WHEN 32 PAGES JUST ISN’T ENOUGH
This is the year when trade paperbacks and original graphic novels have taken off in the market. Yes, there have been trade paperback programs in the past from companies (notably DC), and even a small smattering of original long form works. It seems to me, however, that this year is offering us a bumper crop of truly diverse projects. Plus, they’re coming from all over the map. I'm reviewing more and more longer-form comics than ever before. Some quick examples off the top of my head: CREATURE TECH is getting rave reviews from all over the place. Early word on BIGG TIME is positive, and I'm looking forward to reading it soon. AiT/PlanetLar has made a company policy out of publishing such works. DC gave us WONDER WOMAN: HIKETEIA. Marvel even has an original graphic novel in the works now, from Chris Claremont and Igor Kordey. There are more, but I think I’ve already named more than came out in the entire year 2000, and not far off from what came out in 2001.
This week, I have for review one new original graphic novel, one half-new graphic novel, and one compilation that was so overlooked when it first came out that it might as well be new.
...appeals greatly to me. In my early comic book days, only one other thing held my serious interest. That was animation, and the early days of Warner Bros. theatrical shorts, in particular. Joe Adamson books littered my bookshelf, and boxes of videotapes held episodes of Saturday morning's Bugs Bunny shows on ABC, not to mention more modern fare like DuckTales, Tiny Toons, and TaleSpin.
Rich Koslowski's new story about the brutal early days of the theatrical toons is a slightly skewed look at the early days of animation, using genuine animation history as a jumping-off point to create a cynically believable alternate universe take on show business. In his world, toons live as an oppressed minority class in America, but they’re real. They aren’t ink and color on cels. Think ROGER RABBIT.
In THREE FINGERS, it is Ricky Rat who becomes the star toon for producer Dizzy Walters. As Ricky shot to fame, other toons tried their luck, but very few found stardom. Those that did shared a scandalous secret that threatened to shake the center of the toon world to its core.
Koslowski has billed this book as a Behind the Music look at early animation. Sure enough, it's filled with pages of older hardened cartoon veterans reminiscing back to their early years, when they were young and wrinkle-free. Koslowski makes it obvious which characters he’s riffing off of, and Carhorn Armwhistle steals the show with his foul mouth. (If the name isn’t obvious enough for you, let me just tell you he’s a rooster, son, a rooster, I say.) The characterization in strong through the book, even with the little bit of material each character has to work with. Being based on identifiable cartoon characters doesn’t hurt, either.
The rest of the pages contain narration of the history of toons in the world of THREE FINGERS. It’s like reading a Kevin Burns documentary. Koslowski interrupts the dry narration with the short interview segments to keep the book moving at all times for the reader.
Koslowski smoothly adapts his art style to the material. It's not done in the THREE GEEKS cartoony style. Ironically, the book about cartoons is presented in an art style that’s as realistic as possible, which is just what the book needs. Koslowski uses a variety of techniques in the book, including charcoals and graywashes. Historical photographs are dummied up with some convincing gray tones, while the shadowy modern day interviews are laced with heavy shadows, and the humans in the book are drawn in a very realistic style, not at all cartoony or animated.
Be sure to stick around for the last two story pages, featuring a take on a modern Warner Bros. toon star that cracked me up and sent chills down my spine at the same time.
The book is black and white, oversized, and sideways. This allows Koslowski to do two tiers of three panels each for the interview segments, punctuated by the long pseudo-historical sections. It runs just over 130 story pages for $15 and is well worth it. You can find it anywhere fine Top Shelf books are sold.
The SPARKS trade paperback finally completes Lawrence Marvit's moving narrative of a tomboy and her best friend, a robot she created that a freak bolt of lightning gave life. See last week's column for my initial review of the first five issues. Now, Slave Labor has bundled those five issues' worth of material with another 170 brand spanking new pages to complete the story of the auto mechanic who attempted to teach a robot humanity, in the face of people whose behavior was anything but humane. This includes the abusive and drunken father, the 'friends' who merely tolerate her, the mother who has mentally shut down, and all the people in society who are quick to label her as an outcast.
