FRAY #1 is Joss Whedon’s first foray into the world of writing comic books, courtesy of those fiendish fellows at Dark Horse. For a first-timer, he shows remarkable grasp of the craft in general, and of the trickiest part of it in particular – timing. You’ve seen it with JMS and with Kevin Smith; they get bogged down in their writing. They’ve come from television shows and movies that were dialogue-driven. When they come to comics, they don’t realize right away that there’s a much more precarious balance between the visual and the written. Kevin Smith’s DAREDEVIL run was well known for being overrun with captions. JMS’ comics still often have a tendency to feature characters making speeches at one another via rather large word balloons. On one hand, it’s part of his style. On the other, it just doesn’t make for a comic book that is as compelling as it could be. The old axiom of “show; don’t tell” holds enormous weight in comics.
Joss Whedon’s FRAY #1 takes advantage of the comics medium. I guess working on a show with people in various horror costumes for five years has rubbed off on him. When he gets the chance to create and inhabit his own world, he goes all out. The book is set in a futuristic, divided New York City, about two hundred years from now. Aside from the always-popular layered city approach (where the poor live on the ground and the rich in the skies), he’s populated the city with a wide variety of demons and monsters. The architecture is a mix of old and new, and some of the environments are quite imaginative, such as the office of the lagoon creature, which lives in the water below the floor. (You have to see it to get the idea, probably.) This is all stuff that you could never pull off convincingly on a television series budget.
Much credit for all of this, of course, goes to artist Karl Moline and his inker, Andy Owens. His style is perfectly suited to this book. It’s got a little bit of HELLBOY in it, and quite possibly a bit of Doug Mahnke. It’s not clean and smooth. It’s a bit more angular and realistic. He spends a great deal of time drawing normal people, such as the star of the book, Melaka Fray. She can move around like an above-par athlete, but she’s not possessed of a superheroine physique, by any means. There aren’t any obvious attempts in the art to sexualize her, either. She’s got a natural sexiness about her, but that’s not the point of the book. Moline’s storytelling is excellent, keeping things moving while still being interesting to look at. He sticks to a grid pattern. While there are plenty of backgrounds missing in many panels, it doesn’t stick out at you. He still establishes the shot and keeps the characters in the foreground lively enough to distract you from that. Whedon helps with a script that sparkles, complete with bon mots, a plot that continuously moves, and an interesting new environment that you can’t help but be curious about. That will keep your attention.
In any case, this is a book that I’m not going to say, “has potential.” There have been plenty of those lately. This is book that is already here. I’m looking forward to what comes in the next seven issues.
A LOOK BACK
The first thing I found odd is that the book is sixteen bucks. The issues only cost $10 at the time, and even assuming the title would be published today at a $3 price point, it’s still more expensive to buy this trade than the original issues. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a nice package. The new coloring on the cover is neat, and the simple black border looks nice to me. But $16?!? The paper quality is better than average and full-bleed, but I don’t think it’s quite that nice.
I haven’t looked at these issues in years now. When they first came out, I was a mind-numbed McFarlane fan. I ravenously ate up every page of art he drew. When I look back at these issues now, though, I feel – cramped. While the money shots of Spidey over the city and fighting for his life still look as energetic and lively as ever, the rest of the pages feel claustrophobic. McFarlane relies on medium shots and extreme close-ups. He’ll go from a couple of panels of Peter and Mary Jane shown from the waist up to an extreme close-up of Peter’s eye as something in the newspaper catches his eye. It never opens back up and sets things up. There are all sorts of similar shots used to force perspective. You’ll get a full body picture of the Lizard, but you’ll only get a foreground shot of Spidey’s hand to show where he is. When Lizard lunges and overshoots Spidey, the only indication you’ll get is two sets of feet heading in opposite directions. It’s really clumsy stuff.
Just forgive the fanboy in me for drooling over most of the fifth issues. It’s tense. It’s melodramatic. It’s fanboy fantasy and all heck’s a popping.
The other thing that really jumped out at me is Rick Parker’s lettering. It’s the stuff I was first and most repetitively exposed to at that point in my comics reading life. Looking back at it now, it’s awful. Much of it is inconsistent. The lettering isn’t centered in caption boxes and balloons the way it should be. Granted, Todd’s own lettering a few issues later wasn’t any better. (Rumor has it, though, that it was touched up in the Marvel bullpen. But I’m not one to spread rumors, so don’t quote me. 😉
All in all, it’s a fun trade paperback for me. But it’s not your best exposure to McFarlane’s art. I’m hoping the upcoming Marvel trade collecting McFarlane stories will include the follow-up Green Goblin/Ghost Rider/Spider-Man story. (Or was that Hobgoblin? I’ve always gotten those two confused.) His art, as I remember it, really peaked there. The characters came alive like never before. It was the multi-part Wolverine story that followed it that was the highlight of his writing career, though. A broken hand curtailed his art and lead to a bevy of inking fill-ins.
I’ll be talking much more about trade paperbacks next week in Pipeline. Speaking of which, time for a special announcement:
PIPELINE YEAR FIVE CELEBRATION
(Oddly enough — and as a bit of a stretch to link this in — I had letters printed in five different comics this week. So if you think you saw my name in everything you bought this week, you might not be that far off.)
To start off the fifth year of Pipeline, there will be an extra edition on Monday. That column will deal with trade paperbacks, including a look at those that were solicited in the latest issue of PREVIEWS. It will also dovetail nicely with the thoughts I had promised for today on the Miracleman situation. You can look for those on Monday now.
There might also be an extra Pipeline Preview or two – reviews of books not due out until Wednesday next week. Whatever doesn’t fit in Monday’s column will be used in Tuesday’s.
Thanks, as always, for reading. Have a great weekend and I’ll see you back here on Monday!
More than 225 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 are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.
This year, you can still catch me at the Chicago Comicon (i.e. WizardWorld) and the San Diego Comicon (i.e. the Comic Con International: San Diego). I’m also tentatively scheduled for a day at the Small Press Expo in Maryland this September.