IF BRICK WALLS COULD TALK
If I asked you to name your top five comic book artists who don’t get the credit or the jobs they deserve, you could probably fill it up without too much thought. In a comics industry where the same artists (and especially writers) seem to rotate amongst themselves on the top titles and get the most recognition for it, it’s far too easy for some talented artists to get left behind.
Tops on my list of artists in that category is Phil Winslade. From Steve Gerber’s NEVADA and HOWARD THE DUCK to a criminally-cut-short stint on the Bob Gale-penned DAREDEVIL, Winslade’s art never falters. It has a very natural look to it. Characters exist inside real environments. It’s not just a drawing of a character in front of a drawing of a building. I believe in the places he draws and the people he places in them. It’s a gift for detail and perspective that allows him to do that, coupled with characters who look human and not like an artistic shortcut to that. He pays particular attention the shadows, adding in multiple layers of shadow across each panel, from the sides of cars to the folds of shirts and the contours of muscles and bones. In some ways, it reminds me of the kind of high contrast work Lee Bermejo does, albeit not quite as stylized.
Last week saw the release of the new DC’s THE MONOLITH #1. With the series, Winslade hits on all of his strengths and more. He draws fancy city offices as well as stoops in the seedier parts of the city without blinking. He transitions effortlessly to period settings, as the story sends us back to New York City in the thirties. It’s the kind of work that would be Oscar nominated if there were a set or costume designer involved. No, Winslade does it all by himself. He even inks the artwork.
It’s a beautiful book, marred only by coloring that is soaked up too much by the paper stock. Once again, it looks like the coloring was done for a glossier style of paper than it was finally printed on. If they can correct that in coming issues, this should stand as one of the prettier books on the stands in the coming months.
Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray’s story involves a decades-old Golem, brought back to life after a meeting with a young punk, Alice, who inherits the house where he lives. Right now, the Golem is the afterthought of the story. The bulk of this issue is setting up the tale, starting in the present day and flashing back for the bulk of the narrative. It effectively gives us a history of the monolith, without filling in all the details. We see him both at his most aggressive and his most feeble. Given the events happening “today,” we know we’ll be seeing more of the “monster” shortly. For now, though, all that’s important is getting to know Alice. If you buy her character, you’ll buy the story. Thankfully, Palmiotti and Gray go a long ways to making her a sympathetic character. That’s why this issue works.
THE MONOLITH #1 (DC, $3.50) is a bonus-sized first issue in a promising new series
KANE IS ABLE
(Sorry, I’m fresh out of ideas this week for creative headlines.)
In last week’s Pipeline Previews column, I mentioned RABBIT HUNT, the second book in Paul Grist’s KANE series. Image is releasing it in April. However, Grist’s own Dancing Elephant Press released the book already once in 1996, with a reprint in 2001. I forgot I had it in my collection until after I wrote the column last week. I finally read it over the weekend and was pleased with what I found. It’s been a while since I read the first KANE book, GREETINGS FROM NEW EDEN, but it was easy enough to slip into this one, and I didn’t find myself all that lost.
I would recommend, however, reading these trades in order. Failing that, read the PREVIEWS solicitation for the second book to get a hint of what the first was like. This is not a series easily broken down into neat four part storylines. That just happens to be the length of each volume. It has nothing to do with collecting single storylines. The story of Kane’s questionable partner and his suspension from the force carries through both volumes.
KANE is a noir cop series set in the fictional town of New Eden. It’s filled with a colorful and lively cast of characters that allow Grist to vary the types of stories he tells, from superhero stories and serious police procedurals to wacky costumed hijinks that don’t involve superheroes. It’s a smooth read that’s attractive and addicting. I’m ready to go out and pick up the next two volumes from this series today.
Grist’s art is a cartoony version of Frank Miller’s SIN CITY. Even some of the lettering is reminiscent. It doesn’t rise nearly to that level of violence, sex, or language, however. There is the occasional blood splatter, but it’s “shocking” (for cartoon blood) for a reason and never forced. The art takes a back seat, in my mind, to the graphic layout of the series. Grist doesn’t always use the entire page with his art. He skillfully uses negative space to his advantage.
The storytelling isn’t quite decompressed, but there are moments where Grist will take a page for a single dialogue exchange. There are also moments, though, where he’ll take a story beat that others might stretch out for a full page, and instead compress the storytelling into one tier of panels used to indicate both time and place changes. In the first issue of this story, a police officer finishes her coffee, pays her bill, and walks out the door. I can imagine an Ultimate Marvel title holding the same panel for three tiers (at more than half the page), and each one putting the cop through each step of that scene. Grist, instead, holds the one panel across the page, cuts it into three pieces, and gives each beat a separate portion of the one large panel. It works because the eye moves across the page in the way the cop does, while at the same time filling in the gaps. It’s not groundbreaking comics by any stretch of the imagination, but it does show an artist who is in control of the rhythm of the page.
