BOOKS WITH A SPINE
We begin this week’s column with a look at a bunch of trade paperbacks or OGNs. It’s funny to look at your reading habits over a short period of time and realize that you’re following a certain format. Usually, I only have time to consume a single issue or two of something in a gulp. In the past few weeks, I seem to have enough time in blocks to devote to slightly longer works. This week’s books range from 50 pages to 130 pages, come in color and black and white. None of them are superhero books, oddly enough. You have romance, humor, spies, and drama represented this week.
LOVE AS A FOREIGN LANGUAGE, Volume 4 (Oni, $6.95) is the quickest-reading volume of the series, but the most visually impressive book so far. J. Torres limits the cast of characters in this story. Gone are the tertiary characters and the colorful walk-ons that populated parts of the first three books. The cultural taboos and conflicts are mostly gone from this volume, although they do settle nicely into the background. This book is more one large adventure of Joel going after Hana, the cute secretary at his school that he’s hopelessly fallen for. Torres keeps that one storyline throughout the volume, even as it gets divided into five separate chapters. There’s also a grand musical number in the middle of the book that has to be seen to be believed. You can hear the music in your head and picture the movement of the dancing. It’s very effective.
For 58 pages, Eric Kim threatens to steal the whole show with his art. It’s as strong and as solid as I’ve seen it in this series so far. The amount of toning done throughout the book seems to have been increased, but it leads to a very strong visual. I read through the book once for the story, but then went back to linger over the art. The characters are lively and animated, and all the zipatone looking material through the book helps add extra dimensions to the book.
While the series has always been fun and, at times, even educational, this go-around is the most satisfying so far.
ARMAGEDDON & SON (Oni, $9.95) is a humorous spy spoof, as a villainous father enlists his long lost slacker son to help him stop a plan to destroy the world — his own plan. The son is new to this world, lost in it, and confused. For 89 pages, hilarity ensues. This book is the product of John Layman’s feverish imagination, thankfully leaning away from current day politics and making more fun of spy movies and novels. It isn’t a direct parody of the James Bond series. If anything, there are more touches of INSPECTOR GADGET in it than 007. It’s a funny book, though, with lots of silly moments wrapped up in a simple plot with a surprising, but funny, ending.
The villainous father is the best part of the book for me. He’s completely inept. His inability to kill anyone is a running joke that made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. The slacker son gets caught up in the situation and does his best, but it’s usually his know-it-all one-eyed father than steals the show.
Dave Dumeer is the artist for the book, complete with pencils, inks, and gray washes. His style is just wacky enough to merge with the story well, but there’s something about it that bothers me. I keep flipping through the book hoping to put my finger on it, but I can’t. The book has backgrounds. The characters look like normal humans. There’s some very strong storytelling scattered through the book. But his style, in general, isn’t as polished as I like, I guess.
It’s a light read, not something that’s going to be up for Eisner consideration or anything. But for $10 and a few minutes of your time, it’s an enjoyable distraction from The Real World. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
I want to see more European comics translated here in America. I’m a little picky, though, as to what I want. I admit it — I want to see more commercial, popular stuff translated. I want to read Le Petit Spirou and Le Femmes en Blanc. I don’t need to read any of the oh-so-important art comix. I want to see more humorous books drawn in an approachable style.
That’s a large part of the reason I’m so excited to see PENGUINS ON ICE (iBooks, $12.95) at comic shops now. It’s a bright and attractive piece of cartooning, focusing on gags related to a colony of penguins living on the ice shelf. Each gag lasts a page or three, often focusing on the unique living conditions of penguins grouped en masse, all of them identical. I’m sure the summer’s big breakout movie hit, PENGUINS, had something to do with this book’s release. I don’t mind that. Whatever excuse it takes. . .
Creator Sergio Salma tells very visual gags. You can’t just read the word balloons and skip the visuals. There’s plenty of slapstick and visual puns going on here. While they can sometimes be repetitive, they’re usually just variations on a theme. The gags about penguins all looking alike recur two or three times, but each time with a different story.
Things also get broken up by the appearances of Skidou, the local Eskimo character. He’s a boy whose life intersects with the penguin in odd ways, and sometimes completely tangentially. The penguins are still the stars of this book. Skidou is a pleasant distraction once in a while.
