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Pipeline, Issue #400

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Pipeline, Issue #400

PIPELINE PODCAST #6

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SPIDER-MAN AT KNIGHT

Mark Millar opens up his MARVEL KNIGHTS SPIDER-MAN series like an episode of LAW & ORDER. Two New Yorkers go about their business discussing something completely unrelated to the plot of the story. As one of them turns a corner, walks through a door, or turns the light on in the room, they’re shocked to find a body. In this case, it’s Spider-Man laying in a pile of refuse in the back alley. He’s not dead yet, though. And since this isn’t LAW & ORDER, the Green Goblin comes swooping in very quickly to begin a fight scene.

As you can see, the story is starting in the middle. As readers, we’re walking into the middle of a fight scene between the good guy and the bad guy. With some deft captions, we catch up on all that’s happened already, and jump straight to the climax of the sequence. There is something of a “spine” or a “through line” to the first collection of Millar’s work on the series, titled “Down Among the Dead Men.” It has nothing to do with what came before this moment. This is merely the launching point for the hell that Millar is about to send Parker into. Yes, there is likely an interesting story in how the fight began, and maybe even in the events that led up to that. However, there’s a story to get to here and Millar wants to get right to it.

Why, then, doesn’t he just skip straight to the part where Spider-Man whomps the Goblin over the head with a mailbox on the splash page? It’s an old writer’s trick to start on action. Bring the reader into the story as quickly as possible. You can always backtrack later. “Open on action,” is the lesson Chuck Dixon taught us. Millar gives us an entry point into the story with the two store clerks, as they discuss the trials and tribulations of the DVD format. That helps to establish the ground level tone for the storyline. We start on the streets and not soaring above them, with people scampering below like so many ants. But as soon as the clerks find Spider-Man, the action begins. Is it necessarily believable? No, of course not. One minute, Spider-Man is lying limp in a pile of garbage, so wounded that he doesn’t bother standing up or trying to slink home. As soon as the clerks find him, though, he pops right into action against the Goblin and, one is left to surmise, the adrenaline kicks him through until he limps home battered a few pages later.

That’s the very long way of saying that opening at the end of the fight would mean that page two would be the come down from an event we never got up for. Good storytelling involves pacing. That’s a roller coaster ride. Bring the ups, and keep the downs interesting. Too many writers can deliver the big dramatic action scene, but have problems with the scenes inbetween, which often come off as mechanical constructs meant only to lead us to the next fight scene. A pleasing roller coaster ride keeps our attention and keeps the pages flipping through our fingers.

Two trade paperbacks collect the first eight issues of Millar’s run on MARVEL KNIGHTS SPIDER-MAN. A third will no doubt be coming soon to wrap the whole thing up. As promised early on, Millar has structured the series to be a story arc every four issues but with one larger overall arc that will be seen in its totality once everything is wrapped up. He’s done a good job with that, although it has some serious drawbacks.

The first serious drawback is that the smaller story arcs feel secondary to the overall arc. As you read the books, you’re looking for clues to the larger picture at the cost of what’s happening immediately. While he’s trying to tell a complete story in a shorter period, he’s also splitting the reader’s attention by dropping in bits and pieces to The Big Picture. The first story functions to set up the whole mystery while giving us a little street level criminal activity that fits into Spider-Man’s world very well. He’s going up against Electro and the Vulture, as well as noted Daredevil villain, The Owl.

The second story features Venom, but by this point we’re more interested in what happened to the kidnapped Aunt May, who’s been missing for weeks without any resolution.

That’s the other problem with the story, and it’s likely only something that flips a switch for those of us who’ve read Spider-Man stories for longer than a decade. It’s hard to buy that the story isn’t wrapped up already. It’s tough to believe that Spider-Man would alienate himself from as many people as he has. It’s difficult to accept that Peter and Mary Jane would go about their usual lives for this long without breaking down completely over Aunt May. These stories are always wrapped up in slam-bang short stories. Maybe it takes six issues, but then all the action occurs in a confined timeline of a week at most. This one’s more all-encompassing.

Millar is doing his version of the story format that Jim Lee has popularize so much now. Take a year, include as many villains as possible for your artist to draw, and hope the story holds up. Many didn’t like “Hush,” and I doubt many of those people will appreciate these stories, which often seem scattered. It’s not quite as forced, with a new big name villain showing up in each issue. Each arc has its own villains, instead, and their stories continue past the initial issue.

The good news is that this book is very far apart from decompressed storytelling. Spider-Man is a very cerebral character. The big draw of the character for so many is his internal struggles between doing what’s right and doing what helps his family and those around him. How can he balance the two along with the life of being Spider-Man. Spider-Man comics should, as a matter of course, never be a light read that you breeze through in five minutes. Paul Jenkins wrote some amazing Spider-Man stories just a few years ago, and they all took place mostly in Peter Parker’s skull. Those caption boxes are pure gold.

