CCI, Day 3: Image Comics unearths long-lost giant robot "GEAR"

A hazard all too familiar to comics fans is the dreaded O.O.P. -- OUT OF PRINT.

Many readers hear for years echoing praise for books like "Flex Mentallo," "Miracleman," and "Zenith," only to discover these comics have long since passed into history. Thankfully, the 21st century brought with it a flotilla of indie publishers and majors willing to dive into a sea of market uncertainty and brave nearly unnavigable legal rights and bring back long-forgotten gems of the deep.

While not in the same legendary league as "Miracleman," one such sunken treasure is "GEAR," a long O.O.P. graphic novel originally published by Fireman Press in the 1990s, and returning early next year in a newly colored edition from Image Comics. Created by Doug TenNapel (best known as the creator of Earthworm Jim), "GEAR" is a funny, surreal tale of TenNapel's own cats locked in a violent and terrible war with some dogs. Also, there are giant robots, and this was before giant robots were everywhere.

"I love cats. I love giant robots," TenNapel told CBR News. "I love insects. So I wanted to make my first big comic series fun. Every panel is done with love and passion ... and little else."

Considering the bizarre yet exhilarating premise of "GEAR" and TenNapel's remarks, it's easy for one to feel a sense of nostalgia. The small press of the 1990s is often remembered for creating comics with a sense of irreverence and fun, but even moreso the dedication to putting out books authors were genuinely inspired -- not hired -- to make.

"I remembered laughing out loud while working on some pages," TenNapel said. "I was a big fan of what Frank Miller was doing with 'Sin City' so I thought to myself, 'What if I did a Bugs Bunny cartoon mixed with Frank Miller black and white?' The outcome was 'GEAR.'

"[And] though my storytelling and art have gotten a lot better, there is this rawness to the book I doubt I'll ever match. The inks are just on fire. It's like the kind of bombast that only comes with youthful ignorance."

The story of "GEAR" really starts with Rob Schrab's sensational "SCUD: The Disposable Assassin." TenNapel had worked on an issue of "Tales From A Vending Machine," the SCUD anthology, before Fireman indicated they were interested in expanding the line and publishing more than just SCUD books.

"We originally printed six issues then put them together into a graphic novel," TenNapel explained. "The graphic novel sold well, though Fireman press was slowly going out of business. The books had a small fan-base, but after being eight years out of print nobody could find it other than some overpriced copies on eBay." During talks with Image about "Tommysaurus Rex," TenNapel's 2004 graphic novel about a boy and his dinosaur, the notion of reprinting "GEAR" was first whispered.

"I brought it up to Image and asked if they minded [reprinting 'GEAR'] in color. They were totally on board and we just started going for it." TenNapel adds, "I knew it was a good time to bring the book back to life since one of my most popular kinds of fan mail includes requests for a copy of 'GEAR.'"

Contributing to the new edition are Mike Mignola and Rob Schrab, whose 'GEAR' pin-ups from back in the day will be included in the new edition. Of his colleagues, TenNapel jokes, "All three of us have made our own success over the last eight years so it's neat to get their work out to a whole new generation now that we're rich, famous, fat and wrinkly."

Also joining TenNapel for the reprint project is colorist Joe Potter.

"My sense of color is hideous," TenNapel said. "Why do you think I do so many black and whites?

"I'm a big fan of 'Hellboy.' I hope to hold my black layer without adding color to those inky blacks. Because I handled all of the shadows in my black ink layer, we won't be doing shadows, just flat flood-filled color for the characters and maybe pop in some highlights here and there. I'm not a big fan of Photoshopped coloring so I don't want any gradients or anything like that. The work doesn't need to be re-interpreted with color, it just needs some nice shapes dropped in to make it juicier."

"GEAR" is already pretty juicy: On top of the brilliant premise are TenNapel's idiosyncratic approaches to storytelling.

"It's more like jazz than anything I've done since I wrote it straight ahead. In fact, it's the only thing I've done straight ahead. One of the things that impressed me about Jeff Smith's 'Bone' was how the characters were in realistic peril. But let's face it, after a few issues we never see a major character get kacked. That's why from the first book I have characters shooting each other in the head. I kill off major characters from the get-go to show that nobody is safe ... and I mean it."

It's standards and ideas like these that have made Doug TenNapel not just a cult figure in the world of comics, but also a much sought-after storyteller outside of the comic industry. Still, the printed page remains the artist's greatest love.

"Making comics has been the most challenging, stimulating and rewarding medium," declared TenNapel. "And I've worked them all from film to TV to video games ... comics is the world's best medium for storytelling if you don't have $400 million to make a movie."

Andy Khouri contributed to this story. No one will claim credit for all the nautical imagery, though.

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