SOME NOTES BEFORE WE BEGIN
- Erik Larsen is the special guest on this week's Pipeline Podcast. We talk about THE SAVAGE DRAGON ARCHIVES -- how it was put together, format, etc. But that's not all. We touched on the missing AMERICAN FLAGG collection, the Image books he wanted to pimp, and the fine art of hand lettering. That'll be posted later tonight at ThePipelinePodcast.com and on the RSS feed that I'm sure you're all already subscribed to. Right?
- I think we've now seen the closest any of us will come to being a superhero. Check out the Nintendo Wii-specific trailer for The Marvel Ultimate Alliance videogame. I have to imagine that video will sell a few extra units of the upcoming console to comic book fans by itself.
- I still haven't watched HEROES, but I'm getting closer. I'll be the last comics fan alive to see the new TV series, but I will see it. This, I swear! In the meantime, NBC is repeating three episodes of the series this Sunday against the World Series. Since four episodes have aired already, it'll be interesting to see which they pick and why.
DICK TRACY - WORTH COLLECTING
My knowledge of the DICK TRACY world comes from a brief time when the movie came out and one of the local papers was carrying the strip. By then, TRACY creator Chester Gould was long retired and Dick Locher's art was, while wonderful in its own way, almost a caricature of Gould's work. I can recognize that now because I've been able to read IDW's THE COMPLETE CHESTER GOULD'S DICK TRACY Volume 1, a wonderful new hardcover doorstopper of a book due next month.
This first volume collects the TRACY strips from its start on October 12, 1931 through to May 20, 1933. While I haven't read past the first few months of the strip yet, I can say that it's both an entertaining and educational romp through a piece of cartooning history.
The book begins with an introduction by Max Allan Collins that sets the stage for the strips that follow. (Collins wrote TRACY after Gould retired, and is likely best known today for ROAD TO PERDITION and his Nathan Heller novels.) That's followed by a nine page interview of Gould by Collins in 1980. This is the kind of key historical information that you just can't get today. Gould is no longer with us, but his memory for certain events and his description of the era in which the strip was originally created go a long way towards placing everything in its proper context.
Gould moved to Chicago from Oklahoma not long after The Great Depression had started, with the intent of making it in the big city as a newspaper cartoonist. He had not much in his pocket and had to scramble for jobs. It's both an encouraging and an uplifting story, and it doesn't even get us to the birth of DICK TRACY. It goes to show you just how much skill plays a part in the artistic world we know and love, and how much luck and perseverance can pay off. I can't wait to see how he went from newspaper cartoonist to comic strip creator and idol of millions.
It was a completely different world back then. In the interview -- remember, this was back in 1980 -- he thinks the flagging sales of newspapers could be saved by printing comic strips on the front page to get people's attention. I'm not sure that it would have ever worked, but I think it shows you (A) how long a decline newspapers have been in and (b) how entrenched Gould was in a world in which newspapers once fought over cartoonists and their strips.
That's the context of the book. But what about the reproduction of the artwork and the presentation of the material? It's top notch. There's nothing to complain about here. It's the perfect reproduction of 75 year old material; I couldn't have asked for more. The book is presented in a horizontal format, with the binding along the left edge. Yes, it's similar to Fantagraphics' PEANUTS collections, but also a bit wider. Gould, thirty years earlier, must have been drawing strips a little wider than Charles Schulz. Strips appear two to a page, stacked one atop the other, with their original dates of publication noted at the bottom of each page.
The paper is a solid, heavy, and glossy white stock. The book is heavy and thick, and that's all because IDW didn't skimp on the paper quality. Gould used a lot of thin lines and crosshatching in his art. Some scenes set in the nighttime appear completely as silhouettes with scratchy crosshatched backgrounds. And not a line looks missed. The pages are all stitched in, so there's no need to worry about sub-par glue causing the book to fall apart.
Continuity Sunday strips are presented in black and white, as well. Now, the Sunday strip started out as non-continuity strips. Those appear in the back of the book as a special color section. The bright white pages of the book are tinted a more newspaper-ish yellow, with the strips looking like sharp color photocopies of how they originally appeared. I'm sure some may debate the merits of this, but I like seeing the original strips in their original format and color. They're not at all difficult to read, and the color style gives the pages a sense of "antiquity," almost, that I enjoy.
The strips are a bit of their time, of course. Gould was based in Chicago, so it's no surprise that DICK TRACY often feels like the comic strip version of THE UNTOUCHABLES. The early days of the strip don't include quite the grotesquely colorful characters that you may associate with the strip, just yet. The dialogue takes care of too much of the storytelling. Characters often speak out loud to themselves, tell each other things they should already know, and save the author from drawing ten panels of fight scene by explaining ten moves in one caption box. But it all has a charm about it that can't be denied.
And, just to prove his manliness, Dick Tracy manhandles and shoots a bear as a boulder races down the hill to take the grizzly out.