Millar packs these pages with as much plot and character as he can squeeze in. Yes, there are a couple of double page splashes, and there are fights amongst the costumed set. However, Millar also goes to great pains to show us as much of Parker’s life as possible without being boring. The story skips around a lot as numerous characters come and go. Millar keeps everything straightforward while capturing the chaos in these characters’ lives.

On the other hand, any one segment of this story would make a grand mini-series all on its own. By mashing this all into the same series outline, Millar risks losing readers by stretching himself and his characters too thin. There is little time for contemplation, when one thing always leads to another, and clues are constantly being dropped. It leads to a certain amount of jumpiness in the pacing.

Millar and Dodson throw in plenty of gags for long-time readers. The Spider-Car (Spider-Mobile, whatever you want to call it) shows up in here. There’s a clone reference from Spider-Man that properly frames the matter to defuse it nicely. The first issue even includes a sly background gag homage to the great Brit-Com, THE OFFICE. Gareth is, indeed, a Bennie.

The art in the majority of the two books is by Terry and Rachel Dodson. As you’d expect, every female in the book has large hooters, and the majority of them are models waiting for the next shoot to start on a beach somewhere. The Black Cat barely fits in her costume, while Mary Jane remains covered up, but with a hip always pointing to one side and a back slightly arched.

Frank Cho fills in for two issues in the second book, and is a nice match to Dodson. He continues the look of the series without being disruptive. An untrained eye might not even detect the difference between the two. Cho digs into his roots as a fan of classic comic strips and 1950s B-Movies for the vibe to his story. Characters face out to the reader with dramatic shadowing on their faces to indicate skull structure. Silhouetted crows run across the front of a panel while the monsters charge around behind them. It’s all the classic tricks that classic comic strip artists used to help impart depth to their art. It works nicely for the story, and because you’ve been reading Dodson’s art for so long, the breast sizes won’t bother you as much. For fans of LIBERTY MEADOWS, it is interesting to see what sculpted color work does to his art. And, yes, you can see a difference in the faces between Felicia and Mary Jane, if not the chest sizes.

These two volumes of Spider-Man storytelling aren’t going to revolutionize the way Marvel handles its character or the way we, the readers, perceive them. It is, instead, a slightly more mature take on the character without ever resorting to four letter words or sex. The danger somehow seems more scary. Dodson’s art is a welcome touch, providing a clean and consistent look. Cho’s fill-in issues fit in likewise.

Yet, this isn’t a book I’m getting so excited about that I want to sell it to people. There are enough things inside of it to make it worthwhile to a bored Spider-Man fan looking for something slightly different with his favorite character. The art is pleasant, the color works well with it, and the material isn’t offensive, yet. I know how the twists and turns show up in the third volume, and that’s obviously a much more tender argument to make.

So MARVEL KNIGHTS SPIDER-MAN becomes one of those maddening titles that I can’t get excited about, but am not also put off by it. There’s definitely going to be an audience for it, though.

Each volume is $10 and are available in stores today.

A MAGICAL SOAP OPERA

TALES OF THE REALM tells the tale of the cast of a television series set in a world of fantasy and myth. The “real world” they inhabit, likewise, is filled with dragons, trolls, sorcery, etc. It’s a light-hearted romp with plenty of pokes at Hollywood. Sadly, the original six issue mini-series was lost in a series of publishing whoopsies, such as MVC’s connection to CrossGen. Thankfully, though, Image Comics has stepped in and collected the complete series. While it never comes together quite as strongly as it could, it does provide a breezy and entertaining read.

TALES is the brainchild of MVCreations — specifically Val Staples and Matt Tyree. Robert Kirkman handles the writing duties, though, while Tyree draws the pages. If you’re at all familiar with Kirkman’s writing, you’ll pretty much know what to expect here: Talking heads scenes punctuated with dramatic changes in the plot and repeated panels for comic effect. While it’s all in good fun, there’s some pointed Hollywood commentary and satire in the book. A troll sues the producers, for example, because he feels he’s being stereotyped. The politically correct producer quickly offers the offended troll a starring role to quell the potential public outcry.

Kirkman’s humorous side shows through on this book, and it’s something I hope he explores further. As great as INVINCIBLE and THE WALKING DEAD are, I’d love to see him try something that’s straight comedy again. (Wait, it looks like he is. Yay.)

The weakness of the book is its plot. In a pre-defined mini-series structure like this, the events of the first four or five issues should be leading up to a very dramatic sixth issue. The climax of the story has to spin the world out of control for a second, for the dramatic finish and victory of the heroes. At the end, though, Kirkman fails to bring all the pieces together as dramatically as he might. While there is a climactic scene, I never took it too seriously. It was over before it began, hidden under a pile of mushy magical hand waving, without any real sense of serious danger. I wasn’t expecting a sad ending. That wouldn’t have fit in with the tone of the series. I just expected more to happen somehow.

