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Pipeline, Issue #378

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Pipeline, Issue #378

USAGI RULES

On the flight to San Diego, I brought a few things with me to read. Since it’s a five hour flight, I usually have time to plow through all sorts of review copies, photocopies of upcoming comics, and assorted other freebies I’ve been sent for the column. The hope is that I can discuss them with the people involved once I get to the convention. This year, I didn’t get nearly as much of it read as I had hoped, and I have Stan Sakai to blame for that. I started reading USAGI YOJIMBO, VOLUME ONE and never looked back.

That first volume is a collection of loose stories drawn about twenty years ago. They’re mostly disconnected random stories, forming an anthology of sorts. However, you can see the series starting to take form in the book relatively quickly. Many characters I came to know when I first dipped my toes into the Usagi waters nearly 20 years later, were already there in that first book. It was a real eye-opener.

In the past two months, Dark Horse’s USAGI YOJIMBO series has presented two one-off stories in the series. Either are perfectly valid entry points into the series for a new reader. Not only is Usagi a fun character with a rich mythology behind him already, but Stan Sakai is another one of those unsung master cartoonists we have working today who will never appear in a WIZARD Top Ten list. From writing to art to lettering, he does it all well.

USAGI YOJIMBO #77 is a bit off-format, in that the rabbit ronin doesn’t appear at all in the issue. His name isn’t even mentioned. It does, however, give a nice taste of the series’ flavor. Plus, it’s a fun story. If you’ve seen IRON MONKEY, the story might seem slightly familiar: The dim-witted police. The rooftop action scenes. (Really, does anyone in Chinese cinema not race on roofs?) The masked vigilante robbing from the rich and giving to the poor… It’s a fairly light-hearted story, complete in one issue and well done.

USAGI #78 brings Usagi back into the spotlight, as he stumbles upon a crotchety old woman who enlists him as her “hireling” to carry her bags as she walks elsewhere. This issue shows off Usagi’s good nature, sense of humor, and honor. In the end, he might seem more “loser” than “lovable,” but that’s up to your taste. I’m going with “lovable.” The story, again, is fairly light-hearted with only minimal action three quarters of the way through the story. But Sakai’s storytelling never falters. While the issue is talking heads, for the most part, it’s never boring and you’re always wondering how far Usagi will go along with this old hag. Things are never as simple as they seem. Again, this is a one-off story that stands alone nicely. You need know nothing about the continuity to understand and enjoy this story.

But reading the earliest adventures of Sakai’s character right up against the most recent, I couldn’t help but notice the difference in the art over the years. Every artist goes through a metamorphosis, given enough time. It’s inevitable. For some, it’s a radical retooling of their style, whether to remain commercially viable or stave off the boredom. For others, such as Sakai, greater experience leads to more energy transferring itself to the page. You can see the younger Sakai painstakingly drawing each character in the early days. The line is relatively stiff and awkward. You won’t notice it if you’re reading it first. Looking at it after seeing the modern stuff, though, it’s obvious Sakai has grown comfortable not just with his core characters, but also with his artistic style. It hasn’t changed radically, but it’s grown more confident and energetic. Rather than carefully crafting each line to make sure it is perfect, Sakai lets loose on the page and draws figures that appear more fluid and animated. They may not be perfect character guides to look at them. Careful inspection might show a line that looks uneven here and there, but that’s not what you’re reading.

Few people stare intently at each panel. It’s a truism in art that most people look at a painting in a museum for only a couple of seconds. The same is true in comics. Most people read through comics fairly quickly, only stopping to take in the splash shots or a particularly key moment. And Sakai’s art today is so smooth and so liquid that your eyes can’t help but slide across it. It’s not just more technically proficient, but it’s also more interesting to look at.

Likewise, twenty years of crafting stories have taught him things about storytelling. He draws scenes from different angles today. He has a more cinematic eye for the story more often. There’s a reason for each two-shot, or each silhouetted panel, or each dramatic zoom in.

Is Stan Sakai the Carl Barks of our time? His stories are often as adventurous and often as humorous. He has a regular group of characters, many of whom rotate in and out of stories. He’s technically proficient at the art, and his lettering holds up well. (Yes, Barks’ wife did a lot of his lettering.) Heck, his lettering is good enough for GROO. Insert your own joke here.

I’d be interested in hearing what Barks fans think of this theory.

In the end, USAGI YOJIMBO is a long-running series that is being far too overlooked today. There are more than 15 trade paperbacks collecting the series out so far, from Fantagraphics (for the first half dozen) and Dark Horse (everything else.) There’s an art book dedicated to Usagi from Dark Horse next month. It’s not like he’s hiding. Or, if he is, it’s in plain sight.

KIRKMANISTAN – FALTERS?

