Pipeline, Issue #379

TABLE OF CONTENTS: Dave Johnson opens up his sketchbook... Kurt Busiek and George Perez open up two universes and attempt to show it all... Alex Maleev's past is reprinted... HAWAIIAN DICK gets the kind of trade paperback value that more short-run series should consider... Tom Bancroft completes his initial series and shows off two others... The LONE WOLF AND CUB team produced another mini-series...Spelling whoopsie...

ANOTHER SKETCHBOOK? I finally got my hands on a copy of the Dave Johnson Sketchbook (Atomeka, $6.99). Johnson had copies for sale in San Diego, but I had to hold off because I pre-ordered it. Consider this review, then, an addendum to Pipeline from two weeks ago.

The sketchbook is very pretty if you're a Dave Johnson fan. It's a squarebound 56 page book with nice cardboard covers and good clean white paper stock. Thankfully, it's not glossy, so it holds the ink very well without blinding you with its glare. The first page has a blank space for a Johnson sketch, I presume, if you pick it up from him at a convention. The book has no annotations, so make of the sketches what you will. This isn't a collection of rough sketches for cover designs, either, or turnarounds on new characters. This really looks like stuff straight from Johnson's sketchbook, much of it crazy science fiction type stuff.

There is one part of the book that feels a little like a cheat, but I'll need to backtrack to explain it better. In San Diego this year, I flipped through the original art Mike McKone had for sale. Amongst the pages he had were a series of costume designs for Superboy. Basically, he takes the same full figure drawing and throws different costumes on it over and over again. It's an interesting look at the design process, particularly given how tiny some of the changes are. And if you like one of the costume designs, it's a nice cheap way to buy original art. In his sketchbook, Johnson has a 12 page section devoted to spaceship, space station, and high tech airplane designs. Much of it looks very much alike. It gets tedious fast, unless you're a real tech geek who might be interested in such things.

There is some very nice art in here, but you'll have to judge if it's enough for you at $6.99. I picked mine up at a discount through mail order, so I'm happy with it. Of course, I got a review copy in the mail the same week. So I'll give away my extra copy this week. Send me your name and mailing address with a subject header of "Dave Johnson Sketchbook" (quotes not necessary), and I'll randomly draw a winner from the entries and send you my extra copy. The deadline for this is midnight Eastern Time (U.S.) on Friday, 17 September 2004. This contest is open to the world.

BIGGER AND BETTER: Also in this week's monthly Khepri mail order shipment of comic book goodies: The JLA/AVENGERS deluxe hardcover. I'm happy to say that it's a gorgeous package. This thing reprinted flawlessly. It's beautiful to behold George Perez's densely packed art at this larger size. The colors look better than ever. The new cover is a nicely digitally-painted piece of work direct from Perez's pencils. Tom Smith did a great job on this project.

The second volume in the set ("Compendium") has a lot of nice features in it, including copies of Perez's completed art from the 1983 attempt at this mini-series, a look at the original plot breakdown by Kurt Busiek along with his plot for one direction the series didn't go in. And, in case you're really obsessed with detail, the last few pages are annotations for specific references in specific panels. It's enough to make my mind hurt, so I didn't peruse it all that much.

The final price on this package is $75.00, but I'm not upset for paying it. This is a volume that's well worth every penny. It will look nice on my bookshelf next to the other slipcased ABSOLUTE editions.

Not one to miss out on a marketing opportunity, Marvel also released AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!, a hardcover collecting the first year of Kurt Busiek and George Perez's run on THE AVENGERS. The Busiek/Perez era is the only time I ever enjoyed the title without reservations, so I'm very happy to have this new printing of it.

Given the fact that the volume has a specific name ("Avengers Assemble" instead of just "Avengers") and no volume number, I fear that this isn't the first of a multi-volume project to collect Busiek's entire run on the series. Too bad.

The book is another $29.99, but it collects some great comics, including the full pencils of the first issue with Kurt Busiek's original plot.

