Friday, October 9, 2020

Early Influences - Earl Norem

GI Joe Operation: Disappearance - Earl Norem

For some time now, I have been reflecting on the artists and works that were touchstone influences in my childhood. At the time, I was unaware of the artist, and frankly, some of those artists remained a mystery to me into adulthood, but it was their work that had a profound effect on me. It may have only been a cover, or an issue, or a series of spot art pieces, but there are artists out there whose work came to me at just the right time to have a life long influence on my work, and the work I gravitate towards. To start things off, I wanted to share a book by Earl Norem that took hold of my nine-year-old mind and never let go. While I have talked at length about the effect that Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, and Kaiju movies had on my love of monsters, it was, in fact, the art created for GI Joe that had a sizable impact on how I look at art. There was a time that GI Joe ruled my childhood, and Star Wars and D&D were in the back seat. During this time, a GI Joe storybook entered my life, and I would never be the same.

I will be honest; it was a long time before I ever knew that Earl Norem was responsible for the art in this book. There was a list of names in the front, and I never imagined that the artist would be last. In time I learned who Earl was and the length and breadth of this work and how much of his work I already knew. Let's start with the cover. POW! RED. YELLOW. And look at that directional composition. I love everything about it. I simply adore bold color elements, be they skies, background colors, etc. Everything is pointing at the impending doom of the hoard of Cobra Troopers quickly advancing on the heroes. Areas of the background lose detail and simply become color so that the action and silhouettes of the main characters are prominent. Also, note the overlap and clumping of the figures—Scarlet in the extreme foreground and the mob of troopers in the background. This cover has stayed with me since 1983. While this copy is not the one I had as a child, I was able to find a new copy that is dear to me.

I can't tell you how long I stared at this list of names, wondering who the artist was. In time a simple Google search cleared it all up. Granted, Earl did sign the cover, Norem is right under Hawk's boot, but as a kid, I never noticed it.

Look at this action! Figures moving though the image with strong lines directing the eye through the composition. I am a sucker for underwater images, and I stared at these panels imagining the pitched undersea battle. The atmospheric perspective was not lost on me as a child. Even then, having spent so much of my own time underwater, I knew that objects and colors dissipated as depth and distance increased. Looking at these images only made me understand it more and that it could be imitated. 

To be clear, I had no clue at the age of nine how any of these images were made. It was all magic and witchcraft. The materials, techniques, and skillsets needed to make any of these images felt like they were lightyears from me. Even now, I look at them, and they seem like impossible works to equal. Though looking at them now, I see the subtle simplicity to them. That dynamic pose of Cobra Commander standing above Breaker and Scarlet, but the shading on his mask looks almost to be one color and one brush stroke. Masterful! That is so much not how I work, and I love it anymore for that. There feels to be so much happening in each image. So much done with what feels like the greatest of ease.

In school, I did a book report on this book. We needed to make a diorama and a repost on a book. I recreated the above left page as a diorama using my action figures. Sadly there are no photos of it, but I built a section of this underwater Cobra lair and a dais that Cobra Commander held Scarlet as a shield. I rigged up a zipline of sorts and had Flash sliding down to distract Cobra Commander. To this day, my Scarlet figure has a bit of black paint on its leg from an accidental splatter while working on it. Note the figures in the bottom left and how they are knocked back. This was not lost on me, though it would be many years until I truly understood how, why, and when.

Look at those colored light sources, directional lighting, and rim lighting all on one beautiful spread of pages. All you need to know about a lot of my work can be summed up by the right page with Cobra Commander being lit from two different directions, in and off-canvas, with intense rim light. It is strange to see something that is so clearly the beginning of how you approach and think about art. On top of the lighting, Cobra Commander is dominant, up close, and spilling out of the frame. I am guilty on all accounts and completely unapologetic. We can not help being influenced artistically, especially as children, and it is pleases me to be able to point directly to something as the sourse. It is not like I have been copying Earl's work for the past two decade with my work. Far from it, but this work, these paintings, opened my eyes and help me begin to see and understand visual storytelling. It would take decades of work and learning to put those pieces together, but the journey started on these pages.

The above left page is significant. As a child, I understood what was happening, there was a very bright, very intense light source and that was color-shifting everything in the image. At the time, I thought it was magic to be able to create such an image. I could not process how you knew to do this, how you went about making it, and it fascinated me. I stared at that page for far too long, wondering about it. I could feel this image, I could even hear this image, and I longed to know how to create such things. The right page is just a beautiful composition and I love that splash of yellow in the background with the figured shifting purple. So good!

Again, we have an image, that to me, feels effortless. Like the paint just fell on the page and made the image. There is just enough to make Scarlet's face, and the brain fills in the rest. Hawk's expression is gold. I remember as a kid feeling like I knew the man, as if he was real, from this one image.

Sadly, I will never be able to say these words to Earl Norem. He has been gone for five years now. Now that I am at a point that I can reflect on my early influences and understand how and why they made such as impact, I am learning that those artists are all dead. This book is thirty-seven years old, even if the artist was a young man at the time, he would be an old man now. If some young person is profoundly affected by my work and it takes them thirty-seven years from now to figure that out, I will be in my eighties. I wonder if we are not meant to know who, if anyone, we touch or influence. It is just that the work is out there, and it will find those that need to see it.

That's all for another exciting week on the blog, see you back here on Monday! Until then...

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