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Pipeline, Issue #398

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Pipeline, Issue #398

PIPELINE PODCAST

For the past few weeks, the Pipeline Podcast has gone live on Wednesday mornings, bringing you a short look at the new comics of the week. This week, I had to record the podcast early, so I went to Plan B. Thanks to that, you get the Pipeline Podcast on Tuesday this week, along with the rest of the column. It’s an embarrassment of riches, ain’t it?

Once upon a time, there was a plan for something called “Radio Pipeline.” It never came to be, but the Pipeline Podcast is a clear replacement for it. In this week’s podcast, I’m reliving that history and reading the first script for what would have been Radio Pipeline #1.

The whole thing lasts just under 7 minutes and is available through the RSS feed or by clicking on this MP3 file link. It’s about 3.2 MB large this week.

You can e-mail me about it at the usual e-mail address, or send MP3 audio comments to AUGIEDB *at* GMAIL *dot* COM.

Thanks, as always, for listening.

USAGI ART

Dark Horse is certainly learning as they go along. Looking at their line of high end art books shows a steady progression of quality. The Frank Miller SIN CITY art book was beautiful, but felt empty. With the Mike Mignola HELLBOY art book, they began putting the art into context, with comments from the editor to explain a little bit more about what the art is for. The WILL EISNER art book had introductory explanations from Eisner, himself, and was printed on a high grade museum quality paper. Whole stories were shown in pencil form, and there was plenty to learn about Eisner’s technique from the book.

Now comes THE ART OF USAGI YOJIMBO by Stan Sakai. This one is fully annotated to point out where each piece came from, even when they’re just “simple” convention sketches. (And anyone who’s received a con sketch by Sakai knows that they’re far from being simple. Mine’s in color.) Full stories are featured here, including a rare piece in which Sakai shows how an issue comes together. A fully painted “origin story” is included, previously seen only in a 1990 limited edition hardcover.

All of this comes printed on nice glossy oversized white pages, with an introductory page to each chapter that’s printed on some nearly see-through Japanese paper stock. I can’t explain it any better than that. You’ll have to see it to believe it, but it was a dead giveaway that this book was likely published overseas. Sure enough, the title page indicates the book originated in China. All these high end books start there. It’s a great way to keep the prices low, at the cost of some timeliness since they often take the slow boat from, er, China.

I’m still a relative newcomer to the world of Usagi. I think I picked up my first couple of trades a couple of years ago, and I’ve been reading the stuff out of order, too. It was a big surprise to me, then, in reading this book to find out that it’s a scar on Usagi’s forehead, and not just a stylistic line to indicate the top of his brow. Go fig. Whether a new fan or old, there’s plenty of material throughout this volume to impress you.

The book is only $40, which is an absolute steal for a hardcover art book like this. It’s in both black and white and color, and qualifies as Dark Horse’s best entry in this line so far. I can’t wait to see who they come up with next.

Who might be next? The only other artist I could picture Dark Horse giving this treatment to is Sergio Aragones. There’s a huge problem there, though. How do you distill that much work down to a book of less than 2000 pages? And won’t the margins look really cramped on an Aragones book? Since these books tend to focus on one series from one given artist, I guess an ART OF GROO book would be appropriate, but I can’t imagine Aragones has too much sketch stuff hanging around the archives for the book. I think of him as the kind of guy who draws it all on the page in one try and moves on. That’s probably brutally unfair of me, though. I’d love to be proven wrong.

They might be able to put out a Paul Chadwick CONCRETE book, but I think his comics absence of so many years recently takes him out of the running. Is there enough material or enough interest to justify such a book?

Tim Sale had his art book with Active Images, and no single character to tie him down to.

Maybe Matt Wagner? I would think a GRENDEL art book in this style would fit in with Dark Horse’s publishing schedule.

Even if none ever follow, I’ll be happy with these four.

Dark Horse comics has a four page preview and more information on the Usagi book on their web site.

SIN CITY CONTINUES

Earlier in the month, I began looking at Frank Miller’s Sin City stories. I continue down that path this week with a look at the next couple of books in the series.

