REMEMBER WHEN COMICS WERE COOL?
X-MEN VISIONARIES: JIM LEE is the coolest damn trade paperback I've read this year. It brings me back to my personal golden age of collecting, when Marvel Comics ruled, X-Men were the ultimate in cool, and Jim Lee's art was the high watermark of artistic talent. Rereading those stories today brought back all of those feelings. It gave me chills from a different time. And it showed me some new things I never stopped to consider at the time, as well as reinforcing some opinions I had about artwork and coloring even back then.
When I first started reading comics in 1989, it quickly became evident that UNCANNY X-MEN was the top dog in the industry. It was the sales leader. It was the book that every artist worked up towards. Of course, my industry knowledge at that point came from MARVEL AGE, so maybe it was a bit off. That same comic also had countless features about the group of mutants, including a scorecard. That's right; Marvel's own in-house promotional vehicle once cheered on the fact that there were so many mutants in the X-Universe that Chris Claremont had shaped over the past decade and a half that you needed a scorecard to keep them straight.
Never being one to take that kind of advice seriously, I finally gave in and dove into the complicated corner of the Marvel Universe in 1990 with UNCANNY X-MEN #258. I can still remember the cover with Wolverine featured on it, and the weird Asian storyline with Psylocke and Jubilee. I can probably redraw panels from that issue from memory to this day, more than a decade later. (I was convinced at that time that I was going to be an artist of some sort when I grew up, so I busily redrew favorite panels from comics over and over again.)
I had just taken a dive into the deep end of the pool and I was convinced that I could pick it up quickly. No matter what, though, the artist on board was amazing. The young Jim Lee had a dynamic style that fit into a comics world with Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane and Marc Silvestri, and even Ron Lim, who was doing such an amazing job on THE SILVER SURFER or CAPTAIN AMERICA at that point.
For those of us reading comics at the time, it was a thing of great beauty. If we had been born a couple of years later, I'm sure I'd be sitting here extolling the virtues of Joe Madureira. (Sadly, his VISIONARIES volume was ill-produced, with a binding that falls apart if you so much as glance at it.) But that is not my X-MEN. My X-Men started with John Byrne (courtesy of CLASSIC X-MEN and other reprint volumes) and ended with Jim Lee. While there have been some decent times since then, none of it carries the same charm or weight for me as those 150 issues (give or take) did.
This collection starts off in Australia (UNCANNY X-MEN #248) with a story that doesn't connect a whole lot to the rest of the issue, and I can only assume is included out of historical interest. From there, we zap ahead to the "Acts of Vengeance" three-parter (#256-258), where Wolverine and his new 'partner,' Jubilee, work to save a Psylocke that just recently emerged from the Siege Perilous. In #268-269, we have the classic flashback issue to the first meeting of Captain America and Wolverine, complete with Black Widow, plus the emergence of Rogue from the Siege Perilous.
UNCANNY X-MEN #273 is the only curious inclusion in the collection. It's the issue in which all of the various X-Factions (then New Mutants, X-Factor, and X-Men) came together to figure out their roles in the mutant world. Very little was actually decided, and Jim Lee did only a small portion of the issue, with help from the likes of John Byrne, Rick Leonardi, Larry Stroman, Whilce Portacio, and Michael Golden. Normally, I'd say it's an interesting issue at that time in the X-Men story, but as a part of X-MEN VISIONARIES: JIM LEE, it makes no sense. It's not even necessary to set up the following set of issues, which runs straight through #274 to #277. Those stories split the stories up in Jim Lee's defining artistic moments on the series (for me, at least) with Rogue in The Savage Land with Nick Fury and Magneto, and the rest of the gang in outer space with the Shi'ar Empire.
