News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Book Review: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse: The Art of the Movie, by Ramin Zahed

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse: The Art of the Movie, by Ramin Zahed. New York: Abrams, 2023. 224 pp. ISBN: 9781419763991. U.S. $40.


Reviewed by Michael Kobre


            At a moment when the cultural and box office behemoth that is the superhero movie seems, at last, to be faltering (as evidenced, for example, by the disappointing returns for Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania and the historic box office failure of The Flash); when even the director of the upcoming 33rd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Marvels, concedes that “superhero fatigue is absolutely real” (qtd. in Sharf), Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is a notable exception. With rapturous reviews, as good or better than those for its 2018 Academy-Award-winning predecessor Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (which Zahed also did a book for), Across the Spider-Verse was a critical success that was almost universally acclaimed. Even the august New Yorker devoted not one, but two articles to comment on Across the Spider-Verse’s “comic book aesthetic” and “post-racial vision.” At the box office, Across the Spider-Verse overtook the first film’s total returns in two weeks and went on to earn over $600 million in ticket sales around the world in a single month. Moreover, the film, even more so than its predecessor, was seen as triumph of representation. NPR reported that “In North America, exit tracking found that the audience was about one-third Latino another third Black and Asian, diversity percentages far higher than for most superhero films” (Restrepo). As Jay Caspian Kang wrote in The New Yorker, “If there were an award for ‘the most universally enjoyable and palatable vision of race in a blockbuster film,’ ‘Across the Spider-Verse’ would win going away.”

            So the book Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse: The Art of the Movie offers fans of the movie—and, to be honest, count me as one too—an opportunity to immerse themselves in the film’s lavish, comics-inflected aesthetic and its many densely imagined worlds. Like the film, the book is a visual feast, filled with character and set designs and other production art. Details we glimpse in passing on the screen as the plot and action hurtle forward are displayed here on page after page, giving the film’s multiple worlds and legion of Spider-Men and Women even more texture and variety. A two-page image by Jesus Alonso Iglesias, for instance, features designs of ordinary bystanders in crowd scenes (at least that’s what I think we’re looking at), who are each beautifully differentiated and diverse, with clothes, body types, postures, and expressions that suggest distinct lives and personalities. A section on Pravitr Prabhakar’s Mumbattan on Earth 50101 opens with a double-page image by Felicia Chen of a densely cramped cityscape of skyscrapers decorated with stone carvings of Indian temples, towering over layer upon layer of roads that crisscross between them in a crazy mosaic of underpasses and overpasses. Turn the page too and we see image after image of the taxis, trams, maps, and signs that fill this city. Indeed, throughout the book, as we wander through all its worlds, we see detailed images of stores, bedrooms, offices, even stairwells, filled with props and objects that evoke depth and character.

            And, of course, we also see lots and lots of Spider-Men and Women. A section  on “Other Spider Characters” features four pages of artist Kris Anka’s designs for some of the other Spider-beings moving through the background in the Spider Society’s headquarters in the film’s third act, including a robot, a zombie, the Spider-analyst we see briefly onscreen before the film’s main characters crash through the wall of his office, and various other men and women in multi-colored costumes with radically different body types, including the kind of ordinary body types we see everyday in our world too. As Anka explains in the book’s text, “While I was able to add forty-plus pre-existing characters into the movie, there’s always a need for more, so I ended up creating almost an additional one hundred completely original Spiders. These are supposed to be Spiders from all over the multiverse, which allowed me to experiment wildly with both the costume designs and the render style” (120).

