RETURN OF THE SPIRIT
Remember that sense of wonder and excitement that you got when BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES debuted 15 years ago? I had that same giddy sense of pleasure this week reading THE SPIRIT #1, written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke. (Perhaps not coincidentally, he also worked on that Batman series once upon a time.)
What Cooke has done with this book is both update Will Eisner's creation and keep it all very familiar. This edition of the Spirit is set in modern times. Cooke wastes no time showing us that, as the first page is a series of TV screens giving us a fictional news network to rush us into the story, complete with crawling ticker at the bottom of the panel with glimpses of bizarre news stories of the day. As the comic moves on, cell phones and modern pharmaceuticals and even Oprah references help point to the modern setting for the new series. The computer geek in me laughed out loud at the reference to "600k of UNIX space" in the book. But this story isn't dependent on those things as tricks. It's not like Cooke devised a story with the cell phone as a deus ex machina without warning. He sets the story in modern times right up front and then uses the omnipresent technology to keep the story moving in the second half. It's half BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES and half POWERS, in that way.
Cooke's art is of the more simplistic animated style that you'd be familiar with from the BATMAN series, but without being a slavish imitation of Bruce Timm's art. Like NEW FRONTIER, it has its own quirks and stylings that separate it out. The inks of J. Bone -- who we here at Pipeline miss from his days on ALISON DARE -- do great credit to Cooke's style, complementing it well and giving the book a polished look that never looks flat on the page. The depth of line and smoothness is appreciated.
Cooke is a born storyteller, too. He knows how to work a page and panel counts to convey the action he wants to tell. Above that, he has a great design sense. The opening two-page splash took me a second to grok, but once I did I wanted the poster of it. It's a great piece of design, not directly related to the story, but well thought out in a sort of stylistic experiment leading into the story.
Finally, credit to Dave Stewart, whose work epitomizes what more of comics ought to aspire to. It adds depth and clarity to the story, but best of all it shows us dark scenes without adding dark colors. It's all in the tone of the colors. Stewart can light a scene so that all the art is visible and the storytelling is clear, without muddying it up by being as literal as too many colorists are today.
The oddest part of the book for me is how mature it is, despite a look that most people today would describe as "cartoony" or "kid friendly." There are a couple of double entendres in the book and a couple of curse words spread throughout. I'll let Eisner historians tell me how fitting the tone is to the original SPIRIT books, of which I've read a mere handful. But I like the character here. He has great chemistry with the reporter he shares the story with, and his humorous reaction to everything going on around him is what makes the book so memorable.
But the one thing that Cooke did remarkably well was to rehabilitate the image of Ebony. It's the one touchy spot in the legacy of Eisner's creation. He was a product of his time in the 40s, a grotesque caricature that didn't paint the African-American character in the best of possible lights. Cooke had his hands full in trying to find a way to include the character while being sensitive to both his history as well as modern tastes. I think he did credit to all with his portrayal of the character, though I won't get into that here for spoiler's sakes. Coke deserves an award just for those pages alone, though.
THE SPIRIT #1 is a book you can read even without any knowledge of the character or his history. It's a done-in-one tale that's a joy to read, with beautiful art, a great sense of humor, and an energy that's sadly missing in too many "serious" comics today. Darwyn Cooke, J. Bone, and company have a winner here.
TO HELLSHOCK AND BACK
Quick update: HELLSHOCK won't be out this week. It's running late again. See this thread on the Image Comics message board. And just to make it clear, this is being published by Image Comics.
Jae Lee's HELLSHOCK was a breath of fresh air when it debuted in 1997. Until then, Lee was known as an artist who used lots of silhouettes and splattered ink to cover up questionable artistic talent. He had a high contrast style that had its fans, but had yet to win everyone over. He was a young artist still finding his way, and his work on NAMOR and even WILDCATS TRILOGY didn't do him many favors. (Some of us remember his start at MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS, which was just as inexperienced looking, in hindsight.) His first stab at HELLSHOCK a few years earlier lasted four issues and wasn't anything to be remembered.