These are the stories that put the characters back into the blue-and-yellow costumes. (Oddly, the cover image depicts the characters in costumes donned only after the stories printed in the trade.) Here we get to see a time when Jubilee was a major part of the team, and had a real personality. You can see a couple classic examples of Claremontian Women in Psylocke and Rogue. And you can watch as control of the X Universe slowly slipped from Claremont's grasp during the Harras era, as Jim Lee gets added credit as co-plotter and the influence of X-FORCE begins to be felt.
It's interesting to see the evolution in Jim Lee's artwork just in the couple of years he spent on UNCANNY. I've heard people compare his artwork to Art Adams', but I've never seen it before reading these stories again. It's particularly strong in the earliest issues. Take a look at the last panel on page 177 and the way the light shines up at a young Natasha Romanoff's face. It's right out of Adams' playbook. Lee's art is overall more cartoonish in those early issues. While there are some moments of anatomic uncertainty, there's also a looseness and energy to the art that sings to the reader. As the book progresses, you can see Lee's pencils start to tighten and his own style take hold.
The inkers also affect his artwork. His first UNCANNY X-MEN issue was inked by Dan Green, who I grew most familiar with as the inker of Marc Silvestri's art on WOLVERINE. Sure enough, Lee's art looks a lot like Silvestri's. They must have been in the same studio together around that time with Whilce Portacio, because I can see some of Portacio's style on some of the earliest pages in scenes set in Asia. It is Scott Williams' inks that defined Lee's style, though. It's that tightness of line, and attention to fine detail (and over-detail, at times) and crosshatching. When Art Thibert steps in for the Rogue/Captain Marvel catfight issue, Lee's art takes on a whole new look. It's back very much to the Art Adams' influenced style, with a bouncy (pardon the potentially sexist word there) look. By the time the X-Men travel to the Savage Land and outer space, Lee's own hard lined look shows through, and these are the issues (#275 - #277) that stand out in my mind as his X-Men art style. It carried over nicely to the first three issues of the adjectiveless X-MEN, but then slowly got lost in deadlines pressures and guest inkers, to the point where Art Thibert was finishing Jim Lee's breakdowns in that series and then drawing them himself without a noticeable difference, save a couple of anatomical issues.
(The first seven issues of that series are now collected in X-MEN: MUTANT GENESIS, and has some quirks of its own, such as the insertion of Jeff Matsuda pin-ups panels to straighten out a couple of pagination issues.)
Tom Orzechowski letters a majority of this collection. (Pat Brosseau does a great job filling in on a couple of issues, with a style that complements Orzechowski's.) His touch was the one element throughout most of the Claremont years that kept the look and style of the book consistent, through art changes the likes of John Byrne, John Romita Jr., Paul Smith, Marc Silvestri, and Jim Lee.
It is Joe Rosas' coloring, though, that stuck out to me the most when I originally read these issues. Now reprinted on much better paper with much better coloring technologies, it looks even better. These issues came at a time when, to the best of my knowledge, people were just starting to play around with the computer as a coloring tool. I don't think Rosas was using it then, but he created some affects that weren't part of the common coloring vocabulary at the time. For starters, his colorings were unrelentingly bright and multi-colored, which I really enjoyed. Look at the way he played around with skin tones and shadows in the Savage Land storyline of issue #274. Compare it to the flat, straight-edged, and simple shadowing affects used by Glynis Oliver earlier in the book. Oliver's coloring wasn't bad. It was quite good, given the constraints of technology and printing at the time. But Rosas let it all out. His technique was as close to the sculpted coloring as you could get at the time without painting the artwork.
Chris Claremont's writing style doesn't fit in all that well in the modern comics climate. Comics fans today want fast-paced spare storytelling. Heavy dialogue is OK, so long as it's treated like a stage play or movie script. Claremont isn't that at all. His plotting and scripting style is much more deliberate, but enjoyable in its own right. I enjoyed reading the steady and controlled dialogue, complete with catchphrases and accents. You could read a Claremont comic ten years ago and tell who was speaking without looking at where the word balloon's tail was pointing. Yes, it's a bit stylistic and his language was at the same time formal, but it set the mood and narrated the story well. I discussed this a lot more a couple years ago. Check out this Pipeline2 from December 1999 or this one from September 1999.