            But the book not only details the people, places, and things that fill the film’s many worlds; it also illuminates the different visual choices and techniques used to depict these worlds—choices which ground the film’s comic book aesthetic. “We were inspired by the look of those early comics which were made with the more limited printing processes of their times,” art director Dean Gordon says in describing the visual style of Miles Morales’ world, Earth 1610.  “They used two or three colors, and frequently misregistered color, floating inside and outside the lines that define figures and environments” (138). Miles’ world, like much of the rest of the film, also feels like a comic book in its use of half-tones and Ben-Day dots, a signature of color printing in old comics, to create texture, along with what look like hand-drawn lines over the tops of CG figures. Other visual influences that the book details include 1970s Indian Indrajal Comics on Earth 50101’s Mumbattan and the work of futurist Syd Mead, whose film designs include the Dystopian cityscapes of Blade Runner, on the look of Nueva York on Earth-928 where Miguel O’Hara, Spider-Man 2099, has built the headquarters of the Spider Society. Among the most interesting choices for me was the influence of comics artist Robbi Rodriguez’s covers for a 2015 Spider-Gwen series on Gwen Stacy’s world, Earth-65. Rodriguez’s silhouetted figures are combined in the film with abstracted backgrounds that are rendered in a way that looks like watercolor to evoke Spider-Gwen’s state of mind. “The look of Gwen’s world combines the graphic styling of her comics with watercolor,” visual effects supervisor Mike Lasker explains, “and the relationship between the two is driven by Gwen’s emotions and focus. Far distances are painted with washy brushes to push back and simplify detail. Inversely, the foreground uses linework and sharper brushes to bring the details forward” (132).

            The text of the book is written by Ramin Zahed, but its cover only features the corporate logos of Marvel and Sony Pictures Animation below the book’s title, which is fitting for a book that feels more like a corporate product—one of many that will be rolled out to accompany a successful franchise, of course—than the product of an individual author’s vision. Consequently, for all of the valuable information that the book offers, the prose itself is bland and serviceable and given to self-congratulatory paeans to the filmmakers’ and the studio’s vision. We’re told many times in the opening pages, for instance, about how much bigger and more ambitious the new film must be. The filmmakers’ “common goal,” Zahed writes, “was to make Miles Morales’s second cinematic adventure even more mind-blowingly cool and engrossing than the original” (8). And there are many attestations, in particular, to the genius and leadership of writer-producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. In the words of Joaquim Dos Santos, one of the film’s three directors (along with Justin K. Thompson and Kemp Powers), “One of the greatest assets of being in a Lord and Miller production is that everybody has a voice in the room. If an idea is working or playing, it doesn’t matter where it comes from” (18). But this self-congratulatory tone also glosses over a more complicated reality of the movie’s production that was revealed in multiple news stories after the film’s release, about the crushing work conditions for the movie’s animators, which caused more than 100 of them to quit the film during production. In contrast to the book’s description of Lord and Miller’s collaborative spirit, many of these animators complained that they were “forced to constantly revise their work due to Lord's nonstop tinkering. Insiders said Lord wanted final approval on every shot in the film, overshadowing the project's directors” (Price). In the book though, whatever difficulties the animators faced are simply waved away. As art director Dean Gordon says, “Our mission is to create the art and then hand it over to the technical departments” (27).

            There are a few frustrating omissions in the book’s text too. While the artists for every image are carefully identified, we’re never given any sustained discussion of how the art department was organized and functioned. How were the characters and worlds parceled out among the different artists? The images in the book suggest answers to some of these questions—as, for example, when we see the work of Ami Thompson, which consistently focuses on facial expressions and body language in sequences of small close-up drawings for many of the major characters—but the breakdown of responsibilities among all the artists is never clearly explained. It would help too if the book included at least some captions to accompany the images and comment on what we’re seeing. What, for instance, was the purpose of that two-page image by Iglesias of ordinary people that I mentioned earlier? Where they, in fact, designed to be bystanders in crowd scenes? When did they appear in the film, or was this just preparatory work in the early stages of imagining the film’s worlds? Other pages show what look like painted storyboards of key scenes, such as the confrontation between Gwen and her father early in the film. But how exactly were these images used? When were they created in the production sequence? Some discussion of what we’re seeing would make the book even more informative.

