ART DRIVEN COMICS AND “MALINKY ROBOT”
The 1990s era of the comic book industry gave a bad name to art-driven comics. I say that as one who followed a lot of artists at the time that people to this day don’t think are very strong. I disagree, though I acknowledge some of the short-comings. While I enjoy the great writing to be found in our chosen medium, I’ve become more discerning about the art in comics in recent years once again. It’s like the pendulum is swinging back.
I’m also greedier today; I want good art paired with good writing. There’s plenty of both in comics today, but sometimes it does seem as if the trick of matching the two manages to elude editors and creators. Too many comics look alike, with too many of the same creators whose work just isn’t to my taste floating around from project to project, lessening my interest in potentially exciting releases. Frustratingly, some artists that I think are amazing just don’t sell particularly well to the Direct Market. C’est la vie.
There’s a certain class of comic I enjoy these days that would have disappointed me a few years ago: the art-driven project. If a book has jaw-droppingly beautiful art in it, I’m willing to forgive a weaker story. I am mature enough, however, to note that the story isn’t strong and that the art is the reason I’m reading it. I don’t put blinders on. I just note that I am more likely to enjoy a comic with strong art and weaker writing than the reverse. It’s like I don’t expect good art to have good writing, but bad art over a good story destroys it all for me.
This brings me to “Malinky Robot,” a beautiful new trade paperback out from Image Comics this week, collecting the short story works of Sonny Liew, of “My Faith In Frankie” and the “Flight” and “Liquid City” anthologies. The stories follow two friends, Atari and Oliver, on adventures around town dealing with stinky fish and bicycles and, uhm, stuff. Honestly, the stories are forgettable and occasionally nonsensical. Some of the storytelling gets too fancy for its own good. Though it is nice to see comic book stories that aren’t all about the end of the world or how mean two friends can be to each other. It’s like a breath of fresh air that way.
But Liew’s art? I could stare at it all day. The inks, the colors, the panel compositions, the cityscapes, the facial expressions, the meticulous backgrounds, and the occasional way a large panel is broken up into a series of smaller panels that probably uses the golden spiral thingy. Beautiful stuff. Everything is well designed, pieces that belong to a whole but look unique and interesting on their own. Liew draws in plenty of backgrounds, often cityscapes. He has characters with unique body shapes with strong acting skills. His pen strokes have a roughness to it that you’d associate with the original pencils, not something smoothed over in inks. I like that, as I also like the earth-toned color scheme that keeps things feeling dirty and “real.” There’s an atmosphere to this book that is hard to capture in many other comics.
I had a PDF for the purposes of this review, but I’m anxious to see it in print to see how the work holds up on the often unforgiving medium of white paper. If the pages can hold the colors I saw on my screen this weekend, I’ll be very happy to make it a permanent addition to my bookshelf, probably right next to the “Flight” anthology series, another set of volumes people often accuse of having pretty art and no story. (I think “Flight” worked about 50/50 in that department. You can’t deny, for example, Michel Gagne’s storytelling work.)
I will say this, though: Nobody’s figured out a way to make semi-transparent word balloons work. Not even Liew. It only gives the reader a headache.
“TELLOS'” FIRST ISSUE AND WHY IT’S GOOD
“Tellos” debuted at Image Comics in 1999, springing forth from the minds of Todd Dezago and Mike Wieringo, with Paul Mounts on colors and Comicraft lettering with a font based on Wieringo’s own handwriting.
Let’s look at the opening sequence of that first issue again with fresh eyes. If you want to play along and read ahead, the entire first issue is available for free on Comixology.
Page 1: A black page, with a few word balloons to set a mystery for the reader. Already, I’m reminded of CrossGen’s debut issues, each of which had glowing eyes discussing the universe, its fates, and the people in it. Or something like that.
Page 2: Here is a beautiful two page spread overlooking the city of Jeffsport. Again, it feels like the opening of a CrossGen title with a dramatic and detailed atmospheric shot, but please keep in mind that CrossGen was a couple years away at this point.
Still, this sets the atmosphere and the world up as well as anything seen at street level might do. We see a port populated with ships — sailboats, no less. We see dirigibles up in the air, which is always a good sign for a fantasy tale. I love those. (Wait, didn’t “Meridian” have those? I’m not saying CrossGen copied “Tellos” at all here — and Mike Wieringo did an issue of “Meridian,” let’s not forget — but I’m interested now in the parallels, having picked up on this thread. I apologize now if I beat it into the ground.) These floating ships are literally “ships,” right down to the paddles sticking out the side, as if they’re being rowed through the air.
