Legendary Comics, the relatively new publishing arm of film production company Legendary Pictures, had about as audacious a debut as was possible last fall, with its first offering being Frank Miller's too-controversial-for-DC Batman vs. Al Qaeda comic Holy Terror, the Legendary version scrubbed of DC trademarks just enough that it could be published without risk of a lawsuit.
The company's latest offering isn't quite as controversial ... nor is it quite as noteworthy. It is, however, the comics project one might expect from film production company: a sort of focus group-testing, balloon-floating introduction to a character and concept that could potentially be adapted into a major motion picture, something I can't imagine anyone seriously considered doing with Miller's beautifully told, politically wacky comic about an off-brand Batman and Catwoman fighting terrorists.
If the very thought of a comic book series as film R&D turns you off (believe me, I understand!), then it's worth noting that this latest project is edited, like Holy Terror was, by Bob Schreck and created by as solid, experienced and talented a creative team as a comics fan could ask for. It's written by Matt Wagner (yes, Grendel, Mage and Sandman Mystery Theatre's Matt Wagner) and penciled by Simon Bisley (the painter whose interior work you've seen in Slaine and Batman/Judge Dredd), here being inked and colored by Rodney Ramos and Ryan Brown.
Still not sold on The Tower Chronicles: GeistHawk Volume 1 ...? Look, I don't blame you.
In addition to its slightly desperate wannabe-movie franchise origins, there's that awful title, which means pretty much nothing. The lead character is named John Tower, and his website is GeistHawk.com, and this is a comics series of short serial stories about him, which can be pretentiously referred to as "chronicles." I suppose it would be like if someone made a comic about me, and called it The Mozzocco Chronicles: EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.
That theoretical comic would probably be pretty boring, though, as I work in a library by day and blog about comics by night, whereas John Tower is a mysterious freelance assassin who specializes in ghosts, vampires and the like, and who harbors dark, portentous-sounding secrets.
Or maybe not. I've only read a handful of comics about either librarians or comic bloggers, whereas I think the mysterious monster-hunter profession is pretty well covered in comics, film, prose and just about every other media. (Well, maybe not musical theater. Not yet, anyway!).
Two more reasons you'd be forgiven for extreme skepticism of this comic? Well, there's that cover, featuring what looks like a pretty generic superhero costume full of tired, dark superhero-costume signifiers: lots of buckles and pouches, ribbing, shoulder pads, hood, etc.
And then there are the folks who produced that cover, at least one of whom you can probably determine at a glance: DC Comics co-publisher, Justice League artist and New 52 costume designer Jim Lee, and his frequent collaborators inker Scott Williams and colorist Alex Sinclair. They've given us a lackluster image of a generic dark superhero-type standing atop a pile of monster parts, one foot hidden from the knee down.
I'm genuinely perplexed by Lee's cover, not simply because he seems like an awfully busy guy whose time could probably be better spent drawing the Haunted Tank to slap on an issue of G.I. Combat and give it a one-month reprieve from cancellation, but because the artist doing the interiors of this comic is himself an accomplished cover artist whose painted covers have recently been seen making DC's own Hellblazer and Deathstroke look like some of the more interesting mainstream books on the racks (until you open 'em up, anyway) and whose cover would obviously better reflect the insides of the comic, which look nothing like this cover (the John Tower on the cover, for example, is played by Generic Jim Lee Dude #1, whereas Bisley's Tower looks a little more distinct, as you can see below).
Heck, even the writer of this comic is a great artist with a long track record of striking cover imagery. (Well, actually I'm not that perplexed. I imagine it has something to do with Lee's continued ability to move comics by his mere presence; the next issue's cover will be by the ubiquitous Alex Ross, who also draws nothing like Bisley and whose covers crowd the new comics rack almost as much as Lee's do).
Anyway, all those negatives arguing that you leave this book on the shelf? Go ahead and forget them: It is not as bad as much of what I just wrote might suggest.
Well, most of 'em, anyway. Tower does wear a goofy superhero costume when working, although it looks smoother and less fussy when Williams isn't inking it, and the character is somewhat generic in his profession, his mysterious past and the few personality traits we're shown.
But I'll be damned if this comic doesn't look great. Bisley eschews the "fan-casting" that a lot of these sorts of film try-out comics can slip in to, so that none of the characters look like any Hollywood types, but rather resemble Bisley drawings.
The monster designs are highly imaginative: There's a giant owl monster that crawls out of a much smaller woman's skin, a "living ghost," a little girl vampire that's the exact opposite of the button-cute one young Kirsten Dunst once played and a more traditional vampire, albeit one with gleaming white shark's teeth in his mouth.
Colorist Ryan Brown is pretty present in his coloring, but because it's Bisley's art he's coloring, the effect isn't one of trying to hide or bury drawings, the way a lot of hyper-realistic coloring often accomplishes (either by accident or on purpose), but a somewhat painterly look; that is, this isn't painted art, as one might expect from something with Bisley's name attached, but it looks a little like it, if that makes any sense.
Wagner's script isn't going to blow away anyone who has read many comics or watched many movies, but like Bisley in his portrayals and the rendering of action scenes, he gives the characters and the proceedings a lot of nice, little touches. I liked the test of potential clients' sincerity, for example, and some of the pseudo-science weaponry and the weird nature of some of the foes (particularly the living ghost).
In other words, this is a comic book with a personality, despite that the characters are types more than individuals and the plot, in broad view, is as familiar as it is generic.
It's also only $8, the cost of 40 to 44 pages worth of Avengers comics, despite being a 68-page trade paperback with a fancy, shiny, raised logo, book flaps and no ads at all.
Still not sold? Well, selling you on it isn't really my intention. That's the job of someone probably being paid pretty well who works for Legendary. I did think it worth pointing out that despite some baggage the project is likely lugging with it, it's not a bad comic by any stretch of the imagination.
If I did want anyone to buy something though, or perhaps buy into something, it would be something that Schreck and the folks at Legendary already have: That the best way to do comics like this, even if (especially if) they have rather naked ambitions of eventually being made into movies is to is to make them into really good comics, preferably by folks who are really good at writing and drawing comics.