www.cbr.com

Pipeline, Issue #560

FRANK MILLER'S CUNNING ALL-STAR BATMAN GAME PLAN

Every now and then, there comes a comic that raises the game. It's the kind of story that makes everything else that week pale by comparison. After reading that comic, you might as well put the rest away for a day or two until you can come to them clean. There's just no way another one could live up to it.

This week, that comic was "All-Star Batman and Robin The Boy Wonder" #9. I've had my ups and downs with the comic in its first year of existence, but I believe this is the break-out issue. In fact, I think this is the issue where Frank Miller's genius plot begins to unfold. Every problem you've had with the book might be explained in the last few pages of this issue.

For, you see, this is the %&^$ Batman's world, and you're living in it. Everything in the series so far has been seen through a young and cocky Batman's eyes. Every gross exaggeration and crazy character moment is there because it's how The Batman would tell the story. The entire book is skewed by his warped perspective this early in his career. There's a chance that Wonder Woman really isn't that militant, or that Superman isn't that much of a wuss, or that Black Canary isn't quite so Brogue-heavy in her dialogue, etc. Those are the characters as that younger cocky Batman pictured them.

This early in his career, he hasn't had the humbling experience of having a kid sidekick. In this issue, Robin gives him that turning point. He has the moment where he realizes that all of his early success might come at a cost. Maybe, the Batman is now realizing, he doesn't know everything.

With this sudden shift in perspective on Robin, though, I wonder if all the rest of the characters in the book won't suddenly be seen as more "human" or more "normal" like the DCU? Or like "The Dark Knight Returns," even. I know that was rumored for a while, that this book is a prequel to that one. Now, it might just fit in more.

"All-Star Batman" is, at its heart, a Silver Age comic told through Frank Miller's dirty filter. It only took me nine issues to figure that out. The visual of Batman making Robin paint a safe house yellow to protect against Hal Jordan made me laugh. Batman lounging in his seat and enjoying a nice cool lemonade is crazy cool. The whole routine of Robin denying he's Dick Grayson had me in stitches. This is the funniest comic I've read in a long time. I laughed out loud through the whole issue, up until that last third, when the world suddenly stops for Batman and you can feel his horror at what's happening.

There is only one question remaining after this issue: Without all the crazy antics and over-the-top hysterics of these first nine issues, will the book be nearly as entertaining?

OK, maybe two questions: What if I'm totally wrong on this?

SKY DOLL UPDATE

The new "Previews" catalog includes further information on Marvel's release of "Sky Doll," the first book in their new partnership with the French publisher, Soleil. There's some good news here. First, take a look at the "Sky Doll" home page on Soleil's site. There's a handy six page PDF preview you can download. None of the information on that page indicates what page size this book was printed at originally, but the art is large enough to not look squished at standard North American comic size. It's three tiers of art, at best, not the five or six you might see other artists use to take advantage of the larger page size in Europe. Fewer panels means less shrinkage in readability.

Looking at the previews in the Marvel catalog, we can see that their preview pages match up exactly to Soleil's. At first, I thought that maybe Marvel was cutting out the bottom tier of panels and carrying them over to the next page, but that's not the case. The 64 pages of content in the Marvel edition of the book will be contain the full 44 pages of story in the original French printing of the book. What will those other 20 pages be? Ads? Sketchbook stuff? I don't know.

The art and coloring is nice. The lettering uses a decent font. I have hopes for this book, production-wise. I just hope the story is entertaining and will catch on here in the States.

One warning: Be careful if you click through on that Soleil link above. You could wind up wasting half an evening perusing the selection there like I just did. "Mon Dragon Et Moi" ("My Dragon and I") would make a great all-ages read over here. It's at a similar size as Sky Doll, so it might translate for Marvel well. Looking for post-apocalyptic sci-fi? "L'Autre Terre" ("The Other Earth") looks pretty cool. Check out the colors on the first couple of pages. Wow. (There is some nudity in the second half of the preview, be warned.) I like the looks of "Remission," though I have no idea what it's about. Very pretty art and colors. I think it takes place north of California. My French is weak on that one. How can you go wrong with a book named "Les Geeks?" C.B. Cebulski is due to make an appearance in a future volume of that, you know. "Matt & Higgins" looks really cute, but there are no PDF previews to be had.

