I gave WildStorm a hard time not too long ago for their announced release of a two-volume ABSOLUTE DANGER GIRL hardcover slipcase set. My problem with it is that I would have held off on buying the "regular" hardcover book had I known this deluxe edition was coming. It seems that we're quickly moving from "waiting for the trade" to "waiting for the hardcover" to "waiting for the deluxe hardcover." That's not all together a bad notion, really, but it would help to know when such things were coming out in advance. As such, I decided against spending the $75 on the ABSOLUTE edition of the book, and remained satisfied with the regular-sized hardcover that cost about $50 less. This isn't LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, after all. It wasn't promising a collection of six Alan Moore scripts for that extra $50.
But then WildStorm offered to send me a copy if I'd give it an honest appraisal. It was far too generous an offer to pass up, and I was interested in seeing if re-reading the book in this larger format changed it in any way. What started out as a simple review of a book turned into much more.
This new edition of the same familiar six issues' worth of material is a fairly mixed bag. DANGER GIRL fans will no doubt appreciate seeing J. Scott Campbell's artwork at a larger size. The box itself is an attractive box to place on your bookshelf, nicely designed and sturdy, to boot. There are two books in the slipcase. The first volume is a slavish reprint of the "remastered" hardcover edition, while the second skinnier volume is the DANGER GIRL SKETCHBOOK that came out last year. Again, there's no new material in these books. It's all the same, just with a high end packaging job (including a signed and numbered tip-in plate) and larger paper. If you already have both volumes in their original printings and aren't a completist collector or a terribly huge fan of the work, there's not enough in here for me to justify recommending the dent in your wallet that this book represents. It's already out there in a much more affordable format. There is, however, some things to recommend about this book. I surprised myself with what I discovered here.
To start with something that's not new: I like to read comics in the larger format. The past couple of years have seen plenty of books released in bigger and bigger sizes. The reprinted materials from Humanoids and NBM often follow the format, and even Marvel's hardcover line adds an inch or two to the page size. The larger size feels more natural. It's closer to the size of the original art, and that allows you to see more of the detail in the art. Keep in mind that artists draw these pages on pieces of board that measure better than 11 by 14 inches. The average comic is about 2/3 that size. Artists have to train themselves to draw for that. Their art will shrink and detail will be lost and carefully drawn effects can be washed out, if they are not careful. Some learn to take advantage of this by drawing effects that only work at the smaller size. Some do that better than others. Campbell's work does not suffer here for being reproduced at a larger size. He didn't take many shortcuts in producing the original pages. His art works better in the large size for it. Some of the noodling in the ink work disappears in the ABSOLUTE edition, too, revealing more of the animation influence on the art.
This edition is also easier to read, with the word balloons being slightly larger and many coloring effects slightly exaggerated for a bit more depth. That first part also works against the book, though. The larger lettering often looks like it's getting in the way of the art. Proportionally, it's a much larger lettering job now. It's a sacrifice of economy, though. Do you really want to add to the cost of the book to redo the entire lettering job for it? It's not completely necessary. And to be fair, it's a similar problem with all such ABSOLUTE editions and even Marvel's hardcover line, to a slightly lesser extent.
On the flip side of the coin, however, it also shows some weaknesses in Campbell's storytelling. There's a bit in the opening action sequence where the bad guy, Donavin, jumps down some sort of hole in the ground. Campbell uses a tall and narrow panel along the left side of the page to show this before jumping to the next panel where Donavin drops out of the hole and into a waiting boat. The problem is that the next panel occurs at the top of the page again. Your eye follows the movement of the character straight down three-quarters of the page, but then has to jump back up to the top to see the character drop down again. In a normal sized comic book, it's not something you think twice about. Sure, it's a little clumsy, but it's not an obstacle. Your eye glosses across it and everything makes sense. But when the physical landscape is this much larger, there's a bigger gap in the time it takes your mind to transition from one panel to the next, and it acts as a speed bump in the reading.
