SPACE BEAVER was released this past month from Ait/PlaNetLar. It's a black and white thirteen dollar trade paperback from the warped adolescent pen of Darick Robertson.
It's a story of a vengeful beaver, his friendly mentor-type turtle, and newfound rat friend. They're out to save the world and the beaver's rabbit girlfriend from a murderous pig and his henchman porcupine. C'mon, how could you not want to read it?
Yes, it sounds like something made with an eye towards a fat Saturday morning animated series contract. It sounds like something done in the black and white boom of the late-1980s. Well, it's the latter, not the former. (It's probably a mite bit too violent for the Sat a.m. crowd.)
This is the first part of a compilation of the work Darick Robertson did in his senior year of high school and shortly thereafter. The series lasted twelve issues, six of which appear in this volume. The last five that were originally published will show up in a second volume later this month, plus a newly-drawn twelfth chapter to finish the story. Only eleven issues were originally published and it ended on a pretty huge cliffhanger.
It's really unfair to compare it to Robertson's work today, or even that of five years ago. You have to place it in its proper context. For one, it's amazing to think of a kid in high school being published, no matter what the industry's situation at the time. His artwork here is just starting to develop, although you can see in spots where it is definitely his. And as he acknowledges in his Afterword in the book, the story is filled with melodrama and most every sci fi cliché known to man from 1980s movies. The pacing isn't exactly expert, and the characters are not very deep.
While it looks like Robertson took his favorite black BIC pen and started drawing some funny animal tough guys, that's not true. He used real india ink and tools of the inker when he put this together. You'll have to chalk it up to youthful inexperience. The line quality rarely varies. There's no weight to his lines at all. There are spots in the book in which the art looks completely different from the rest of the book. Some pages are left more open than others. Some are incredibly line-intensive. (I was going to say "detailed," but that would be giving it too much credit.)
Even so, Robertson's art shows some definite signs of maturity and ambition. He's not afraid to draw backgrounds. He doesn't rely on extreme close-ups of characters to fill the page. He moves the 'camera' around, with quite a few dramatic up-shots. Yes, most of the camerawork is straight-on and shows the characters from the waist up, but there's a good variety in there, too. Hands and feet aren't conspicuously missing from any panels, or cut off by their borders. The characters don't always look stiff, either. A lot of times when you see a book like this from a beginning artist, he'll have the tendency to draw the character one way only, and not be able to draw that same character running, leaping, or firing a gun. You won't see any shots of the character from behind or above. Robertson does all of those here.
I had the chance to talk to Robertson during a store signing this weekend and asked him about SPACE BEAVER. He showed me photocopies of what the last chapter's art looked like. (So, yes, now I know the ending. It's a small price to pay.) His art for the last chapter is beautiful. It's an obvious quantum leap better than what you'll find in this trade. And you can tell even without the lettering present that the story is paced better and flows more smoothly. Robertson attributes that to years of working with some great writers – from Keith Giffen to Warren Ellis.
This is mindless fun. Don't look for Shakespeare. Don't put your nose up at the work. Just read it for what it is, have a little fun. Remember what it was like for you to be reading comics in high school and what you would have put together back then. Then look at this. The story may be a bit clunky in spots, but it is fun to follow along with.
LONE WOLF AND CUB Volume 6 is another winner, and I can say that having only read the first half. The third story, "Hunger Town," is perhaps my favorite story of the series so far. Daigoro (the "cub") has a new pet dog. Ogami Itto (the "Lone Wolf") is using it as target practice with a blunt arrow at the beginning of the story. If you're an ASPCA member, you'll be horrified. Otherwise, you might find it funny and cute, but feeling slightly guilty about it. The story takes a couple of other turns over the course of its 60 pages, and is well worth a read, even if you've never read LW&C before. It's a sweet, sad, funny, black humorous piece of storytelling, and completely unlike anything I've ever read before, thematically.
