THE MOST ECLECTIC REVIEW COLUMN EVER
Welcome back to Pipeline2. This week, it's some reviews that have been piling up over the past few weeks. It's also the most eclectic column I've ever written. There are comments in this column for books from Image, Harris, CrossGen, Aardvark-Vanaheim, Clib's Boy Comics, and DC. You've been warned.
I read SPAWN during its first two years. I hung around long enough to have a letter published, and then left. Budgets were tight, and with Todd McFarlane no longer drawing the book, the one last thing that held me to the book was gone. I've gone back to the title twice -- for the 50th and 100th issues -- for the promised McFarlane "guest" art.
Image sent me a copy of the latest issue, SPAWN #115, so I thought it would be interesting to look at it again. If nothing else, I know that Tom Orzechowski's lettering would be fun to look at.
The lettering was fine. The problem was that there was so much of it. The story is being told to us, and not shown. The early half of the issue is told in brutally expository captions, without a hint of subtlety. The trick with a horror title is in getting into the reader's head. The best way to do that is with some poetic prose and imagery. That doesn't happen in this issue. Instead, you get a series of close-ups shots and the kind of caption boxes that drag you through the story in some odd compromise of style and exposition. It's not too good.
SPAWN is described these days as an "urban horror" book. This issue would fit loosely into that department. It's definitely horror, although it's not necessarily "street-level" type stuff. In this storyline, the action takes place in Japan, and focuses on some mystic humdrum and ghostly visages and a weary traveler who's mixed up in all of it. It's all dreadfully boring and terribly nonsensical. About the only entertaining part was watching Angel Medina replicating the feel of LONE WOLF AND CUB in the climactic swordfight between Spawn and Lord Nakadai. It doesn't live up to its predecessor by a long shot.
The book isn't for me anymore. I imagine that if I were a 13-year-old starting comics again, it would be really cool to see the individual images in this book. They're littered all over the page. They're bold and dramatic. Their fault lies in the lack of storytelling, though, which is something that a comics reader can't help but pick up on through the years. It's hard to tell how much of this is the fault of writers Todd McFarlane and Brian Holguin, and how much blame goes to Angel Medina. Medina's art was easy to follow in SAM AND TWITCH, but he was also working from Bendis layouts for that. The images in this story are just a series of close-ups and forced perspective shots. Heck, we don't even see the main character's face in any recognizable way until the bottom of the third page, despite his being the features player on all three.
To sum it all up, I don't buy SPAWN every month and I see no reason to change that practice.
Coincidentally, CEREBUS contains a SPAWN parody in the latest issue, #276. I picked up this issue because I thought it would be interesting to see what Dave Sim might have to say about Todd McFarlane and Spawn in his book nowadays, what with all the Gaiman lawsuits flying around and the Spawn empire in rapid decline.
Unfortunately, the Spawn parody isn't that strong. Basically, Cerebus plays dress-up and scares a town that's killed all its women and is run by Todd "Farlane" McSpahn, who appears with daughter, Magenta (a riff on McFarlane's daughter, Cyan), whose face is drawn in a convincing McFarlane style. Unfortunately, you have to drag yourself through the first half of the book before you get to that. Much of it is Biblical language in an overly ornate font. There's some humor to be had in the issue in making McFarlane out to look silly and sound ultra-Canadian, but you can save your money and not miss much.
What I did take away from the experience is that Sim is a highly practiced artist. He's been drawing the same book for 276 issues, for goodness' sake. He's honed his style and his craft to a pretty fine point. The art is as expressive and gorgeous as I've ever seen it. His ink line is fine and not needlessly complicated. Gerhard's architectural rendering is solid, although this issue hardly brings out his most complicated and detailed work. It's a relatively simple issue for him.
Sim's lettering is half of the entertainment of the book. He does things with it that most mainstream letterers shy away from. I'd love to see someone else emulate this style of lettering on another project, where the balloons and letterforms aren't afraid to change for the sake of adding emotional resonance to the voices. The lettering even takes on the parody, as the McFarlane character's name is written in his signature style as he speaks it.