THE BIG FAT KILL is tied for my favorite SIN CITY book with THAT YELLOW BASTARD, the next in the series. The two books tell wildly different stories, but each is effective and entertaining. Miller shows a slightly broader storytelling ability with these two takes than people generally give him credit for on this series.

YELLOW is an emotional character piece. The spotlight shines directly on Hartigan, the stereotypical movie cliché cop who has one last case to solve before retiring tomorrow. What should be a slam-dunk case quickly turns his life around because of dirty Sin City politics. We follow him as he attempts to climb back up out of the hole he’s in to save the woman he loves, damning the consequences. It’s a taught thriller, one in which the reader pulls for the most unlikely of heroes with his every move.

FAT KILL is the opposite of that. It’s a Jerry Bruckheimer movie done in sequential narrative. It’s an episode of ’24’ but with more blood and body parts being hacked off. It’s the ultimate action/adventure piece that doesn’t have a second to waste, or a moment to pause. Just when you think things have gotten as bad as they might get, Miller pulls another twist out of his pocket to send his characters spiraling further into the abyss. Of course, there is something of a happy ending by SIN CITY standards, but getting there is all the fun.

Let’s take a look at the books in more detail.

THE BIG FAT KILL follows hot on the heels of A DAME TO KILL FOR. We’re back to following the hapless Dwight, whose love life is sure to kill him eventually. His current girlfriend has an ex who treats her wrong, and Dwight’s self-appointed obligation to show the bad guy a lesson leads into the politics of Sin City. The Old Town section that’s controlled by the prostitutes functions by its own laws. Dwight unwittingly upsets that balance and then spends the rest of the book trying to right the wrong.

There are car chases, gun fights, torture scenes, drownings, tar pits, dinosaurs, sewers, and more. Miller relentlessly pounds the story forward, never pausing for so much as a flashback. This is gleeful violence and madcap excitement.

THAT YELLOW BASTARD takes us away from the life of Dwight to look at Hartigan, a tough as nails noir cop who’s set for retirement. His last case is to save an abducted girl who, as it turns out, we’ve already met as an adult in a previous SIN CITY book. When politics enters that case, Hartigan finds himself near death, framed for hellacious crimes, and a pawn in a protection scheme of the vicious Roark family, who we first met in the original SIN CITY book.

This book is all about Hartigan, who’s a selfless hero. He takes a beating for something he believes is right. He doesn’t let anyone know what he knows, and he refuses to give them the satisfaction they want. He won’t be broken, as easy as it would be for him to let them do it. Much of this story is about mental control. Miller writes most of this book in captions, explaining Hartigan’s every move without being expository. This is hard boiled narrative, with a few monologues that stage actors could benefit from studying. I can’t wait to see if they’re used in the movie at all.

Both books continue the evolution of the art style for Miller. In FAT KILL, Miller is working in pure shapes, rather than form. The details don’t matter. The negative space does. Keep it stark. Keep it contrasting. If it can’t be drawn with a Sharpie marker and a splatter of white out, it ain’t worth drawing. Don’t look for as many of the background tricks as you may have seen in previous stories. The clever shadows against brick walls creating a negative image aren’t seen here, for example. The book is quick paced and yet includes so few sets that the architecture doesn’t feature much at all. The tar pits scene is the exception, but I think Miller just wanted an excuse to draw dinosaurs for a few pages. It’s either that or the Hollywood training kicking in: Stage as much of your story in visually interesting locations as possible. A La Brea Tar Pits-like amusement part? Golden.

In YELLOW, he opens up the art a bit more, throwing in plenty of splash pages. You might not notice it at first, but they are there for dramatic effect. When Hartigan is entering a barn door, Miller needs to slow down the moment just a bit. That’s why there are two two-page splashes just before he enters. With his high contrast style, they’re also interesting pages to look at. There are more examples, such as the one of Hartigan in jail, which I believe they showed a clip of in the trailer at San Diego Comic Con last summer. Anyone who saw Harlan Ellison’s “Mefisto In Onyx” short story in its original magazine presentation is familiar with Miller’s prison-drawing technique.