Series art is from Matt Tyree, whose style complements Kirkman’s writing in a similar way to Ryan Ottley’s or Cory Walker’s. The characters are expressive, if occasionally stiff. Backgrounds are present, conversational scenes are rarely boring to look at, and there’s an imagination at work that welcomes the reader in for something new. The art is shot straight from pencils, but Tyree’s line work is tight enough that you have to look for it to notice it most of the time. It wavers a bit in spots, but if you don’t obsess over it, you should have no problems. The lettering (handled solidly by Lithium Pro) in the last issue, however, is poorly composited. The final line work is very scratchy.

I also worry that the artwork used for the cover of the book was a poor choice. It makes for a nice pin-up, fitting both thematically and artistically with the book. However, as a cover that’s should stick out on the stands and capture your attention, it won’t ever work. It’s far too busy at the bottom, and the included Mike Wieringo art in the center is just too small and too awkward to be the selling point. If they had just used Wieringo’s art and done it up as a mock TV Guide ad, they might have had a winning cover. But incorporating it as the off-center focal spot on a cover that’s far too busy by half along the bottom just ruins the effect.

The bonus section in the back of the book includes plenty of development sketches, alternate covers, and even the original TALES OF THE REALM short story first seen in Robert Kirkman’s self-published anthology, DOUBLE TAKE.

For $15, this is a pretty good package. While the third act disappointed me a little bit, there’s enough in the book for me to feel like I got my money’s worth. It’s full color, nice to look at, a breeze to read, and crying out for a sequel.

ARTIST OF THE WEEK

I found the artwork of Denis Bodart in a link at the Sketchbook message board. Click over and take a look at the work, much of which is done for his French series, GREEN MANOR.

Look at how deftly Bodart indicates the ground brush with some simple splotches of black ink on page 39. Check out the vibrant lines on a simple punch in the 68th selection, or of the tussle on 66. Anthropomorphism rules on page 17. The pencils on page 26 contain more life than 90% of American comics today.

I think I’ll be doing more French Artists of the Week in the future.

On a related note, I want this series translated to English and published in the States tomorrow. Can someone handle that for me? Is anyone listening? Please?

My loose translation of the description is

“When you’re the lowest rung on the ecological ladder, you must be ready to climb a few rungs. A voracious predator, a hideous sorcerer, and a vindictive princess won’t stop Garulfo, an ambitious amphibian…”

“Ambitious amphibian” sold me on the series. Those of you obsessed with SGT. FROG might have a similar reaction.

There are so many interesting European comics, but so little of them show up over here. I also have to recommend a recent Newsarama story on the French publisher, Soleil. On the first page of comments, you’ll find a series of links to other French publishers. The sample pages on those sites are amazing, particularly with Dupuis.

BITS AND PIECES

  • Yes, this is the 400th edition of Pipeline Commentary and Review. That makes it the 300th at CBR. I’m reminded of EVERYONE LOVES RAYMOND, which ends its run on CBS this spring without a special episode. They’ve sworn that the last episode is just another half hour of television. No sweeping changes and no special hour of sit-com finale hell. Just business as usual. That’s my model for this week’s column. It’s just another week, and just another 3000 words.

    Now, when we get to column 500 in just under two years, I’ll throw a party to end all parties. After that, I shall nap.

  • I have to correct last week’s correction. The correction was right: The girl in the SIN CITY movie trailer plays “Rory Gilmore” on a WB TV series. I merely misquoted what I had misattributed the previous week. Confused yet? Me, too. Let’s all move on.
  • The SMALL GODS collection I reviewed last week only contained four issues, not five. The series is definitely not decompressed, so it felt like I read more story than I did. Plus, the back-up stories constitute an issue by themselves, right? That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
  • This week’s THE WALKING DEAD #16 is another chilling issue. Don’t skip ahead to the letters page first. Do not ruin this cliffhanger ending for yourself.
  • I mentioned John Ostrander’s appearance at my local comics shop in this space last week. I’m happy to make note of the front page newspaper article it generated a few days later. Take a look.

Wednesday, 09 February 2005: The Pipeline Comic Book Podcast returns.

Tuesday, 15 February 2005: Pipeline Commentary and Review #401 debuts. You’ve been warned.

Over at Various and Sundry this week: More AMERICAN IDOL craziness and auditions. Bill Gates says something new that’s incredibly mind-numbingly stupid. iPods invade Microsoft. David Mamet’s TV series greenlighted. Poker on DVD. And how to survive an avalance with a lot of liquor.


The Various and Sundry DVD Podcast continues to look at the week’s DVD releases, every Sunday afternoon. Those of you with a podcasting program can subscribe to it right here, or find it in the “Podcast” category of entries on the aforementioned website.

All political discussions have been pushed off to one 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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