It's a trend now. Self-publishers doing their first comics work end up changing it all around in fairly short order. Jason Lethcoe's ZOOM ACADEMY went from rough and animated art to something slick and colorful. Ryan Woodward's THE INVINCIBLE ED went from cartoony to more realistic. Now, Tom Bancroft's OPPOSITE FORCES goes from an inked line to a straight-on pencil line. After the first two pages, he stops inking the artwork (with additional Photoshop gray tones) and goes straight to final pencil work. It looks more like Mike Kunkel's HEROBEAR AND THE KID now. I really liked Bancroft's slick ink line with the well-spotted grey areas, and those will be missed. However, the raw pencils have all the same energy to them without losing any of the detail. At this point, the format shift isn't dramatic for me. (ED and ZOOM, I believe, suffered for their changes.)
This third issue starts with everyone's favorite odd couple, Marty and Alexis, waking up to the sound of Marty's dog's voice. The three were recently infused with Captain Dynamo's powers, and are now trying to figure out what to do with them. Marty, the stereotypical comic book reading loner, has big plans including code names and costumes. Alexis just wants to go back to work and stop breaking everything. When a mugging interrupts their reverie, the two get to work and more craziness happens.
There's a lot to like here, visually. Bancroft has a great gift for drawing motion. His characters are well-animated and bounce across the pages. No panel is wasted, nor is any pose. His comedy has a great sense of timing, such as when Captain Dynamo attempts to play cards with his fellow looney bin outcasts. And Alexis is my current favorite for Cutest Character In Comics.
I have some minor quibbles with the issue in the way that the characters are figuring out their powers. The pet dog seems a little too all-knowing right now, and leaves out important information until it serves the plot. The characters are rolling through the motions that we'd expect comic book characters to go through. These aren't "normal people" adapting to the oddity of powers. On the other hand, Bancroft has set this book up from the start with the central conceit that Marty is a comic buff who's getting to live out his fantasies now. The rationale is there, but I think some of it is too seamless.OPPOSITE FORCES may only end up on shelves twice a year, but it's a delightful read when it does come out. The third issue is due out sometime in September. Keep an eye out for it. You can find more info on the series, as well as some preview pages, at Funny Pages Press.
WHAT I'VE READ THIS WEEK
EMPIRE #2 restores my faith in the series. I expressed concern last month when the new #1 issue took the series in a different direction. Instead of being one complete story focusing on one subset of characters, it was a broader story showing us little progressions of each and every character. That, in turn, helped set up the events of this second issue. There is a complete story in here, but it's a very small portion of the overall issue. The rest advances the individual plotlines and brings parts of them together and leaves a stronger sense of imminent doom than the previous issues did. In part, that's because Mark Waid is laying the groundwork for Golgoth's demise now. It won't happen overnight, but the cracks are starting to show in the armor, and it's not merely human foibles that are bringing it about. Waid is structuring a very clever and well thought out story that is building its momentum back up again quickly.
Speaking of plotlines that people wanted to see come together, WILDCATS VERSION 3.0 #13 brings back the question of Agent Wax's immoral use of his powers for personal pleasure. It's back in a big way and this issue is just kicking that off. The bulk of the issue concerns the dealings of the Coda in Europe, for which Dustin Nguyen gets to draw an all-out action romp across rooftops and with swords. He has one too many close-ups drawn into the issue, but it's not a bad job, overall. Casey is also bringing back a couple of other long-dormant subplots to set up, one would assume, the next story arc. Casey's WILDCATS is giving Alan Moore's take on the team a strong run for the money. At the end of the day, it might be Casey's relative longevity on the title that earns him the title of the best writer in series' history. This book is in my Top Ten titles for 2003, easily.
BATMAN #618 answers a question a great deal of us have been asking for better than a decade. But telling you the question would spoil it. Let's just say that last month's surprise appearance at issue's end isn't the only one Jeph Loeb had left in his bag of tricks. This one will probably be lost on a great number of people, but I know I chuckled when the surprise character showed up. I'm excited about the next issue of BATMAN now, after having been a little put off by the story thus far. It's all coming together, and that makes the earlier issues look better.