            Because, at bottom, the book does offer a deeper look at what seems now like a classic of animation and a late masterpiece in the overwrought genre of superhero movies. Yes, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse: The Art of the Movie, with its clunky but functional title, is a corporate product created as part of an entertainment franchise, but it’s an informative book (though not as much as it could be) and, best of all, it’s beautiful to look at. The work of these artists across these pages is consistently vibrant and kinetic, colorful and expressive, and vividly detailed and imagined. However difficult the movie’s production may have been, Across the Spider-Verse is the best realization so far of that comic book aesthetic on the screen. This book helps us understand why.


Burt, Stephanie. “The Comic-Book Aesthetic Comes of Age in “Across the Spider-Verse”” The New Yorker, June 14, 2023,

Kang, Jay Caspian. “The Post-Racial Vision of ‘Across the Spider-Verse.’” The New Yorker, June 16, 2023,

Price, Joe. “Over 100 Artists Quit ‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ Due to Working Conditions: ‘They Couldn’t Take It Anymore.’” Complex, June 26, 2023,

Restrepo, Manuela Lopez. “The new Spider-Man film shows that Representation is a winning strategy.” NPR, June 6, 2023,

Sharf, Zack. “’The Marvels’ Director Says Superhero Fatigue ‘Absolutely Exists,’ New MCU Film is “Really Whacky and Silly’ Compared to Others.” Variety, August 11, 2023,

Zahed, Ramin. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse -The Art of the Movie. Titan Books, 2018

Monday, August 14, 2023

JUST A SIMPLE MAN: The 1994 Lat interview

by Lim Cheng Tju

 (this article originally appeared in print as JUST A SIMPLE MAN. The Lat interview by Lim Cheng Tju in a Singaporean magazine, BigO (Jan 1994), pps. 59-60. It is reprinted and available outside Singapore for the first time here)

Mohd Nor Khalid is a traditional kind of fellow. Better known as Lat, the Malaysian cartoonist is familiar to us in this region. But his works have also gained quite a following in the United States. But despite the fame and the high regard others have for his works, Lat retains a simple lifestyle. He also carries the past with him and he will share it with you easily over a cold beer or just laying back in a storeroom at the basement of Nee Ann City where this interview was conducted. And there’s much laughter during the interview. Perhaps it’s the man’s way of overcoming a certain shyness among strangers. And the stories a way to reach out to another human being.

LIM CHENG TJU: Do you consider yourself as a political cartoonist?

LAT: No. I don’t do political stuff. It’s social commentary. So, once a while I draw probably prime ministers, minsters, prominent people because these people everybody knows. People talks about. But not politics.

CT: So you don’t think your comics will change people?

LAT: No. You can’t change anything with drawings… never. I don’t know about the future or whether somebody has done it. That’s not the reason for drawing. It’s to get in touch with people, you know, to communicate. But if you read the Chinese papers in Malaysia, you get a lot of political ones but quite mild, I think.

CT: Do you think there is room for political cartooning in Malaysia?

LAT: Yeah. But it’s too late for me anyway because I‘m known to people that I deal with certain things. Like simple everyday life, scenery of Malaysian life, street scenes, living room scenes.

CT: You having been freelancing since you left The New Straits in 1984. Was it a difficult decision to make then?

LAT: I was one of the first to go out on my own and yeah, there were actually some days I was worried because at that time I have a child. My first child, so no more of these benefits, you know. But it’s fun. When I left The New Straits Times to be on my own, it was because I have been going around and meeting cartoonists all over the world and they are all freelancing. Many work at home and I learnt that’s better. There’s freedom. But at the same time there are more responsibilities. You are on your own.

CT: Is there a community of cartoonists in Malaysia?

