A DOG WALKS INTO AN ALIEN...
"The Saga of Rex" compiles Michel Gagne's contribution to the "Flight" anthology series, volumes 2 through 7, in one affordable package. "Rex" is the story of, uhm, well, there's a cute dog. And a planet that gets cut in a half. And a purple shape-shifting alien thing. And some odd creatures. And a planetary explosion or two.
It's a lot of stuff all rolled up into one, and every page of it is beautiful.
The number one criticism I've seen of "Flight" through the years is that it favors the art over story. Depending on your point of view, that's either spot on or missing the point. I'm in the latter camp. I've enjoyed "Flight" for its imagination and its boundless energy. I read enough comics and see enough stories that fit into a neat three act structure in universes with confining rules and relatable characters. "Flight" has always offered up something different: the unfettered imagination of artists putting their work on display. Sometimes, the stories are slightly more conventional; other times they're experimental pieces, or pieces that just wouldn't sell on their own. It doesn't always hit with me, but that's often depending on style. There are so many artistic styles in one book that it would be impossible to find one person who enjoys them all. I like reading the sometimes more experimental pieces that give an artist the chance to shine with his or her artwork, over and above the need to shove a story into it.
This brings me back to "Rex" and Michel Gagne. I've enjoyed Gagne's work over the years, usually picking up his latest publication at San Diego each year. He comes from an animation background, often specializing in special effects animation and creature design. Both of those strong suits of his are on display with "Rex." This is the kind of book you shouldn't try to figure out all the back-story for. You shouldn't think in terms of character arc and narrative flow and, well, logic. This whole book is a, if you'll pardon the pun, flight of fancy. The back cover refers to its "whimsy," and I'll buy that. Everything is so well designed in this book: the planets that we see, the creatures that we meet and the transformations they all go through. Through it all, Gagne's storytelling is top notch. The vast majority of the book is silent, so Gagne's art has to carry it all. He mixes up his camera angles to best tell the story, from closeups on Rex's face in a moment of shock to wide angles of new planetary vistas that Rex must traverse. It's almost a cliche to say that comic books act as storyboards for the movies in your mind. It's a deeply flawed analogy, but I could often see how actions might progress inside a single panel, just from the way Gagne laid it out. He knows how to guide the reader's eye from the foreground and back into the background.
But please don't misconstrue my love for the art in this book as an excuse for a lack of story. It most definitely exists and it works simultaneously on a cosmic level and on a much more intimate, personal one. "Rex" is a love story, when you get right down to it. You just have to deal with how open it all is. Gagne goes off in different directions through the book in ways that often seem unstructured and wild. To his credit, he brings it all together by the end in a way that surprised and delighted me, but the road on the way was one filled with truly unexpected curves. I think a second reading of the book is almost a must if you want to be able to read it without the general feeling of being lost.
And again, don't confuse this with a lack of storytelling. Like I said earlier, the story is mostly silent, but I was never lost. Gagne has a knack for knowing when to move angles around to make sure the reader knows what's going on. He's great at setting a scene with a wide master shot and pushing in for the details as they become important. His characters move across the page impressively. Where I think some readers might get lost is in the larger overall story, and that's mostly a matter of taste.
Other things of note: The panels in this entire book are borderless, with a slight Photoshop blur action run around the edges I'd guess. That matches up nicely with Gagne's colors, which are slightly muted, but never dark. It's great to see an artist coloring his own work, because you know he's not going to try to overcompensate for any perceived lack of "detail" by sculpting intricate and awful coloring on top of the lines. Gagne often holds color in his lines, but that seems to come and go as the book moves on. The paper is not glossy, and it seems as if some of the color might have been dulled a tad from being soaked up on the white paper. On the bright side, there's no glare on the page to distract from the art. I would probably never notice this if I hadn't seen these stories in "Flight" before, with its higher production values. Nevertheless, it's a great looking package, and the tradeoff for price on paper quality is worth it.
So, yes, I'd recommend "The Saga of Rex" based on its wild imagination and art alone. You can test the waters for yourself, if you wish, before spending the $18 for the book's 200 pages. Gagne's website has a healthy preview, nearly half the book in total. CBR also has an interview you should check out.
