BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHTS #32
I had an epiphany in San Diego in the unlikeliest of places. It was at Roger Robinson's table in Artists Alley. Robinson is the artist on Devin Grayson's run of BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHTS. Before that, he did some work on AZRAEL, which I never saw. His art has always struck me as a bit cold and stiff. It's not that it is bad or sloppy or technically incorrect, but the style didn't appeal to me at all.
At his table in San Diego, Robinson had a few stacks of original art spread out for sale, while he worked on sketches. Frequent Con Traveling Partner Dani was the wise one who stopped to look through the stacks, looking for another addition to her Nightwing and Oracle original art collection. I flipped through the pages with her and felt like I was discovering Robinson's art for the first time.
Most art looks better at full size in black and white on the original art board, but Robinson's surprised me. It looked a lot better. His AZRAEL stuff, I thought, was better yet. I'll have to chalk that up to a different inker. His previous inker -- James Pascoe -- gave his art a slightly softer look. In both cases, stripped of the color, the artwork stood out to me a lot more clearly.
What impressed me the most, however, was the back side of the pages. It's usually the section reserved for a rubber stamp from the publishing company declaring the images to be in their copyright. The artists often throw their names on the back. Sometimes, you'll find a loose doodle, or a phone number that was written down, probably in the midst of a phone call while drawing the page. On the back of Robinson's pages were some of the most magnificent perspective drawings I've ever seen in comics. In loose pencil, Robinson actually draws his pages backwards on the back side of the page. All the action moves right to left. When he's done, he throws the page on the light board and draws the final images on the front of the page in tighter pencil. When all is said and done, you're left with the final inked art on the front side, and some amazing perspective pencil drawings on the back. I wanted to buy a page with someone sitting in a chair in a room, just for the sake of the painstakingly rendered two point perspective that would inevitably appear unblemished on the reverse side.
In the end, I walked away with a beautifully iconic page that included the familiar site of a young Bruce Wayne kneeling next to his slain parents in the lamp light, alongside a series of Batman cowls and a close up shot of Sasha Bordeaux on the bottom panel. If it weren't for the fact that I was fast running out of money that late on a Sunday afternoon in San Diego, I probably would have gone for one of those "plain" talking heads pages in a room at Wayne Manor.
To sum up: What you see on the final comics page is not always indicative of the amount of work that went into it. Don't be too quick or too harsh in your judgment until you've seen it all. Roger Robinson is a solid artist, whose artwork is just colored a tad bit too darkly, with an ink line that might not be the most complementary.
All of this is just to introduce BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHTS #32, the latest issue from the word processor of Devin Grayson, the #2 Dixon Ticonderoga of Roger Robinson, and the inkwell of John Floyd. The story is a rather laid back one, showing a day in the life of Bruce Wayne as he begins rebuilding the two halves of his life. The first half of the issue is spend on his "civilian" life, while the second takes place at night and the various superheroics that entails. However, Grayson keeps the whole shebang well-grounded, as she's also done with NIGHTWING. There isn't a large metagene content in the title, which is how Batman, I think, should be done.
There isn't a whole lot of plot, either, in this issue. It's a raft of thematic elements and character bits. It does, however, prove that you don't need a strong plot to carry 22 pages of a comic book. This is the cleansing breath needed by the line of Batman books after the past 8 months (!) of BRUCE WAYNE: MURDERER? and FUGITIVE. It's just what the doctor ordered, and done entertainingly so.
Robinson's art is clear and effective, and everything I said previously about his work goes double for this issue. He gets to draw a lot of talking heads scenes, but doesn't try to show off in an attempt to make it more "visually arresting." You'll see some artists fall for the familiar traps of extreme angles and overly ornate border decorations to try to spice up a simple moment. Robinson doesn't do any of that. He does, however, maintain a lot of black space. He even manages to make a daylight scene at a golf course look dark in spots. You can see the buckets of ink that get poured onto each page.
Lettering duties are split by John Workman Jr. and Bill Oakley. There's a fairly large difference between the two styles that was jarring to me. If you can't tell the difference between lettering styles after this issue, you're lost to me.
The Batman Black and White backup story is a cute one this month, beautifully illustrated by Michael William Kaluta. Written by Mark Askwith, it's about some kids and their robotic dinosaur that fights Batman. Hey, if you've got Kaluta, you might as well toss him a dinosaur to draw. If Brian Bolland ever decides to give up drawing the covers on this series, I'd put in Kaluta's name for a replacement in a heartbeat. Heck, give him one of the other Batman books right now.
Speaking of which, Brian Bolland proves once again that he's a comic cover artist master, with a nice design, solid art, and a good color scheme. You look at it and it's hard to believe he does it all in computer. He doesn't show off his Photoshop skills with the covers.
JASON AND THE ARGOBOTS #1
A lot has been made of "Amerimanga:" that style of manga influenced art that has crept its way across the Pacific Ocean and into North America. It exists to various degrees, to be sure. Some of it shows to a greater degree (Lea Hernandez,) than others (Ed McGuinness).
Noted Japanese comics/animation enthusiast J. Torres (think SIDEKICKS for a moment and not THE COPYBOOK TALES) now gives us his latest creation, JASON AND THE ARGOBOTS, with art by Mike Norton. It's a book that would definitely qualify as Amerimanga, by my definition, yet doesn't appear slavish to the style or get too cute about its origins. Instead, it's a grand visual style that suits perfectly the story of a young boy and his newly acquired large scale robot.
