LIFE DURING WARTIME
Since it is the Memorial Day weekend, I thought this would be the perfect time to discuss Will Eisner's latest work, LAST DAY IN VIETNAM. It won't appear in comic shops until 01 July, but I got my hands on the black and white review copy, which contains all but the last 17 pages. I have a feeling it doesn't do the work justice. Dark Horse will print the book itself in dark brown ink with ivory paper. $10.95 gets you 80 pages of eminently human characters, doing their best and their worst in wartime, in both Vietnam and Korea.
The book is composed of six short stories, telling of Eisner's time as a field reporter for military magazine, P.S. The first story - also the longest -- is the namesake of this volume, as Eisner tells the story through first person viewpoint. We're introduced to Eisner's escort, an officer on his last day in active duty. We're shown a wide variety of emotions the soldier feels on his last day, as the end of the tour nears for him. It's a tense piece of writing, told without being melodramatic.
Other stories in the volume include one short story of a lovelorn soldier in enemy territory, one of a misplaced soldier the others try to protect and what happens when they fail him, another of a slightly skittish soldier with a conscience, and more.
Eisner's storytelling comes in something very close to a grid format. The panels lead left to right, up to down. But there are no solid panels and no hard gutters. It's almost as if there's just a series of images which form a narrative. It's a neat trick, eliminating the standard comic book tradition of panel borders and having one panel "fade out" and back into the next. It's almost a persistence of vision trick, which allows us to see 24 frames per second as a moving image.
Eisner's line work is equally fascinating. Backgrounds are done in pencil, often, leading to a far-off look. There's a lot of work with shading and texturing that I'm not entirely sure I understand how it was done. Visually, it's perfect. It adds to a certain hazy feeling about the artwork, like you're looking at someone's memory, just slightly dimmed with time.
There's also a bunch of great figure work in here. Eisner's characters are expressive, subtle, dramatic, cartoony, and deadly serious. There's a wide array of things going on here, and it's a pleasure to read.
Most of the lettering is done without pointers or balloons. It's all done by hand and just floats above the speaker's head. There are only a couple of exceptions to this, and on those pages, the white of the balloons are formed by the absence of background shading. It's an interesting look. Eisner even does pseudo-typewriter font by hand. Imagine doing that today…
Lettering is one of the first things they teach at the Kubert School. It seems to be a lost art, but the old-timers and those who emulate them are often quick to point out that a cartoonist has to do all of this. The only other artist I can think of right now with this kind of work ethic is Steve Lieber, who pencils, inks, and letters each page of WHITEOUT by himself, by hand. In a day and age when everything is slick and computer-processed, it's nice to see things that look so organic.
In an effort to catch up on some of my reading, I grabbed WILDCATS #8 - #11 this past weekend. These are the first four issues of the new creative team: writer Joe Casey and artist Sean Phillips. It wasn't anything like what I expected. It was much better.
Maybe it's because the artist seems to have paid some attention to the writer's script, but everything is much clearer here now. The characters all make sense. Their reasons and emotions are explained to the reader. There's actually something for them to do besides look good since Travis Charest was drawing them. In short, there's a brain behind the series now that's actually showing through. Heck, for the first time since the new series began, I actually understand something about the character of Kenyan, the arch villain who's been the Wildcats' nemesis. (He's also the inspiration for this section's header. Hey, it's not easy keeping the Talking Heads theme up with this column this week.)
The first three issues form an arc to set up the foundation for this new run of stories, making regulars out of Emp, Spartan, Grifter, and Noir. Issue #11 reintroduces us to one of Alan Moore's most clever creations, Ladytron. (Casey has a particular fascination with her, it seems, writing the most memorable issue of MR. MAJESTIC guest starring her, and an upcoming one-shot special in August.) We're slowly being reintroduced to the cast, giving each his or her time in the spotlight before moving on. There are also plans for most of the rest of the old team to be visited at one point or another in the future.
Sean Phillips' art shows a great design sense. Besides some well-designed title pages, he also does the narrative stuff well, keeping the story moving, while giving each scene as many panels as it may need to be complete. His thick black panels give the story a certain extra weight and firmness of time.
So, give WILDCATS a second chance. Joe Casey is doing a great job of keeping the plot interesting, as well as keeping new readers from being lost or confused. Issue #8 helps to explain the first 7 issues better than I could attempt to here. Sean Phillips' art isn't as flashy as Charest's, but it serves the book well. This is not the same book you might remember from Jim Lee's day. For its coherency, it's actually better.
This column is dedicated to little Joey Torcivia. He was the biggest little comics fanboy I ever met, and he was taken from us way too soon. Wherever he is right now, I'm sure there's a new Freakazoid or Superman cartoon showing…
BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE
This Friday will be the monthly look at PREVIEWS and books scheduled to ship in August. There's also some discussion in there as to why I've taken up doing this so often lately, and the sad state of the industry that prompts me to do so. =)