PIPELINE GOES CLASSICAL
"...a farcical tale mixed with fantasy. The story begins as the Queen of the Night sets Prince Tamino on a quest to rescue her daughter, Pamina from the evil Sarastro. On the way, he meets the bird-catcher Papageno, who is "persuaded" to help Tamino in his quest. Tamino's spiritual quest is counterpoised with Papageno's own earthly search for his one true love, Papagena. Both couples' strivings are juxtaposed with the eternal conflict between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night." -NBM Publishing
I'm not a completely uncultured swine. I have a fair amount of classical music in my CD collection. I often play it in the background as I read e-mail, organize my comics, or pay the bills. I use Franz Liszt for rock music when the mood strikes ("Totentanz" is a particular favorite), or some Mozart strings when I need something more relaxing.
I imagine that the Richard Wagner CDs are the closest I come to opera, though. I've never been to an opera before. The thought of wearing a tuxedo to see Brunhilde scream at me is a bit much, thanks. Instead, "What's Opera, Doc?" becomes my cultural touchstone, as I'm sure it is for so many people.
That's why The P. Craig Russell Library of Opera Adaptations from NBM Press is such a great idea. You can get the stories, the costumes, and a hint of the music without donning a tuxedo, paying outrageous ticket prices, and hitting the city.
Russell is an artistic genius, gifted with the ability to use the art form of comics to tell a grand story in a way that captures the imagination. You don't need to be an opera buff to enjoy the story. This Library will make you stare at page after gorgeous page of intricately-detailed art. It's the perfect marriage of storytelling and design. He uses a flock of birds fluttering across the panel to add depth to the image, help draw the eye across a page, and represent a part of the story that's not made explicit until much later on. His camera angle rises high when necessary, and stands motionless at eye-level when it's what the scene requires. He knows his creativity, but he also knows his limits.
What caught my eye the most in reading the book is that Russell's thin ink lines allow him to create a very technically precise rendering of every scene, but also something that's very iconic and comic. He chooses times to be grand, dramatic and interpretive, which is why those moments work so well and stick out so much. These are characters that, for the most part, you can see acting out the opera on stage. There are panels, however, where the shadows are aligned just right, or the character's hair is blowing just so, in ways that can only be arranged and captured on the printed page. Sure, Spielberg or Soderbergh or De Palma might be able to lay out a camera angle in such a way if given a month of prep, two days to shoot, and a CGI budget. But why would they want to go through all that for a simple shot that's on the screen for a mere moment? With Russell working on a comics page, he can arrange all of that in a meticulously-drawn panel and make it look effortless, as if it fit in so naturally with everything else.
NBM reproduced the material at a larger size than has ever seen print. It's a bit larger than even the Marvel hardcovers. This lets you soak up the fine detail of the art and the color. You can make out individual brushstrokes here, if you so wish. Some of the water color paint strokes are obvious. If you're prone to being annoyed by such detail, though, it's easy enough to read the book while keeping your eye a couple of inches further off the page. Still, Russell's color is an intricate part of the storytelling, as much as the lettering.
The only trick to all of this, however, is that you have to get past the fact that Jill Thompson is the model referenced for the Queen of the Night. It's tough to miss if you've ever seen a picture of her.
No, reading this book isn't the same as experiencing the opera in its native format. This is the CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED version of the story. However, it is done with as much literary merit as can be imagined, and it might even spur one or two people on to be curious enough about the opera to see it sometime.
The good news is that this is just the first in NBM's series of books collecting Russell's operatic works. While we'll have to wait six months for the next edition in this lineup, there are still other Russell works in print today to keep us busy until then. I want to start with his NIBELUNG from Dark Horse next. It'll be fun to see how much he's progressed in the ten years since THE MAGIC FLUTE.
FROM OPERA TO DRAGONS
It's one of those things that makes so much sense, you have to wonder why nobody's done it before on a larger scale. Maybe it's just an idea whose time has come, dictated by economic realities. I'm talking about comic books as greeting cards, the idea that Brian Clopper is utilizing with his creation, MARVIN THE DRAGON. If a simple colorful greeting card is $3 for a lame gag with a cute cartoon animal, why not spend $3 for a card that's also a 24 page comic told in verse and dialogue, with cute art and a good story? Seems like it would be a real steal, doesn't it? Brian Clopper must think so. MARVIN THE DRAGON fulfills all of those promises.
If I had to pick nits, there are two I'd go with. The first would be to print the whole book in color. I don't know how open kids are to a dull-gray comic story. Maybe the answer lies in dropping out the gray tones and making the card also be a coloring book?
