"The year is 2087 A.D. In the wake of a devastating war with an alien race, Earth is protected by an elite fighter squadron - the Shockrockets, a hybrid of human and alien technology."
Pardon me while I gush:
SHOCKROCKETS may very well be the most solidly constructed comic book out there today. There's a sense with every panel and with every word that Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen know exactly what they're doing and why. That may not sound like much, but compared to a lot of comics today with their creators working by the seats of their pants, it's huge.
For starters, the story construction is textbook-worthy. Each issue is narrated by a different character. Busiek first used this technique, if I remember correctly, with THE REGULATORS mini-series he started for Jim Valentino about five years ago. The series didn't get past the second or third issue before being canceled due to low sales. It's a shame, because that was not a bad book, and functions today as a precursor to THUNDERBOLTS. It was a series starring a team of villains, at least one of which was busy questioning her villainy. (That description comes straight from the memory banks. Please allow for some distortion due to age.)
Each story in SHOCKROCKETS is reasonably self-contained. This fifth issue reads a lot more like part one of two than previous issues have, but it's still one complete adventure. One trap that writers often can fall into with this format is that they lose the trees in the forest. They're so concerned with the major arc overlapping the six books that they forget to tell strong stories in each issue. When the first issue becomes entirely set-up to the following issues, you're going to lose a lot of readers really early on.
Busiek doesn't fall into that trap. Each issue has a definite story. And each story adds to the overall arc. I imagine that after next month's sixth issue, we'll be able to look over the six issues and see different things in each one. But for now, there's more than enough entertainment in each issue.
The only trouble I can see with the eventual collection is that some things will seem repetitive. Since each issue is "New Reader Friendly," a lot of background material from previous issues has to be repeated every month. While that's great for those of us with fuzzy memories for last month's issue, it might be slightly problematic with readers who first get exposed to the book through a collection. But that's a Catch 22 situation and I think Busiek does an admirable job with it here.
A large cast of characters, technologies, and situations are getting easier to follow with each issue. When all this stuff gets thrown on the table right away, your brain can't assimilate it all at once. Mine sure can't. But through careful focus on one character at a time, and protagonist Alejandro Cruz's investigations, we get to learn about all of this stuff as we go along, never losing sight of the action going on, or of the overall storyline. (Yup, SHOCKROCKETS uses that old cliché that I've railed against in the past. It's the one where you introduce a new character into an old situation and follow him around, so that the reader learns as he does. There's got to be a better way to do that. It just starts to grate on me after seeing it used so much.)
The book itself is an action/adventure piece. For all of us who grew up playing with Matchbox cars and imagining driving one of them around-- For all of us who built model airplanes and wanted to fly one really fast-- For all of us who watched all the Space Shuttle launches and imagined what it would be like to experience all those G's pulling on us upon takeoff - -
This book is for us. There's something that viscerally exciting about it.
Busiek has referred to "Terry and the Pirates" in many interviews to describe the feeling he's going for with this book. My knowledge of that comic strip is a bit limited, but from what little I have read, I'd have to say he's pretty danged successful at achieving that feeling.
Immonen's art is terribly easy on the eyes. It's constructed with a solid eye for detail, a great sense of shadows and shading, and an ability to make all the characters easily distinguishable. Wade von Grawbadger's inks do a wonderful job with it, too. There's a continuous sense of line weight running throughout the issue. The first panel on page 7 in issue 5, however, doesn't look like von Grawbadger inked it. It forsakes his usual fine line placement for some awkward looking straight lines across Melina's face. It really jumped out at me. I had to look twice to see which pilot it was, and it seemed out of place in the issue as a whole. That's probably just nit-picking, though, at this point.
Immonen's cinematic artwork and storytelling helps bring that Saturday afternoon serial look to the comic. Not only that, but this serial has color, better acting, and better story structure. =)
One of the toughest things for a writer to ask an artist to draw is a car chase. Chuck Dixon lamented at his panel in Chicago that he once asked Scott McDaniel to draw a bike chase scene on a cruise ship. The problem with this is that he had just asked the artist to draw something very technical an awful lot of times. When you only have four weeks to draw the book, it can be tough to draw page after page of people on bikes. Here, however, Busiek writes scenes for Immonen to draw composed of two ships fighting a squadron of other ships. Not only does Immonen draw all the ships in perfect perspective, but he manages the storytelling well enough that you can easily follow the action. (Busiek's dialogue keeps pace with the action, too.)
There are artists who do their damnedest to make sure that the stories they tell don't involve having to draw cityscapes, because they hate drawing cars - or they just aren't very good at it. Stuart Immonen leaps at the chance to draw detailed and complicated machinery like a little kid diving under the tree on Christmas morning to rip open his presents. (Check out the very first panel of the fifth issue for a great example of this. It's a detailed look at the cockpit of one of the Shockrocket ships. All the controls, gizmos, and doodads are there in living color. Not many artists would both designing, laying out, and then drawing this.) The stuff he draws in here looks sleek and technical. It's a weird combination. But it works. Half the time, you have to think he's using CGI for all of this, but the one time he does - at the beginning of the second issue - it sticks out like an ugly sore thumb. Don't worry; it was used for a good purpose in that issue and not just as a way of showing off.