This first issue introduces us to Juni, Jason, and their grandfather. Grandpa is a robotic scientist, judging by his busy activities inside the house, while Juni is the typical whining younger sister to Jason, an adventurous kid of about 10 or 12 years old. The story is set in the future (think BACK TO THE FUTURE and you'll see the vest that Jason wears quite clearly) in a world after a brutal earthquake destroyed the nearby city and left one rather large robot buried beneath the ground.
Torres' story is, to use the modern clichés, decompressed and cinematic. He isn't afraid to let the first issue's events be about five minutes of story, if that. Jason's trip towards the city takes up four pages, but doesn't feel wasted at all. You can really see the story unfolding in front of you as you read it. You shouldn't have a problem imagining the video that would go along with this script. This is an animated script waiting to be produced.
There's not a whole lot going on in this issue, as I said. It's all character and all relationships being set up amongst the family we're initially introduced to. There's a bit of plot happening at the end after the big reveal that should lead nicely into the conflicts for the next couple of issues.
The book is reminiscent of some manga, and makes no bones about it. In his editorial at the end of the issue, editor James Lucas Jones describes Torres as being a writer gifted with bringing different popular ideas together to create something new. In this case, you have a kid and his "pet" robot for a start. But the manga influence creeps past just that and into the storytelling. The story stretches out over a larger number of pages than it otherwise normally would in an American comic. There's great care taken to establish character relationships. Of course, there's also the robot-wielding kid in a dystopic looking future.
Norton's storytelling is broad and highly visual. His style is much more open and slightly more cartoony than what you might be used to from THE WAITING PLACE. Torres' scripts allow him to stretch his legs in presenting an establishing shot slowly across a couple of pages. The layouts are simple and clear enough to highlight exactly what the reader needs to be focused on, while the art itself is fundamentally sound. Like I said, Torres' script reads like an animated movie. Norton doesn't drop that ball.
I'd love to see this book in color. The artwork is open enough to take to color fairly easily, and there are enough vistas to give the colorist a field day with.
The writing and art aren't the only things to feel the effect of Japanese comics. The lettering looks done straight out of your favorite manga. The balloons are slightly more square and much taller than need be. The lettering fits in with plenty of white space.
The letters column offers up a sketch and a signed copy of the comic to someone who can come up with a title for the book's letters column. Send your suggestions to email@example.com and you could have your thirty seconds of fame in the back of an Oni comic book. =)
JASON AND THE ARGOBOTS is off to a very promising start. It wears its influences on its sleeve, but pulls them off convincingly. It's also an all-ages friendly book, so don't be afraid to share with your little siblings or cousins.
WILDCATS VERSION 3.0 #1
This is the comic that I'm most excited about this week. It's the continuation of the thematic elements Joe Casey introduced in the second volume of WildStorm's venerable series. The series has been turned on its ear since Casey started, with the team scattered to the four winds, Spartan assuming the civilian identity of Jack Marlowe full time now, and Grifter being his right hand man to do most of the dirty work. The central conceit for the story is that Halo Corporation (owned and operated by Marlowe) has created the ultimate battery. See volume 2 of the series for more details and a nifty overall story arc. Marlowe fully intends to capitalize on this and make a better world for it, using all the tricks he knows. Casey writes half an action book and half an economic and marketing textbook with this series. It works without being dry.
Artist Dustin Nguyen (inked by Richard Friend) seems to be channeling a bit of popular ex-WILDCATS artist Travis Charest for the story. Take a look at some of the fine line work and the page layouts, particularly the first one. It's got enough of its own character, though, to keep from being a slavish imitation. It's easy to follow, although in one or two spots it could use an extra cue from the dialogue to differentiate characters. At one point, Grifter talks to Spartan and it's only mildly inferred that Spartan is the man on the other end of the conversation. The art doesn't look convincing to me on that point.
The cover sports a striking design, with the next few colors shown in silhouette across the top. There is a lot of experimenting with cover designs happening these days. Some would say it's long overdue. The WILDCATS covers look simple and sleek, like marketing pieces instead of comic covers. I don't know if they're going to help make the book jump out on the stands or not, but they're definitely well thought out. (On second thought, they probably will stand out, if only for the amount of white negative space on the cover. On the comics stands, there's a sea of comics with busy colorful covers. Something this spartan -- pardon the pun -- should pop out. Whether the image is considered "exciting enough" to get someone to take it home with them is another story.)
I've been critical of much of Casey's work of late. I dropped UNCANNY X-MEN about halfway through his run and found AUTOMATIC KAFKA to be a mess. WILDCATS, however, keeps striking gold for me. It's a solid book that takes a familiar world and casts it in a whole new light and from a completely different angle than before. It's a superhero book unlike any other currently out there today.
There's a nice text page by Casey at the end of the issue that includes quick introductions to the main players of the book, although even that's not totally necessary. A new reader should have no problem jumping right in.
Tentatively scheduled for Friday: THREE FINGERS, SPARKS (now with the full story), and BADLANDS. Possibly more.
Special thanks to John The Librarian at Dewey's Comic City in Madison, NJ for the First Look support on the column again this week.
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.