For many American fans of comic book art, the question of just who could handle the position of being the “Norman Rockwell of Comics” is one that seems to recur on a regular basis.
Rockwell, of course, holds a particular place in the hearts of illustration aficionados; his Saturday Evening Post covers are iconic in their ability to exist both as impossibly beautifully rendered paintings, and well-observed vignettes offering some form of societal or comedic commentary on its subjects. It’s not just that Rockwell was an artist capable of creating gallery-worthy artwork on a regular basis — work that does, decades later, now hang in galleries, it should be pointed out — but that each image was filled with such depth, empathy, and good humor; to look at each of his paintings was to know, immediately, that the subjects of Rockwell’s paintings had inner lives that existed beyond the edges of the page.
In many respects, both of these talents are—or at least should be—common amongst comic book artists. Any comic fan could likely rattle off lengthy lists of favorite illustrators whose work, they feel, should exist in museums and galleries, and the ability to suggest believable characters that exist outside of the confines of the story, so that the readers can fall in love with them. In practice, however, few artists have managed to pair a finish as luscious as Rockwell’s — evocative of figurative painters in the classic tradition — with the kind of warmth that makes them feel as alive. Which is where Julian Totino Tedesco comes in.
Tedesco, an artist whose work has been gracing the covers of comics from publishers including Marvel and DC for the last few years, is a rising star in the world of contemporary comics for obvious reasons. His work has a timeless quality to it, born of a finish created by a mixed media approach combining analog and digital methods; even covers that have clearly been completed digitally — perhaps because of bold, clean graphic elements, of which he’s seemingly fond — have a painterly quality to be found, with brushwork or pencil lines showing just where he’s touched the page, and the care and attention to detail clearly visible in each image.
He seemed to come from nowhere slightly over a decade ago, when he posted samples of his work online in 2009 and immediately got offered work from Boom! Studios; before too long, he’d been given the job of creating covers for Marvel’s short-lived Season One original graphic novel line. (Since then, he’s worked on everything from The Walking Dead to Action Comics.) The reality was, however, that he’d been sharpening his skills in his native Argentina before that point, working as both a commercial illustrator and creating backgrounds for animation. It was a grounding that continues to serve him well today, with his mainstream comics work nonetheless informed by, and featuring a breadth of influences and choices that point outwards of what readers expect from superheroes and their presentation.
In many ways, Tedesco follows in the footsteps not only of Rockwell, but another artist whose career began in commercial illustration far more recently. In terms of both the mixed media approach and specifically using digital methods to accentuate the marks and intent made by an analog and physical process, he follows a template laid down by James Jean — another artist who made their reputation through covers for comics including DC’s Robin and Fables that looked as if traditional paintings had somehow been evolved via digital means. In many ways, there’s a quality shared by Tedesco and Jean’s brushwork that might speak to a shared influence, or perhaps a result of mixing digital and analog. Both artists produce work that can be safely described as “rich” — in color, in depth, and in personality — that intersects with, but feels free from the weight of, fine art history as it’s commonly recognized.
Where Tedesco differs from Jean, yet finds common ground with Rockwell, is in his use of humor. If there’s one constant throughout Tedesco’s work, it’s his use of humor to add additional depth to an image, whether texturally, as in the image itself is either humorous or features some element of comedy to it (as is often the case with his Superman covers, wonderfully; he really taps into a sense of whimsy present but often ignored with that particular character), or in references to some external material or influence that acts as Easter egg or in-joke for the knowing viewer. This is especially the case when it comes to visual references to lowbrow or pop culture; he loves a good shout-out to pulp book designs, if nothing else.
Often, the humor transcends the fictional reality that the featured characters traditionally exist within. Sure, we know that Lois Lane and Clark Kent are in love, but we rarely if ever see them in Hallmark-style Valentines settings in their comic book adventures, say, or seeing Hawkeye reimagined as a noir private eye. It’s in these breaks that Tedesco implies the fullness of these characters’ lives (external and internal, for so many of these more arch images can be read as fantasies or metaphors for emotional states of those involved) beyond the norm witnessed in their regular adventures — his willingness to color outside of the lines, so to speak, creating a space for them to appear more well-rounded, more human, in the process: they can do more than punch things and grimace! Who knew?
With every cover he creates, Tedesco enriches the fantasy worlds of his subjects, showing them as bigger, bolder, and more real than they had previously been. As such, he leaves the viewer in a better place, as well. In that, he truly is the closest comics has ever come to the great Norman Rockwell — but, as Norman Rockwell never managed to draw Peter Parker swinging through Lower Manhattan, so I think we know who really comes out on top here.