The rest of the production values are top-notch, too. The paper is glossy, which shows off Jeremy Cox's colors perfectly. One of the underappreciated tasks of a colorist is to understand what grade of paper he or she is coloring for. There's nothing worse than to see a trade paperback printed on a lesser grade of paper than the original series was printed. The first thing to suffer is the coloring. It becomes muddy. Take a look at the PLANETARY trade paperback if you want a recent vivid example. Cox's colors here are bright and vibrant. This book doesn't end up looking like the post-apocalyptic war comic it could be, for example. It takes on the brightness of the hope for the future that the Shockrockets represent. It's subtle, but it works.
Richard Starkings/Comicraft's Jason Levine letters the series. Normally, this doesn't do anything to automatically endear the book to me. However, Comicraft is using a font here that's based on the hand lettering style that Starkings, himself, used back before he started on the computers. My first exposure to it was the early issues of the NICK FURY AGENT OF SHIELD series from about 1990. It was probably the best part of the book. I really like the open look of it.
Most likely, there will be a trade paperback of this first 6-issue mini-series next year. But you shouldn't wait for it. Go out and grab the first five issues at your local comics shop now. SHOCKROCKETS is a great read for those looking for some solid action and adventure in their comics that doesn't forget the plot or characterization.
THE END OF PREACHER
I've been asked this past week what I think of the end of PREACHER. The honest answer is, "Not much." I never read the book. Sure, I flipped through the first trade paperback once. But I didn't read anything in there that fascinated me, and the art wasn't to my liking. (Plus, it was REALLY brown. ;-)
So I never read it.
Then it got super-popular and that turned me off of it, too. There's just something off-putting about a comic book that you're "supposed" to be reading.
You won't be reading a farewell column to PREACHER in Pipeline. I don't regret it for a second. I'm glad DC will have the entire series in print in trade paperbacks for its fans, but that's about all I have to say about it.
WHAT THIS COLUMN NEEDS IS MORE SEX!
And PROMETHEA #10 is there to give it to you.
It's a great issue. Sophie Bangs, as Promethea, discovers the world of magic through sex. It's just as weird as it sounds, and it works in funny ways.
It does make one wonder, however, about the consistency of editorial policy across the board at DC and all its subsidiaries. I mean, wouldn't you expect a "Mature Readers" label on this, at the least? I know I'm treading into dangerous territory on the topic of sex versus violence and the application of labels on comics as a whole -- but tell me you weren't surprised with everything they got away with showing in this issue. While most of the 'naughty' bits are covered with magical floating and glowing stars, the actions portrayed in this comic are the kinds of things you'd only find on cable television. And there is some nippleage in the issue.
Just to get this straight -- the issue didn't offend me. The lack of labeling didn't offend me. I'm fine with both parts. I knew what to expect with this issue, and the cover even made it plain that the issue was about sex. Surely, though, someone higher up had to see this issue and get slightly nervous about it. Surely, there was talk of putting a label on it.
Kyle Baker's "Letitia Lerner" story gets pulped and this one gets by. I'm actually surprised. Howard Chaykin's most recent Vertigo series had a label on it, didn't it? And there's no excuse for not knowing going in that Chaykin's writing is drenched with sex. There are even stories of panels in issues of AQUAMAN needing to be redrawn because the male characters bulged too much.
But this issue of PROMETHEA seems to have been published without incident, without warning, without label. Weird.
Feel free to discuss. I don't know exactly what to make of this, or if there's even anything that should be made of this.
Now someone pass me a cigarette...
COMPLETELY OFF-TOPIC LINUX QUESTION
If you're not a Linux guru, skip ahead.
This column was written in StarOffice 5.1 on Linux-Mandrake 7.1 this weekend.
I wasted most of this past holiday weekend upgrading my Linux box to Mandrake 7.1 from 7.0 and tooling around with it. This finally got my Voodoo3 2000 card recognized by X Windows. Now the Quake3 demo does appear on my screen, but I don't get any sort of frame rate. Things on the menu are delayed by a hideous amount. The ID logo screen shows me about three different images and is accompanied by about a quarter of the sound that should accompany it.
Anyone have any idea on how to fix this, so I can live in peace with myself and go back to reading comics, writing this column, and leading a fulfilling life? (I wonder if the 3D card is really being recognized... The 3Dfx test images work fine, though.)
PREVIEWS IN THE PIPELINE
Stop back again on Friday for a look at a trio of titles not due out for another month or so. I'm not saying which ones. There's one DC book and two Image books. That's all I'm saying.
Since it fits in thematically, maybe I'll even take a quick tour through the latest issue of PREVIEWS, too.
See you then!