THE FLASH #201 wastes no time in getting Wally West re-introduced to the Flash. Sort of. Geoff Johns used a major last-minute twist in the pages of THE FLASH #200 to start off this new storyline. Any worries that it would be a long and protracted one vanish with this issue. West isn't exactly back in the Flash suit, mind you, but Johns is planting the seeds early. For now, he's reset Wally in the role of an overnight car mechanic struggling to make ends meet. It's a nice reversal on the usual Flash situations, and I'm curious to see how it plays out. There are tons of questions that the end of last issue set up, and it doesn't look like they'll all be answered. No matter; they don't need to be. So long as John plays fair with the reader and doesn't drop a huge plot device into the end of the storyline to magically reset everything, he doesn't need to.
After a worrisome pair of pages last month, Alberto Dose premieres as the series' regular artist in this issue nicely. He seems to have an easier time drawing talking heads scenes than action scenes, though. The opening car chase scene in this issue is a little muddy, but things settle down as the issue goes on. I'd like to see his panel arrangement straightened out a bit, but it's working for the story so far.
SYN #1 is the new Dark Horse comic from its "Rocket Comics" lineup. Keith Giffen gives to us a future in which robots rule, and one ("Syn") wants to be human. This goes much further than a Data-like transformation and all those storylines you might have seen on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION. This is a much more radical and, in some ways, better thought out change. Giffen goes to great lengths to present a possible future in which artificial intelligence peeked through loopholes in its programming to create its own set of monsters. At the heart of the comic is "Syn," a robot trying very hard to find her humanity. (You can tell the robot is a she from her breasts and the thong she's wearing. There's a change at the end of the issue that's even funnier in a blatant way.)
The weakness of the series right now is also its strength. Giffen's dialogue requires a lot of work from the reader. There's plenty of technical jargon being used here to establish the future and the "mind" of a robot. It allows Giffen to "hide" the exposition very well inside of technobabble, but it will require you to want to get through it. The lead character is also a large blank slate until we get to the closing pages and see a sense of humor develop. As usually happens in stories like these, much of the humor comes from a robot trying to learn what being a human is, down to their funny fashions and language choices.
Greg Titus' art isn't spectacular, but it gets the job done. He relies too much on close-ups and jumbled page layouts, but his technical drawing reminds me a bit of Dave Johnson's work from SUPERPATRIOT. Julian Washburn uses a very thick ink line, probably because Titus draws most of the action happen very close up to the reader. Lettering by Sno Cone also looks a point or two too large, making the pages look slightly claustrophobic.
I'm going to be charitable about Dan Jackson's colors here and assume that he didn't know what paper stock this book was going to be printed on. The plain white stock being used serves to muddy the colors up a little bit. Had this been glossier paper, I think the colors would have looked better. As it is, the best looking scenes were the bright ones near the end. I think part of the problem also comes down to using too many dark backgrounds behind dark-colored characters. Between that and the thicker ink line and the larger lettering, the whole book looks a little flat.
The visuals on the series need a little fine tuning to better serve the story, but I think it's a minor tweak to bring things up to speed. Giffen's story will require you to read the issue carefully, but I'm hoping that will be rewarded down the line. I was only annoyed when I finally found myself getting into the world and understanding the jargon at the very end of the first issue, at which point the story ended. It is Giffen's story to tell right now, and I think with a couple of issues under their belt, it stands a real chance of shaping up into something strong.
Another Rocket Comics entry, HELL #1, is written by Brian Augustyn. It looks to be a take on The Island of Doctor Moreau, as seen through the eyes of a young boy who gets dropped into the world. The story follows a city boy, Corey, whose military father has been assumed AWOL for a number of years. We see at the outset that Dear Old Dad was stationed once upon a time on an island used as a military experiment to create half animal/half human creatures. So you see what's going to happen by the end of the issue, don't you? Yup, boy gets dropped in strange world. Adventures and hijinks ensue. But Augustyn gives us an issue to meet the boy and see who he is and what he's capable of.
