For fans of a certain age, John Buscema defined the look of Marvel Comics. In fact, in some ways he wrote the book on the subject, as the featured artist in the famous How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, which has had over 30 printings since its first publication in 1978. Though he eventually got around to drawing every major character and worked on every title available at the publisher, Buscema is best known for his long association with the character Conan, the infamous barbarian warrior created by pulp author Robert E. Howard, which Marvel licensed and published for many years. Though he never wanted to be a comic book artist, Buscema made an indelible mark in his nearly fifty year career, leaving behind an artistic legacy envied by many, though largely unknown to younger fans.
John Buscema officially got his start in comics in 1948, but bounced back and forth between comics and the commercial art field as a freelancer for many years, before returning to comics full time in 1966. In the years he’d been away, Buscema had refined his technical abilities as an artist, but had stagnated in his development as a penciler of comics. There are many people who can draw, but telling a story in a clear, concise and dynamic way is a special skill few possess—and one that must be practiced and honed, regardless of the artist’s inherent talent. Stan Lee gave Buscema a stack of Jack Kirby books and told him to study how the King did it. In addition, Buscema worked over Kirby’s layouts on his early books in the sixties until he got the hang of it.
And boy, did he ever get the hang of it.
Within a couple of years, Buscema managed to combine all the best aspects of Kirby—dynamic but clearly defined action, portrayed in detailed cinematic layouts with diverse and varied perspectives—with his particular elegantly rendered lines. Where Kirby’s figures exude coiled strength, barely contained and ready to explode, Buscema’s always seem regal and majestic, like the idealized statues the ancient Greeks made of their gods. A Kirby horse looks like a Clydesdale, poised to grind you into the turf if you don’t get out of its way, while Buscema’s is a thoroughbred which would just as soon leap over you as fly past before you even see it.
Even when drawing the powerful Conan, whose look had already been defined for many fans by the renowned painter and fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, Buscema gave the character an aesthetic and lithe grace despite his bulk, that resonated with readers. Buscema’s celebrated work on the character was so popular it had a role in convincing producers to green-light the first Conan film which debuted in 1982. Naturally, Buscema penciled and inked the beautiful comic adaptation of the movie.
Several of John Buscema’s runs are historically significant for devoted Marvel fans. Besides the aforementioned Conan books, which he completed across multiple titles and formats, he had a nearly two-year run on The Avengers that redefined the look of the team at the time.
During that run, he also perfected an underrated aspect of his artwork. The artist became a master at depicting emotions in his figures’ poses and facial expressions. Even when portraying masked faces, he always made the characters’ feelings and reactions clear and easy to read; dramatic, without resorting to cartoonish caricature which would have clashed with his realistic approach to rendering human anatomy. His characters acted.
Many artists have arguably garnered more acclaim for their pencils with a similar style and approach—Neal Adams and Gene Colan who were his contemporaries, Alan Davis and Brian Bolland in later years for example—but Buscema dominated the very fine line between authentic, heightened bombast and cartoonish distortion like no other. His approach represents the difference between the acting in modern films and those from the silent era: subtlety. That’s ironic given that comics are read, just as silent films were, and serves as a testament to his talent and technical ability.
Another of Buscema’s great runs was on the Silver Surfer title Marvel launched in 1968. The book didn’t sell very well at the time, despite the character’s popularity. For many Kirby fans it represents a historical sore spot, as Jack had always wanted to draw the book, having created the character. Regardless of the politics that may have been bubbling along in the background, or the reader apathy that greeted it, the artwork is a showcase for everything that made John Buscema the unique talent he was: Perfectly delineated figures, in settings no one had yet imagined, engaging in action that sucked readers in like nothing they expected to find outside their local cinema.
Those issues serve as a perfect visual epitaph for an artist whose work should never be forgotten by fans of the medium.
Watch: Check out a classic art tutorial from legendary artist John Buscema from YouTube!