Marvit's story builds in the sixth chapter, as Jo learns a harsh lesson in love that propels her, in part to some of the drastic action in the seventh chapter. That seventh and final chapter runs over 100 pages and comprises a third act that departs from much of the tone of the first 300 pages. What started as a subtle and low key book ends in an action thriller. It's not that it's not done well, but that it seems to stick out by comparison to the first three hundred pages. Things are still logical and, for the most part, make sense. There’s one action that she takes that I thought might have stepped over the line a bit, but desperation can drive us to do strange things. That includes some things we couldn't ever imagine doing.
Sadly, problems with scanning still detract from the art. It's most obvious in the earliest batch of pages, but there's definite pixellization going on throughout the book. Jagged lines happen far too often. It's not enough to ruin the trade for me, but it is a distraction at times.
In the end, Marvit creates in Jo a completely sympathetic character who’s been playing with a stacked deck for far too long in life. Her insecurities mirror many of the same issues most people go through at one time or another. It’s just that hers are amplified for dramatic storytelling purposes. OK, and there’s a talking robot, too. SPARKS is a completely absorbing story that you won’t want to put down once you’ve started it. It rolls along without giving you the chance to jump off.
The 400 page tome is available from Slave Labor Graphics for $35.
I'm not a conspiracy buff. Sure, I watched X-FILES, but I've never found myself obsessed with things like Elvis' death or JFK's shooting. So it was that I came at Steven Grant's book, BADLANDS, from an outsider’s point of view. I don't have any grand conspiracy theories on the Kennedy assassination. I don't know if there was someone on the grassy knoll or if Oswald did it all himself. I don't know who all the players are. I know of Jack Ruby and the Warren Commission. The rest are details I've never particularly been interested in. My American History minor only carries me through WW2 in many ways. My interest begins to wane after that. (Maybe I’m getting old, but anything after that seems less like history and more like current events. Political decisions made in the wake of World War 2 still shape our society and government to this day.)
BADLANDS is a conspiracy story about the John F. Kennedy assassination in Dallas in 1963. Grant's story is a short but winding road, filled with felons, murderers, nymphomaniacs, politics, and grand theft auto. It's not quite a David Lynch movie, but it's got enough strange stuff in it to keep his fans happy. The big difference is that it's so well-grounded. It doesn't include any flights of the fantastic, science fiction, or mystical trappings. It's all down to earth and it all ties together. It’s just got a colorful and maniacal cast of characters.
Given the somewhat conspiratorial nature of some of Grant's political rantings over in his Permanent Damage column, this comic shouldn’t be too surprising a fit for Grant. It's right in his range, and he does a great job in keeping the reader off balance. Just when you think things are going to go smoothly, some new reversal makes you rethink it all. In the end, though, it's an entertaining read that goes down smoothly.
The trade paperback (clocking in at 144 black and white pages) is the story of Conrad Bremen, a convicted car thief in Illinois. Upon his release, he gets mixed up (again) with the wrong company, which forces him south into Texas, where he's trapped in a world of double dealing, logistical traps, governmental investigation, and a wide conspiracy net. It all leads up to the assassination of JFK. Even though you know Bremen is destined to get mixed up in the events of the day somehow, all of the fun of the story is in getting there. It’s quite the circuitous route, but never difficult to keep track of.
Most amazingly, Grant takes a convict like Bremen and nearly succeeds in making him a rooting interest by surrounding him with people who are even more objectionable and immoral. There are no good guys in this book. Everyone has their own agenda. Bremen is just working to keep his head above water during high tide.
Vince Giarrano's art works in black and white. There were only a couple of times that I got confused between characters, but that's easy to do in a comic filled with black and white art of normal human beings, and not full-colored spandex-clad people. (I miss those visual cues sometimes.)
You can see a little bit of Howard Chaykin’s or Gil Kane’s style in his art, if you look hard enough. Let's put it this way: If you like Charlie Adlard's work, I think you'll like Giarrano's. I think Giarrano's stuff might be a little easier to read, although less stylistically attractive than Adlard’s. It comes off more restrained.
BADLANDS is available from the fine folks at AiT/PlanetLar for a mere $13. Grant wrote a screenplay based on the book which is also available from AiT/PlanetLar for $10. That’s next on my reading list.
The book is definitely a mature readers title, for reasons of sex, violence, and language. It hits all three biggies there.
More reviews all next week!
More than 400 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 still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.