Pipeline, Issue #561


"Fantastic Four" #555 is a fairly pleasant read with beautiful art. This second issue of the Millar/Brian Hitch run on the title will likely push many of the same buttons for people that the first one did. Since I didn't review that first issue, let me start there:

I liked "Fantastic Four" #554. For an introductory issue, Millar spent time with each cast member to define them and set up their story arc. It even follows on from recent plots in the series, so it's not like he's throwing the baby out with the bath water here. Allusions are made to the difficulties in the Richards' marriage, for starters. The big thing that I see caught some people by surprise was the opening action piece set up in the wild west. Some saw it as being out of place. To me, it reads like a movie script. The influence of movies on comics cannot be understated in this day and age, I don't think. The opening of FF #554 strikes me as one of those attention-grabbers meant to catch the audience's attention while highlighting a few basic character traits for those who might be new to the series. For the best example of such a set piece, go back to "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

With FF #555, it's more of the same in a good way. Millar is concentrating on his alternate earth theory, and giving us a lot more of the details behind the theoretically altruistic endeavor to relocate earth's population. It's the kind of thing that would never work, and even Millar is smart enough to throw the nuggets of doubt into the story, even as Utopia is described.

The Thing turns out to be the wizened sage of the group, proving that he is still human under the rocky guise. Reed is so caught up in his academic pursuits that he fails to see what might be happening in front of him. Johnny is -- well, not behaving like much of a hero. THAT scene is going to tick some people off. I thought it was in line with the Marvel credo of Stan Lee's time, though. These are characters with real problems and who quite often make real mistakes. The trick is in owning up to those mistakes and paying for them, eventually. We'll see if Johnny's story arc goes in that direction. If it's just seemingly out-of-character behavior (matter of opinion, as he's been in flux the last few years) without an end game, then yeah: Go ahead and be ticked off at Mark Millar. It's too soon to call this one, though it does make for some dramatic moments.

Sue Storm isn't in this issue, aside from a brief mention. Given the big new job she's starting as of the last issue, I found that odd. I guess it's a matter of pacing things out. There are only so many pages in each issue, so you have to pick and choose your focus from month to month. Right now, it looks like Reed's storyline will be the A Plot. Everyone else gets to rotate on the B Plot. Johnny takes the rest of the pages for the B Plot this month. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Torch's plot line fade a bit next month while Sue gets the spotlight.

For more preview pages from "Fantastic Four" #555, click here.

The star of this issue, again, is Brian Hitch's art. The man can draw. Most of the "Gosh Wow" stuff happens at street level in Johnny's action scene, but there's also more of those insanely large images of the alternate earth that rich scientists are building for Earth to escape to. It reminds me of the kind of work he did with Mark Waid on that one-off oversized JLA special they did together. It didn't surprise me when I read in the Comic-Con magazine that Hitch is working twice-up these days. There's a lot of detail in each page. So long as it doesn't needlessly slow him down to a crawl, it's worth it.

Yes, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt on this one. I want this book to be on time for the next 14 months.

My fingers are crossed.

Also, I love the borderless panels. I love the way that looks on the page to open things up. It's a distinctive look -- as are the large initial letters in the captioning work -- that helps set this book aside from the rest. It doesn't distract from the story at all. I'd be surprised if we don't see this look on another book from Marvel or DC in the next six months. I'm not saying it's going to be The Next Big Thing, but it's effective enough to be duplicated.

So far, I'm enjoying the book and, like with "The Ultimates," I can't wait for the oversized hardcover compilations. With a projected 16 issue run, it'll be interesting to see how they break it up, or if they just go nuts and do one massive hardcover phone book for the entire run in the end.


Reader e-mail time! Craig W. writes in to ask:

I'm going to my first comic con in New York this April (at age 38, no less.). One of the things I'd very much like to get out of the con is a sketch book. However, I've never really done anything like this before, whereas I think you may have.

I really don't have much of a clue about this sort of thing. I have a theme picked out (I live in the Canadian arctic, so I'm thinking ice/cold is a decent theme). But do I go on with a bound sketchbook or try and find one where I can take out pages so I can hit a couple of different artists at once. What kind of paper should I use? Is there an etiquette for asking artists for a sketch? I'm going to be at the NY con for three days. Any idea how many I could realistically expect?

Finally, I see some of the big names at the con, but what are the odds that people like Adams, Hitch, Niven, etc are going to be taking time out to do sketches?

Any advice, direction, guidance, weblinks, etc would be appreciated.

Sketchbooks are a tricky thing, because there's no hard and fast rule about them. It's a little easier over at the big festivals in Europe, where artists are expected to sit down for a day and crank out sketches for free. Here in America, it's up to the individual artist if they want to do them, and how. It's often a learning process for them. What works one year for them might not work the next. Heck, it might even vary between conventions depending on crowd size, temperament, and health.

Let's start off with the easy ones. Those are the artists that have signs up at their table. Those signs will give you prices. Often, that's all it takes for an artist to limit the line to an acceptable number. People will take a free sketch, sadly, even if they don't know who the artist is or care for the style. Free is free, right? You can always sell it on eBay. (That's a joke. Never ever ever sell a sketch on eBay. Period. Please. That just ruins it for everyone else.)

If the artist doesn't have a sign at the table, then it's going to take some guesswork. The best way to figure it out is to find an artist with a line in front of him or her. Stand in line and watch what the people in front of you are doing and how they interact. Follow suit.

Some artists will do quick head sketch for free, but a full body for a small fee. Pay attention for that.

In the end, it never hurts to ask (a) if they're doing sketches and (b) if they are charging. Be up front about it. Get that stuff out of the way and save any awkward situations down the line.