I'll stop there, but there's a lot more to look through if you can to circle through their previews and release schedules. The main thing to take away from this is that "Sky Doll" looks like a good release candidate for the American comics format, and that France has a lot of cool-looking comics that we'll likely never ever ever see in North America outside of Montreal.

In the meantime, go read "Asterix."

COMICS AND COMPUTER APPLICATIONS

The comics world is not an island unto itself. Many of the problems the comics industry faces are cultural. It's not just that they're not marketed well or aimed at the wrong audience or distributed in the least efficient manner, or any number of things that are systemic in the comics industry. No, there are larger issues that many think are unique to comics, but really are not. They're cultural. They're a sign of the times.

If you look carefully enough, you can find analogous situations in other industries. Take, for example, the independent Mac developer community. Stay with me here, PC fans. I'll get to my point quickly.

There's been talk of "The Delicious Generation." That's the group of modern application developers who, some argue, put form over function. They make pretty apps that might not be powerful apps. It's named after Delicious Library, a wonderful piece of software I use to catalogue my DVD collection but that also has room for CDs, books, and video games. The topic came up for inspection again over at Matt Ball's blog.

Tell me if any of this sounds familiar, comic fans:

Why do the guys behind this stuff continually put on a big, glitzy show and then disappear? Why not just focus on a single project and come out with a damn stellar product . . .? Well, in my opinion, age.

I feel like I'm reading a history of modern comics already.

But I do know all-too-well the demon that's plagued me for years: Application-ADD.

Over the last 9 years, I've started more projects than I can count. I'd build them up to marginally-complex levels, and then......

(That's me getting distracted)

How many comics projects were announced in the 90s and never came out? How many last an issue or two before their creators are distracted by something else new, or a Marvel/DC project? Maybe one or two issues came out, and then the rest trickled slowly until their death? (Picture the output of Rob Liefeld here, or "Battle Chasers" or "Danger Girl.")

Whether it's a new language, a new OS, or a new set of APIs, there's a constant bombardment of new and exciting things to try out as a programmer. This is a problem for coders of all ages, but it's especially vexing for us younger ones. Not only are we easily-distracted thanks to the quality upbringing given to us by MTV, but we really, really like shiny new stuff.

Photoshop comes to mind quickly. Much of the computer lettering in the mid-90s comes to mind, as well.

While I think we learned a great many things from those excesses of the 90s I can't help but get the nagging feeling that some of that is left over in today's industry. Some of it is the reader's fault. We demand to know what's coming out next as soon as a big long-announced project hits store shelves. We gobble up the first issue and then move on to the next big thing. Comic series wither on the vine and die because they weren't new after that first issue, anymore.

Perhaps there's a lesson to be learned from the conclusion of Ball's blog entry:

What I am saying is that the Mac community is much different from the Windows community. Mac users desire interaction, even communication with the developers of their apps. And if the Delicious Generation doesn't start taking notice of the community's desire, they may find themselves discarded or forgotten.

You can handle the appropriate substitutions for "the comic book community" and "comic creators." I think you'll get the point.

The cynic in me, though, thinks it doesn't matter. When "Wolverine Versus Hulk" #3 finally hits store shelves, it'll still sell big numbers. Heck, it'll be an event that rewards a creator incapable of finishing a mini-series for two plus years. Whatever Kevin Smith writes next will likely sell lots of comics. When J. Scott Campbell's Spider-Man mini-series hits, it'll be the Book of the Week, and everyone will forget about his last Big Series over at DC that didn't make it past its first issue or two. (I've already forgotten the title of the thing, and whether the second issue even came out or not. Wow.)

Maybe the better analogy for the comics industry to the application development community is this: People won't buy applications that stand on their own and break new ground. They only want the latest Firefox plug-in that will never be updated.

Or I could be stretching. You make the call.