The big trick you have to know about this series to understand it is that when the art shrinks back from the sides of the pages, you’re looking at something happening in the past. You can also see the difference in that Kane is wearing a white shirt, instead of a black one. Keep that in mind and the stories won’t lose you for jumping around too much.
Grist also deserves credit for his lettering, which reminds me a lot of Dave Sim’s perpetually overlooked CEREBUS style. Grist doesn’t go quite as far in varying fonts, but his work does have a similar feel to it. The balloons are oversized. The lettering changes size to emphasize speech patterns. The whole thing has a gloriously imperfect feel that’s lost in so many of the superslick computer lettering jobs done today.
I cringed, for example, at one point while reading MONOLITH #1. (See review below.) A dialogue-free page is punctuated with a series of sound effects. Rather than being the intricate and involved lettering style that Sim or Ken Bruzenak (AMERICAN FLAGG!) would have pulled off, the book uses a sterile multi-font sound effect extravaganza that sat atop the art without any organic feel to it. Grist’s KANE has a very natural feel to it, though. You get the idea that this is a cartoonist in control of every facet of the comic, from script to letters.
The volume collects issues #5 – 8 of the series. Here’s a rough breakdown:
“Rabbit Hunt Part One” is a strong silent story, weaving between three intersecting storylines that end in a chaotic and hilarious manner. Grist does a great job in juggling the storylines around. He blends them together in a way that, while it might be forced, suits the absurdity of the story well. This is the story of one of New Eden’s Finest, chasing after a known fugitive. In the meantime, a man in a rabbit suit is on the run from song gangsters, and a bank heist has its thief on edge and stuck in traffic. This story launches us into the stories that follow.
“Rat In The House” is a Roshamon tale in which a police bust falls under the eye of Internal Affairs when the evidence – a bag of money – goes missing. We relive the events of that morning through the eyes of all the participants, adding layers to what at first seems like a perfectly normal bust. In the end, the question of trust has been raised, and New Eden’s police department has some thorny questions to answer.
“The Bunny Wore Pink” features a man in a bunny suit (from the first issue in this book) going undercover for the police department in a sting. Hilarity, as it must, ensues.
“The View From Here” is the lone superhero tale. In this one, a broken actor from a TV series (think Adam West) is sitting atop one of New Eden’s skyscrapers, threatening to jump. How do you talk a “superhero” down from the edge? Kane does his best, as events from his recent past replay themselves, drawing sharp parallels.
There’s a lot more than just what these brief descriptions tell you. The stories follow different rhythms, but each is enjoyable. Grist is a notable cartoonist with a solid design sense and a visually interesting style. For $12.95, this book is a steal in April. See if you can get the first volume ahead of time. You’ll enjoy it, too.
UNCANNY X-MEN STUMBLES
The third collection of Chuck Austen’s UNCANNY X-MEN (“Holy War”) is the one where the whole series threatens to run off the rails. I positively reviewed the first two volumes of this series so far, pointing out that Austen’s stories work well as pure soap opera. It’s not quite as intense and over-the-top as Jay Faerber’s work on NOBLE CAUSES. It merely emphasizes the personal interactions and various romantic foibles of Charles Xavier’s school over the major plot threads and villains of the week. At times, this third volume pokes playful fun at the conventions of the genre, including the wedding from hell, the near-miss romantic connections, and a battle of titans masking a simple misunderstanding. For that, I could sit back and enjoy.
The problem comes when Austen goes for plot first. In the middle of this book is a story putting a final rest to the Church of the Humanity, the anti-mutant religious faction. The story is so mind-numbingly silly and at times perversely stupid, that it threatens to spend all of the brownie points Austen had earned with his run on the series thus far. I can’t point out the logical fallacies and melodramatic failures of the issues since this column tries to be major-spoiler-free, but I will recommend Paul O’Brien’s review of the issues for all the details. He does a better job than I ever could in pointing out its inanity. The only good part about the series is that it signals the return of Jubilee to the X-Family, in one of the most shocking returns of all.
Putting that low point aside, though, Austen continues with the serial soap opera foundation that he laid in the first two volumes. Things come to a head in the Nurse Annie/Havok relationship as his impending nuptials threaten to ruin it all. Angel and Paige have their problems. Juggernaut comes to a surprising conclusion. It’s a fun, if mindless, romp through the mutant universe. It won’t be for everyone, though. If you’re a fan of Grant Morrison’s more cerebal and inventive NEW X-MEN series, this one won’t fit the mold you’re looking for. As its own creature, I think it’s an entertaining, if imperfect, read.