A couple different creatures fly through the sky. One is a simple red bird, but the others are clearly dragons, with pointy tales and sharp wings. If the flying ships didn’t tip you off that this is a fantasy title, that should do the job.
We see architecture that reminds you of the minarets of the Middle East. They’re older structures, as seen by the flaking paint on the sides of all of them. They’re impossibly high, and some even sort large open areas, which might be the landing ports for the floating ships in the air. (That reminds me of the recent “Star Wars” movies, though they were seen in Cloud City in “Empire Strikes Back,” too.) There are lots of smaller buildings below, with similar roofing material. They’re jammed in where there’s space, and then sporadically just outside the city walls in a more wooded area.
A single gigantic sun is closing in on its setting time off over the horizon, and some low mountains are far off in the distance at the other end of the body of water that leads into Jeffsport. (Memo to self: Who’s the Jeff in “Jeff’s Port”? The boy who’s living this story is Jared. Close enough? I might be forgetting something. Haven’t read the book in a year.)
The coloring is bright, with solid areas of blue in the water, green in the vegetation, and the red of the air ships. Brown buildings fill in the skyline.
So far, the book is a medley of influences, filled with classic fantasy tropes combined in a fun way. It’s like everything that was cool to Todd Dezago and Mike Wieringo was being thrown into this. With another artistic pairing, you might have seen this exact same scene play out with futuristic buildings and space ships, or a more steampunk way with ships spewing smoke all over the place. The elements come together for a fun combination, but we can’t say that one element informs the other. It’s not like the dragons caused a race to the air and better development of blimps, or that this series of protruding architectural towers is purposeful for the nation’s defense against them. We just don’t know any of that yet, but the simple answer is often best: This is a combination of things the creators found cool, and so do I. That’s cool.
Page 4: Jarek and Koj are racing through a city street, the motion lines helping propel them across the brick paved street. Koj is a walking talking tiger. Jarek is a boy. A smattering of people around them are not all human, either. A couple of floating naked people are clearly fairies. There’s an elf, some furry dude, a gray guy with two horns sticking out of his forehead, and a red pointy-eared vendor next to the guy selling watermelons from his stand. This is a market, and our two protagonists are racing through it.
The second panel gives us our big introduction to the pair. The camera drops to a wide angle street-level view. Koj and Jarek fill the frame, with a little of the street sloping down in front of them, as if a reaction to a superwide lens distorting around the edges. It helps to pull the reader into the scene, as the eye interprets this is a leading line, of sorts. Neither character has a foot on the ground. They’re running just that fast. They also are nearly symmetrical in their run: one leg down, the other back; both hands in fists, but one’s left is out and right back, while the other’s right hand is down and left hand is back.
They’re plotting how to avoid capture from the Frog Soldiers. And suddenly I feel like I’m watching the opening number with Aladdin that Disney movie. (“Gotta keep, one jump ahead of disaster, they’re quick, but I’m much faster…”) Mike Wieringo was an avowed Disney fan. Disney animated was one of the biggest influences on his art. It showed.
A fruit vendor off to the right is a blue-feathered bird creature. A bunch of the floating fairies are seen flying in the air above and behind our two leads’ heads. A frogsoldier is just visible in the background and, not surprisingly, he’s a frog. There’s a puddle in the extreme foreground, which stands alone in all of the town, though we need to set it up here so that Koj can splash through it in the following panel on page 5. It’s just one extra little thing to help propel the motion forward.
Page 5: We stay with the low angle view long enough for Jarek and Koj to pass over us, their feet splashing in a conveniently placed puddle. But their feet and legs neatly frame the panel, leading your eyes further into the panel to the frogs chasing them down. For some reason, the “SPROING” sound effect as they hop makes me smile. It’s silly, I guess.
In the second panel, Koj and Jarek split up. Koj climbs up a wall, so the storytelling reorients to a vertical panel, instead of the previous horizontal. It’s a shape that fits the action, even if it’s the only majorly vertical panel on the page.
The next set of panels runs down the right half of the page, starting with the frogs making their plans to split up. Their leader points in the same general direction as Koj — upper left — to guide half his force in that direction. And in the next panel, we cut straight to Jarek spotting a tunnel to run into, as a caption box spells out the frog leader’s command to follow “the boy.” We don’t need to see another talking heads panel of the frogs, after all. Splitting up that bit of dialogue lets Dezago and Wieringo move the story along, and sure enough, the next panel is a lead-in to this sequence’s grand finale. Jarek is leading the frogs where he wants them to go, and here we see him spot that. Koj had warned him a couple panels back to “fight with [his] head,” and that’s just what he’s doing, though the reader might not realize that in the first read through.
