OF SPIES AND ACTORS
I've made a lot lately about the over reliance of photo reference on the part of some artists today. Striving so often for anatomical perfection sucks the life and the energy out of their work. There's something to be said for the fine art of cartooning. It's not a dirty word. Exaggeration and imperfection make art look livelier. The same can be said of lettering, too, and the best there work their magic to find ways to best imitate hand lettering with the computer.
There's no doubt that Jeremy Haun uses a lot of photo ref in his work for THE LEADING MAN #1, due out in comic shops from Oni Press this week. It does not, however, detract from his skills as a cartoonist. It blends in beautifully. He's not a slave to the Polaroids or to a string of files with names beginning "DSC_" and ending in ".jpg". They are his basis, from which he crafts 22 pages of clear storytelling that's attractive and engaging. Since this is a book that relies on "real people" populating the stage, and not a group of overly muscular spandex-clad superheroes, his style works for the book.
I'm reviewing the first issue of this new Oni mini-series from a black and white photocopy of it. The full thing will be in color for just $2.99. If the color holds up to the promise of this photocopied version, the book will be a visual treat.
THE LEADING MAN stars Nick Walker, who appears to be an action movie star. That's just his cover, though. Travelling the globe shooting ridiculously popular movies gives him the excuse he needs to travel to foreign lands to work his real job. He's a "top espionage agent," able to wield a gun in real life as well as on the silver screen. The high concept isn't, perhaps, a completely new or original one, but I like the little details that writer B. Clay Moore throws in along with it. Everything from the movie trailer secret headquarters to the extra assistance on the set to the funding details I just mentioned. In addition to a breezy action opening, the whole book oozes with character and just a hint of charm. Hollywood is a cavalier place, but Moore throws some likeable characters into the mix.
If this book hits its schedule and builds on the solid foundation of this first issue, we'll have a fun new series of mini-series worth keeping an eye out for.
25 FINGERS, ALL SCIENCE
Matt Fraction and Steven Sanders' FIVE FISTS OF SCIENCE is a raucous alternate history story with enough attitude, mysticism, and intelligence to satiate any slightly geeky comics fan. What else would you expect when pitting the combined forces of Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla against J.P. Morgan, Thomas Alva Edison, and Guglielmo Marconi? If you looked at that list of names and said, "Who?" then please allow me to show you the door to your eighth grade American History class. I think it's time you flunked it again.
The set-up for this graphic novel is that old friends Twain and Tesla have found a way to bring about world peace. Tesla is the manic mind behind the grand scheme -- basically, giant robots -- while Twain is the master showman out to sell it to the world. The problem is, the more mystically inclined barons of the age don't agree with that, and want to stop it while pushing their own agenda. When science and magic meet, only violent mayhem can ensue.
What Fraction gives us is a nice blend of crazy Looney Tunes storytelling with hints of modern retro favorites, such as Cthulu and the steam age. The characters don't sit still very often, and when they do there's still a gleam in their eyes. Mark Twain absolutely steals the book. Every time he tosses off a one-liner, your eyes are glued to him and you have to wonder what craziness he's about to pull off next. Fraction should just start a new series along the lines of THE FABULOUS ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN and be done with it. Sadly, I fear I'd be the only one adding it to his pull list.
The effect was so great that I picked up a book of Twain's short stories. I've been pouring through it ever since. Twain's storytelling is very clever. It might be a little long-winded for many today, but that's just his style. You get used to single paragraphs that carry on for an entire page after not too long. You start to laugh at the over-the-top violence and witty rejoinders peppered through his work. It's an obvious influence on the Looney Tunes shorts of nearly 80 years later. Chuck Jones cited Twain as an influence repeatedly. I can see why now. But I also see bits of Twain littered all through the literary landscape. Heck, if you squint your eyes just so, you can sense a bit of Twain's bitter streak through the dialogue of Warren Ellis.
The fun thing about not being in high school anymore is that you're not working under any crushing deadlines to read and analyze these things. I'm not a terribly quick prose reader, so reading three chapters of a Steinbeck or Hemmingway book in high school wasn't anything less than an oppressive chore. Reading one of those books now, as I'm interested in them, is a much more fruitful task. Sometimes, it's fun to be an adult.
