THE COPYBOOK TALES – THE MINI-COMIC THAT COULD
On page 262 of the latest PREVIEWS, Fanboy Comics offers up THE COPYBOOK TALES COLLECTION TP. Coming in at 240 black and white pages, the book will set you back $19, but is the best investment you can make in May. No, I don't mean the you-can-put-your-kids-through-college type of financial investment. I mean that the book will easily offer you the best return on your dollar for the month in reading enjoyment.
THE COPYBOOK TALES began life as a mini-comic in 1994. Self published (or photo-copied?) by writer J. Torres and artist Tim Levins, it weighed in with an eight-page story, plus surrounding cover. (The final mini-comic actually came out to be 12 story pages.) In the fine tradition of mini-comics, it was published on standard 8.5 by 11 inch paper that was then folded in half. The outer page became the front and back cover and was a slightly different shade of paper. The inner two pages made up the eight-page story. It's a pretty ingenious way for new comics creators to get started. It started much longer ago than just TCT, but it seems to have fallen by the wayside today. When I first started Pipeline, I received a few mini-comics in the mail. Nowadays, everyone seems to be publishing on the web or going the whole hog and printing up 'standard' sized comics.
Torres and Levins apologized at the time for the book and its 75-cent cover price. Besides the references to it in their text pages, the stories were packed. There were no splash pages. Every page was filled from border to border. Most pages had a minimum of 9 panels, and even those pages looked sparse by comparison. They wanted you to get a lot of story for your six bits.
The setup of the book is simple: It's semi-autobiographical. Jamie Cruz (think J. Torres) and Thatcher (Tim Levins) are recently out of college, attempting to work their way into the comics industry. During their struggles, flashbacks ensue to Jamie's childhood in the 80s and his misadventures with boyhood pals like the three Mikes. (I knew three guys in my class in grammar school named Mike. I was only friendly with two of them. Yet I can still feel the connection here. =) Thatcher isn't present in the reminiscences. He's the anchor to the present day and often serves to ground Jamie.
The conceit is that Jamie has kept a diary of all these experiences through childhood and growing up – this is his "copybook." It's from here that the stories come. Many of the stories in the mini-comics are told as if they were pages ripped out of the book. On poorly-line paper, some chicken scratch handwriting tells the story. It's a storytelling choice that wouldn't last long. Whether it was a matter of displaying better storytelling technique by showing and not telling, or just the expanded page count allowing it to happen, the pages ripped from the copybook would be much fewer and much shorter as time went on.
With hindsight, these first mini-comics seemed to rely too much on the flashbacks and the zany tales of kids growing up in the 80s. While it's a lot of fun to read and will probably strike a familiar nerve in most of us, it's not as focused as it could have been.
That came when Slave Labor Graphics picked up the series. But I'll get back to that in a second. First, the art:
Tim Levins was an art student at the time these mini-comics were being produced. He fit issues in as his "spare time" would allow after hours of drawing for class. The progression in his art over the course of these issues is easy to see. The first issue looks like an attempt to draw in a more realistic style. The characters are more humanly proportioned and detailed. Style is sacrificed for realism, as it were. By the time the fifth issue came along, you could see the Levins style starting to peek out. The characters become much more cartoony, which is definitely for the better. The art began to open up. Each page wasn't as claustrophobic as it might have been in previous issues. Some nice artistic experiments even showed up, such as one memorable two-page spread in the fifth issue where the Thursday Prime Time listings of the TV GUIDE are used as backgrounds. The now patented style of wide-open eyed, meaty-pawed Levins characters were just starting to show up at the end.
Levins also did his own lettering throughout the run of THE COPYBOOK TALES. The computer wasn't used as it might have been, particularly towards the end of the run when the availability of it was becoming more widespread and more and more artists used it as a cheap alternative to learning to letter. Levins' lettering is as much a character in this series as anything else. It fits in perfectly. Nice blocky capital letters with rough, sketched out balloons. The lettering matches the art, as it so often does when an artist acts as his own inker and letterer. (For another example, see Steve Lieber's work, particularly in WHITEOUT.)
This brings me up to the Slave Labor Graphics issues. Six of those made it to your local comics shop's shelves. (In theory. I think too few actually ordered them. The print run on the first couple of issues was a pitiful 3000. The book deserved much better than that.)
It is in these issues that the talents behind the book seem to have fully developed and hit their stride. I'm sure if Torres and Levins did another six issues of the series today, I'd scoff at this notion and refer to these issues as a quaint warm up.
THE SLAVE LABOR YEARS
Things changed when Slave Labor Graphics picked up the series. The first and most obvious change was the size. TCT became a full-sized comic. No more 8.5 x 11 inch pages folded in half. This was a "regulation" comic book. Still in black and white, it also sported 24 pages that were usually all taken up by the story. The front inside cover was often taken up with quick headshot introductions to the main characters. The letters column – when it appeared – took up the inside back cover or one page at the end.
The book showed obvious signs of maturing when it moved to Slabe Labor. Freed from having to cram as much story on eight pages, J. Torres managed to tell larger stories that stayed more focused. Whereas much of the charm of the mini-comics came from the hijinks of the kids in the 80s, the SLG series focused more on the issues of growing up and facing adulthood. There was less back and forth between modern Jamie and the young Jamie who hung out with the three Mikes and wrote in his copybook. As the series went on, the young Jamie and his 80s adventures became a lesser point. It gets to the point in the sixth issue where only two pages are devoted to the past. This is why I want to be clear that this isn't just a book for those of us with strong nostalgia for the 80s. Yes, there's plenty of that to go around in this book. (The second SLG issue is the strongest of the 80s-centric stories.) But as time goes by, it becomes more and more apparent that this is a story for twenty-somethings. Whether your teenage years were spent in the 80s or not, the themes in this book should strike a chord with you.