Jack Bauer and Chuck Norris have nothing on Tracy.
(The image looks better on the printed page. I tried to darken it up a little to show up on the web cleaner.)
IDW has done as good a job on an archival representation of classic comic strip material here as you could ask for. I don't know if it's as easy a sell as PEANUTS is, but it's a worthy addition to any classic comic strip collector's library. Fans of DICK TRACY don't need to be worried that the book will be a slapdash stab at their money, either -- this book is a real keeper. And, best of all, it's only $29.99. I've given IDW a ton of grief in the past over the prices of their monthly comics and trades. They're often out of line with the rest of the industry. But this price point for this much material at this level of quality is spot on.
THE COMPLETE CHESTER GOULD'S DICK TRACY, Volume 1 is due out on November 1, 2006. If you can't find it at the comics shop, use the ISBN number at your local book store: 1-60010-036-8.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
I have a confession to make - before this last week, I had never read a single issue of EC's voluminous output from the 1950s and 1960s. I'm fairly certain I've read a passing story or two on-line somewhere, and seen a few panels reproduced ad nauseum over the years. (That baseball horror story immediately comes to mind.) But that's it.
It seems I have a lot of fun reading ahead of me, though, because I just put down THE EC ARCHIVES: WEIRD SCIENCE Volume 1 and loved it. These science fiction stories from the 1950s remind me a lot of the Isaac Asimov stories I read so voraciously in my high school years. There's a certain charm about 1950s science that captures the imagination even to this day. Sure, the robots look archaic and the nuclear science seems either quaint or reactionary, but there's a spirit and a heart here that so much of science fiction today seems afraid to embrace: Nobody wants to look stupid and nobody wants to look anything other than super-futuristic. Sometimes, simplicity works, and that's why so many of these stories work. Sure, not all of them do. One or two fail for barely having a story, but the rest are little nuggets of gold, told with flair and (often) a bit of a twist that only Rod Serling could get the masses to accept as routine with THE TWILIGHT ZONE a short time later.
This initial volume of Gemstone's program to reprint the classic EC library contains the first six issues of WEIRD SCIENCE. Each issue has four short stories, ranging from six to eight pages each. While Al Feldstein is responsible for the stories, the art comes from Harry Harrison, Wally Wood, Jack Kamen (the father of the guy who gave the world the Segway Scooter), Feldstein himself, and the great Harvey Kurtzman. After reading a couple of issues, it becomes fairly easy to pick out who drew which stories without referring back to the credits page at the front of the book. Kamen's art is the most detailed with the biggest attempt to be photorealistic. Harrison's reminds me a bit of Steve Ditko. Feldstein uses a lot of thicker lines drawing stiffer figures -- plus, he always signed the splash page for each story he did.
Kurtzman's work leaps off the page, though. It's the cartooniest of the lot, but not at all simplistic. Of all the artists, his lines had the most varied weights. His spotted blacks were the heaviest. His storytelling and acting was the most pronounced. His stories were not filled with stock characters at mid-range talking back and forth. His characters acted, sometimes, to the cheap seats. It reminds me a lot of Will Eisner's work. After a couple of issues, his stories became the ones I'd anticipate the most. In fact, I can't wait now for the TWO-FISTED TALES archive volume to be released -- Kurtzman was the editor behind that book, and drew stories in it along with Alex Toth, Bernie Krigstein, Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Gene Colan, Joe Kubert, and other notables. From a pure art perspective, I think that's the series to get, if you have to choose only one.
Perhaps most controversially, the EC ARCHIVES have all been recolored. Using Marie
Javins' Severin's original work as the guide, Gemstone's colorists went ahead and re-keyed in all the colors with the computer. The result is a much brighter book than you'd probably expect with this material. To my eyes, the art is easier to see since the colors aren't all muddy and sunken into the page. It's sometimes odd to see flat lime green backgrounds, stock yellow floors, and such simple backgrounds done in flat colors, but that's my modern eye looking at the coloring. In EC's time, nobody "color keyed" things the way they do today.
Purists might not be too happy. It's mostly subtle, but some gradients and sculpting work have been added to the color. This isn't a simple flat transfer of color guides to the page. Shadows have been added to the faces where none previous existed. Highlights sometimes pop parts of clothing or foreground items out towards the reader. And backgrounds sometimes seem to glow from a certain angle, as gradients have been added in.
But, wait, there's more! Many short prose stories are included from the original series, alongside the inside front covers that touted the virtues of other EC titles, and even some letters columns. Short text pieces between issues provide nice historical background on EC -- how William Gaines came to be its publisher, the quirky reason why WEIRD SCIENCE begins with issue #12 (post office reasons, naturally), and more. I wish there were more of those, but I can be patient. George Lucas even provides a foreward, which is very brief and personal, not historical.
