Super-Villains, in place of Judas – a clear indication that his true alliance lies somewhere else.   

Not only that, but the great painter himself has his own characters in both Marvel and DC that are both based on his real-life persona, innovations, and his hypothetically advanced genius – the Marvel version even mastered Time Travel!  

The Pietà, a universal symbol of grief

Source – Art in Context

If there is one universal symbol of grief that can be recognized anywhere around the world, it’s the Pietà. The original sculpture created by Michelangelo depicts a dead Jesus in the lap of the Virgin Mary. Despite being one of his early works, the sculpture was so refined and expressive that it resonated with everyone who saw it, and it immediately became the universal symbol of loss and grief. 

Now the pose can be seen everywhere, from Bollywood movie covers to, especially, comic book covers. The Pietà has been referenced several times by comic book artists to show crucial character deaths on comic book covers and the emotions that come with the loss of a loved one. 

Remember the Avengers Art Appreciation series we mentioned at the start? The Pietà has been referenced there, too, with a full-page interior from CIVIL WAR II #8 where Miles Morales Spider-Man cradles a wounded Tony Stark, which was the aftermath of his feud against Captain Marvel. 

What next

If you’re ready to start layering some hidden reference to the old masters in your own work, check out our guide to page layouts.

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