X-MEN VISIONARIES: JIM LEE is another great reminder of why I fell in love with this medium 12 years ago. Of course, there are more literate and literary comics in the world. But these are the books that called to me back then. These are the books that are cool. A decade from now, some young whipper snapper will be taking my place here to similarly extol the virtues of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, probably. But for me, Jim Lee's X-Men is an integral part of my comics experience, and something that doesn't turn me red with embarrassment years later. Reading this book was a thrill.
FROM PATH TO POWERS
As CrossGen ages, it also evolves. There's a broader style of art present across the dozen books than when the line started. The reliance on the sigil has lessened, while remaining present more as a background device. And, of course, the publishing plans continue to unwind, showing forethought that some thought CrossGen wouldn't last long enough to display.
The first trade paperback for THE PATH is now available in stores. It's titled "Crisis of Faith." At first glance, the book seems a radical departure for CrossGen. Artist Bart Sears steals the show with double page spreads of storytelling in a new style patterned more after Frank Miller's SIN CITY or Goseki Kojima's LONE WOLF AND CUB. Closer inspection gives Ron Marz credit for crafting a world that's multi-layered, easy to follow, and interesting to visit.
A closer reading of the book also shows that it shares several trademarks with the rest of the CrossGen line. There are massive battles taking place across great fields, while the reader has a strong interest in a couple of specific characters on either side. There's a strong personal story going on. There is a supporting cast to broaden the history of the series, and a storytelling style that gives everything plenty of time to unfold. It's unfair to say nothing happens. A lot happens across the nearly 150 pages of story presented here, but it has time to breath. Pacing is important. The art plays just as strong a role as the story. You'll be glad you had the time to enjoy it when you're done.
CrossGen is working with a different theory of comics creation here: the trade paperback as a single unit of time in a series. This first trade ends without a resolution to any of the on-going storylines in the book. It does, however, conclude at a definite break in the story. (The seventh issue on shelves now spends a great deal of time recapping the story thus far. You can tell that Ron Marz is thinking ahead to the trades as he writes this.) Usually, it's not too bright an idea to end a trade paperback collection on a cliffhanger. At CrossGen, though, the trades are on a set schedule like the monthlies. It can be written for, but it can't always logically control the story. Nor should it. More power to the writers for not putting in false stops and artificial endings. In the end, these series will stand the test of time as series of trade paperbacks, and not as single monthly issues, which will eventually go out of print.
THE PATH is set on the same world as WAY OF THE RAT. Where that title resembles China, THE PATH resembles feudal Japan. The story concerns the character of Obo-san, the monk who lost his brother, The Warlord Todosi (the greatest character name in comics), to the gods in THE FIRST #1. Don't worry; you don't need to own that issue to follow this story. The PREQUEL issue is included in the trade and covers all that ground and more. What's a monk to do who's seen his gods strike down his brother? And what does he do with the powerful weapon they leave behind? As the title of the trade says, it's a crisis of faith. Along with a pair of his warrior friends, he's left to defend himself from his own emperor, some strange demonic crows, and his own doubts.
There's a wonderful interview with Sears in the back of the book, where he talks about the influences on his art style and what exactly it is he's trying to do with the book. To achieve the stark high contrast look, he draws the book with a Sharpie marker at half the page's size. The art is blown up for inker Mark Pennington to finish off and add detail to. It's an impressive result. Sears talks heavily about building shapes and structure, as well as his storytelling techniques. Like Butch Guice does in RUSE, Sears is using two page spreads to tell the story here. His panel layouts are varied, with specific pacing reasons for each of them. There's a strong sense of design throughout the issue, with plenty of panels that you just want to blow up and hang as posters. Remember how much of a revelation the fifth issue of SCION was, with Jimmy Cheung's depiction of a massive ground war? It seems like Sears is doing that level of work on every issue of this series.
