By Jorge Khoury
There are some comic book artists that achieve stardom; there are fewer artists who are universally praised by their fellow peers for their talents. Ron Garney is one of a select group who has earned both of these achievements. In a career that now spans over twenty years, this professional is a craftsman who has survived the ups and downs of the comics business by stepping up his game and raising the bar in sequential storytelling. In his illustration, he flawlessly captures the heroism and excitement of the superhero, while grounding his narrative with modern day flair and a gift for action choreography that would make even filmmaker Christopher Nolan envious. All of these attributes, in my view, place him among the upper echelon of artists working at Marvel or DC today.
Artistically-inclined since childhood, a twenty-something Ron Garney did not seriously contemplate a career in comics until an awakening encounter with Marvel's "Secret Wars" in the mid-'80s. His rediscovery of the comics art form triggered a sense of purpose and enthusiasm that adrenalized him to feverishly work on his samples. As he sought constructive criticism from the veteran comics artists he befriended in his native Connecticut, Ron listened attentively to their guidance and strived to correct any flaws in his layouts. And when the time was right, Mike Zeck, an early mentor, introduced Ron Garney and his portfolio to editors at Marvel and DC Comics. At DC he was immediately tested and subsequently offered the Grant Morrison-scripted "Animal Man" title -- but the editors had a change of heart and ultimately chose another penciler. In the Marvel offices, the artist found even more offers and landed his first official job in the March 1991 cover-dated "G. I Joe" #110.
Twenty-years later, a forty-something Garney has never forgotten the satisfaction of seeing his first published work. He recalled, "I remember just the thrill I got walking into the comic shop and seeing it there. It's just the coolest thing ever to see your name on something. I can't explain it. It was like seeing your name on a movie screen or something. It was just the coolest thing. And here I had achieved it. I had made the commitment to get into Marvel years and years earlier, and I didn't quit. And that was the thing is I could have quit, but I didn't. So here I was actually achieving it and starting out pretty well. But then the editors got into an argument; they had it out in a meeting, because they both wanted to offer me a regular book. So it was kind of like, 'Wow.' I went from getting turned down on the 'Marvel Tryout Book' to having editors offer me all kinds of stuff. It was the best experience of my life, and I was very honored and grateful."
The early 1990s were a profitable and expansive period, and the House of Ideas was an environment that provided enough room, time and titles for up-and-coming creators to establish themselves in the field. From the get-go, Garney was able to convey two important things to his editors: first, he had solid storytelling skills; second, he didn't miss his deadlines. His dependability and productivity earned him regular penciling assignments on "Marc Spector: Moon Knight," "Nightstalkers" and "Ghost Rider." Each title a bigger seller and property than the previous. On these books, Garney learned his craft and established his name with Marvel's loyal fanbase. And at a time when most of Marvel's star artists left to prosper with Image Comics and other entrepreneurial ventures, Garney remained committed to Marvel and continued on his course to draw their top-tier titles.
About his art style, Garney elaborated, "My stuff was stylized, and it had a cartoony feel to it. It had a look, definitely, but it wasn't rendered and stylized like Jim Lee. But how I made up for it was just camera shots, camera angles, and interesting ways of looking at the story, of moving the camera along, and that's where I had the most fun. I think that holds true to this day. I've gotten definitely more stylized over the years, but it's not something I've ever predominantly focused on, which is very obvious. My style comes from just having fun being a director and moving the story through the pages, getting it to come to life, making it look like you're watching a movie. That's what I try to go for. That's where the fun lies, for me."
By 1995, Ron Garney had found his voice as an artist on "Captain America" with writer Mark Waid. After ten successful years of Mark Gruenwald penned Cap stories, the title was losing sales and becoming redundant. The arrival of the Waid and Garney team restored "Captain America" to a viable book again; month after month the sales rose dramatically during a time when Marvel titles were bleeding out readers across the board. The confidence and command in the execution of Garney's Cap artwork began to finally draw critical attention. The stories became second nature to him, all reflected within the rhythm of his storytelling and the powerful characterizations of the title's players. For this artist, the believability of the story triumphs over everything else. To get the readers into these energetic tales was where it was at for him.
Garney's return to Marvel saw him paired up with current collaborator Jason Aaron
The back-to-basics storytelling in "Captain America" wasn't accidental; it was very much a reaction to the hectic comics style of the day. Garney commented, "I just went the opposite way of the trend, because I just couldn't stand it. I wanted to have fun with it, and I wanted it to look clean, and easy to read, and easy to follow. Most of the stuff I would open up, I couldn't tell what was going on, and if I can't read it, I can't imagine a reader can read it, so that was always my focus: clean, clear storytelling. Along with Waid, my whole thought about 'Cap' was having it have a sense of fresh adventure, where we have to travel to different places and just have it be something different. I loved European art, at the time. There were those larger-format books, and their pages were wider, and the compositions and the storytelling in those were so easy to read and so pleasing. That's sort of the way I wanted to go with it."