But in YELLOW he also introduces a more important element: color. The titular character appears in the second half of the book with yellow skin. The jaundiced look matches his medical history, possibly, and helps the sicko stand out more and look more evil. That, at least, is the theory. Personally, it doesn’t do much for me. Miller uses it specifically to indicate the guy’s blood and to suggest a trail. I don’t think the yellow color was necessary for even that, though. I’m willing to be proven wrong, though. If anyone cares to debate the merits of the splashes of yellow, please write me or post to the message board. It’s a trick he’d repeat a lot in the future. His short stories end up looking like a color wheel by the time you compile them.

If there’s one thing the two books share in common, it’s their high level of story craft. Specifically, they start as late in the story as possible, and end as quickly as they can. In both books, you can easily imagine an epilogue to tell us more about what happened after that last page and the characters’ reactions to it. It’s not necessary, though. They end on their climax, period. In both cases, they start with the inciting action. (I might be chanelling Robert McKee here.) In YELLOW, Hartigan arrives at the scene of the crime to save an abducted girl. It’s the day before he retires. His history doesn’t matter. Even if it does, you can infer that he’s a good cop from his actions in the first few pages. The story lies ahead, not behind. In FAT KILL, Dwight is there to save his girlfriend from an abusive ex-boyfriend. Dwight’s character comes through in his actions on the first few pages, and the little details past that are filled in neatly during the dialogue. In neither case does the scene end simply. The resolution comes much further down the road. These are merely the points in time that Miller can begin his story while giving us as much information as we need to process what’s about to happen. He does so in both cases without flashbacks. That’s good writing. Both books ends at the moment that the main character’s mission is fulfilled. Nothing else is needed. The story is done.

At the same time, Miller proves that decompression can work as a tool of pacing. These books collect five and six issue mini-series. And while it’s nice to think that there might be comic creators somewhere who are capable of telling single issue stories anymore, Miller does these sprawling epics better than most. The trick is that they’re not trying to be bigger events than they are. You get 160-220 page stories here that aren’t exactly mind-blowing epics. They’re smaller stories than they might appear. One man against the system, most of which is explicitly not shown. Or one man and some friends against another man for the sake of the system. Miller keeps the story deceptively simple, and provides plenty of set pieces, car chases, and discussions that occur with only two and three panels per page. If this were a super hero book, many would be complaining about padding. Miller knows better, though. Those splash pages and double page spreads are there for a reason. The terse dialogue, the gritty captions, the blocks of text accompanying single illustrations — they’re all there to control the reader as much as a creator thinks he can.

At the same time, Miller is playing around with the timeline of all the Sin City books in these two volumes. Nancy’s Bar is becoming the main crossover location for this series. If you want to know where in the overall timeline any story takes place, look for a scene set in Nancy’s Bar, or that feature one of her girls. Miller keeps adding to pre-existing scenes with new “background characters” to cross-reference events. It’s an interesting thing for fans to look for, though I wonder if it’s necessarily a strong storytelling point to throw in these geeky and needless time references.

The movie trailer borrows liberally from these two books. That’s Bruce Willis playing Hartigan, and Clive Owen playing Dwight. “Laurel Gilmore” is Becky from the opening scene in Old Town. If you look carefully enough, there’s a shot from the very end of FAT KILL in the trailer. Using my two favorite SIN CITY books as the basis for most of the movie trailer gives me hope for this movie.

There are three trades left in the series, and I promise to get to those in February.

I should point out that I think Kurt Busiek tells the best single issue stories in the business, but that’s something I’m working out for an ASTRO CITY review in the coming weeks.

Over at Various and Sundry this week, more new stories than I’d care to shake a stick at. It has to have been the busiest blogging week ever. Most importantly, the show-by-show recaps for AMERICAN IDOL began anew this week. The DVD podcast was updated for the fifth week in a row. MacGYVER highlights this week’s release list. ESPN screws its own pooch on scheduling TILT. AMAZING RACE has a particularly good week. Google thinks it can block comment spam. Is there a cure for diabetes on the horizon? Plus, a ton more.

All political discussions have been pushed off to one neat side at VandS Politics.

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. I haven’t had that account in years, but they’ve yet to delete the page space. Bizarre.

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