X-TREME X-MEN #1
…has two things going for it in my mind. The first is that Tom Orzechowski is lettering it. The second is that it's being shot directly from pencil. No inkers necessary. Just finished pencil work from Salvador Larocca, colored directly by the gang at Liquid.
Having seen a complete copy of the first issue now, I can tell you that Orz doesn't disappoint. His style is still there. And Claremont has some pages that are just wordy enough to make you think that Orz deserves double pay as artist for them, since he fills up most of the space. ;-)
The part that's still a bit iffy to me is the artwork. Larocca's stuff looks nice. It's the way it's colored and produced that leaves me a little bit iffy. The pencils don't show up nearly enough for me, to the point on some pages where it almost feels like you're looking at the art through a layer of fog.
I don't want to see the pages digitally inked. I know it's been tried before on a few select books, but it always ends up looking unfinished, out of focus, and needlessly scratchy. I do like the look of pencil artwork. I think most pencilers do, as well. (See the review below for ZOOM'S ACADEMY for more on pencil work that looks right.)
I think it's a matter of the coloring overpowering the art in this case. The first thing I noticed when I looked through the book is that the pencil lines have been colored in. (I know there's a technical term for this, but it escapes me at the moment.) Basically, instead of seeing black lines and coloring filling up the space inside, the lines themselves are changed to a slightly darker shade of the color they rope in. You can think of this in the Disney animated movie frame of reference. Think back to BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Remember how everyone was drawn in there? Nice solid black lines drew the characters and then the color was filled in. It's the traditional pen and ink way. Then think forward to HERCULES. All of a sudden, they've changed designs so that the outlines are filled up with colors. The jaw lines of the characters aren't black anymore – they're just a darker shade of the skin tone.
In comics, you can see the look in Kyle Baker's I DIE AT MIDNIGHT. It looks fine there because the lines are dark and crisp. In X-TREME X-MEN #1, however, the pencil line is obliterated by the colors. It ends up giving you a softer look, which wouldn't be such a pain if it weren't for the fact that it's so soft you end up rubbing your eyes. There's also a loss of depth to the images. This is something that the inker can usually fix – a heavier black line pops an image out to the foreground. A thinner line pushes it into the background. Larocca's pencils don't account for that, and the colorists don't correct for it enough, either. Without the inker to thicken up the lines, it's left to the colorist to change color tones depending on which "level" a given image is supposed to exist on. (See Rob Haynes and David Self with DAREDEVIL NINJA for a good example of how this can be done.) There are certain panels where things look really flat because the colors don't vary enough. There are other pages where the backgrounds blend in with the characters so much that everything looks receded. That can be a bit disconcerting.
That said, I like Larocca's art. I really do. And I want the shot-from-pencils look to catch on. I just think this book needs some more tweaking before it gets it right.
ZOOM'S ACADEMY FOR THE SUPER-GIFTED
Can you say "set-up issue," boys and girls? That's what the first issue of this new series from Astonish Comics is. It's a focus on she-who-would-be-the-protagonist. We come to know Summer, the grade school girl with a big nose, even bigger glasses, and a wealth of self-confidence issues. Her classmates pick on her, her best friend just left for another school, and her parents are getting divorced. It's her wacky father who is about to save her from summer school after a little misunderstanding over her history final exam.
Welcome to Zoom's Academy for the Super Gifted.
What is it? Well, I'm assuming it's some kind of school for kids with super-powers, but it won't be known until the second issue comes out. That's currently scheduled to be in July. The story doesn't get us into the school in the first issue.
Jason Lethcoe is the writer and artist on the book. As per the Astonish Comics tradition (set by Mike Kunkel with HEROBEAR AND THE KID), the book is shot directly from pencils, complete with guidelines and unerased madness and splotches of greywash. It's a fun look and fitting for a book that looks as "animated" as this one. Comparisons to HEROBEAR are inevitable. Both books are aimed at younger kids. Both have elements of fantasy and power to them. Both are drawn in the same animated style with the same crappy lettering. I think Kunkel is a better artist, though. His characters are a bit livelier and don't crowd the page all that much. Lethcoe's art is wonderful to look at, but often seems a bit muddy and stiff.
The story is told by an alien-looking narrator, who appears in silhouette at the bottom of each page to keep the story moving. The first page is a simple splash of a school desk, with a soccer ball, a globe, and some books showing in the background. The captions seem to be plucked straight out of the beginning of THE PRINCESS BRIDE, with the presumably younger aliens asking their grandfather for a story of fantasy, but without all the kissing and mushy stuff. I'm assuming that's a direct homage.
The lettering drives me nuts. It's bad here and it's even worse on HEROBEAR. In a book as natural-looking as this one is, to the point where it's shot from pencils, it seems odd to use such a mechanical font for the lettering. It's straight-on Whizbang, and not very well handled at that. I'll give Lethcoe some slack since this is probably his first comics work, but there are issues beyond just the letter shapes that need to be dealt with, from kerning to positioning of words inside the balloons.