LW&C has turned a corner recently. The progression goes roughly like this: The first volume was exciting because it was something new. The stories were broad, bloody, and different. The second issue continued on, but felt a little repetitive. If this was just going to be a book in which Itto used his son to kill people in new ways every month, it was going to lose interest fast. The third volume started to lose me a little with too much emphasis on Japanese culture, where the stories would be crafted around some little nuggets of historical interest.
But by the end of the fourth volume, through the fifth volume, and into the sixth now, the book is hitting a stride. It's still way too soon to tell where it will go from here. There are another 18 volumes yet to come. But the stories are putting together all the elements I mentioned above in a way that's fun and interesting to read. The bits of historical Japanese culture are used as set-ups for the story and won't overwhelm you. Yes, you'll occasionally get lost in a sea of Japanese words for which there are no definitions in the glossary at the end, but keep reading and you'll learn which ones you absolutely need to pay attention to and which you can read over. The stories read very quickly, without being lightweight. There are plots here, and they twist in different places, although more of them twist at the end now. The situations are different. Itto is not just a paid killer. He does things out of honor and in the spirit of teaching his son. When the set-up becomes shifted, the stories become more interesting.
Along the way, though, there are stories that are "mythological" in their tone. It's like the X-FILES, where you get the occasional episode which delves into the back story or answers questions about the on-going plots that maybe you weren't thinking about. (However, with LW&C, you get the feeling that the creators know what they're doing and aren't making this stuff up as they go along to sound cool.) Over the course of the first six volumes, we've learned Itto's "origin," from his departure as the post of the shogun's assassin, to why his son is with him, and where his wife is.
This reminds me of the way BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL is set up. With BLADE, I worried after the first couple of collections that the whole series would just be story after story of Manji chopping up people and getting chopped to pieces. Sure enough, the relationship between he and Rin started developing, and her overall quest became a focal point. With LONE WOLF here, we started with a couple of volumes of miscellaneous adventures to get us warmed up to the characters, and now there seems to be an overall arc shaping up – particularly the rivalry between Ogami Itto and the Yagyu clan. We'll see how long that carries out. I'm sure other arcs will make themselves apparent over time.
Artistically, the book is starting to really hit a stride. It's full-blown widescreen storytelling twenty years before the current craze. The only problem here is one of occasional formatting. When a wide panel stretches across two pages, it can be tough to tell sometimes, with the thick binding eating up so much of the inside parts of the pages. I end up reading pages out of order, thinking that panels above the wide panel should be read down the left page and then the right page. In fact, they should be read across.
There's more than just that trick, though. There are silent pages to set up simple moods. Ogami walks into a village with the trademark carriage carrying Daigoro and it takes up a full page. He silently comes over a hill, through the fog, with a sullen look on his face. You know there's trouble coming and you know it's an important event in the story. A series of small panels intensifies the conflict and you're interest in it leading up to the big climax. The grand finale happens quickly, with speed too fast for the artist to capture, but whose aftermath is plainly seen.
All in all, LONE WOLF AND CUB is epic in all the ways you'd want it to be – in story arcs, in page counts, and in character. The storytelling borrows tricks from any number of sources, and has influenced countless others. And just when you think you've got it figured out, the tide shifts and you're delighted by the change and taken by the new approach. Along the way, you might just learn a thing or two about Edo-period Japanese culture. I know I have.
One quick little review:
POWERS 1/2 arrived in my mailbox in the middle of last week. It contains a short 13-page story of Pilgrim and Walker interrogated a suspect in the box. As much as Bendis gets praised for his dialogue, I think he's outdone himself in this one. The patter back and forth with the perp is amazing, almost rhythmic. You'll breeze right through this issue, not because it's a light read, but because the dialogue moves you through it with such ease. I actually read the book standing up. I opened up to the first page and got so lost in the book, I never thought to sit back down. Wonderful stuff.
FANTASTIC FOUR: BIG TOWN concluded this past week. Although I had high hopes for it going in, it disappointed me in the end. The setup asks the question, "How would the world be changed if Reed Richards used his mind to change the way the world worked, and not just fight supervillains?" It's the perfect setup to a tale of sociological intrigue, political hijinks, and technological divide. While Steve Englehart did serve up small portions of each, they got lost in the sea of recast superheroes and villains. Rather than exploring the new reality, it was more a game of seeing what each character was doing differently in this new version of the Marvel Universe.