For the sake of completeness, I tried to read Sim's "Islam, My Islam" text piece in the back, but didn't make it past the first page. If you thought I had a tendency to go off on tangents, you've never read Sim's prose. The man inserts tangents inside of digressions wrapped up in parentheses and bracketed by ellipses. My head started spinning before the first break in the text.
I recently picked up the second CEREBUS phone book, HIGH SOCIETY, and look forward to reading through it someday soon. The last few chapters are drawn sideways, so it gives me a further incentive to read it quickly just to get to those pages. (I reviewed the first phone book in Pipeline2 back in November 2001.)
The second issue of Tom Beland's TRUE STORY: SWEAR TO GOD is out now in comic shops. Titled "Reunions," this one picks up the story where the first issue ("Magic") left off. If you missed the first issue, don't sweat it. You're not going to be plunked into the middle of a confusing situation here. Everything is introduced very easily and you'll have no trouble picking things up along the way.
The story picks up a couple of weeks after Tom and Lily met at Disney. While they've gone their separate ways, they're constantly on each other's minds. Things happen from there, but I'm afraid I'd only be spoiling things to discuss it further. The book is based on the real life romance of cartoonist Tom Beland and Lily Garcia, now his fiancée. You can pretty much figure that things turned out all right from that, but the joy of the comic is in getting there.
Beland has obviously learned a lot from doing the first book. He's cut back on some of the wonkier page designs and gone for more standard grid formats here. There are a few 9-panel pages tossed in for good measure. The story flows more smoothly. It moves along at a slower pace, perhaps, but it's one that never feels stagnant. Along the way of continuing the romance between the two main characters, Beland dips into his bag of funny real life stories and expertly weaves them into the comic for bits of comic relief. It's a seamless transition and very entertaining.
His cartooning is as terrific as always. Coming from a comic strip background, Beland knows how to balance a page and keep panels from looking cluttered. His lettering is done by hand and fits the art perfectly. It might be one of those things that you have to see, but you can tell that the art and the lettering were done by the same hand. They both have that natural slightly curvy approach that's fun to see. The only bad thing is that Beland could definitely use a proofreader. There are a couple of misspellings in the book, most notably "twelvth" for "twelfth." (He also misspells Mike Wieringo's name in the letters column, which is always a bad thing to do when gushing over a guy's work.)TRUE STORY: SWEAR TO GOD #2 is 38 black and white pages of story for $2.95, which is a pretty good deal these days. Beland swears that he'll settle down into a more regular 22-page format with the next issue. If he doesn't, nobody will hold it against him, I'm sure.
(My review of the first issue of the series appeared in Pipeline Daily last August.)
VAMPIRELLA #7 features two ten page stories, both written by John Smith. The first is the much-anticipated (if only by me) story drawn by Dawn Brown. The story is a washout. I get the feeling I just stepped into the middle of an on-going plot and didn't have any recap to help me back in. Vampirella and Harry Krishna (a groan-inducing pun and eye candy for the female readership) talk like old friends, without every letting the reader in on the gag. I ended up daydreaming through the story and taking in the art by Brown. It is done, like LITTLE RED HOT, in a mixed media with heavy computer editing. There's some pencil work in there, some scanned in posters on the wall, and a whole lot of Photoshopping. While some of the results are mixed (the people in the first panel on page 7 look like action figures), the overall effect is nice and one that is still evolving.
The second story is the return of Pantha, with beautiful painted art by Mark Texeira. After the disappointment of the first story, I didn't bother doing much more than scanning through this one. Sure enough, there's another character with a groan-inducing pun that's not quite family friendly enough for me to mention here. The whole thing is a little ridiculously T&A, but Texeira's art is still very pretty.
This one's only for the Dawn Brown or Mark Texeira completist, I'm afraid.
ROBIN #100 features one of the most jarring changes in writing style ever to be seen halfway through an issue. It's so bad that you can see where the writing styles changed just by flipping through the pages.