It’s the kind of work that very very few cartoonists here in American bother with, largely because of the hostile market to such works. If funny animals and humorous books sold better, I imagine we’d see a fast-moving stream filled with such books overnight. Dare to dream. I think Sergio Aragones is the only cartoonist in America who could pull off this kind of work right now, and he’s the one who’s come closest in the past, with such books as ACTIONS SPEAK and LOUDER THAN WORDS. Those were silent books, but they were all single page gags with some thematic repetitions throughout.
The book runs 48 pages, in glorious color on oversized pages. It’s a softcover album, complete with a spine. You can find a far-too-tiny preview on iBooks’ website, if you need more convincing.
SUNSET CITY (AiT/PlanetLar, $9.95) is Rob Osbrone’s follow-up to 1000 STEPS TO WORLD DOMINATION, although it’s completely different in tone and subject material. This one is set at one of those Active Adult Communities that litter the real estate listings with the promise of low low prices for condominiums that you can’t buy unless you’re a quarter of a century older than you currently are. (Sorry, I’m projecting now.) Into this community comes the relatively youthful Frank, whose daughter talks him into moving there after the death of his wife. Life is boring, repetitious, and frustrating for him. He hasn’t been able to move past his wife’s death. He feels like he’s been herded to a place where he’s left waiting for death. If it weren’t for his dog, he wouldn’t have much left, beside some friends stuck in the same situation. A series of events, though, lead Frank to a realization: He’s not dead yet and he can still be a force or change. He can, as the back cover copy puts it, “take life by the balls.”
It’s an effective and engrossing graphic novel that surrounds you with characters that rings true, a few good chuckles, and a lead character who’s sympathetic. Osborne does a good job in telling the story, but also in adding in enough information to make you feel like part of the community, and not just an eavesdropper.
Osborne uses intermittent faux newspaper headlines, stories, and pages to break up the narrative. These add details and depth to the book, as bits explained in those sections will be brought up again almost tangentially in dialogue. Some might consider it a cop out to tell instead of show, but I think it adds to the atmosphere. The almost cheeky way in which some of the stories are written is humorous and effective in what could be considered otherwise a fairly dark story.
The characters running throughout the book ring true. I’ve never worked or volunteered in a retirement community of any sort, but I recognize character types from my time working in a pharmacy. You have the gossiping ninnies, the slightly depressed old folks, the unsure ones, and some of the hangers-on.
The events of the book might be a little fantastic at times, but I think you have to buy into that at the start if you’re going to have any hope of enjoying the series. My favorite bit is the old man who runs the local Quicky Mart with an iron first — and a shotgun with a hair trigger. You have to recognize where Osborne is exaggerating for effect here to “get” the book, but it’s well worth it.
Osborne’s black and white art is, at times, awkward. It could almost use a little more photo reference to get more of the anatomy down. Some heads don’t fit comfortably onto some bodies, but if you can work past that, you can enjoy the book. The storytelling is solid enough. Most of the book revolves around characters talking to each other. There’s not much needed in the way of dramatic action scenes. Some more experience might lead to a greater choice of angles to stage scenes at, but I’m just nit-picking right now.
SUNSET CITY is a dramatic book, the kind of story the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would look kindly upon come Oscar time, if this were a movie. While it has a lighter touch at times, there is a dark thread weaved throughout the book, and the stories aren’t all exactly uplifting. It’s just good comics, and all for $10. C’mon, you pay that to go see a movie these days.
IN PRAISE OF GENE COLAN
It was at one of the summer conventions this year that I ran across Gene Colan’s table in Artists Alley. (I’m thinking it was Chicago, but don’t quote me on that.) He was seated at the end of a long row of tables, where the younger whippersnappers to his right often had long lines and small crowds gathered round. In the couple of times I passed by, he was sitting there with his wife and a stack of original art, and perhaps a fan or two. I wanted to go up to him and — I don’t know what. Introduce myself? He wouldn’t know me from Adam. Praise his work? While I have enjoyed a few choice recent pencil works from him, I’ve never read TOMB OF DRACULA or his DAREDEVIL, or any of his major bodies of work. Was I supposed to shake his hand and congratulate him on lasting this long in this tough an industry? Should I praise him for being old? I knew the original art was out of my price range, but I would like to have flipped through some of it. But I felt awkward. I didn’t know what to say.