The "Captain America" run came to an abrupt end when the title became a victim of "Heroes Reborn," a high dollar business move/media splash by Marvel that handed "Cap" and three other books to creators Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld for one year. "Heroes Reborn" was a blow to Garney's confidence, but he persevered and continued to excel in his follow-up books: "Silver Surfer," "The Incredible Hulk" and his eventual return to "Captain America." The comeback to Captain America (Volume Three) would become another misadventure when he was suddenly removed from the book in favor of Andy Kubert. If he learned anything from these events, it was to not let the behind-the-scenes politics of comics get to him and to keep going forward. The more he got into his craft, the more new ways he found to show his audience that comics could still be fun.
A new century brought a change of scenery for Garney. After pencilling a run on "Uncanny X-Men," the artist brought his palette to DC Comics' "JLA" in 2004. As the regular artist on DC's biggest team book, he pencilled and inked the under-appreciated "Pain of the Gods" storyline, written by Chuck Austen (Garney's "X-Men" collaborator). "Pain" was the first book entirely rendered, pencil and inks, by Garney; every issue of the arc shows him pushing himself to his then-maximum potential in style and execution. The subsequent "JLA" story was "Syndicate Rules!" with fan-favorite writer Kurt Busiek and veteran inker Dan Green, in which the heroic team faces off with the Crime Syndicate of Amerika.
Preparation and discipline is not something Garney takes lightly. He said, "You're drawing [the books], and I had a lot to focus on, because I become very close to the story (because I had the script the longest), maybe more than the writer. So by the end of that, I'm pretty drained. [Laughs] I'm just like, 'Okay, I've gotta get on to the next one.' It's not like I can sit, write a story in a day or two, or even a few days. It's easy to stay fresh, you want to know where it's going, but after four to six weeks of drawing, you're just so spent, emotionally, from doing all the acting on the page. Because you're actually acting these characters out, too. When you have even secondary characters and they're responding a certain way, they have to have certain facial expressions look a certain way, their body languages, and the hero, and everybody. So you're acting. You're acting and directing. And so it's an emotional experience, by the time you're done. It's just very draining.
Garney's commitment to improvement has turned him into a modern master
"You have to regroup. It's like a muscle, it just reverses its memory, it starts to atrophy, and you have to read, and it takes you more time to warm up again," Garney continued. "You have to kind of stay warm, but cool off at the same time. So you get done with an issue, cool down for a day, but you still have to have everything in your head so that when you sit down at the table, you're drawing well, because if you go more than a couple days, then you start losing that looseness you have, and that ability to make decisions about the work right away. And that's the big thing is sometimes if you're looking a script and you're reading it, it takes a while to make a decision about a panel, the shot. Is it overhead, is it a worm's-eye-view, or are you going to use a vertical panel shape, a horizontal one? How you are going to break down all that stuff can take a while if you're cold. You have to stay in fighting shape by the time it is done."
Upon wrapping up his commitments to DC with a dynamic three-issue arc on "Green Arrow," Garney returned to Marvel. On "Amazing Spider-Man," he rendered the intense Civil War-themed issues of the character and the gritty gem of a story entitled "Back in Black." On "Wolverine" and "Weapon X," he was practically given tailor-made stories in the form of the compelling (and Garney's personal favorite) "Get Mystique," the action-packed "Adamantium Men" and the time travelling sci-fi tale "Tomorrow Dies Today," all scripted with much bravado and gusto by then up-and-coming writer Jason Aaron. Recently, the Aaron and Garney combination teamed up once again on the in-your-face "Ultimate Captain America" mini-series. These later books with Aaron have seen Garney add a digital palette to his repertoire. Now more than ever, we're seeing his work in its purest form sans a traditional inker (and coloring his own covers), to give it the resonance that he intended when he originally penciled the work.
Like a great musician, Garney remains as passionate and relentless about his craft as he was at the start of his career. His art is very much alive and melodic. His interiors aren't stoic pin-ups, but moving stories that flow naturally and tell a tale, a talent not as easily possessed or commonplace as in the past. For more than twenty years, he has been consistently outstanding and weathered all distractions. Technically, he gets better and better with each assignment. In his industry, he's not just a professional, but a true master of the beautiful medium that we call comics.