Back to the comic at hand: Sanders' art conveys all of Fraction's comedy bits with flair, thanks to some basic panel layout techniques and a deft touch with facial expressions. There's a lot of over-the-top acting needed to carry this book off, and Sanders can pull that off. His pencil work would indicate an animation background, at times, but I'm not sure if that's true at all. The only drag on the art is the coloring. Like far too many comics today, it's way too dark. It obscures a lot of detail, muddies up too many panels, and threatens the storytelling at key moments. Characters don't stand out from the background, and they all start to blend together when drawn small in the panel. Sadly, this is at its worst in the set piece at the end of the book, where all the manic action is happening.
Still, the overall effect is a strong one, with lots of colorful characters doing crazy things. FIVE FISTS OF SCIENCE is available today from Image Comics for just $13.
I should also note that FIVE FISTS OF SCIENCE rose quickly to the top of my reading stack after listening to Matt Fraction's appearance on the Around Comics podcast. He talked for almost an hour about the book, CASANOVA, and PUNISHER WAR JOURNAL. Just like Greg Rucka's enthusiasm for CHECKMATE on the Wordballoon podcast was contagious enough to get me to sample his book last week, Fraction pulled off the same hit here.
Who said podcasts weren't an expensive habit?
WHAT'S NEW, X-MEN?
Spurred on by the success of the latest X-MEN movie and several suggestions to do so, I finally cracked open the third hardcover collection of Grant Morrison's NEW X-MEN run. This completes his run on the book, though for the life of me I can't explain why I hadn't read it until now. I think I had dropped the series to wait for the hardcover, and then fell behind by the time this one came out.
The first two thirds of the book is a masterful conclusion of all the plots Morrison had set up over the course of his first two years on the title. They might have had a stronger impact on me had I reread volumes 1 and 2 first, but I still appreciated the amount of work Morrison had to put into the series to so wonderfully set all of this stuff up. Sadly, the big Xorn reveal was spoiled left and right for me about two minutes after the issue hit the stands way back when. (Or did WIZARD spoil it two minutes before the comic hit the stands?) I was surprised when it was revealed in the book, because I misremembered it as having already been revealed in the series. Chronal displacement is a tough thing to suffer, but fitting for a Morrison story.
Phil Jimenez and Chris Bachalo do great jobs with the scripts that are handed to them, giving the series a manic energy to match Morrison's insane scripts. The first storyline goes a little too far in piling on those mad ideas that Morrison is so well known for, sometimes at the cost of the main story. I read it just to get through it in parts, rather than to sit back and marvel (no pun intended) at the complexity of his far out ideas. I like those creative nuggets, but when you throw too many on, it can be a bit overwhelming. The second storyline that Jimenez draws is a lot more straight forward, focusing on the return of the big bad guy, the rampant destruction he unleashes, and the ending to all the little subplots that had gone on throughout the series during Morrison's run. It's effective and dramatic. Morrison puts away the high concepts in favor of drama and emotion. The colorists go crazy painting in rain effects, whichever one of the seven credited in the volume is responsible for it.
Then, things fall apart. Marc Silvestri comes in for a four-part story that is, to its credit, completely self-contained, following in the wake of the gigantic ending to the previous story. The problem is, it's either incomprehensible or meaningless, depending on which way you want to look at it. It's a giant waste of time. Silvestri's art hasn't looked this good in years, but it's in service to a giant imaginary storyline that works very hard to reset itself, like the ending of a STAR TREK episode where Kirk's goal is to talk a computer into its own destruction. Big whoop. Morrison lets his crazy alternate universe ideas run rampant, but it's all empty calories, devoid of nutrition.
This is a book that, thus, runs four issues too long. They are pretty issues, but they curiously add nothing to the culmination of a storyline that Morrison worked so hard to complete and focus in on.
Part of the reason I read the book is because I heard people talking about how much the recent X-Men movie borrowed from this book. The moving bridges sequence is clearly inspired by this book. I'm not so sure that the Phoenix moment is. If it is, indeed, borrowed from here, then I think it's a good case of a movie doing something better than the comic. It was visually stronger in the movie than it was on the page.