This is Chuck Dixon's final issue of ROBIN. Incoming writer Jon Lewis shares writing credits on the story. It seems pretty obvious that Dixon's last page is 18, right at the panel where he's seen as the taxi driver leading the Drakes' housekeeper away. Dixon's writing style has always been quick and to the point. He doesn't litter his stories with flowery captions and talking heads. He once tried to do an issue with just two people talking by putting Robin and Nightwing blindfolded atop a train fighting off ninjas. It's not in his blood to do something so cut and dried.
As of page 19, the pages become littered with captions of Tim Drake's internal monologue. Pages 20 and 21 are the worst offenders, with every panel crammed with large caption boxes and word balloons. This doesn't make it bad, per se. It just represents a stark stylistic shift. After 100 issues, it won't be easy to get used to something so new on the title. I'm willing to give it a shot, if only because Pete Woods' art is so great. He's another one of the great artists working under the radar today. He should be getting so much more attention. He's got an open style that has the smoothness of Alan Davis' line, the wide panels of Bryan Hitch's, and a slight manga influence from Ed McGuinness. When his stuff catches on, he'll be drafted out of ROBIN and into a larger profile book.
CrossGen's RUSE #5 is a great spot for a new reader to jump on. It's a completely standalone story that introduces the reader to a large number of elements of the series in rather convincing fashion.
With Simon Archard still missing, Emma Bishop (his faithful partner in investigations) is picking up the slack for him. In this case, she's out to solve the Dollymop Slayer murders, which have left four women dead, three of them prostitutes. Sound a little like Jack the Ripper yet? It's got as much to do with those murders as this book has to do with Sherlock Holmes.
Consider it all inspiration for Mark Waid's latest tale of mystery, intrigue, and sharp characterization. For 22 pages, you're whisked away to the Victorian England setting for a story that will take you twice as long to read as any other 22 page comic you'll pick up this week. This is a very good thing. I've talked about the "banter comic" before as being the reaction to the "widescreen comic" movement of the past two or three years. RUSE is a fine example of this. It's packed with dialogue, but it never drags for it. The dialogue is all in service to the story, which never takes a moment to stop. It's not the type of comic book that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat. It is, however, the type that you'll want to sit back with and spend some time enjoying and soaking in every single detail of its meticulous look. It is very much like Arthur Conan Doyle's original Sherlock Holmes stories, that way.
The art is as lovely as the story is engrossing. Butch Guice and Mike Perkins combine for a photorealistic style, with copious architectural detail and believable human portraits. They also employ a more horizontal layout, with the tiers of story spreading across both pages. To help clue the reader into this, the panels in the middle always creep over the centerfold of the comic by just a little bit. It's enough to drag the eye across the staples and onto the right hand page, but not enough to obscure the art or hide details.
Top that off with Laura DePuy using new tricks every issue to set the scenes. This month, she's using patterns in the wallpaper of rooms to give a better Victorian feel. That kind of texturing usually sticks out at me like a sore thumb. For some reason, it blends in well in this comic.
RUSE is my favorite comic right now, bar none. The sixth issue just came out this week. Haven't read it yet, but if you're looking to start somewhere, look behind the new issue on the rack to see if a copy of #5 is still up there. I think you'll like it.
I haven't read SOJOURN #9 yet, but I suggest you flip through the first three pages of it. It's got some of the most gorgeous pages of comics I've ever looked at. Greg Land and Drew Geraci draw a serene dream sequence of Arwyn in a field of flowers, talking to her daughter. (It's a feminine version of Ridley Scott's GLADIATOR. ;-)
As lovely as the art is, Caesar Rodriguez comes in with his colors and threatens to steal the show. Everything is done up in a faded series of pastel colors, lightly embellished in the computer with highlights and sponge-paint effects. Geraci's line is very thin, with no spotted blacks, and no panel borders to distract from the hazy feeling the reader has of a distant memory as he reads through it. The first page cries out for a poster. It's amazing stuff.
Next week: Some more reviews and a look through PREVIEWS. Not necessarily in that order.
More than 350 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.