Quick rule of thumb: The most popular artists will often have a list you have to sign up for a sketch/commission in at the beginning of the day. Once that list is filled up, they're done for the day or the weekend. Last I saw, Adam Hughes was doing that. I think he's since moved to a raffle system, but check in with him at the beginning of the first day of the con.

Also, the more popular artists usually will be charging. They almost have to, in order to keep the crowds down. They don't have the time, let alone the wrist muscle, to do a full body highly-detailed sketch for everyone. So they'll charge. Again, rates will vary by artist and by type of sketch.

The big exception to this is the Marvel and DC booths. When artists appear there, it's a publicity thing for the company. They're not there to make a few extra bucks on the side. Those sketches -- when they're doing them -- will be free, but the wait in line will be torturous. The DC booth is your best chance to get a Jim Lee sketch, for example.

Bring a second sketchbook with you, just in case. You might have to leave your sketchbook with the artist if he or she is backed up or rather slow. They'll tell you if they need the time. If they do, you don't want to come to a full stop for them. Take your second book out and go chase down the next artist.

Don't bring spare sheets of paper. Even backing boards are a little troublesome. They're a cool thing to get a sketch on, but many artists find them suspicious. They scream, "I'm selling your free sketch on eBay, sucker!" Nobody likes that.

Don't bring a huge 11 x 14 inch book to sketch in, either. Unless you're looking at asking for high-priced commissions, that's just too much paper to ask an artist to fill for you for free. Stick with 8.5 x 11 inches, at a max. Get one of those relatively cheap hardcover sketch books you find at the major chain book stores for less than $10. They make them a size smaller, too, which some artists will find easier to draw in, and thus more comfortable.

You might find artists giving you better sketches the deeper you go into your sketch book. There's a certain rivalry that develops among certain artists to try to top those that came before them. There's also the feeling that someone with a half-filled sketchbook is not the kind of person who's looking to profit off their generosity of a sketch. This won't affect you right away, Craig, but it's something to keep in mind.

This is also why it's important that you get a really good sketch to start your book. Start with the bar raised high.

Here's a tip you might not have considered: Stick a backing board in the back of your book. If an artist is inking in his sketch with a Sharpie marker, the ink will often leak onto the next page, rendering it useless. A backing board will block that.

What should you ask an artist to draw? There are two schools of thought on this: (A) Whatever series they're currently drawing. (B) Anything else. Obviously, a con appearance is a publicity thing as much as anything. The artist is there to talk about the book he's currently working on. And, most often, that's what people will want the artist to draw. That's why it can be better sometimes to ask the artist to draw something else. You'll often find that they're appreciative of not having to draw Yet Another Wolverine sketch for the hundredth time that weekend. Your Rocket Raccoon request is very much welcome, and a fun challenge. It's also possible that it'll get turned down if it's not something the artist feels comfortable with. (Not all artists enjoy drawing furry creatures.) If you have a themed sketchbook around a specific obscure character, bring reference material with you, too.

Sometimes, it's enough to ask for a sketch of a book's supporting cast member, rather than the star of the title. Betty Brant might be more interesting to the Spider-Man artist to draw on day three than Spider-Man. I honestly think I've gotten some of my best sketches that way. When an artist asks what I'm looking for, I'll tell them that I want whatever they want to draw. Sometimes, this results in weird random scribblings, but it's worth it for the times that artist heaves a sigh of relief at not having to draw the friggin' Flash for the twentieth time that day.

I think that about covers the basics. Like with most things in life, experience will make you more comfortable in the process. It's never too late to start. And collecting sketches can be an awful lot of fun, to boot.

How many sketches will you be able to grab in one weekend? I think my record at a four day San Diego con was nearly 15. I know there are people who go to cons just for their sketchbooks and run around like maniacs with three sketchbooks at different artists' tables all weekend long. I'm sure they'll score double that. And, sometimes, it's just the luck of the draw -- timing is everything. Even artists who are busy all weekend long will have one spot where there's nobody standing in front of them. If you wander by at that point, you're in luck.

The folks behind the NYCC have now posted their complete Artists Alley roster. That's a very good start, though subject to change.

Just be sure to treat the artists as human beings. Don't just walk up the table, shove your book under their pen, look down at your shoes the entire time, and grunt. Talk to them about their work. Show you're interested in them for something other than just a quick sketch. Not only will it engender good will from the person who's essentially doing something for you for free (or very little) that they do for a living, but it's often a rewarding experience. Talking to artists and getting to know the people behind the work you enjoy so much is a lot of fun, and often more important than that sketch.

Oh, one last thing. . . if I decide to buy any original art, any advice on how to transport it back via airplane without it getting destroyed?

I always fly with a window seat. It's easy to push the original art between my seat and the wall of the plane. The best thing to get is a mylar or heavy plastic sleeve for your art. They're not cheap, but they're heavy and will carry a couple pieces of art without fear of bending a corner. I think they were about $8 - $10 a piece the last time I bought them. I've never had a problem carrying them onto a plane with me. They fit in the airport x-ray machin, too.

They're a little awkward to take into the airport restroom, but we're comic people -- a little awkwardness is par for the course.

Hope this helps you out, Craig. We're all expecting a full report in a month and a half after you've experienced the NYCC.

At it stands right now, I'll be at the NYCC for Saturday and Sunday. Hope to see a lot of you there.

The Original Art portion of this column will return next week, with a look at the "Superman" art of Mike McKone.

The Various and Sundry blog is still doing American Idol coverage, talking DVDs, and accurately predicting Apple/Beatles announcements weeks in advance. Plus, I think there will be a couple of Wii-related posts this week.

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.

Marvel Just Powered Up a Classic X-Man to Omega Level

More in CBR Exclusives