LAT: Yeah, we have an association. I’m the president. It’s the second year. Many of the younger cartoonists are still in their 20s. They draw for Gila Gila (a Malaysian version of Mad magazine) and other magazines. They are good but we’ve got to give them time because sometimes you don’t know how long a person wants to stay as a cartoonist. They might just want to move on. Yeah, I do want to help them get published. I hope they will come up to me and offer me their work. But sometimes with cartoonists it is quite difficult. I know my character. I look at myself and I know all are the same. All cartoonists are almost the same. Very difficult to deal with. Sometimes you go an approach them, you get nothing. Sometimes if you wait for them to hand over something to you, to offer something, you also get nothing. So I don’t know… we just wait or what.

CT: Will there be a sequel to Mat Som?

LAT: I don’t know… I did that book because I want parents to know about how their children work and live in the cities. It’s the same over the world. If I look around, it’s being done in other countries. The same thing. The same story. They think their children are doing very well. In my time when I first came to Kulua Lumpur, there was very little pay and I had to struggle. And every time I went back to Ipoh or to the kampung they were treating me, you know, as if I was making it in the city. They would ask about life in Kuala Lumpur and they thought it was a glamorous life. But actually there are so many things you have to go through but it’s better to go through all these hardships than just to be spoon-fed. You know, you get everything you want by 23, like what has happened to some people. By 26, they’ve got everything waiting. Finished college and then they’ve got a job waiting. They’ve got a car waiting. You don’t really know what is real hardship and work.

I have done some 40 to 50 pages for the second book. But I don’t know when to finish it. So like I told you, there’s always something waiting for me to do at home. It’s nice you know but then you get tired of it so you do other things. Now I’m collecting books on ancient boats. Mostly from our part of the world. The sea route. I don’t know what I want to do with them. But I can see that that will be the background of something I will do later but I don’t what is it. So don’t ask me ... Maybe I want to do a story about Southeast Asia in ancient times.

CT: I found the panelling [i.e. panel layout] in Mat Sam to be very cinematic. Was that done on purpose?

LAT: Yeah, that was done on purpose. I got influenced by the Japanese way. I’m so used to newspapers drawings. One big panel, you know, so I want to do that. As for the small size format of the book, maybe I like it to look like a novel. But it’s a bit weak, the story. There’s nothing spectacular. So ordinary. For many it worked. But if I’m another cartoonist, I want him to be something different so that you can have this and that. Mat Som is still a kampoung boy in the first book. Now I make the other Mat Som in part two different. Maybe you’ll see that he’s no longer that shy kampung fella. He becomes at city rat. Shout at motorcyclists and cars and he’s got to move because his home that he is renting is being turned into a condo or something. So he’s moving to a squatter house. And he’s still not getting better off. But I’ll just leave that for a while. I don’t know. I haven’t done it because of this Kampung Boy animation project. But when I complete it, I might want to make it magazine size this time. I will still publish it myself but I don’t know when. I spend too much time on the animation now.

CT: You have been talking about the Kampung Boy cartoon in interviews since the late ‘70s.

LAT: Yeah, it’s a dream. So when this happen, I look forward to a series of it. But as you know, animation takes more than one person. It’s a team project. It’s meant for TV but it’s aimed at the international so there is a lot of story considerations involved. It will only be 26 minutes but it has taken me more than a year. I started on it July last year.

CT: How much of it has been done?

LAT: I have just finished the second storyboard and the production will start very soon. It may be completed this year. The funding comes from Malaysia but the animation itself will be done in Canada and Philippines. I am working with two Canadians rights now. One is the director and the other does the storyboard. In fact this guy who does the storyboard, he is quite a young man. He has looked at me too much. So much so that his Kampung Boy looks exactly like me. You know, a fat little kampung boy. So I say no. Make him a thin boy because this was when I was a kid. Don’t look at me now!