The book itself is black and white on nice solid white paper, with 24 pages of story and a cardboard stock cover. The price is a bit high at $3.50, but the production value is excellent. This is a book you can give to that pre-teenager you're trying to hook on comics. And if that person is female, you've probably even got a better chance.
When last we left our weary X-Men, they were a ragtag group walking away from a desperate battle in Genosha against a Magneto more powerful than they had ever faced. The four-part "Eve of Destruction", written by Scott Lobdell, wasn't much to write home about. There was a nice focus on Cyclops' changing attitude, but aside from that, it just felt like filler and melodrama.
Jump to UNCANNY X-MEN #394, where the team is now Cyclops, Wolverine, Jean Grey, and – Archangel. Go ahead; ask me where Archangel came from. I haven't a clue, but he's suddenly part of this team again. I guess we'll leave that up to editorial vision and a passage of time. Besides, it's a small bit of continuity that only readers who had been reading the book before the "revamp" would puzzle over. Maybe it's a story for another time.
There's so much to talk about in this issue, but let's start with the part that was "controversial" amongst many. Marvel chose Ian Churchill for the artist on this title. After Joe Quesada's declaration that Marvel was trying to get away from the Jim Lee look that had overtaken the X-books for the past decade, Churchill seemed an odd choice. He came up through Rob Liefeld's studios. He embodies that style of art Quesada said they were moving away from. Of course, Quesada never said he was going to eliminate it altogether. Churchill is the only artist that might fit the mold across all the X-Books, whose styles include Frank Quitely, Mike McKone, and even Mike Allred. Some people prefer to take pot shots, though. It's usually easier. As long as Churchill can get the job done, I'm fine with it. His art isn't ruining the story, and in spots it's even wonderful to behold.
Anyway, Churchill does an excellent job. The last place I saw his work was in a two-parter for WOLVERINE, where his art took on a three-dimensional look that I found impressive. Characters seemed to fill up space in their environment and not just on the page. You had the feeling that you were looking at something closer to a video feed than an iconic representation of the event. That might be pushing it a bit, but he showed an interest in depicting depth that you don't often see in comics today.
While that same look isn't completely present here, it's definitely a far cry from COVEN, where splashes and large panels and awkwardly shaped women seemed to be the order of the day. This is a much more restrained Churchill, drawing stories in grid format, with a slightly more cinematic feel: lots of wide panels with dramatic lighting and shadowing. There's some wonderful framing of shots, too, particularly with Archangel flying through the air. About the only thing that occasionally bothers me is the way Churchill draws noses on his characters. It often looks like they're drawn at 3/4 when the rest of the face isn't.
Joe Casey's story, first and foremost, constitutes a complete story inside the first issue. He teases the readers with what the ramifications of the actions seen in this issue might be. He doesn't need to drag out the plot to a second issue for the sake of getting the readership to come back. They should want to come back now to see what Wolverine's action in the end will mean for his teammates. Casey isn't revealing all his cards at the top. There's not a desire to set up subplots for the next six to eight issues in the first issue. Too many writers fall back into that, as a way of showing their readers that there is a long-term plan with lots of cool things coming.
Casey keeps the cast of characters small. Professor Xavier isn't even present in this story. The X-Men is limited to a team of four characters. There's a nice splash page to play as both title and introduction to new readers. Inside of an image of a strand of DNA (probably inspired by the movie), you get quick headshots of the X-Men and a brief description of their powers.
I don't want to give the plot away, so I'll just point out that the plot itself is rather simple and straightforward. Savant Warp has decided to celebrate his birthday by doing some seriously warped things, like making items – people, tools of war, etc. – disappear into some other unspecified area. Cerebro spots this and away go the X-Men, in their new black leather look. There's a neat little twist to the story near the end, some feel of the fantastic in the goings-on, and lots of character interplay.
The cover design gets rethought, also, with one of the more monochromatic cover colorings I've seen on a Marvel book in some time. The logo is redesigned, the creators' names are featured prominently across the top, and the UPC symbol is moved to the upper right corner. And then there's the now infamous image of Jean Grey dry-humping Wolverine, complete with motion lines and Wolverine's most-phallic looking set of claws ever. It'll jump out at you on the stands.
If I were prone to do such things, I'd give the book a thumbs up. It's easily accessible by new readers, and long-time readers shouldn't be any more jarred by this than they've felt with any other shakeup in creative teams.
Come back Friday for more reviews. I promise at least a couple that aren't super-hero related.
More than 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.
This year, you can still catch me at the Chicago Comicon (i.e. WizardWorld) and the San Diego Comicon (i.e. the Comic Con International: San Diego). I might even show up at the Small Press Expo in Maryland later this year, but that's tentative at this point.