In the end, the three years' of stories from Morrison sit well on their own, and are an entertaining piece of comics work in the modern era. While I think that it went on just a few issues too long, I did enjoy the main plot for the first 30 or so issues. I love long-range story planning, particularly when it sneaks up from behind. There weren't twists in this book for their own sake. They were plot threads paying off from many months ago. It reminded me, in that way, of the best of the Claremont era of the comics, and that's the highest compliment I could pay any X-Men writer.
Nabiel Kanan's previous works have been of the "artsy" variety. THE BIRTHDAY RIOTS and LOST GIRL are hardly straightforward thrillers or biographical sketches. THE DROWNERS is the closest Kanan has come to a straightforward thriller that I've seen. The results are overall very positive, though the book might fall short for some on a couple of points.
There are multiple plots weaved throughout the book, which collects a four issue mini-series that NBM originally printed. Thematic elements stretch across plots, which feature a group of people whose lives are heading in a downward spiral, whether they know it or not. At the center of everything is a young lady, Emily, who appeared to die accidentally after falling overboard one year ago. Nothing is quite as it seems, though, and her recurring ghost haunts more than one character, causing them to spur into the kind of action that is self-destructive, at best. The book has no happy endings or easy solutions or deus ex machinas. Instead, we follow the characters as they make choices and create their own undoings. Many of these characters are "drowning," as the title of the book would indicate. Only one did so literally. It's fascinating to watch, though it does feel a little melodramatic in spots.
Kanan's artwork is slightly different from his previous efforts here. Part of that might be the page size -- this is a full-size comic book. The NBM presentations of his earlier material were done in smaller not-quite-digest sized format. Shrinking down the artwork just that much can tighten up the lines on the page. But it's more than just that. I'd guess that Kanan isn't interested in being the stylist with this book. LOST GIRL, in particular, was filled with lots of short straight lines. The art there looked just as much styled as it did natural. In this book, Kanan appears more interested in a straightforward presentation of the material. There's a greater variety of line weights and gray tones. The characters are drawn distinctly in his style, but they're not quite as carefully delineated. It's a more natural feel. Overall, it's a cross between Andi Watson and Andy Kuhn or maybe David Hahn.
Image Comics released THE DROWNERS a couple of weeks ago for the cover price of $15. It's a black and white trade that runs better than 100 story pages. The back matter includes a cover gallery all in black and white, that shows Kanan's excellent eye for composition, and a couple of nods towards noir storytelling. While not his strongest stuff, it is the closest to the mainstream comics reader for an artist I'd love to see more from.
THREE QUICK NOTES
- It's not at all a secret, but I haven't mentioned it here yet. There is a Comics Podcasters panel at the San Diego convention next month. I'll be up on the dais along with hosts from some of the best comics podcasts out there today. We'll be doing our song and dance on Sunday morning at 11:30. (Yes, I'm sure the whole thing will be podcasted at some point, if that's even a word yet.) I hope to see some of you there after a long and wild Saturday night of drinking and partying too hard in the Gas Lamp District. Blood shot eyes should be the norm, I imagine.
- I forgot to note it a few weeks back, but this column recently completed its ninth continuous year of existence. You know what this means? Yeah -- you're reading the TENTH year of Pipeline. Wait 'til you see what we do next June for that anniversary!
- I'm enjoying CIVIL WAR, even if it's not quite the stand alone series that they try to make it out to be. Heck, Steve McNiven and Morry Hollowell were on Comic Geek Speak last week admitting that you need to read the tie-in books to get the full story. At least they're honest about it.
However, Paul O'Brien had the line of the week, even for someone like me who thinks CW is a fun book. Quoth Paul:
Spider-Man is an unusual franchise; just when you think it's run out of sharks to jump, Marvel unveil a new aquarium.
Ah, Paul, we'll miss you and the gang at Ninth Art. . .
Next week: It's PREVIEWS time once again, and I'll be leading off with Marvel and DC, at the very least.
The Pipeline Podcast has its own homepage now. The podcast, itself, updates every Tuesday night. The show notes for it are updated at some point later in the week.
My blog, Various and Sundry, features a look back at the world of BBSes and the early days of the internet (for me), plus some thoughts on Big Brother All-Star, Hell's Kitchen, and more. Yes, the link dumps are still there, though not daily.
More than 700 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.