What about making the book full-color? Cost would become an issue, but creativity would not. Clopper's web site has a section previewing the art in the book in full color. The job already is done. I would imagine producing a full-scale comic this way would be counterproductive, but it would certainly look nice.
The second problem that I had was with the alternation between the rhymes and the dialogue. I lost track of the story a couple of times going back and forth between the clever narration interspersed with a gag-a-page format. I wonder if it might not be better to either incorporate the telling of the story into the panels themselves, or lose the dialogue all together in favor of making it an illustrated story.
In the end, though, this is a novel and thoughtful way to get a greeting card to a child for his -- or her -- birthday, while helping to further the cause of getting comics "out there." If you'd like to see more of the book for yourself, order a copy, or perhaps send one, the place to go is BrianClopper.com. It should also be solicited in the next edition of PREVIEWS.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A GUY
I got together with a group of friends a couple of weekends ago for a round of golf. As tends to happen when you're stuck with three other people for a 5 hour round, all sorts of topics came up for discussion. Inevitably, the topic of women and relationships reared its head. It generally ran in the same kinds of circles you'd expect four guys to talk in.
When I got home and read GRAND GESTURES that afternoon, though, I was impressed by how much of an ear for that kind of dialogue Robert Ullman has. The book is a lifelike portrayal of thee guys who act like normal humans, and not fictional characters sleepwalking through a predestined plot. It's also not always pretty, as none of the three nominal protagonists come across as completely likable or pure of heart.
The comic is about three guys and their different problems with women. One can't break up with the women he's grown tired of. One's a complete womanizing freak. The third is a short-on-his-luck type who gets further away with the more he tries. The characters are not defined to have happy endings or neat little story arcs. They feel more real than that, which is a credit to Ullman.
Ullman's art is cartoony, but crystal clear. It's a straight grid approach containing expressive characters and simple storytelling. I'd classify the story for Mature Readers, as the cast is college aged and engages in those types of sexual hijinks. There's not much happening on-panel to cause too much alarm, but the whole tone of the piece isn't something that'd interested a ten year old kid, anyway.
GRAND GESTURES is 48 pages in black and white, slightly undersized, for $3.95 from Alternative Comics. You can read more about Ullman at his website, www.lurid.com. Six preview pages for the book are available at this page on his site.
AT LAST, A SUPERHERO COMIC...
Brian Stelfreeze has quietly snuck back onto the scene when nobody was looking. I'm surprised there haven't been more hype and interviews about this comic. The first part of his new four-issue series, DOMINO, hit the stands this past week. As P. Craig Russell does for operatic storytelling, so does Stelfreeze do for action comics. Each panel is laid out with a purpose, and often in the most dramatic and action-packed way possible.
The story for the mini-series -- by Stelfreeze and Joe Pruett -- has Domino working as a lone bounty hunter. While the issue starts off strong on action, it quickly segues into what looks to be the driving force of the series, Domino's quest for someone important to her. (I'm trying to be light on the spoilers, sorry.)
There is also someone talking to Domino through a hidden microphone, but other than that she's working alone. It starts to sound like BIRDS OF PREY, doesn't it? If so, you better close your eyes when you get to the panel halfway through the issue with a man behind a computer and a big window just behind him. It evokes a poor man's version of Oracle's lair. Stelfreeze did some amazing covers on that series with Greg Land.
Right now, DOMINO is fairly paint-by-numbers stuff. However, there's more than enough in the visuals to bring you back for more. Stelfreeze draws gunfights, helicopters, and bungee diving off skyscrapers. It's just the kind of material he can make work better than nearly anyone else in comics. Combined with his color work (blocky areas for shadowing instead of gradients), this is one of the best looking comics on the stands right now that you might otherwise be missing.
BELATED WELCOME WAGON
I missed my chance to do it last week, so let me welcome J. Torres aboard the CBR bandwagon now. His new column, Open Your Mouth, appears here every Thursday, featuring interviews with various comic personalities you've probably heard of. Last week's column was an interview with Jamie S. Rich. I'm very interested in seeing what he comes up with this week, as he's interviewing Terry Nantier, the "N" in NBM Books. (See THE MAGIC FLUTE, above.)
Next week: Some thoughts on the dangers of collected story arcs in lieu of true serialization. Plus, I'm sure I'll throw in a review or two.
Various and Sundry is back in full swing again, with reviews of the Dawson's Creek finale, the week in DVD, a remake of AIRPLANE!, bad movie trailers, the Survivor anti-climax, and more.
Nearly 500 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.