So when he brought it back in 1997 as a much more mature series, it quickly won over a number of fans. This HELLSHOCK was an intense, moody, and emotional series. It featured a young doctor starting work in a mental institution, with all the depressing and dreary inhabitants that went along with it. The atmosphere took its toll on her and the story followed her slow break down. The story was told mostly in captions, allowing Lee to get into his lead character's head and tell a story that was much slower and much more, well, "artsy fartsy" than all the work he had done up until that time. His art was more devoted to the story, and not prone to flashy inking histrionics to hide anatomical weaknesses. Instead, the gallons of black ink poured onto every page served the design sense of his art, and added mood to a story that took place in the shadows and often played with the reality of what the reader was witnessing.
Sadly, it only lasted three issues. The first two issues came out right away, but that third was nearly a year in the making. Jae Lee had to move on -- to a wonderful INHUMANS series with Paul Jenkins -- and the story was left unfinished.
From Dynamic Forces -- the people who have yet to bring you the AMERICAN FLAGG collection -- and Image Comics -- the people who have also yet to bring you the AMERICAN FLAGG collection -- comes the complete HELLSHOCK trade paperback. It's in stores this week, and it includes both the original three issue series, as well as a brand new conclusion to the storyline and a few extras. Jim Lee does an introduction, DF President Nicky Barrucci provides the Afterword, Jae Lee's covers get a gallery, and an aborted black and white HELLSHOCK story shows us what might have been and thankfully was not.
But the centerpiece of it all is the recently completed fourth and concluding issue, seen here for the first time. The long wait means, of course, that expectations would be raised to an enormous degree. It's almost a no-win situation. It's been eight years since that last issue came out. Lee has grown so much as an artist now, doing wonderful art and design work for novels and magazines, in addition to his scattershot comics art. In short, his style has shifted and couldn't possibly match the style it was eight years ago.
Still, the difference here is so large that it's impossible to ignore. It's not just the art, either. It's the storytelling. The fourth issue is largely a disappointment because it matches neither the look nor the feel of all that led up to it. It adds very little to the story at the expense of a large number of pages with minimal art. It's like Jae Lee decided to tell the conclusion as HELLSHOCK: THE MANGA. There's a two page spread of a single face. There's a three page sequence of leaves falling. HELLSHOCK goes from being a story set deep in someone's mind to one of poetry. If you like poetry and manga storytelling styles, you'll probably like this. For me, the change is too abrupt and the conclusion doesn't add enough to the story, compared to all that led up to it. The art also shifts from a dreary monotonal color scheme to something a little brighter and more open.
To its credit, the final chapter does conclude the story. It's not exactly uplifting and happy, but did you really expect that from this book? No, so Lee does his job well here in that respect. But after pouring over ever page leading up to it, it's a weird shift to breeze through the pages of the final issue.
However, if you've never read the series, it's still worth picking up. Brace yourself for the jarring ending, but realize that those first three issues are worth the price alone. The new ending does conclude the story with a satisfactory plot point or two, if not in a terribly exciting way.
I need to add something about the production values of the book here, too. Jose Villarubia's original coloring and Comicraft's original lettering is gone from the book. I suspect that's due to a lack of the original film (or maybe digital files?) from the first printings. June Chung is brought on to handle the colors and does so very well, sticking to Villarubia's scheme and techniques to maintain the look and feel of the original issues. I don't have those originals in front of me to make a direct comparison, but they look convincing. Simon Bowland handles the lettering, and it looks fine. Some balloons are a little tight to the letters, but since the majority of the story is done in caption boxes, those problems are sparse.
The one thing that disappoints me about the book is the lack of explanations for all of this. In Jim Lee's introduction and Barucci's conclusion, we get a sense of the history of the project and what it took to finish it off, finally. But I still have questions. That black and white story at the end of the book in Lee's lesser original art style has no explanation for it, aside from a blip about it on the back cover referring to it as "an alternate ending." I would have liked to see an introductory page explaining what it is you're about to read, so there's a context for it. I'd love to have seen an interview with Jae Lee included in the book to talk about the project. I know that may seem like a bizarre request, but for a series as well known for its history as its story, it seems fitting. Placing the work in context might help a newcomer understand the jarring shift a little better. A sympathetic interview would buy beaucoup brownie points from the reader. Also, I would have liked a bigger nod to the work of the original colorist and letterer, who aren't included in the credits page at all.