ORIGINAL ART: TIM LEVINS

Last week, I talked to Tim Levins about his career and his upcoming reunion with J. Torres on the DC title, "Family Dynamic." This week, I'm diving into my original art collection to show some scans of the BATMAN: GOTHAM ADVENTURES pages I own from his lengthy run there.

I have a lot of these pages, honestly. Probably too many. But when inker Terry Beatty was selling them on eBay a few years back, I couldn't help myself. The series was, indeed, the finest Batman book on the market. Levins' art is captivating to me. And, yes, the prices were affordable on the pages.

Let's see what we can learn from them.

I like the simplicity and the action in these two simple panels of Robin atop a train racing through Gotham, as well as Robin's cartoonish whiplash reaction in the second panel.

Since this is a black and white scan, you can't tell that the moon in the upper left hand corner is actually drawn in red ink. That was meant to be colored in without the linework showing. In effect, you'd get a blank white area where the full moon is meant to be.

I like Robin's smirk on the right panel as he's about to pluck the gun away from the bad guy. These comics were drawn after the time Bruce Timm redesigned the show. Honestly, it's not a style I liked in the animated series so much. It worked, however, for the comic books. It seemed to me to be a style most suited for the more exaggerated stylistic takes a comic book can make, and not the more natural look the animated series had had up to that point.

Robin's hands look like their made out of paper in that second panel, but I like it.

Here's an action shot for you. I like the charcoal effect Beatty used in inking in the clouds of smoke coming out of the burning building. I also like the way Batgirl and Batman are so casually discussing things completely unrelated to the people they're saving along the way.

Notice how Batman's foot breaks out of the panel at the top. The diagonal action works well, and that foot sticking out helps add dimension to the image, like Batman is really coming out at you. This is not a trick that should be overused, though there was a time in the early 90s that it was.

Again, the moon in the upper right corner is drawn in red ink.

On some pages, you'll actually see red lines drawn on the character to indicate to the colorist where shadows should be placed. I don't think any examples of that show up in the scans I made, but they are there on some pages. It's a great way for the artist to guide the colorist when working in such a specific style as these animated books were drawn.

I love the kids in Batman's arms, too. One is closing his eyes and waiting for it all to be over, while the girl in front is smiling and enjoying the ride.

There's nice one-point perspective work in that second panel, as well. As Batman and Batgirl walk towards the reader, the fire engine on the right side draws the reader's eye back to the burning building. And a fireman in the foreground off to the left helps give the art something in the foreground, midground, and background.

Finally, a shout out to Chris Sims. Here's a "boot to the head" image for you, Chris:

Yes, that's Nightwing in a lion costume.

I can also point out to you an inking trick from this page. The solid black areas were filled in with a Sharpie, not India ink with a brush. If I change the way the blacks are shown in this scan, I think you'll immediately see the difference:

For the previous scan, I darkened in the black areas to present a solid black feel throughout the page. For this scan, I went back to the original panel and lightened it up a bit to show you what I mean. You can see where the Sharpie lines are here now. Even to the naked eye, the blacks are less black. The chains around the neck of the guy on the far right of the second panel are noticeably lighter, as well, like they were drawn in with a Flair pen on its last legs.

It all works for the final page in the printed comic, though, and that's what counts. Those issues of "Batman: Gotham Adventures" were an awful lot of fun.

Next week: More reviews, more original art, maybe a fresh look at what was going on five years ago, and more. Two thousand-plus words, and still no charge.

The Various and Sundry blog is doing American Idol coverage, talking DVDs and LOST, compiling Twitterisms, posting new pictures, and a whole lot more.

If you're really interested in what daily news bits grab my attention in the worlds of tech and comics and more, the best way to track is it at the Google Reader Shared Items. Several items are added to that page every day. I'm an RSS feed junkie.

The only social network I regularly appear on is Twitter. It's a very fun place with low overhead and the least number of annoyances of any Web 2.0 site, aside from an unstable infrastructure.

Everything else: The Pipeline Podcast, ComicSpace, and a Tumblr Blog.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 800 columns -- ten and a half years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

Line it is Drawn: Comic Book Characters Meet SpongeBob Squarepants

More in CBR Exclusives