Robert Kirkman is a victim of himself this week. In what has to be one of the most unfortunate bits of timing in recent memory, both INVINCIBLE #15 and JUBILEE #1 hit the shelves last Wednesday. And while I’m willing to give JUBILEE a few issues to see where Kirkman is going with it, right now it’s been left in the dust by INVINCIBLE.

JUBILEE is a Marvel Age title, which means it’s aimed at a demographic less than half my age. I have to allow a certain amount of wiggle room for that. But the problem is that the comic book and movie cliches that work so well in INVINCIBLE seem forced and heavy-handed here. There’s a principle who decides that not only does he hate the new student, Jubilation Lee, for no reason, but that he’s going to confront her with that hatred in the hallway. Putting aside the sorts of trouble a principle could get into for this kind of behavior, it’s awkward and forced. It’s not that I don’t share the principle’s skepticism and cynicism towards all children, but that’s also not my job. The rest of the issue is a romantic triangle created out of one of those classic forced misunderstandings/immature jealousies. There is a moment involving Jubilee’s long-lost aunt that might just be the highlight of the book. I’m not spoiling it, but I hope it pays off in future issues.

INVINCIBLE #15, in the meantime, is just a fun book, even in the midst of the horror that Mark’s home life must be. In this issue, he’s flung into an undersea kingdom on a silly assignment that gets more serious with each passing page. There’s a sense that anything goes in this title. Kirkman isn’t constrained by anything other than his imagination, and he uses that to great effect each and every month.

This is a nice done-in-one story with a decidedly lighter tone, although Kirkman does seamlessly blend in Mark’s mother’s conversation with SuperPatriot’s wife, as partially seen in the WAR ON TERROR recent mini-series. There’s a real sense of character development happening here, as opposed to what’s being forced upon characters in JUBILEE.

In the end, JUBILEE feels like a half-hearted attempt to use parts of the high school side of Invincible’s life to create a new title. It isn’t working yet. If the characters can be fleshed out in the next couple of issues, it stands a chance at being a good title, though. In the meantime, two trades’ worth of INVINCIBLE are already available. Try those first. They’re great reading.

YOUNGBLOOD IMPERIAL makes YOUNGBLOOD BLOODSPORT look like WATCHMEN. It continues to confound me to this day how a series rich with as many concepts as Youngblood has can continue to falter so badly in any sort of execution. Mark Millar gave it a shot by grafting BATTLE ROYALE onto Youngblood. Now, Robert Kirkman is giving it a shot by grafting on a bunch of other concepts to the team, not choosing one to stick to, and confusing the hell out of everyone in the process. This one’s a mess.

The book is solicited in the latest PREVIEWS for a November ship date, under the Arcade Comics banner. Do not look at the page pictured at the bottom of the ad, though. It’s the last page of the comic, and spoils the villains of the piece. It is, perhaps, Kirkman’s most clever moment of the book. Or, perhaps, it’ll be one of those navel-gazing attempts at satire that so often falls flat in comics. It’s too soon to tell.

Why is this book titled YOUNGBLOOD IMPERIAL? There are casual references strewn throughout the issue to the United States branching out and adding states. Why this has suddenly happened, I don’t know. It’s not treated like a big mystery set to unfold over the course of 12 monthly (ha!) issues. Maybe this is something happening in the wake of YOUNGBLOOD BLOODSPORT? Who knows.

I like a lot of Kirkman’s writing. Even when it’s not his strongest, it’s still entertaining. I may seem rough on JUBILEE earlier in this column, but I still enjoyed the read, even with a couple of rough spots. He shouldn’t feel constrained by using someone else’s characters here. This book should be more like INVINCIBLE than JUBILEE. Liefeld has already shown the ability to let go of his characters and let them die in bloody on-panel blood spatters. The sky’s the limit.

YOUNGBLOOD IMPERIAL starts strongly enough with a villain, a Youngblood team of seven characters, and a little fight scene. Follow that up with a trip back to Youngblood HQ and some pages of talking heads. Along the line, we catch up to DieHard and Vogue, then meet another Youngblood team. They’re basically YOUNGBLOOD: SUICIDE SQUAD. Then, cut to a third team of Youngblood characters having a two page meeting. After that, we cut to Shaft leading the same team from the opening in another little adventure. This one doesn’t go so well, so another Youngblood team has to come in to save them. Finally, we end on a big reveal on the last page of a villainous group.

So, to sum up: four different Youngblood teams, each with at least a half dozen characters. Powers, names, relationships, any of that good stuff that makes a comic readable? Not even attempted. It’s like Kirkman is throwing a bunch of concepts up against the wall to see what sticks. The problem is, none of them are defined enough for us to want them to stick. And everything is thrown at the reader in such a scattershot manner that you’re busy playing catchup so often you never get the chance to learn anything new.

