By Matthew Cowans
The face of Western comics is changing, but it’s been a long road and a journey that still has many hills to climb. Black characters are taking on more prominent roles in the panels we read, and more Black creators are shaping their stories behind the scenes. But what of the creatives who came before? This column traces the path of Black comics creativity throughout the decades, with each year focusing on a book that features a Black writer, artist, colourist, letterer, or editor. From underground comix through Black Panther and beyond, this series will reveal the evolution of diversity in the comics industry, and shed some light on the unsung Black heroes that have helped to shape it.
Breaking into comics as an artist is tough; even more so when you are an artist located thousands of miles away from the USA and your first assignment is the niche Legion of Superheroes. As far as DC Comics superhero teams go, the Justice League, Teen Titans, and Suicide Squad have long outstripped the Legion in sales and popularity – but this wasn’t always so. During the 1980s it was one of DC’s top selling comics. For a team set in the future, though? The League’s heyday ended decades ago.
By 1999, the team’s current run was well past its 100th issue and a breath of fresh air was sorely needed. This change came in the form of Black French artist Olivier Coipel, who became the series artist in December 1999 with Legion of Superheroes #122 ‘Legion of the Damned’ written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Unknown at the time, Olivier has gone on to become a premier artist in the world of comics and a defining artist on the Amazing Spider-Man and X-Men’s House of M. So how did Olivier Coipel break into comics, why is this Legion damned, and what is the nature of the ‘controversy’ that ensued when this Frenchman started on the book?
Coipel was born in Paris, France in 1969 to a French Caribbean family living in a housing project. Growing up, he was constantly drawing and leaving his drawings scattered about his home. Despite living an ocean away, he was enthralled by the idea of working in American comics. Coipel stated in an interview with DC comics: “Guys like John Byrne, Bernie Wrightson, Jim Lee and, most importantly for me, Marc Silvestri, made me think about the possibility of doing comics”. In addition, French comic icon Moebius and Japanese animation also provided key influences during his youth. His young talent was rewarded as he was accepted to and attended Gobelins, l’Ecole de l’Image (School of the Image) in Paris where he also excelled. However, his professional career did not begin in comics – but in animation.
As an adult, he moved first to England to work as an assistant animator on the film Balto for Amblimation who recruited him directly out of school. He then moved again, this time to the United States, in hopes of better sustaining a successful career. After arriving in Los Angeles, Olivier worked as an animator on Dreamworks films such as Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado. However he felt somewhat disappointed in the animation medium and remained drawn toward the world of comics. Speaking with Comic Book Resources, Coipel opined, “It really offers more freedom than animation and you’re more in control of work whereas animation involved a big team: each person works on a tiny part of the final product.”
Olivier’s big break came when he ultimately took a leap of faith. At 1999 San Diego Comic-Con, he was among a large group of prospects hoping for a DC Comics portfolio review. Unfortunately of the 300 artists in the room, only 20 would get the work critiqued. Not to be deterred, Olivier remained in the room until it was emptied and was surprisingly rewarded with a portfolio review with art director Mark Chiarello. Chiarello later commissioned the artist to do some pin-up work and was subsequently given the Legion of Superheroes assignment. Despite all odds, this French animator put himself in a position to succeed and his talent was able to shine through.
‘Legion of the Damned’ opens in the late 30th Century – however as the title implies, things are far from the typical utopian setting. Within the span of the month an invasion by the Blight has reduced the Earth to a shouldering ruin with the surviving members of the Legion of Superheroes barely clinging to their freedom. Much like Star Trek’s Borg, the Blight can assimilate their enemies, gaining their knowledge and abilities while adding to their ranks.
A small team of heroes including Shvaughn, XS, Garth, and Chameleon are attempting to protect some survivors during a frantic escape from the planet. The group is then ambushed by several of their Blight infected teammates. One by one the remaining Legionnaires are isolated and defeated, with Garth seemingly killed in a gruesome manner. The refugees are captured and taken to a structure ominously known as only the Stem. Chameleon barely escapes butis left alone and faced with the dilemma of whether to use lethal force against his former teammates. The issue concludes with Chameleon preparing for a last stand being surprised by the return of some of his presumed dead teammates.
Coipel handles the interior and cover pencils with co-writer Andy Lanning on inks and Tom McCraw providing colors. Blacks, pinks, and garish purples dominate this story and reinforce the sickly, corrupted nature of a Blight-infested world. The sketchy quality to his linework gives the entire book a grungy atmosphere which is enhanced by Lanning’s inks. Olivier’s style shines when rendering a crumbling society and the broken husk that the 30th Century Earth has become. His self-admitted manga influences are no more apparent than how he depicts the Legion themselves. Their faces are very expressive with bigger eyes and mouths and overall they are shown as having larger heads, longer arms, and smaller bodies, all of which are typical characteristic of Japanese comics.
Coipel also experiments with the comic panels and layouts, breaking the frame when necessary as a means of emphasizing the action. His use of smaller overlapping panels deepens the feeling of claustrophobia and further accentuates the direness of the situation. Negative space is used well here, whether black or white. This no more apparent towards the issue’s end, where the panels featuring a terrified Chameleon are dwarfed by the black background. The diminutive shapeshifter drowning in a sea of oppressive darkness in an excellent example of visual storytelling.
At the time, longtime Legion fans were apparently not pleased with the stylistic changes that Coipel’s arrival brought to the series. ‘Legion of the Damned’ represented a rather abrupt change in tone for an often lighthearted team book in both the visuals and the storytelling. Apocalyptic stories aren’t rare in the comic book industry and often is a way of taking familiar characters and concepts and turning them on their heads. The Legion themselves are drawn in a way where they resemble young teens or pre-teens as opposed to the young adults that they typically are depicted.
When comparing the art from this issue and Legion #121, the difference can be rather jarring. Olivier’s background linework may be impressivehowever it can be seen as overly busy when it comes to the Legionnaires’ figures and heavy reliance on speed lines is distracting.However despite certain qualms with his style, Olivier penciled the following issue as well as two subsequent Legion of Superheroes series, The Legion and Legion Lost.
Olivier Coipel’s story is an inspiring tale of an artist and an immigrant from a small Parisian apartment who took risks, doggedly followed his dream, and became a very successful and well regarding visual artist at DC Comics and Marvel. His leap of faith fueled only by hisbelief in his own talents and inner drive sowed the seeds for a man who remains a top creator in the comic book industry over two decades later. Legion of Superheroes #122 provided Olivier with his first real taste of serial comic work and he did not waste his opportunity.
The Legion of Superheroes #122 “Legion of the Damned”
Written by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning
Pencilled by Olivier Coipel
Inked by Andy Lanning
Coloured by Tom McCraw
Lettered by Comicraft
Published in 1998 by DC Comics