Walter Simonson was an inspired choice to fill in as guest penciller with the fifth issue. He took to the style of the book and its inhabitants with nary a blink. He maintained his own artistic leanings, though, without trying to become a Sears clone. His effortless line and brilliant staging told the story in a way so very few seem able to do these days. It's too bad we didn't get to see him draw more in his usual style; the issue was packed with flashback narrative told in a pseudo-historical graphic narrative, causing Simonson to draw outside his style.
(And it might have been just me, but it looked like Dave Lanphear threw in a couple of John Workman-like word balloons near the end of the issue.)
If you think the LONE WOLF AND CUB style shows in the story, wait till you see the cameo in the third chapter. (It appears that the character is more than just a cameo lookalike. He's the narrator of the seventh issue. I'd guess that it was a little throwaway gag that grew into a regular character, but things seem to be so meticulously planned out at CrossGen that I doubt it.)
THE PATH stands on its own very well. If you've got a friend who's into Japanese artwork, or who likes manga, this might be a good one to throw at him or her. The story is easily accessible, and the storytelling is top notch, even when you don't realize exactly why. If you're a regular comic reader, you'll find something new and different here. There is a lot to be learned here about storytelling from Sears' choice of panel layouts.
I don't mean to diminish Ron Marz's contribution to the book by heaping all the praise on Sears, either. Marz had his share of detractors after his DC work. Starting at CrossGen gave him a clean slate. His work while in Tampa has been exceptional, and he's the regular writer on two of my favorite CrossGen titles now, SCION and THE PATH. You don't get there by accident or strictly from having a strong artistic partner. It takes some writing chops, and I am convinced now that Marz has them.
The latest trade in the Bendis/Oeming superhero cop saga, POWERS: LITTLE DEATHS is now available from a comic shop near you. For $20, you get all the odds and ends of the POWERS series. In addition to the three-part "Groupies" story, you get the Warren Ellis guest-starring "Ride Along" issue, the first Annual, the Coloring Book, a Bendis interview, some sketchbook pages, and the first Bendis/Oeming pairing in "Keys," a crime noir tale from JINX TRUE CRIME CONFESSIONS. I had a fun time rereading all of these stories over the weekend. LITTLE DEATHS is a nice POWERS anthology book, a collection of short stories like you'd expect from a science fiction author.
"Groupies" is the longest story in the book at about 66 pages, and I'd suggest putting some time aside to read it all in one sitting. I took a break between the first and second issues and it made the third issue feel like a faint echo of the first issue. I think if I had read it all together, I would have seen more clearly the difference in the two interrogation scenes. The middle issue is off-format, presented mostly as a reprint of a faux POWERS! Magazine, featuring an interview with the murdered superhero whose death sparks a tale of sex, lies, and sparkling red heads. This is definitely not a story for the kiddies.
Heck, everything's a little off-format, as the coloring book most clearly proves, and the Annual, which is presented as half sequential graphics and half courtroom testimony transcript. (I think Bendis did it to justify his FRONT PAGE licensing fee. ;-)
The cover to the trade is done in the same tabloid format as the covers to the individual "Groupies" issues, which are also presented in the back of the trade for completeness' sakes.
Michael Avon Oeming's art is consistent throughout the book, even on stories that were done months apart and in different formats. His straight pencil work that accompanies the court transcript portion of the Annual's story is the most interesting of the book to me.
Bendis' stories are relatively quick reads. As much dialogue as he may pack in a page, it's amazing how smoothly and quickly it reads. Oeming's facility with talking heads scenes certainly helps there, as well.
Just remember: POWERS. It's good reading.
Pipeline is back next week on Tuesday and Friday, e-mail servers willing. (Sorry for the delay on the column this past Tuesday. It was an e-mail server problem. Very annoying, but that's the internet for you. Live by the sword, die by the sword.)
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.