Art is by Todd Demong, who has an interesting mix of Jim Mahfood and Carlos Meglia going here. If you're not a fan of the Mexican style of art (including the likes of Humberto Ramos and Francisco Herrerra), then you won't like this one. Demong, though, has a decent storytelling skill that helps to smooth out some of the more cartoony exaggerations he puts his characters through.
Studio F is responsible for the coloring, and do a magnificent job. They use a lot of earthtones to color the city throughout the issue, so it's tough for me to tell if the issue printed out more darkly than they had intended it to. It's not nearly as distracting as SYN #1, though.SYN is just barely getting started with its first issue. I'm looking forward to the second issue, though, to see what Demong can do with the creatures on the island. I can't wait to see more of those designs and what they look like in action. Right now, it's a pretty accessible book, though, that should appeal to kids of all ages.
THINKING OF MANGA
In the back pages of GHOST IN THE SHELL 2, editor Chris Warner takes a few pages to answer reader's questions. I'd normally take a moment here to criticize Dark Horse for not laying out the text pages in two columns per page and in black type on white background instead of vice versa. However, I find it hard to make any negative comments towards any title that has a letters column anymore. All, thus, is forgiven.
One overzealous letter to the editor received some questionable responses from Warner. The topic came up of printing manga in the right-to-left Japanese style. The letter writer was angered that GITS2 wasn't being presented in that style, and ranted like an Internet Fanboy about it being unpure and all the rest. I'm not a big enough otaku to vouch for the factual truth of Warner's assertion, but I'll reprint a part of it here:
"Let me also remind some readers that until some publishers began to market non-Westernized manga as some sort of superior, desirable form, westernizing manga was not an issue. In other words, no one cared until someone started promoting the idea that something was wrong."
Ouch. I've heard the argument used before that the reason TokyoPop went right-to-left was just to save production costs. You have to mirror all the panels and then do any artistic touchups or goofs that happen as a result. TokyoPop claims it's doing it for the sake of preserving the artistic integrity of the work.
Warner also makes a point that I brought up here months ago:
"Like it or not, the refusal to Westernize manga acts as a barrier to many casual readers... and those are the readers this industry needs to expand its base and create a future where graphic fiction becomes an accepted and vital art form in America."
The problem with this argument is that it doesn't hold water. I believed it at one point, too, but I've come around on it completely. Look at the sales figures in the book stores on books that Viz and TokyoPop produce that are in the original Japanese format. Those readers -- who don't seem to be regular comic shop patrons -- aren't driven off by the right-to-left format. Maybe older readers are turned off by it, but we can't know that for sure, and it hasn't prevented manga from selling well as it is. These sales seem largely to go to kids, from what I understand, who don't read comics otherwise. Expanding your base from the younger demographic helps to ensure a future.
Warner describes his response in the end as a rant, so I'll give him some leeway. But with all the discussions of manga in bookstores and finding new readers, this isn't something that should be easily overlooked.
MORE COMICS TO GIVE AWAY
This edition of Pipeline is one of those divisible-by-25 entries that's supposed to contain some profound insight into the condition of comics today.
I don't have that for you here, but the least I could do is offer up some free comics. I'm putting together a couple of care packages to mail out to random winners. I've got a couple of spare trade paperbacks here, including THE FADE TRADE and INVINCIBLE, plus a scattering of recent comics, such as NOBLE CAUSES, STAR WARS, and some special surprises.
So here's what you do: Send me an e-mail with your name and mailing address. Make sure the subject says "325 Giveaway" in it somewhere. I'll pick a couple of winners randomly on Saturday morning from all entries received. I'll bring those comics to the post office and let them handle it from there. Help me get rid of some of the clutter, and introduce yourself to some new stuff.
Happy 325th, Pipeline.Pipeline Previews returns this Friday, September 4th with a look at all the releases due out in November. There will also be a special surprise preview review of a comic set to debut that month that I think many of you will be interested in.
Various and Sundry continues with a full review of Meat Loaf's upcoming album, BIG BROTHER 4 blunders in strategy, and a whole host of miscellaneous topics and oddball gems.
Somewhere around 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.