Next year, I’m not making the same mistake twice. TwoMorrows has published a biography of the man titled SECRETS IN THE SHADOWS: THE ART & LIFE OF GENE COLAN, written by Tom Field. It is a terrific biography, filled with anecdotes and interviews of supporting creators such as Tom Palmer and Stan Lee and Marv Wolfman. It covers everything he’s done, from his earliest days sketching on the streets of the city to his most recent days working on commissions for fans and picking up oddball work here and there. In the middle, of course, is his legendary run on TOMB OF DRACULA, and the relatively quick fall from fandom’s grace in the early 80s as times changed. (Really, if you needed any more reason to dislike John Byrne, there’s a chapter in this book that will give it to you.)
The important thing, though, is that now I feel like I know the man. I know it’s a completely shallow knowledge, but he comes across as humble and personable in these interviews. His memory for events is often supported by those around him, and his knowledge for more recent comics history is filled with holes. That’s not a bad thing — it’s more interesting to read his reactions in the interviews to learning about where certain creators are now.
The book is ordered chronologically, with occasional breaks for interviews with Colan’s associates, as I mentioned above. The final chapter in the book is an interview with Colan and his wife, whose been there to see nearly all of it over the years. She’s his moral and logistical support.
I didn’t realize how much of Colan’s work I had in my collection. The ESSENTIAL volumes are replete with his work, including DAREDEVIL, TOMB OF DRACULA (in its entirety now), and HOWARD THE DUCK. It was his work in this year’s BART SIMPSON’S TREEHOUSE OF HORROR comics that made me think about Colan’s other work. That led me to reading this book, which had sat stationary on my desk for too long. His fine pencil work was not lost in the Simpsons book, and working outside the traditional superhero/horror genre game him the chance to shine in a new way for a new audience.
Colan’s art is unique to comics. It has a breathlessly action-packed quality, often with dramatic angles and clever movements. But it’s the rawness of the pencil work that catches your eye. Most comics artists only draw what they have to so that the inker has a guide to cover with black ink. Colan doesn’t do that. He layers in the shadows and the textures with the side of his pencil, confounding otherwise sterling inkers. But in its raw form, his pencils are amongst the most beautiful comic book work I’ve ever seen. And today, he has enough clout in the industry (combined with the available technology) that publishers will shoot comics directly from his pencil lines. It’s never looked better in some ways. If you need proof of that, check out the wealth of sketchbook and commission art he’s done at his web site. In fact, flip back to his home page and root around the materials on GeneColan.com that his fans have prepared for him. He’s even done original comic strip work for the site.
In the meantime, pick up TwoMorrow’s excellent biography of Gene Colan for an outstanding story. Yes, you’ll even get a bit of juicy gossip laced through the book here and there. Colan is gentleman enough to skip names in a couple of places, but some are also filled in very easily. For only $26, you’ll get a couple of hours of solid reading filled with comics history and entertainment. Perhaps best of all, you’ll be flush with reasons to appreciate and respect the man.
For a more personal and detailed tribute to Colan, check out Erik Larsen’s “One Fan’s Opinion.”
VARIOUS AND SUNDRY
- TwoMorrows’ next MODERN MASTERS book in the series focuses on Art Adams. Look for it in February.
- If you’ve been waiting for George Khoury’s Swampmen book, the latest expectation for that one to ship is April 2006.
- Tad Stones is blogging the development of the forthcoming HELLBOY animated series.
- A sequel to the oh-so-popular Short Box Chronicles series of columns is in the works right now at the Pipeline Message Board.
Pipeline Commentary and Review turns a ripe 441 weeks old next Tuesday, as we head into the Thanksgiving holiday here in America. There shouldn’t be any disruption of this column’s publication schedule due to the holidays for the rest of the year. I have a special review lined up for next week that has nothing to do with comic books and everything to do with the boxes we store them in. Hopefully, that will come through. Following that, I imagine it’s just about PREVIEWS time again.
Check the Pipeline message board for updates on the Pipeline Comic Book Podcast. You can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes now, too! This week’s podcast will show up over here this week. I think it’ll be up before midnight on 15 November.
Don’t forget about the VandS DVD podcast, while you’re at it.
Various and Sundry continues its link dumps, DVD talk, and more.
More than 600 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically.
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