The latest "Superboy" series starts this week, featuring the writing style of Jeff Lemire and the artistic musings of Pier Gallo. And while I still have certain attachments to the 90s series featuring the namesake character, I think this series is off to a good start and could prove to be just as charming as the last one to carry the Teen of Steel's name.
Conner Kent is living in Smallville, pursuing a normal life while trying to get along with a diverse cast of characters, including a potential love interest who's related to him sort of, but not really. Lemire focuses on Kent's attempt at leading a normal life, complete with all the foibles an adolescent attitude might have in such a place. The first issue sets up the cast pretty well. I'm not familiar enough with the current status quo of the character to know if Lemire created the whole cast, or if he's just reintroducing people we've seen in the background of previous issues of, well, what series has he been in lately, anyway, "Teen Titans?" In any case, there's enough here to hold my interest, with wacky variations on the usual teen superhero stereotypes.
The art by Pier Gallo is good, with strong storytelling married to an art style that isn't, for once, strongly photo-traced. He can draw a wheat field just as well as a crowded high school hallway filled with lockers. He can draw Superboy tearing up downtown Smallville, or Conner Kent chatting awkwardly with someone in that aforementioned hall. There are backgrounds aplenty in the issue, and a great level of detail to them, as well. Lemire gives us enough hooks to hold on to, while Gallo keeps us looking at the pages.
There is always the chance that this book might easily fall into the standard tropes of teenage superhero comics, but Lemire has more than earned the benefit of the doubt by now. After all, the man crafted the ultimate Canadian graphic novel about life in a small town with "Essex County Trilogy." I'm pulling for "Superboy" now, as it looks like it could be the kind of enjoyable teen superheroic book that too many books shy away from today.
- I haven't watched "The Walking Dead" yet. I've been too busy the past couple of nights, but the DVR has it for me when I'm ready. I can't wait. Congratulations to Rus Wooton, Cliff Rathburn, and everyone else who works on the comic.
- I don't know how the folks behind Comic-Con International: San Diego plan on selling tickets online. They'll need a massive server farm to handle the load, and it's something you don't generally build for the once or twice a year you need it. I'm not at all surprised the whole thing crashed and burned this week. They almost need to do a lottery system of some sort to lighten the load. Let everyone register for a chance to buy a ticket, and then randomly send out offers to those people until they're sold out. Think that's cruel and unfair? I've got news for you: Tens of thousands of people hitting the same webserver at the same time is no less random.
- On Halloween weekend, the kids at the school my wife teaches at gave me renewed hope for the future of comics. I saw a ton of Batman, Wolverine and Iron Man costumes. Granted, the Iron Man costumes were straight out of the movies, but the other two seemed more comic-based. (I didn't see a Spider-Man costume for the first time in years, but there also hasn't been a movie in a few years. Coincidence? Sadly not, I suspect.) Saw a bunch of Batgirls, too, though they seem to be custom-made for kids' costumes and not based on any specific version of the character. I know, intellectually, that these kids likely wouldn't know a comic if one bit them on the nose, but I like to think there's some hope.
The best thing I saw was a bulletin board in the hallway where kids had written one paragraph essays on who their heroes were and why. One girl said she liked Batman because she could relate to him the most, and that her brother was The Joker. Cracked me up.
- BleedingCool.com caught a phototrace from the book I reviewed last week, "Superman: Earth One." The more I look at the book, the less I like the art. I can't believe artists are still being this brazen, just lifting publicity shots from popular TV shows and not expecting anyone will notice. I'm once again reminded of the old Open Source truism, "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow."
In any case, the whole thing furthers my case that the Superman panels look so awkward because it's a phototraced head on top of a body that couldn't be so easily copied.
- One more update from last week's column: That "Valeria the She-Bat" crossover with Spawn never made it to print. The series only lasted two issues. (Thanks for the tip, Travis!)
- Alan David Doane is selling off some comics to pay the rent. Maybe there's something in there to interest you?
Next week: I have a proposal for Marvel's "Strange Tales 3" that I bet they haven't thought of yet. Sure, it's probably cost-prohibitive and an editorial nightmare, but it's completely different and, I think, cool. Come back next week for details.
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