Alan Moore can get away with it because he does it right. Take an issue of TOP TEN and study it closely to see how it works. He’ll introduce a far-off concept or one that could carry its own title, but he’ll do it in such a way that it doesn’t interfere with the main story. He’ll drop it into a conversation as an aside. He’ll have something happen in the background. What he won’t do is stop the story for a page so the artist can get a big dramatic shot of the new team and a couple of other people can spend the rest of the panels explaining to each other what it is they just saw — and then never follow up on it.

Now, to be fair, the version of YI #1 being sold at the conventions this summer is a bit of a rough cut. In talking with Rob Liefeld about this book, he tells me there were some corrupted files, some botched printing jobs, and some art that’s being completely redrawn.

Redrawing much of this book would be a great idea. In its current state, Marat Mychaels’ art is enough to make Rob Liefeld look like Will Eisner. It appears to me like so many of the bad comics I drew in eighth grade. Flat lifeless characters standing around. Even in action, they’re standing still. No backgrounds. No feet. Half completed layouts substituting for panels because, hey, the coloring will save it.

The art, itself, would almost be forgivable if the storytelling was passable. It’s not. There’s one sequence of panels in the opening fight scene in which we cut to a character’s face to no discernible reason. I have no idea where he comes from in the scene. He’s not involved in the action happening on the panel to his left, nor the panel to his right. No, wait, that’s not exactly true. He shows up in the background on the panel to his left, doing nothing. Then he does nothing in a panel all by himself, but never uttering a word. It’s not the only time there’s a panel in this book with a character staring blankly at the reader, and no words coming from his mouth. I hope this is one of the pages being redrawn. It could even be saved with a couple of interesting word balloons.

The lettering is enough to confuse even those who claim to never notice the lettering. Page 11 may contain the single greatest example of poor balloon placement I’ve ever seen. Page 9 has a balloon in the first panel overlapping into the second leading to another series of balloons. The problem is, there’s a balloon further to the left of that in the second panel that’s supposed to be read first. You could almost get away with this if the balloon hadn’t overlapped the border. Almost.

The coloring is fairly competent, given the material it has to work with. It’s not perfect, though. One member of one of the teams gets his head squished like a zit, but I had to read it three times to figure out who it was. The squisher’s costume changed colors at the key moment as the artist zoomed in on him. I couldn’t tell it was the same character because of the color change.

Someday, someone might do Youngblood right.

Just as a capper to this whole thing, I looked back at YOUNGBLOOD BLOODSPORT. Both BLOODSPORT and IMPERIAL have the same exact ad for an upcoming BRIGADE series with just the year changed. It’s now updated from 2K3 to 2K4 at the bottom of the ad. Ah, the business fails along with the creative. (Where is YOUNGBLOOD: BLOODSPORT #2?)

YOUNGBLOOD IMPERIAL is scheduled to ship in November. I will give it another shot then. I’m glutton for punishment, what can I say? But I will also spend another 500 words ripping into it if I don’t see enough improvement.

CORRECTIONS, UPDATES, ODDBALL

* A quick google lookup for “Youngblood Imperial” brings us this sentence: “No. 1 in the series is Youngblood’s Imperial Porter, which is around 8 percent alcohol by volume. ”

It’s never pretty when alcohol and comics mix, kids. Remember that.

* I received several e-mails after Friday’s column to let me know that Diamond has always had a code “9” in place for when a publisher implodes. (Ditto for code 10.) I don’t think I’ve ever seen it listed in the cancellations section of PREVIEWS, though. Perhaps they never bother printing it unless they need to because they’re using it? Sadly, I don’t have any previous lists to compare this one to.

* Read ULTRA #2 already, which is due out from Image Comics this week. It’s a solid second issue. Thankfully, the annoying catchphrase-laden dialogue is gone, replaced with something much more agreeable. We also get a deeper look into what it means to be a superhero in this world, and there’s some cool stuff in there. Plus, yes, lots of girly talk. The art remains consistent. It’s clear, nice on the eyes, and will be best remembered for the coloring. That sets the whole mood and the whole look for the book. It’s all in the coloring, folks.

* Speaking of coloring, Image’s SYLVIA FAUST is a very cool looking book. It’s a visually-arresting book that I will be buying more issues of just to look at. I have no idea what the story is, though. There’s a woman who can’t keep a job. A friend. Some wacky occultist (?) stuff. I don’t know. It looks like nothing else out there on the stands today. Ed Dukeshire does a great job with the lettering, too, skipping traditional balloon tails in favor of a single curved line for the pointer with a bit of white space next to it. Looks great.

* Have I mentioned yet that I reviewed AMERICAN FLAGG on Friday?

Pipeline Commentary and Review returns next Tuesday, of course, with more reviews and stuff left over from the convention season.

Over at Various and Sundry this week: Thoughts on switching to the Mac. Is Big Brother 5 self-destructing? B5: CRUSADE comes to DVD, the third B5 release of the year. Ken Jennings is baaaaaack. Hybrid cars update. My exhaustive look at the VMAs from last week. And more.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are also still available at the Original Pipeline page.

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