The hardcover presentation includes a dustjacket, and the pages are oversized -- as tall as Marvel's hardcovers but a good inch wider. This allows them to add plenty of white space in the gutters so that the books are easy to read. No art gets lost in the binding, which is stitched and lays nicely flat. The paper is a nice white stock that has that new paper smell that Gemstone likes to use a lot. It holds the art very well, without being so glossy as to blind you.
I could recommend this book if it's something you're interested in to begin with. There are two caveats I have to give you first: First, the stories are recolored. (You can see a PDF sample.) That might bother some people. For those of us who grew up with computer coloring, that's more of an attraction, I imagine. Second, it's $50 for six comic books. The first part is personal taste, and is something you'll have to see to judge for yourself. The second is understandable. I would have preferred a trade paperback edition of this work, too, to put it in as many hands as possible. (Better yet - omnibus editions!) I think the price point isn't going to attract many new readers, at all. But I will say that you're getting your money's worth. The production values on this book, as with the DICK TRACY book above, are very high. And in a day and age when a single comic can be blown through in five minutes, WEIRD SCIENCE will pay for itself. The books and their stories are densely packed. Even if you're not lingering over all the art -- and I imagine each reader will have his favorites -- you'll still spend more time reading this book than you would any two hardcover compilations of recent Marvel comics.
WEIRD SCIENCE may or may not be out already. The original release date for the book was simply October 2006, but I haven't noticed it in my local comic shop yet. The publisher supplied a review copy for this volume, as did IDW with the DICK TRACY preview. Gemstone also passed along SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES Volume 1, which is due out in November. I haven't had time to crack that one open. I went with WEIRD SCIENCE first, since the sci-fi element holds more interest to me. TWO-FISTED TALES is due in January 2007, with TALES FROM THE CRYPT in December. Each will be $50, as well.
ONE LAST THING
Last week, I promised you a review of Oni's December release, MAINTENANCE #1. While it's a single issue of a comic and not a fabulous and expensive hardcover, it does fit into this column thematically as "a look ahead." I can keep my promise to you and justify this review in that way. I feel better already. On to the review:
Oni's press materials and solicitation text is comparing this book to Judd Winick's nearly forgotten BARRY WEEN series. WEEN was the foul-mouthed smart-aleck kid with a penchant for inventing high tech gadgets that got him and his friends intro trouble in a fairly regular basis. The book had a heart to it, but also an outrageous sense of humor that made it so much fun.
MAINTENANCE #1 is not BARRY WEEN. It's a humor book, I'll give it that. The density of laughs and the strength of character just isn't there yet. However, it's a first issue that's all set-up. Actually, no, it's not even set up. Jim Massey's script is an introduction to the book's cast and setting. There's no real plot to this issue, and the characters are rather thin. They're blank slates with little strongly defined in them. They're there to guide the readers to the cast of colorful characters at the mad scientist think that they work as janitors at. It's a cute look at the dirty underbelly of the superhero comic that we don't normally see, as seen from a rather mundane point of view. This book is closer to TAG AND BINK than BARRY WEEN, in that way. BABYLON 5 also once did an episode from the point of view of a couple of maintenance men on the station, but those two characters were better defined in an hour than Manny and Doug are here in 32 story pages.
I can't complain about the art from Robbi Rodriguez. It has a strong design to it that looks like a natural for an animated series. I think the only thing that could help it would be full color. The book is black and white, but the art just screams for some bright colors to me.
Overall, I don't think the book is living up to its own hype yet, but I think with a little patience and a strong direction, the book could get there. I'd recommend the book just for the funny high concept, a couple of the gags, and the book-saving appearance by the shark in the last third of the book. The second issue will be make-or-break, though. With so many characters and concepts introduced in this first issue, MAINTENANCE now needs to move in a specific direction with a strong comedic plot to maintain my interest. If it can do that, Oni will have a winner on its hands. In the meantime, as negative as I've been with this book overall, the whole thing is worth it for those shark sequences at the end.
MAINTENANCE #1 is due out from Oni Press on December 6th, and is available for pre-order today. It's a $3.50 first issue, but it does have a full 32 pages of story. It's planned as a monthly on-going series. For more on the series, CBR interviewed Massey back in July.
Next week: More hardcovers! Yes, I have more, although none are previews. They're all previously released material that have been stacking up on my desk and bookshelves. I hope to clear through a few more of them next week. PREVIEWS comes out next week, so I imagine I'll start writing about that in two weeks.The Pipeline Podcast will update this evening with an interview with Erik Larsen, and a look at new comics shipping 18 October 2006. It looks likely that I'll be doing a second PIPELINE PREVIEWS podcast in the upcoming weeks, as well, so keep an eye out for an announcement on that, too.
My blog, Various and Sundry is still updating daily, and may even see a new design eventually. Work has slowed down on that, but ideas are still formulating.
More than 700 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.