I got a copy of James Stokoe’s Orc Stain TPB for Christmas. This was my first real exposure to Stokoe beyond his contribution to Marvel’s indie ghetto, Strange Tales II (a contribution I enjoyed quite well.) I didn’t start reading with any prior knowledge beyond “Stokoe draws in a complicated way,” and “Brandon Graham likes him.”
Some 168 pages later, I was really hooked. I enjoyed the story, the characters were interesting, and, maybe most obviously, the art was fantastic. As soon as I finished the book I passed it on to my father, who took one glance and said, “it’s Druillet!” He pulled out a copy of Delirius for comparison, and I saw what he meant.
Of course, my father is far from the first to make the comparison between Stokoe and Druillet. For instance, Sarah Horrocks made a passing comparison between the two on this blog back in October, in a post about the wonders of Druillet’s style. I’ve never read much Druillet outside of Heavy Metal (and quickly found that it’s difficult to find English translations of his work of his online) but I was able to read Delirius and a French version of Salammbo¹ in time to write this essay.
On a first glance, I can see why people are so eager to make the comparison between Stokoe and Druillet. Both seem to enjoy world building; packing their panels with as much detail as possible, giving special attention to complex architecture and machinery. I think most people would agree with Sarah’s assertion that Druillet’s art is undoubtedly MORE complex. Panel to panel, I think it’s safe to say that Druillet puts more ink on the page, and draws more tiny details into the backgrounds of his expansive setpieces. I would also say that the comparison between the two is more flattering to Druillet than Stokoe at this point, because Stokoe is a much better storyteller.
There are several huge differences between the approaches of Druillet and Stokoe, perhaps the greatest of which are their compositional choices. For example, here are a couple pages from Stokoe (click to expand):
And now, for comparison, a couple pages from Druillet:
I don’t think it’s a big stretch to say that the Stokoe pages are easier to read. Druillet tends to fill the page with detail from top to bottom, offering almost nowhere for the eye to rest. Even in his later work, Salammbo, the compositions are incredibly dense. Stokoe, on the other hand, employs a variety of techniques to ensure that his work is intuitive to read. First, Stokoe avoids the blocks of text that can make reading Druillet a chore. His font is easy to read. His panels follow one another more naturally; the interval between the action panel to panel is much shorter than Druillet’s. Sometimes he will even put a stylized “drop shadow” underneath his panels, to further offset them from one another, as he does in this page from the unpublished Murderbullets.
Druillet doesn’t seem to consider spread composition on pages that don’t bleed into each other, so sometimes you get spreads like this, which, while not necessarily detrimental to the story, are jarring compared to how composed the content of the pages are.
If I had to make a comparison, I would say that James Stokoe’s layouts are more like Brandon Graham’s than Druillet’s. I’d compare Druillet to a hyperdeveloped Nick Fury-era Steranko more than anyone else, with his fascination for crowd scenes, machinery, and weird optical tricks.
Aside from Stokoe’s mastery of page composition, Stokoe’s coloring allows a level of cooperation between the complexity of his images and the clarity of his story that Druillet is unable to accomplish. Stokoe colors his own work, and his color choices are almost as decadent as his drawing style. I think Brandon Graham put it best: “I seriously think he uses more gradients in a single panel then I’ve done in my entire coloring life. but it works.”
Stokoe’s coloring is vital to the clarity of his artwork. Compare an example of an uncolored Stokoe page:
With a colored one:
The color is vital. Without it, his pages would be much harder to decipher, and much less vivid. And one can only imagine how bad they would look if they were colored flatly with rich colors, as Druillet’s pages are. I’m not recommeding a re-color for Druillet (I am an original-color purist if anyone is) but it is an interesting comparison between an artist with complete control over his colors and an access to very subtle technologies, and an artist forced to rely on very garish colors somewhat outside of his control.
Now, all this being said, I think it’s impossible that Stokoe is unaware of Druillet. Some of his compositions echo Druillet very closely. Whether or not Stokoe counts Druillet among his chief inspirations, however, I think it’s fair to say that Stokoe improves on Druillet’s example, and is able to make dense, complex comics with incredible levels of detail without sacrificing clarity. A reader is able to spend any amount of time on a Stokoe comic – one could read through quickly, enjoying the story, and one could go through much more slowly, really relishing background details and the incredibly lavish art. I leave you with a heavy recommendation – if you’ve never read Stokoe, Orc Stain is great, and if you’re impatient, Murderbullets is free online!
¹Have no illusions, my French is not great. I’d call it a functional “Tarzan French.”