CT: Going back to an earlier autobiographical book, Town Boy, can you tell us about your childhood friendship with Frankie? (a Chinese boy whose parents own a coffee shop)

LAT: Many people have asked me that. But what can I say? Frankie. I cannot tell you whether there’s a Frankie. I don’t think anybody in my class would be able to come up to me and say we know who’s Frankie but is that his real name? But I tell you. When I went to that house above the coffee shop, I think I was in Standard 6. So it was a happy occasion at that time. There was also pop music. We became friends because of music. We talked about the music. We talk about the Beatles, other singers and when a new hit came out, the feeling that you get … the morning you wake up and you hear the song, wah! you know and then you cycle and you go see a friend and discuss and then we later learnt to play. We also formed our band. We did "Yellow Submarine" with the special effects. So that’s all. You know youth and excitement. I remember all that because it’s in my head. To get that kind of excitement is so difficult if you look for it. So it’s appreciation. You appreciate music. It’s good. It’s better to appreciate music. It’s better to appreciate something and then you have someone in common to share with you. That’s better. Even politicians cannot tell two boys you must be friends. They say look at the other fella, why should I be his friend? But because of music, because of art, you know, you become friends.

CT Lim, Lat, and Miel in 2009 at Lat's kampung.

CT: I suppose most of your stories are created out of a feeling of nostalgia, having to grow up in a kampung and then to move to the city. You said once that the more you listened to Neil Young, the more you wanted to go back to the kampung.

LAT: I think Neil Young has got an album called Old Ways. He was singing some old songs also. So, it’s not only me. Everybody has that nostalgia thing, you know. First when you are in your 20s, you suddenly realize you are an adult. So, you miss school days. That’s the first nostalgia trip. Then when you are in your 30s, you miss bachelorhood. Then when you are in your 40s, all sorts of things, many things. Like in my case, I miss the quiet life because, you know, the children (Lat has four of them) make so much noise. So sometimes I really wish it could be nice if it’s quiet. But then because we are so used to all the noise then when it’s so quiet, the children are missing, then you say, ah, it’s good if you could hear the noise. It’s that kind of thing.

Nostalgia is … you know. Some people have it more than others. But there’s nothing much you can do about it. And you must not live in the past, of course. You look back so that you know the changes. Like me, I look at the children and I say we spend too much money now because in those days there was not money needed. No money at all for children to play. Now if you take them to the shopping complex and then you got to pay to play the computer games and all these electrical things. So the children, what they know is where to put the money in. Even the two-year-old. You need it to put it there or else the thing won’t move.

We didn’t know that because we were playing very different games. So that’s why I tell the children so that they know. Parents need to talk to their children. Just to bring them together. That’s all. It’s a very common thing. Also I tell the children and families to just hold on for a while and not to go too fast because we’re going too fast with everything. So that’s it. Hold on, you know. Just some years ago I remember, we didn’t have to pay like this. So is it necessary?

You know, usually Malaysians are not … the normal kampung way of life is always be modest. That’s what everything is about. Be modest and that’s why I always get scared when I have to spend money for children. Every time my children ask for money and I would say what? Because it’s so unnecessary. Let’s have something very simple, lah. Not so expensive. It must be cheap. Better for me. That’s why even my book (Kampung Boy Yesterday and Today), which costs $12.90. Now friends already call me up and say how come so much? I say, “I’ve got some people coming with ideas to do coffee-table books. They want to sell for M$150. You pay M$12.90 and you’re already complaining, eh?” But you know the cost of printing and the cost of paper? Already gone up. So that’s what I do.        

CT: How do your children look at the world of Lat?

LAT: Well, first of all, when I told them I was living on a house on silts, they didn’t believe it. How can you live like that? No TV? No one believes that there’s no TV because you wake up in the morning and you see the TV. So yeah, in a way I sympathize because they don’t have the space. They live in a little compound so they don’t have it. For them to run you have to take them to the park. So I try my best to take them out of town to the rural areas and show them.

Note: (1994) Thanks to Johnny Lau for arranging the interview with Lat. (2023) Thanks to Karen Goh for re-transcribing the interview from the 1994 publication.