SOME RECENT COMICS DISCUSSION
STEVE NILES' STRANGE CASES #1 is an odd little comic, yet thoroughly enjoyable. Created by Steve Niles, the comic is about a group of paranormal hunters brought together to fight whatever sort of paranormal stuff the writer wants to create for the story. Conveniently enough, the book is set in a city that we're told is unique -- not only is it very large, but it also contains every "ecological extreme" from deserts to swamps to mountains, combined with industrial and residential areas. It's the perfect setting for a new series.
That's fitting, since the book is a terrific pilot for a series, whether for TV, the web, or comics. We're introduced to our team of five investigators right off the bat, complete with some heavy exposition to give each an origin and a raison d'etre, inside of a panel. Then, they launch right into their first case. It's a done-in-one story that feels satisfying. There's no cliffhanger. This is not decompressed storytelling. It's a pleasant horror/fantasy comic with some nice comedic touches.
The script is by Dan Wickline, whose characters fit some general stereotypes with Warren Ellis-like ticks. There's just enough in here to whet your appetite, with the hope that the characters and the overall story arc that you just know is hidden under the covers somewhere might be slowly revealed. I mean, the guy who brings these characters together is named "Mr. Astan," and his daughter is "Lilly." This is not a subtle book, nor does it need to be.
The art is from David Hartman, who handles it all, incorporating color into his art as he knocks out black lines with regularity, giving the book a sketchy animated feel. I like it a lot, even though I generally don't like that knocked out look. With so many superhero comics, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Incorporated into the art, by design from the start, it looks more natural and pleasing.
There are two sore points with the comic. First, the cover isn't all that representative of the story or the art on the inside. I think the book might sell better with something more like what the interior looks like. Second, it's only a 16 page story. Yes, it's that same "Slimline" format that FELL and CASANOVA made so popular. Problem is, the next 12 pages of back matter is all house ads, right out to the back cover. There are no text sketchbook pages. The book does have a slightly lower $2.50 price point, but it feels like a bit of a cheat for that.
Doing the math just now, I realize that it's actually a 32 page comic, with no cover. The paper stock used for the story is heavy enough that it works as the cover stock, as well. This is unlike those awful cost-cutting procedures Gemstone put into place a few years back on the Duck comics, where newsprint became cover stock and quickly ruined the comics. (DYNAMO 5 uses the same technique, though at least its price will drop to $2.99 from its current $3.50.)
STRANGE CASES is a new on-going series, and one I'll be keeping an eye out for in the comic months. There are a lot of possibilities with the set-up, and I hope Niles/Wickline/et. al. are able to capitalize on them.
Also from Image, BAD PLANET #3 is a comic I would normally have no interest in, save for the fact that this issue has several 3-D pages, and I'm a sucker for Ray Zone's work. It works nicely in this issue, which does come with the appropriate glasses. James Daly III and Tom Bradstreet's art pops smoothly off the page, and a more considered review of the pages shows multiple levels of "pop" on there, several of which seem to smoothly flow off each other, giving a great three-dimensional "round" feel to the 3D portions. Grant Goleash's dark and earth-tone colors don't distract, either. Without all the bright colors on the page, there's no source of conflict to the eye. Well done stuff, for $3.99.
Over at Marvel's Icon line, meanwhile, CRIMINAL #9 is another brilliant issue, as Ed Brubaker begins to unravel everything that's been so tenuously strung together in this storyline by the characters. I can't wait to see how it all falls apart next issue. Special credit to Sean Phillips this month for his beautiful two page spread in a very loose and scratchy pencil style. It starts under a caption that reads, "His earliest memories were vague, hazy images at best..." My mind immediately added "sketchy" into that caption and the sketchy art under it immediately made sense.
I praised CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE CHOSEN #1 last month for its new-to-comics writer's ability to write a solid comic book story without any of the usual traps. The second issue, sadly, is not such a smooth experience. David Morrell forgets the Show-Don't-Tell principle in this issue, and the whole issue feels like a rehash of the first one. An "origin" story is jammed in for our main military character. And Mitchell Breitweiser's art -- beautifully digitally painted by Brian Reber -- is still nice to look at, but there are some storytelling issues in the book. On page 15, for example, where did that second guy with a hand grenade come from? He wasn't shown previous to that panel where he's suddenly lunging towards the reader.
Morrell's story is starting to come into focus more clearly now, though some solid movement forward in the next issue would be welcome before the mini starts repeating itself.
AVENGERS: INITIATIVE #6 had art by Steve Uy? I missed that in the solicitations. I must go read that book now.
A NOVEL CHANGE
I've been trying to figure out how to sum up my reaction to Greg Rucka's PATRIOT ACTS for the last couple of weeks. I fear my delay is eating up my memory and will continue to do so, so let me just cut to the chase here:
Many people are not going to like this book. Rucka is greatly expanding the scope of the Atticus Kodiak series. Kodiak is no longer a private security guy. He's more like Jason Bourne, on the run from the greatest of all national powers, running around the globe looking for answers, and relying on a series of secret caches and shadowy secrets to get him through the day.