Austen does have a couple of storytelling problems in the book, usually involving things jumping out of nowhere. One scene from the second half sticks out in particular. Annie accuses Iceman of being a homophobe and a racist because he didn’t realize that Northstar was gay. That’s quite the leap, isn’t it? I thought I missed a page of dialogue somewhere, or that she was pulling his leg. No, this plays out seriously. It’s a huge leap in logic played out for the sake of a plot point, but it fails any basic maturity or logic test.
Ron Garney does a workman like job in drawing the first half of the book. It’s solid, if unspectacular, stuff. It’s not the stylistic leanings of previous X-MEN artists, from Silvestri to Madureira. In the X-Office, though, it’s important to be able to draw more than three issues in a row. Garney accomplishes that. It lacks the spark of his CAPTAIN AMERICA work, though.
Philip Tan comes in for the back half of the book, with a very peculiar style. It’s a mix of Kia Asimaya, Sam Kieth, and Stephen Platt. The results are muddled at times. Crowd scenes results in too many characters who look too much alike. Faces often look flat. It does, however, have a unique stylistic flavor. It’s the kind of thing that was once the hallmark of an X-MEN comic book. There aren’t many artists out there whose stuff looks like this. It’s fun to look at.
$18 buys you this collection of UNCANNY X-MEN #421-427. It’s a big soapy soap opera with some major plot failings in the middle, but at least that storyline is out of the way and the road is clear for fresher adventures ahead.
The fourth UNCANNY X-MEN collection, “The Draco” is already out, and I’ll be looking into that shortly.
UPDATES, MISCELLANY, AND GENERAL MAYHEM
* In the ongoing debate on DC: THE NEW FRONTIER, Darwyn Cooke speaks up to defend his characterization of Hal Jordan as a pacifist military man. You can see those comments in this thread on the DC message boards.
* Bobby Podesta’s on-line comic strip, Six Foot Six Year Old, has been running thrice weekly for a couple of months now. Podesta is an animator at PIXAR doing this little project on the side. It’s a sweet and humorous take on the classic “typical” American family. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s a fun diversion while surfing the web, and has an inviting and commercial art style.
* In rereading some comics this week, I ran across a WILDCATS ad from last year that included a quote from this column. It read, “It’s a super-hero book unlike any other currently out there today.”
I cringed. Isn’t it redundant to use both “today” and “currently” in that sentence? It’s bad enough that my particular writing style is almost completely unsuitable for slick ad quotes, but when one gets pulled that I realize a year later has poor structure, it gets frustrating. Just my luck.
* I’ve never followed comic book-based movie news too closely, and recent developments have proven me wise for this. The stories circling around the Superman and Wonder Woman movies go from the ridiculous to the bizarre on a daily basis. Monday’s Comic Reel update points to Sarah Michelle Gellar as the leading candidate for the role of Wonder Woman. This is just three days after her BUFFY co-star, Charisma Carpenter, begged into the race. I think Carpenter would be a far better Diana than Gellar. You’re never going to find a match for Wonder Woman’s body type in the land of scrawny Hollywood, but Carpenter comes closer than the pint-sized Gellar. Heck, I think Alyson Hannigan might be a better choice. Or, better yet, the actress who played Miss Calendar.
* I forgot to mention it last week: Robert Kirkman has a Jubilee story in the upcoming X-MEN UNLIMITED issue solicited in the latest PREVIEWS. That alone makes the issue worth buying.
* I know it’s wrong to judge shows before you see them, or to wallow in nostalgia over the “Great Shows” of your youth, but I just don’t want to be bothered with The WB’s new Batman animated series. The series will have no connection to the Dini/Timm/et. al. series, and will include a new theme song from one of Hollywood’s favorite sons, Bono.
It’s been a good run, though. That style dominated the superhero flavor of cartoons for better than a decade, and even I started to get sick of seeing the style everywhere. But, man, that original series is a classic, not just because I have fond memories of watching it as a teenager. No, it’s a classic because it’s undeniably high quality.
I shouldn’t prejudge the new series, but I’m not interested. Get me a boxed DVD set of the original episodes (before Timm decided to redesign everything), and I’ll be happy.
Pipeline Commentary and Review returns next Tuesday with, well, more reviews and stuff. If I don’t specifically mention which books I’m going to review, I don’t have to worry about not writing those reviews and making this column returnable in the direct market. Or, worse, resoliciting it.
Various and Sundry carries on, with reviews of a cult British TV series, ULTRAVIOLET; ALADDIN’s disappearance from IMAX; lots of AMERICAN IDOL chatter; more Marx Brothers on DVD, Oscar stories, Apple death threats, lotsa Linux, 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.
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