ANIMATED STYLINGS: Animator Tom Bancroft finishes off the first storyline of his whimsically superpowered couple in OPPOSITE FORCES #4. He's gone back to the unfinished pencil look again, which I prefer to the inked version of his art. It looks great, particularly with the added shadows and textures the pencil can give.

The story is cute. And that's OK because that's all this book needs to be. It doesn't need to be deep and meaningful. It's fun and that's fine. It doesn't wrap up every lingering plot thread, and the relationship between the two main characters may not feel completely settled when all is said and done. If you were expecting a complete novel after four issues, you'll be disappointed. There's enough fun to be had in the book, though, that I enjoyed it on its own merits. I hope there's more of the story down the line.

Frank Cho draws the cover, just to prove that not all his women look like Brandy. Pin-ups in the issue are drawn by artists including Mike Kunkel and Derrick Fish.

Also from the folks at Funny Pages Press comes a new flip book starting two new series. The first is BOY ROBO, by Rob Corley. This is aimed at a much younger market than OPPOSITE FORCES. It's the story of a boy robot, fittingly enough. He has a short six page adventure in this issue that includes an overgrown cat and a cute puppy. Corley's animated art style works for the book. It doesn't concern itself overly much with adding in background detail, but the real stars are in the foreground. The backgrounds are simple and often blocky city skylines. It fits the simplistic story, I suppose. The characters, though, show great animation in front, so it all balances out.

TOMO, written by Andrew Simmons and drawn by John Hurst, is aimed at the same market as Lizzy McGuire or Kim Possible. Picture the tweenie female who likes manga, and you'll see a lot of easy comparisons to this book. Hana is a recent immigrant to Los Angeles from Japan, living with her grandfather. Her "pet" raccoon, Tomo, has the ability to morph into any shape. When ninjas attack, this proves very useful.

This story is nine pages long and more finished off than the other two I've talked about so far from Funnypages Press. Hurst uses gray tones instead of pencil shading. While his art is very dynamic and engaging, it also seems to me to be more concerned with its design than its animation. Looks good, but I prefer the previous two styles.

Both books are 24 black and white pages for $2.95.

GREAT TRADE: Picked up the HAWAIIAN DICK trade paperback ("Byrd of Paradise") from B. Clay Moore in Chicago this year, and read through it on the flight home that weekend. There's a reason this book has received all the critical plaudits it has: It's a good read. It's a solid noir-with-color detective story set in Hawaii. Moore crafts characters you will care about, one way or the other, and sets in motion a story that could only take place in Hawaii. The island state is used for more than just a pretty background drawing or two.

Steven Griffin's art is the immediate star of the book, with a lush painterly colored style that will carry through to the second series, even on the issues he's not drawing. His coloring style is that distinctive.

Put the two creators together, and you immediately have a book that makes stars out of both of them.

The trade paperback brings the series to a whole new level, with a wealth of new material that not only rounds out the main story, but makes the trade paperback a worthy purchase. You get the on-line comic strips reprinted in here, with a step-by-step breakdown of their creation. You get sketchbook material, annotated. You get drink recipes. It's ingenius little add-ons like that that show us how trades ought to be done.

The final product is only $15 through Image Comics.

LOOK AT THE PRETTY PICTURES: Dark Horse has a new trade out of THE CROW: FLESH AND BLOOD, a reprint of a three issue mini-series from the 90s. It was originally printed by Kitchen Sink and Top Dollar comics, if that helps you place it chronologically. It sees print now because the art is from DAREDEVIL fan favorite Alex Maleev. In a time before Photoshop, artists relying heavily on photoreference resorted to lightboxes and photocopies to achieve their look. If you like Maleev's work today, this is an interesting look at the analog version of his artistic progress. It's definitely rougher, but many of the tricks are still there.