All that said, the work looks beautiful. The pages are glossy and hold the color very well, not hiding any of Lee's delicate line work. For $20, it's a nice compilation of material, the best work Lee has ever done along with INHUMANS. If you've never read HELLSHOCK, I think you'll enjoy the book overall despite whatever qualms I have with the disparity of styles between the last issue and all that came before it. The book is out this week, so jump for it now.
- I read a comment on a blog this week in which the poster said he didn't think Chuck Dixon was particularly good at characterization. I strongly disagree. I think the reason why BIRDS OF PREY and NIGHTWING and ROBIN were so strong during Dixon's run is that Dixon gave those characters life and made them interesting, even while they were in the craziest of situations (trapped on Dinosaur island or fighting Yetis or something.)
I think the commenter's mistake is in assuming that you can only build character through talking heads scenes. Dixon has never been shy in saying that he believes superhero comic books are action pieces. But he's also always been strong in saying that you should show character through action. That's what he does. How Robin reacts to being blindfolded on top of a train while sparring shows just as much about him as whatever argument he might have with Batman in the Bat Cave. The camaraderie between Black Canary and Oracle becomes apparent when Canary is in the field taking fire and relying on Oracle for situation support, both intelligence-wise and personally.
In fact, it's a central tenet in most storytelling circles that character is developed by action. It's not what you say, but what you do. How do you react to a situation, or another's actions? In Dixon's case, he uses all the standard trappings of superhero comics to characterize people like Robin, Oracle, et. al. If you ever find yourself rereading BIRDS OF PREY, keep that in mind.
- If you haven't seen the reference to it across the CBR message boards yet, go check out The Comic News Tracker now. It's the latest venture from the same people who bring you CBR. If you've ever used Digg, you'll recognize CNT for what it is -- a social news tracking site devoted strictly to comics. You can submit interesting news stories and web sites you find across the web, vote on the ones you find interesting, and even discover new corners of the comics portion of the internet.
Right now, the focus is fairly narrow, but the site is small and young enough yet that a small handful of people can start contributing stories and wind up making a big difference to the site. So stop on by and join in the fun.
- I finally took the redesign of my blog live over the weekend. Check out Various and Sundry now to see the new look, and let me know what you think.
- Yes, I am on ComicSpace.com. Click on that link to visit my page and add me as your friend. My MySpace page still lives, too, but I don't check it nearly as much.
- Something to keep an eye out for: ComicSpace.com launched earlier this month and has grown by leaps and bounds very very quickly. But did you know there's also a TheComicSpace.com website in development? No relation. But with all of the momentum in ComicSpace's favorite, the TheComicSpace people had better launch with amazing functionality if they think they're going to succeed.
As for who ripped off who? Well, an idea like this is hardly new. Both are patterned after MySpace and all its associates and descendents. But ComicSpace.com was a registered domain name in February, whereas TheComicSpace.com was only registered in September.
In the end, let the best service win!
- And don't forget ComicVine.com, as well. It's a beautiful site with lots of AJAX, but a slightly shaky mission statement. But, hey, it's bound to be someone's type of thing.
- There is a comic book lettering font out there named "Augie." It is not based on my handwriting, though. It's close on a couple of character forms, but is otherwise completely coincidental.
- Two quick follow-ups to recent PREVIEWS discussions. First, Shadowline's THE EMISSARY has been canceled, but the trade remains. If it's wildly successful, they might go back to finish the series off properly. Second, SOJOURN is just the first CrossGen trade to be printed at Checker. More are coming after that.
- Finally for this week, Image is releasing the translated edition of Delcourt's THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ book this week. Check it out. It's a beautiful book, but I regret I didn't have enough time to read it before "going to press" with this column to do a review.
My blog, Various and Sundry is looking all new and is still updating daily without fail.
More than 700 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.