Tim Levins' art also blossomed. The art expanded to fill the page, first of all. There are very few cases of pages so packed that you couldn't look at them from a distance and still see what's going on. In the fourth issue, in fact, it's Levins' art that carries the mostly visual nature of the story, from the bus stop to the mosh pit.
The stories cover a little of everything: blind dating, the pains of growing up and needing cash more than your comics, publisher rejection, the threat of a younger brother making you feel old, the ugly duckling. Here's a quick run-down, with as few spoilers as possible. Consider this the "episode guide" with the kind of descriptions you might have seen in PREVIEWS at the time, albeit with less spoilers. ;-)
ONE: It's a love story about comic books and our attitudes towards them. Jamie faces the troubles of growing older and loving comics just as much, but needing the money from selling them even more. Alternating between the 80s and modern day shows you the juxtaposition of the wonder of youth and the cynicism of a slightly jaded and worn-out eye. As children, the local comics shop fairly glowed. As adults attempting to get into the industry, the stench of repetition and the pandering to the lowest common denominator are what challenge. Thatcher seems to be the gung ho one. He's the artist. He just wants to draw something. Anything. It's up to Jamie to get the stories written. And, hey, how cool would it be to draw a biographical comic of growing up in the 80s?
TWO: It starts off with an ironic story-within-a-story. It's a thinly veiled parody of an animated-looking Batman. Some three years later, Tim Levins became the regular BATMAN GOTHAM ADVENTURES penciller. This issue is dueling parties. The adult Jamie and Thatcher reluctantly attend a friend's Halloween party, while the younger Jamie and his group of buddies enthusiastically attend a party dressed as the Village People. (Everyone mistakes them for G.I. Joe.) This issue is Mike Laine's story, though. Something bothers him throughout the party. It's never said outright, but it's pretty obvious what's going on.
Speaking of covers, the cover to the second issue is a special treat. It looks like a silly little thing, but there are more layers to it. The witch dressed as a nun is a "Twisted Sister." She's offering the kids a basket filled with rocks ("I Wanna Rock"?), which they all refuse. "We're Not Gonna Take It." If you want to stretch things even more, you can probably come up with additional song titles in there.
THREE: Mike Laine's alienation continues in the past as the gang tries to get into a club – any club -- with the world's worst fake IDs, while the adult Jamie and Thatcher attempt to sell their comic to a new publisher. As usual, recurrent themes pop up between the then and the now.
FOUR: The cover harkens back to the mini-comics, with the signpost referring to "On Golden Blonde," the porn movie the boys enjoyed in the second mini-comic. Underneath the cover is the equivalent of Jamie's mid-life crisis. His younger brother makes him feel old and stodgy, so he goes a little wild in letting himself go. Yes, that's right: Jamie's in the mosh pit!
FIVE: "Little Alter Boy" is a classic case of the ugly girl in high school who turns out to be the hottie after college. What happens when they meet again for the first time in years – in church? It's a sweet issue with plenty of relationship angst.
SIX: It's the blind date issue, not to mention the last issue. It's a little goofy, but fun in its way. It just seems a bit odd for a Copybook Tales. The cover is a classic Byrne X-MEN parody, with Jamie starring as Wolverine. The misadventures of the 80s are mostly hidden in this issue, but the scene where Jamie is cleaning up his room with all his 80s memorabilia will have you remembering your childhood, if you're in my age range.
THE COPYBOOK TALES became a breakout success on USENET in its day. J. Torres sent out sample copies to a bunch of us review whores. I think we're all pretty big fans of the book to this day thanks to that. Keeping that in mind, here's some other places on the internet for more info.
Fanboy Entertainment, Inc. is promising to have special TCT content up fairly soon, so check back there soon enough for all the info and art you could ask for.
The press release announcing the book's solicitation came down the wires yesterday, and is currently posted on CBR's The Comic Brief.
Here's a web site still left over from the early days of the Slave Labor run.
Of course, Slave Labor Graphics has a web site, too.
AND THEN WHAT?
Well, there were three issues of SIREN over at Image from Torres and Levins. (Where's that trade, guys?!?)
J. Torres has been all over the place. He's edited and written for LOVE IN TIGHTS, an occasional anthology series from Slave Labor. Image has published his MONSTER FIGHTERS. Fanboy is publishing his SIDEKICKS. And Oni is the home to ALISON DARE, which seems to be fast becoming the most promising of his creations, with his artistic partner in that series, Jason Bone.
Tim Levins has found a home at DC, acting as the regular artist for BATMAN GOTHAM ADVENTURES. For my money, it's the best Batman book on the stands today and the issues he draws (with Scott Peterson writing) are pure magic.
A couple of Copybook Tales shorts found their way into print, also. The one I know of appeared in THE EXPO99 COMIC anthology book. That was a short story of Jamie and the Mikes obsessing over RETURN OF THE JEDI in 1983.
In May, the trade paperback collection of THE COPYBOOK TALES sees print, some three years after the last regular issue of the series was published. It'll have all the TCT stories I talked about in this column, plus a couple of other short stories I missed and a brand new one for the trade. It's well overdue, and let's hope this might inspire some more such tales in the future from Torres and Levins. Pre-order now!
Next Friday: The original SUICIDE SQUAD!
Close to 200 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 are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML. Those columns are even migrating over here in drips and drabs. Eventually, they'll all be on CBR. I can't believe Pipeline is entering its fifth year in a few short months…
Finally, I write DVD movie reviews (occasionally) for the gang over at DVD Channel News. If you're into DVDs, check out my stuff there.