It's a completely different type of book from all those that led up to it. It starts out at the same level, but quickly ramps itself up. Whether that's for you is a matter of personal taste. Honestly, I'd much more prefer the working stiff approach of a security guy who's very ground-level and detail-oriented. A lot of the material in this book seems a little too fantastic (not in a supernatural way, mind you) and over the top.
I swear, Atticus Kodiak turns into Batman a couple of times, using his finely-honed body to pull off remarkable feats of human balance and acrobatics. If you add in the fact that the book as structured is a series of distinct movements, you'll almost think writing comic books has warped Rucka's mind into writing serialized fiction as prose novels now, too.
Personally, I think this book is a growing pain. Rucka wants to move Kodiak into a new world, and this is the necessary evil book he needed to set that up. We'll have to wait for whatever book comes next to see if it's a worthy goal to reach for. I hope he can rebuild the supporting cast then, also, to give the reader more to care for.
I was also concerned that the usual favored political causes weren't included in the book, until the last third of the book added in a thinly-disguised Halliburton stand in to be picked apart and made evil. So close, and yet so far. . .
I enjoyed PATRIOT ACTS as a novel, but not necessarily as an Atticus Kodiak novel. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but it's available in hardcover form today, as well as books-on-CD.
A BRIEF PODCASTING ANNOUNCEMENT
The Pipeline PREVIEWS Podcast is skipping a month. For those who pay attention to such things, the new PREVIEWS catalog came out last week, and Jamie and I still haven't recorded a podcast devoted to the last catalog. Sadly, it's not going to happen. The on-going technical issues will prevent that recording from happening, but I hope to have them squared away in time for a podcast about the new PREVIEWS.
Thanks for your patience. Stay tuned. We'll be back.
READING DIGITAL COMICS
As FedEx allowed comic creators to move away from New York City, so does the internet allow them to live all around the world. Along the way, production has gone totally digital, right down to review copies. I'm gratefully inundated with PDF previews every week here at Casa Pipeline. I don't mind it so much. I can pick and choose what I want to deal with, and nobody's out any money from postage costs. This way, I don't feel guilty if I don't review something.
But they can be difficult to read after awhile. Adobe Reader is not the swiftest tool in the shed (he said, mixing his metaphors), and the Mac's Preview program doesn't always load the PDF properly. Plus, there's no management involved. At best, you can just throw your PDF files in one folder and call that an organization. If you're really anal, you can create subdirectories and organize things in some tedious taxonomy.
If you're on a Mac, though, there's Comic Book Lover, a fantastic piece of programming that makes reading PDF files feel almost like surfing through iTunes. While I still have a central depository of PDF files, I let CBL organize and present them to me. It has lots of handy controls to read any kind of comic in the way most comfortable to you, and metadata you can add on to help organize it all.
There are a few different ways you can read comics with CBL, but I always start by invoking the Full Screen option. After that, I skip over the options to Fit To Window or Fit To Screen, and go with Actual Size. That allows you to zoom in on the pages as far as you'd like. Since I'm reading the comics on a MacBook, I zoom in about 130% and scroll through each page. At 130%, you see about 60% of the page on the screen at a time. This way, it's just one key press -- the space bar -- to scroll down to the rest of the page.
But what about double page spreads? There are three ways to view the page layout. You have the standard one page-at-a-time display. But you can also see each two page spread at a time. On a widescreen monitor, this looks pretty natural. There's also a manga view, which reorganizes the pages as you go along, showing the right page to the left and vice versa.
By learning a few simple key clicks, you'll be able to switch around all these views as needed. Like your standard PDF reader, there's also a drawer off to the right with thumbnails of all the pages, so you can quickly skip to where you want to go. That's only available if you're not in full screen mode, though. If you're at Full Screen, a translucent display pops up that looks a lot like QuickTime's full screen navigation. It has simple buttons to skip to the next page or the next comic, as well as switch between views. Very handy, very simple.
Two very cool features are included for when you're using the program in full screen mode. First, you can use the remote control that Apple provides for Front Row navigation with CBL. Second, you can enable the laptop tilt sensor, so that the comic will automatically rotate itself 90 degrees in the angle you tilt your laptop. Looking at a page that way means you can fit the whole page on the screen at a very legible size, even on a thirteen inch MacBook. It may look funny to stand your laptop on its side on the table in front of you, but it's the perfect way to read a comic book on a computer screen. If you have one of those monitors that tilts and swivels, you can also hit a menu command to tilt the PDF file 90 degrees either way.
The registered edition of the program is only $25. You can download the full thing for free to demo, but it will put a big watermark in the bottom corner of each page until you register. It's a Universal Mac app, so most Macs should run it without a problem. It's a glorified PDF reader, so I imagine some fairly low-end Mac machines could handle it today if they have the right version of OS X.
Next week: I'll download some comics via popular on-line digital comic shops, and discuss the experience.
More than 800 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.