Another thing that hurts Campbell's storytelling is the lack of transitional panels. There are any number of cool shots drawn into this book. Those are the memorable panels where Abby Chase is sliding across the ground with guns drawn and blazing at her villainous foe. The problem is that the previous panel is her standing behind the foe. There's no intermediate step. It's too quick. In a smaller format, a certain amount of condensed storytelling doesn't feel so much off. Here, though, it sticks out like a sore thumb. It's an unfair question to ask, but your mind wonders, anyway, why the artist didn't use some of that extraordinary page size to draw that extra panel?
Despite those reservations, this set gave me a new appreciation for Campbell's artistry that I didn't have before. Upon its original release, the SKETCHBOOK showed me many new things I didn't know about the artist. But in reading this book again in the larger format, I can see those things at work.
When Campbell first broke through at WildStorm, he was seen as another Art Adams clone, with a few bits of Jim Lee and some of the then-current Image style attached to it. Like most artists, though, his style has evolved a lot over the years. He's at a point now where we can see new influences on his work, as well as a lot of his own skills factored in.
Campbell has a definite personal style that might not be for everyone. Make no mistake about it: These girls still have tiny waists that look like they can break at any second, coupled with balloons on the chests and legs longer than anything drawn by someone not named "Jim Lee." The work shouldn't be dismissed purely on that basis, though. Campbell is consistent about this, and plays up to it. He doesn't blink when he draws the Danger Girls getting into trouble in their bathing suits or an ill-fitting waitress costume. It's a wink and a nod to the reader. He knows what he's doing, and he's having fun with it.
It all goes back to that SKETCHBOOK. You can more clearly see his influences and his artistic muses in this book. The affection for the Disney style of art comes through on numerous pages, including one memorable two page spread that includes model guides for the lead characters as if drawn for a Disney cartoon. Campbell's also a gifted caricaturist, and some of that shows through here, as well. What he can do with shades and the side of his pencil puts much of his inked work to shame. The early images we've seen thus far on his next project show both of these characteristics at work, but we'll have to wait to see if that's the path he chooses to go with the project. I hope so. If all else fails, he'd make an excellent addition to MAD's stable of artists, or as a staff artist for ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY.
Campbell puts an incredible amount of thought and detail into every aspect of his creations. When you read through the Sketchbook, you'll see that there's very little going on in the book that's coincidence or good luck. It's a lot of hard work and thought. Everything is considered, from the careful flop of the hair to the bunches at the bottoms of the shirts and the slope of the lips.
It's more than that, though. His work in creating a believable action sequence translates nicely into some of the stuff in the sketchbook, particularly the storyboards for an opening animation for the DANGER GIRL video game. (They never released that, did they?) Your eye reads the images, but you can picture them moving fluidly in your mind at the same time. In his title screen illustrations, you get a great look at his sense of design. The titles fit perfectly with the art, which shows great depth with very little effort. Some nice perspectives have characters jumping out at you or leading the eye to the important secondary positions on the page.
It's only sad that the state of comic book economics today dictates that most of his work is confined to comic book covers and pin-ups. Campbell's strengths lie more in his cinematic action storytelling. There are some rough edges there, like I mentioned before, but it is the part of his art that holds the most potential. I would like to see it developed further, if only the right project came along.
In the end, this is supposed to be a review for ABSOLUTE DANGER GIRL. On its own, it's a beautiful package: nice dust jackets, beautiful printing on the page, good format. But what I said at the top still holds. The book is rather expensive for what it is: an over-sized reprinting of two books that you can probably find without too much effort. There is a signed tip-in plate, but I don't put much stock in those. It would make a nice gift for the devoted fan in your family, but you really need to be a fan of this stuff to go for it this big.
I don't think any less of WildStorm for producing this book, but I hope there's a chance that future ABSOLUTE editions of titles might be known far enough in advance to give me the option to budget accordingly and not have to buy the same thing three times.
ONE LAST THING...
Special thanks to Scott Dunbier, Larry Young (just for being Lar), and Dewey's Comics City in Madison, NJ.
More Pipeline next Tuesday, written between far too many family engagements over the weekend.
Various and Sundry looks at the divas of the new generation, more link round-ups than you can shake your first at, the British propensity to design great magazines, my move to Linux from Windows, Hillary Duff's inability to sing, and a SURVIVOR season wrap-up.
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.