In a different conversation I resurrected my old adage about the three elements of comics art: proportion, storytelling and dynamics. (All of which, as in subnuclear physics, become the same thing when you break them down far enough, but let's not go there today.) Proportion includes all the basic elements of art: anatomy, perspective, consistency, etc. Storytelling is, obviously, the ability to use pictures to tell a story. Dynamics are the tricks that catch a reader's eye, that get the pulse moving, and dynamics are dismissed as cheap tricks by many, but they're really not. They've become essential. Great comics art needs all three, but the market is such that if you can only have one, the one you want is dynamics. And, yet, in the midst of discussing this, I realized what I mean by dynamics – which under my definition covers a much wider range of techniques and effects than most people seem to suppose – I realized I'd had it wrong all along, and dynamics is itself a subset of something else much more important: immediacy. Dynamics make comics a much more immediate, visceral experience. Someone brought up Steve Dillon. At a quick glance, his art may look still, though he's more than capable of big action when he wants to draw it. But the genius of Steve Dillon is the way he uses space, places characters and objects in space, to give his work such a sense of reality that it sucks you right in. You believe what Steve Dillon draws. His work isn't usually dynamic in the sense that, say, Jim Lee's is, but Dillon's characters exist on the page; you can see where they moved from and they're moving to, you can feel their muscles tense and loosen. That's immediacy.
To review, the three necessary elements of comics art: proportion, storytelling and immediacy. And if you can only achieve one, go for immediacy.
Cleaned out the office over the weekend and ended up with piles of things to review:
Del Rey books have recently jumped into the manga market with a mixed bag of four titles. Far and away the best is Clamp's XXXHOLIC ($10.95), the semi-lighthearted adventures of a shopkeeper witch who'll help people for a price, and the ghost-haunted young man who ends up as her housekeeper. Unlike some Clamp material (for those who don't know, they're a major manga studio), the art is clean, simple and easy to follow, and the humor and character expressions are great. Which makes the book even better in the moments when it turns serious, with a practical if marginally grim worldview espousing personal responsibility. Somewhat less successful, though potentially interesting, is Clamp's TSUBASA ($10.95), which reinvents Sakura and Syaoran from CARDCAPTOR SAKURA as fantasy world teenagers before throwing in incongruent elements, crossing over a little with XXXHOLIC and starting a Marvelesque crossdimensional quest. It's not bad, but so far it's all setup. I'm not partial to the anime MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM SEED, which strikes me as an unrelated, dull knockoff of the far superior GUNDAM WING, but Hajime Yatate, Yoshiyuki Tomino and Masatsugu Iwase's manga version ($10.95) is a little better than the anime. At least I can understand what characters are on about with the manga, even if the space fighting giant robot action is frequently incomprehensible. (The way they're drawn the suits are difficult to distinguish, and if there's a contextual trick to it, I'm not getting it.) The only real weak point in Del Rey's initial releases is Ken Akamatsu's NEGIMA! I know people who think Akamatsu's LOVE HINA, about a wannabe male college student managing a boarding house full of girls, is hilarious, but once I got the joke it struck me as little more than a burlesque whose main purpose was to undress the female characters as often as possible. NEGIMA! is pretty much the same concept, except this time the boy's a warlock assigned to teach English to a junior high school girls' class. Adequately written and drawn, it's also a burlesque anchored on a handful of recurring gags, such as the boy's inadvertent ability to blow the clothes off girls when he sneezes. He sneezes a lot. And he's nine years old, going on ten. It's a bit creepy.
I haven't been following DEMO (AiT/PlanetLar Books; $2.95@), Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan's serial about superpowered teenager, so it was a thrill to get #6 in the mail. It's good. Wood seems to have reined in his stylistic excesses, and Cloonan's art is pretty pleasing, for the most part. Of course, I haven't a clue what has gone on in the book prior to this, but it's not necessary for understanding this story, a journey into a memory of suburban angst. Cloonan's art has one problem she really needs to work on, though: close-ups are really nicely rendered, but anytime she has to draw a long shot, figures lose shape and proportion. But that's probably my most common complaint about young artists; it happens way too often, and usually makes it look like they decided to not even try. Cloonan, at least, always looks like she's trying. There's some nice life in this book. I wouldn't mind seeing more of it.