The one thing that has come the furthest, though, is his storytelling. There are parts of this book that lose me completely. Characters look alike, or jump around from location to location without warning. Maleev is a younger artist here, honing his craft and learning the harsh lessons of storytelling that come with experience. This looks like an independent black and white comic of the mid-1990s. It tries hard to be serious and realistic, without resorting to the stylistic cross-hatching so in vogue at the time in Marvel and DC comics.

At $9.95, this might be a good value for DAREDEVIL junkies looking for more of a Maleev fix. If you want to see the development of an artist, this is a great example for one.

LONE WOLF PREDUX: One can look at SAMURAI EXECUTIONER and see all the pieces coming together for what would be Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's comics masterpiece, LONE WOLF AND CUB. The art style is virtually identical. You could drop any of the pages of art from this series into the middle of the LW&C epic and not be able to tell the difference in the line work. The difference lies in the storytelling. Kojima is still developing his style and his visual shorthand here. It's also a difference in tone. Whereas LW&C is a sprawling bloody epic, EXECUTIONER is a whisper-quiet short story, in comparison. EXECUTIONER is Kubikiri Asa, the shogun's sword-tester and man in charge of decapitations. While there is still some of that foreign flavor to the storytelling, it's a much more straightforward story. There are crime stories to be had in here with a dash of personal intrigue and the frightening acts of one particular madman in the story "Toshu Daigongen." They're nearly topped in the following story, "Asaji," which tells the gut-wrenching story of the woman at the jail responsible for cleaning the decapitated remains of the prisoners.

Koike has written other series, such as CRYING FREEMAN, that read more like pay cable movies of the week than literature. If there's one big shortcoming in SAMURAI EXCECUTIONER, it's that it falls into that lesser of two categories. The stories in this volume rely on awful lot on showing lots of skin. Just about every story includes a rape scene. Women with plump figures writhe on the ground, and sadistic men bare fangs as they commit their acts of violence. This is strictly a mature readers book. It takes a cast iron stomach to get through this. If you thought IDENTITY CRISIS was rough, don't look at this.

After reading this first volume, I think the reason LONE WOLF AND CUB stands out so much amongst all of comics literature is on two points. First is its epic scale. At something like 6,000 pages, the body of work is impressive by page count. Along with that comes a trip through all of Japan, stopping at every conceivable type of town, land formation, and population along the way. Secondly, there's an artistic and philosophical bent to the story. While one can be impressed with Ogami Itto's swordsmanship in battle, the heart of the story lies in his relationship to his son and the religious underpinnings of the society. Combining that with the action/adventure is what made LONE WOLF so captivating.

SAMURAI EXECUTIONER is merely a warm up to that. You can see Kojima honing his technique here. There aren't as many long silent pages, but they do show up from time to time. The scene transitions, particularly in flashbacks, show up once or twice in this book. That's something that he would use frequently in LW&C. And Koike is still working out ways to include exposition and character development in his stories.

In the end, SAMURAI EXECUTIONER is an entertaining piece of work so far, but only suitable for those with a strong gut and an interest in the history behind LONE WOLF AND CUB. It fits in wonderfully as an historic piece. As a work unto itself, it's passable but not in the same category as its successor.

This first volume is only $9.95 for 336 pages in the same format as LW&C. The entire series will run 10 volumes, so there's plenty more to look forward to.

CAREFUL PROOFREADING: Dark Horse letterer Michael Thomas was the first to catch my spelling goof last week. It's one I usually look out for, but completely blew passed this time. In my review of JUBILEE #1, I referred to the head of the school as a "principle." Everyone knows that he's your friend, putting the "pal" in "principal." The principal may have principles, but never vice versa.

Pipeline Commentary and Review returns next Tuesday. I have nothing else witty to say about that.

Over at Various and Sundry this week: I ordered a Mac computer, and the wait begins. THE APPRENTICE 2 gets repackaged like a trade paperback. Meat Loaf has a new DVD out. A software upgrade to the site. The Atkins craze starts to die down. And lots of new DVD releases.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 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 also still available at the Original Pipeline page.

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