In comic art history, as with all art history, there’s the idea of lineage to think about: Artist X was influenced by Artist Y, who was in turn influenced by Artist Z, and so on. Where things get interesting is when two very different artists take inspiration from the same figure, and do vastly different things with that influence.
Take, for example, Milton Caniff, the cartoonist behind iconic newspaper strips Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon. A giant amongst comic book artists for his masterful inky line work, Caniff inspired both Alex Toth and Hugo Pratt. Both took different things from Caniff’s work; Toth leaned into the way that he pared images down to their purest, distilled essence, while Pratt focused on the iconography and illustrative qualities of Caniff’s line and ran with it, creating something beautifully baroque in the process.
The lineage continued, moving through generations. Toth inspired artists like Steve Rude, Bruce Timm, and Darwin Cooke — each of whom, in their own way, hewed to the idea that less is more when it comes to mark-making. Meanwhile, Pratt’s influence can be found in the work of Paul Pope, who’d bring his own, additionally elaborate, spin to it. And that, in turn, would influence the beautiful, ornately detailed, work of Brazilian artist Rafael Grampá.
In many ways, you could file him away beside artists like Geof Darrow, and Seth Fisher. Think of them together as the founders of a school of comics art where too much is never enough: the Opulence Aesthetic, if you will. Like his compatriots in this imaginary school of art, Grampá makes a feature of overloading the viewer with every image, making sure that they’re entirely fulfilled with each drawing whether it’s a comic book cover or interior story; it’s as if he’s determined to make sure that everything he delivers will feature the maximum amount of… well, everything, no matter the setting or star of each image. Yet, despite this, the artwork never looks awkward or overworked — if anything, it’s surprisingly, beautifully, fluid and graceful at times. Grampá’s line has an effortless flow to it, a way of ensuring that everything feels organic, whether it’s DC’s Batman with a billowing cape behind him, or an armor-wearing warrior from the distant past leaping into action.
Even here, quibbles could be made about lineage. Darrow and Fisher may share a sense of overload and too much, but in other ways, they couldn’t be more different from Grampá: their lines are intentionally cleaner and more uniform, their characters more grounded in something akin to a physical reality than the muscular fantasy of Grampá’s work. In many ways, they’re more the children of Tintin creator Hergé than Hugo Pratt.
Grampá, though, clearly, unavoidably, takes his cues from Pratt, and Pope, and then pushes them further and into new and exciting places. There’s an unavoidable dynamism and a power to his characters, even when — especially when — they’re just standing in the center of the page, unmoving.
Part of that comes from the fact that, no matter what position his figures may be in, anyone drawn by Grampá is filled with life and a curious level of practicality; it’s right there on the page, in the obsessive amount of detailing that he ensures is present on every single page. Superhero costumes will suddenly, beautifully, look like actual clothing with wrinkles and ill-fitting details that suggest material that moves with — and, occasionally, against — the body, with seams and additions that help translate the traditionally unrealistic fantasy figures into something that looks as if it exists in the same world that we do, despite their cartoonish physiques.
It’s also that Grampá’s line work is, more often than not, unusually busy with marks that are at once amazingly evocative and almost meaningless — occasionally, they hint at a particular texture, or create the illusion of form and physicality on the page, but just as often, they’re there purely because they look cool. And, more to the point, they do look cool; they add some inexplicable appeal to the drawing that makes it feel exciting and alive even if there’s no conscious explanation why that might be. Perhaps it’s the sense that they’re there because Grampá himself is too into it to stop drawing, and keeps adding more and more until the page is pulled away from my deadlines or the need to do something else, even more essential.
All of this might be projection. But Grampá invites that kind of projection, I think; outside of his comics work, he’s been an art director for a television network, a concept designer and director for an animation studio, and the director of a number of live action shorts, as well; he’s appeared in an ad campaign for Absolute Vodka, and his artwork was the basis of Nike’s 2013 “Dare to be Brazilian” campaign. He’s the co-founder of a development and production studio called Handquarters, as well as having a coterie of comic book collaborators including Becky Cloonan, Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá, and Frank Miller. He is, to be blunt, a busy man whose life just seems far more vibrant than we mere mortals. And that’s not even mentioning his ongoing collaboration with Keanu Reeves as designer of Boom! Studios’ BZRKR.
Even if none of that was true, though, even if we knew nothing about what Grampá was doing when he’s not drawing comics, there would be a restlessness and life to his artwork that would read as endlessly appealing and eye-catching. To look at a Grampá piece isn’t just an exercise in recognition, or even in admiration; it’s looking into another version of our world, one that’s filled with a curiously practical version of the fantastic — something that draws us in with its relatability, yet teases us with the potential of something bigger, more outrageous and exciting. Rafael Grampá is an artist who shows us how the impossible works; it’s what makes his work so compelling.