So what's with all these pamphlets suddenly being issued by Larry "King Of Graphic Novels" Young? SCURVY DOGS #4 (AiT/PlanetLar Books; $2.95), by Andrew Boyd and Ryan Yount is a slight but amusing confection with art vaguely reminiscent of Spain Rodriguez's underground work, which isn't a bad thing. A crew of pirates stranded on land try to find help against the Hobo Mafia and spark a family reunion, culminating in a bloody battle of the bands. I'm not sure what they're on about, but you're not likely to find anything else like it. Their slogan is "Pirates Are The New Monkeys." But I don't like monkeys.
Then there's Larry Young's superhero parody PLANET OF THE CAPES (AiT/PlanetLar Books; $12.95), with art by Brandon McKinney. As superhero parodies go, it's not bad; on an alternate earth where Ben Franklin was inspired, Bruce Wayne like, by a raven to revolt against the English and form a new country, stand-ins for Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and The Hulk have things so under control that the crises involve saving cats from trees and mopping up after each other. Things change when they're inadvertently thrown into "our" world, but structurally the book's all wrong. I don't mind the story, but it doesn't really get going until just before it ends, and it ends way too abruptly. Kind of kills whatever drama's in the material, and there are too many space-wasting elements like whole pages involving an autograph hound that never plays into anything. And the ending generates one huge question that's never broached, let alone answered. Like I said, it's not bad – McKinney's art works well with the story, and Larry's usual talent for dialogue shows here – but it could've been so much better.
Brian Kelly's FRANCIS AND THE LAS VEGAS TRAMPS graphic novel (Brian Kelly Army Comics; $7) is another tongue in cheek pop culture romp with art oddly reminiscent of Spain Rodriguez's underground work. An intergalactic rock band splits with their management to torment each other and pursue their own tour to an Elvis planet with giant human-brain infested robots, underground lairs, and floating monkey statues. I'm not going to remember it tomorrow, but it's a well-done, fun bit of fluff.
DEAD@17: BLOOD OF SAINTS (Viper Comics; $2.95@) continues to be one of the few recent self-publishing success stories, Josh Howard's horror story centering around a resurrected teenager, a cult out to unleash evil on the world, and a counter-cult intent on stopping them. #2 of the series avoids the soap opera meanderings of the first issue and really cranks up the threat level, leaving some very nasty cliffhangers for the next issue. Howard's Amerimanga art is more confident than ever before too. Sharp job. Those who missed the mini-series that launched DEAD@17 can now get it in trade paperback (Viper Comics; $14.95).
Brian Kelly's art also shows up in SOME OTHER DAY (Antihero Comics; $2), nicely illustrating a short David Hopkins story about a disintegrating space station raining down on a small Texas town. We never see the space station; the story focuses on human reaction to the event. It creeps up on you, but it's quite good. This is the level of quality all mini-comics should aspire to.
David Blumenstein's NAKEDFELLA COMICS #8 (Nakedfella; no price given) is more of an underground comic than a mini-comic, back when everyone realized that anyone could make them. I'm not sure why the cover is the worst art in the book, but the deceptively simple interior art is quite good. The stories, from humorous riffs on John Wayne and urban revolution to slice of life jokes, are quite good as well. It's a surprisingly satisfying read.
The previous issue of SHOOTING STAR COMICS ANTHOLOGY (Shooting Star Comics; $4.95) was a bit of a letdown, but #4 is a big improvement over that. The bookends are another Aym Geronimo story, half by Sean Taylor, half by J. Morgan Neal and Todd Fox, involving an American superheroine in a bad situation in Egypt, and it's vastly better than the last Aym Geronimo. The lastest episode of Yellowjacket is also, this one a straightforward pulp shootout, is also much better than his last story, with a jump in art and story quality from Scott McCullar. There are steps away from the generally pulpy tone of the anthology, like Jeffrey Moy's videogame confection and Eric Burnham's humorous Nick Landime one-pager. For the most part, the weaknesses that have plagued the anthology are flushed out with #4, and even the stories that don't grab me, like Michael Hutchinson and Phil Meadows' Time Meddlers, have decent art and writing. The only real weak spots are C. Adam Volle and Dustin Griffin's "The Klansman Is Dead," which is an interesting idea that doesn't really play out properly (and why on Earth would the character be in costume at the end?), and Scott Rogers' Bedbug, which just isn't very good. Otherwise, not bad at all.