The frog’s narration continues over the last couple panels while Jarek lays the trap, now slightly more obviously.
And so it goes. “Tellos” #1 is a remarkable first issue of a comic book. I wish more comics would follow its lead, as it’s not just a tease or a set-up, but a dynamic action comic all on its own that welcomes us into a new world, gives us a brief tour, and introduces a variety of characters without ever being confusing. Seriously, the book never lets up. It starts with this chase through the streets, but then moves into the skies for more derring do. There are giant men, griffens, magical amulets, air ships, jumping frogs, shadow creatures, talking tigers, and so much more. And when people aren’t running and jumping around, the dialogue is packed with tension, as characters dodge those who would do them harm, or negotiate a timely deal that ends tragically. Every page grips you in some way.
Dezago and Wieringo had something great here, and I wonder if it would have fared better than it did had it been published today. In 1999, when this book debuted, there wasn’t quite as much Hollywood money floating through the world of comics. There weren’t book publishers looking to pick up all-ages fantasy titles to publish under their own umbrella. The graphic novel/trade paperback economy was only just beginning, and digital comics didn’t exist.
And while it did have a certain boost from being part of the Gorilla Comics lineup, also remember that it began before then. Dezago has joked that he was the self-publishing veteran of the group.
I love comics. Comics can be very frustrating sometimes, though.
Mike Wieringo died four years ago this past weekend, too damn soon. I’ll just point you to my post on the two year anniversary for all the links and stories. We’ve been robbed of a great many comic stories and an awful lot of beautiful pages of art over the years, no such loss has stung as much as Wieringo.
Eerily, he shares this anniversary with the early death of Marvel editor/writer Mark Gruenwald. I don’t have quite so much to write about Gruenwald though, like many my age, he’s the Captain America writer. He was also my first comics professor, through his helpful “Mark’s Remarks” column in “Marvel Age.” Thankfully, most of those columns have been helpfully archived and indexed on the web. Start at his final column, with its internet-friendly list of “67 Random Remarks.” The last one reads:
“Ideas are tools to transform brains. Ideas are weapons to combat ignorance. Ideas are friends to comfort you when you’re bored.”
EVERYONE ROOTS FOR TOM
There needs to be a new Eisner Award category created just so we can give Tom Spurgeon an award for his recent essay over at ComicsReporter.com. It’s powerful and compelling stuff that every comics fan ought to read. Tom puts things into an awesome perspective, the way only a man facing his own mortality could.
I wanted to pull out a quote from the essay so you could sample it, but found that anything I pulled wouldn’t encompass the point of the essay. There are some very pointed and funny-because-they’re-true moments in there, but I wouldn’t want someone to think it’s an essay written for the joys of sarcastic release. These are more moments of profound truth, from a man who has a new perspective on life.
The only nit I have to pick with the piece is that I had to install a plug-in to my browser to shut off all the annoying blinking ads surrounding the text and giving me a headache while I tried to parse out every nuance in the piece. (Hint: Safari has a plug-in called Readability that’s a must download in this kind of situation.)
OK, let me try one small sample of prose here:
Being in comics long enough allows you special insight into large, dysfunctional groups of people, which is handy when you’re living in a hospital. The sooner you learn to accommodatingly plug into the staff’s work day as opposed to continuing to demand that they find a way to work within the confines of the artificial constructions you dragged in there with you, the better things go. Ask for your sleeping pill two hours after everyone else wants one. Negotiate for special attention during the next downtime in exchange for quickly excusing them right now when they’re obviously busy. Don’t ask for anything at the time the person likes to do their paperwork. Being in a bed for 24 hours a day is not unlike being behind a convention table, except the bathroom is closer. Hospital gowns and nurse’s uniforms are the original cosplay.
Beautiful stuff. Now, go read it. And wish Tom well. He deserves it.
Like so many of the cool kids today, I’m on Google+, still trying to figure out what to make of it. I do post little snippets of upcoming Pipeline columns there, though.
I have a photography blog, AugieShoots.com, where I’m posting pictures from my weekend trip to the Bronx Zoo. There’s another concert coming up later this week, too, and I’ll be talking all about that as the pictures are ready. Or, go to VariousandSundry.com to read other thoughts that aren’t comics- or photography-related.