Through the Suarez family, we get to see how New York City is, as a whole, affected by the changes introduced by Reed Richards. The daughter is due to marry Johnny Storm. One son is a super-powered cop, and the other is a suspicious government official. The mother is doting and conflicted, while the father is confused about his place in the new society. The Suarez family becomes a small example of the kinds of changes that are afoot, and Sally and Johnny's impending marriage is the main plotline of the book.
The rest is a super-powered power play for control of the city and the people therein. All the villains seem to have ganged up together to fight all the heroes, and the fun in the series is in seeing who is on which side now. That's a real shame, because there were a lot more interesting things to look at in this new universe.
One thing that did feel odd at first, but that I like the more I think about, is the overall plot. The four issues of this mini-series tell of one grand adventure in the Big Town, but leave plenty of stuff at the end hanging. It's more of a Michener epic than a movie with a tightly wrapped up plotline. It's actually a lot like Babylon 5, in that the story goes on, even though the series is over. It doesn't feel like a complete cheat, but the ending is abrupt.
Mike McKone and Mark McKenna provided the art (with the assistance of a half dozen additional inkers). While not their best stuff, it's still pretty to look at and far better than most anything Top Cow, for one, ever puts out. (See the "No Honor" review later in this column.) And we can look for the upcoming BLINK series from them in a couple of months. Can't wait for that one!
AND THE UGLY
And just because you can't get enough samurai books in today's market, we have NO HONOR #1, the new book from Top Cow written by Fiona Avery. While technically it's soundly written, the whole thing just leaves me unexcited. The first and most atrocious problem is the coloring. When will Top Cow ever learn that coloring a book so darkly that a reader has to squint to make out the details will only leave the reader with a headache and not wanting more? Granted, the book takes place at night, but this book continues Top Cow's history of book-ruination by way of poor coloring choices. Computer coloring can be a wonderful thing, but it can also suck the life right out of a book.
NO HONOR is the story of an art thief. That sounds like it could be interesting. He becomes infused with the spirit of a dead Japanese Yojimbo. He now has a couple of odd powers, and must come to grips with this spirit inhabiting and taking over his body. It's nothing revolutionary, and his street-wise style combined with the spirit's Japanese honor makes for an odd couple, but one I don't particularly enjoy.
The art is by Clayton Crain with inks from Jonathan Glapion, and shows some serious storytelling problems. The one that made me laugh out loud occurred on the second page. The story begins with the art thief rappelling down the outside of a building. We establish the fact that he's moving down with the first 6 panels or so. Then the next panel pulls the camera back a bit to show him hanging off the building, and suddenly he's facing up. The camera just decided to flip around completely and it looks like the character is hanging by his fingers off a window ledge when, in truth, he's doing something not dissimilar to a handstand off that ledge.
There's a fight scene a few pages later between the thief and some cops, all of whom appear to be fairly well armored Crain chooses to show the fight in eight short close-ups, which show us very little. And since everyone is colored alike, it takes some work to realize who's kicking and punching who.
The rest of the pages are completely haphazardly laid out, with panels sized to be as large or as small as they need to be to fit the art that should come next. There's little sense of disciplined storytelling.
I buy too many comics each month to be bothered with more like this one. I'd give it a pass if I were you. I won't be buying any more.
Close to 200 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 are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML. Those columns are even migrating over here in drips and drabs. Eventually, they'll all be on CBR. I can't believe Pipeline is entering its fifth year in a few short months…
This year, I'll be at the Chicago Comicon (i.e. WizardWorld) the San Diego Comicon (i.e. the Comic Con International: San Diego), and the Pittsburgh Comicon, which requires no second name. Hope to meet some of you there.
Finally, I write DVD movie reviews (occasionally) for the gang over at DVD Channel News. If you're into DVD, check out my stuff there.