WRITER'S BLOCK (David Miller Studio Services; $3.50) is a game played once a year where three different writers each dialogue the same story, making up their own plots as they go along from David Miller's existing artwork. The 2003 edition guinea pigs are Mark Waid, Jo Duffy and Roger Stern, each "explaining" a battle between two pregnant warrior women. Mark's comes off the best, with Roger's entertaining and Jo's way too overwritten, but the problem with these things is the stories are forced into a rigid package; there's not really any room for a better idea to spring out, and the basic idea is a cute joke, but once you've got the joke repetition just deadens the effect. Maybe Mark was the best at justifying the situation, but maybe he just had the benefit of being first. The problem with WRITER'S BLOCK isn't that any of the writing is bad, it's that the underlying material needs to be better conceived.
A mini-comic anthology this time: Vassar's SEQUENCE MAGAZINE, Spring '04 edition (Sequence Magazine; no price given). Like many of these things, it's a mixed bag of mostly amateurish, pointless stuff from people who like to draw but don't do it very well. Pretty much from the "life sucks" school of philosophy.
Lettering guru Richard Starkings of Comicraft is a publisher on the side, with his Active Images imprint and a kickass little line of books. Top of the list is cartoonist Glenn Dakin's TEMPTATION ($8.95), a comedic look at the Devil continuously trying to seduce the soul away from a desert dwelling recluse, mostly in one-page segments. It ranges from clever to hilarious, with art that's said to be inspired by KRAZY KAT but reminds me much more of Foolbert Sturgeon's NEW ADVENTURES OF JESUS. Get it. Also well worth the price is the repackaging of Al Davison's harrowing, surrealistic autobiographical THE SPIRAL CAGE ($12.95), detailing his survival and eventual conquest of the spina bifida that crippled him from birth and a truly horrifying family drowning in dementia. Just amazing work, this time with an introduction by Alan Moore and some supplemental material, in case anyone needs further inducement. Then there's a collection of David Hine's excellent latter day gothic horror thriller, STRANGE EMBRACE ($14.95). No pseudo-Lovecraftian tripe here; this is the real thing. Finally, there's Ilya's SKIDMARKS ($12.95). To say it's about bicycle riders in London is like saying THE FOUNTAINHEAD is about a building. Ilya's story comes in little well done vignettes, but, cumulatively, they're an extended snapshot of a lifestyle and the people who try to live it because they've got nothing else, told with wit, passion and style. It doesn't hurt any of these books that Starkings has the sensibilities of an art director; the books all look great, and they're worth every penny.
Jason Henderson's SWORD OF DRACULA continues at Image with #4 ($2.95) and a new artist, William Belk, replacing Greg Scott on art. Scott is, overall, the better artist, but somehow Belk works better on the book; the action is more comprehensible in his hands. The story also finally kicks into gear, as new enemies unleash new horror and heroine Ronnie Van Helsing has a confrontation with Dracula not unlike the meeting of Claire and Hannibal Lector in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. I'm thinking, though, that the episodic nature of the story is getting in Henderson's way a bit; every time he really gets going he has to stop.
And damn if I haven't run out of time with still a couple dozen books to go. Next week.
"I read your Comic Book Resources article about breaking into the comics biz, and really enjoyed it. Based on what I have observed, read and experienced over the past 35 years, I'd say your article was dead-on, across the board.
From 1967-1977, I thought the best thing in life would be to draw comics professionally for a living. My realization about the cold, cruel business side of the business never came as an epiphany, per se, but by 1978, I came to the realization that my ultimate path in life was not going to involve funnybooks. I was still a bit unsure I'd made the right decision until I received a particularly telling post card that same year from the legendary Wally Wood, with whom I'd been corresponding occasionally. On the card, Woody wrote about the upcoming publication of what he considered his magnum opus: WIZARD KING. He said that if he could gather up the money needed to publish his hardcover, and it was successful, then he would have finally "made it" in the business. To me, Woody was one of the most talented and, in my mind, successful comic book creators to ever to pick up a pencil. Yet here he was after nearly 30 years in the business, still frustrated, and still thinking he had not yet achieved the success he'd dreamed of.
Since turning away from a possible professional career in comics those many years ago, I have learned skills, gone places, and achieved things that I once would have thought impossible.
I still read, write and draw comics when I have time, but just as a hobby. As a matter of fact, I've gone a year or more without drawing a line. As a result, even after 37 years, I still have fun doing this stuff!"
I've been doing comics in one form or another for 30 years now, and, despite various ups and downs, I still have fun doing this stuff. But, now that you mention it, I only met him once but I miss Wally Wood.
"An interesting column on the subject, with what seems like good advice...sure to be ignored by the very people who need it the most.
When Marvel did the BIG TRYOUT BOOK, I was one of the many who did try out, and got high enough in the writer's category to get a more than just form letter, inviting me to keep trying, and send more samples. I worked on them for awhile, then had a large dose of reality hit me as I fell asleep one night.
Visiting New York, staying with comic fans who lived there, taught me one thing. I didn't like it. Maybe I could have adjusted to it, but it would have been like adjusting to prison life, considering the few bucks I might have made doing comics. By then, I was in my early 30s, and comic book writing didn't hold the romance it had when I was younger. Most of the professionals I met were very unhappy, drank a lot, and tried to pick up the wives and girlfriends of fans. I realized that there was a good reason most pros of the past were from the same area. So, if I was lucky, I might just make enough money to survive, doing something that I wasn't that crazy about anymore.
Sometimes, I regret not sending in the samples, just to see the reply, but not trying harder to write comics. Yeah, these days, not living in New York probably wouldn't work against working for DC or Marvel, but that's after you've actually gotten work.
Doing your own comic, working at some other job to pay for it, and selling it at shows, on EBay, etc, for cost or even below, is probably the best bet. With the coming dominance of trade collections, having a book ready to be distributed by one of the majors may even be better. I sell a lot of old comics on EBay, and recently had some poor guy write me, asking for my advice on how he could sell his graphic novel, which he described at length. I advised him to contact Diamond, and wished him luck, but I thought "if you have to write to a total stranger (not involved in publishing in any way) for advice, you're in for a lot of trouble". I'm sure he's not alone.
It's a shame that writing about comics is much more interesting than reading most of them today."
You're exaggerating the necessity to live in New York to break in at Marvel or DC. It helps, but it's far from mandatory anymore, especially if your work is noticeably good.
"I just read the column for May 19. It is the right mix of realistic and optimistic, it is certainly comprehensive. It is interesting to get an insider's viewpoint. I think that the most interesting point you made was that most (all?) of the talent in comics did not break in by just sending in a submission.
Please by all means keep the insider's viewpoint stuff coming. You have the capability to be realistic without sounding too disheartening. It is every fan's dream to one day work in comics, but the realities of working in comics are far different from any fan's idea of it. It is a job and like any job it is work."
There have been people who broke in via submission alone. It's not impossible. But it is a job, and, as I've said before, even bad work is harder than it looks.
I've been watching AMERICAN IDOL (Fox, 8PM Tuesdays) with one eye this season (it's impossible to keep both of them open), and, as we close in on the big finale, we're faced with what I'm told the viewers of the British original are too familiar with: nobody deserves to win this year. I wasn't a fan of Kelly Clarkson or Clay Aiken (oh, wait, Clay didn't win last year! Who did?) (Just kidding. I know who won. But it looks like Clay really won, didn't he?), but at least they had talent. Fantasia Barrino seems to be the winner elect – the only two singers who were developing into real talents this year were both eliminated under suspicious circumstances that pitted them one-on-one against Fantasia, leading to much speculation over the validity and security of the "voting," which was about the only interesting aspect of the season – but hasn't anyone noticed that she can only sing ONE DAMNED NOTE?!! She modulates the volume just fine, but she only singes one note. This season was enough of a mess, it'll be interesting to see if an audience shows up next season.