Thursday, May 31, 2007

In Praise of: Rocketo by Frank Espinosa

I have to admit, I have been fully sucked into the mind of Frank Espinosa. His Rocketo charms, cajoles, tugs, pushes and pulls you into a wholly fascinating world: a world of far future, with different races, different continents, different lingo and a different back story that I’m sure reads better in the trade than in stand-alone issues.

I slowly became aware of Rocketo the way that one hears about a great band still doing the club circuit: a word here, a small review there, a graphic purloined here… the same way that I found myself at an Earl Greyhound show months ago. I finally stumbled onto the first Rocketo trade at a convention and snapped it up. (I had yet to run into any of the single issues whatsoever, so I'm not aware of how the format is effecting the artwork in the least, but it makes me wonder a little bit why I've never seen any of the singles.)

Espinosa takes us so deep into his own mythology thats its a wonder we ever climb out at all. Journey to the Hidden Sea is the title of the first collection, and what a journey it is. Where as there are many Tolkien scholars that will tell you Lord of the Rings is really about language, I would venture to say that Rocketo, the story, is really about Rocketo, the man, and the voyage of discovery, in just about every meaningful way, micro and macro.

I wouldn't wonder that Espinosa knows Darwyn Cooke, since both are certainly comfortable with the bold, thick line style that takes us, as comic historians, all the way back to Scorchy Smith. Perhaps it is Espinosa's use of color that separates him from the pack, as well his apparent desire to reduce entire panels to only the relevant shadows (perhaps his only storytelling flaw in the first collection). The book, as these two pieces illustrate, have a bravura quality with the color that is fascinating to watch, and when the group finally hits the Hidden Sea, extremely effective in conveying just what a bizarre world we're journeying into.

If there is subtext, we might be reminded of those "that would rip the heart out of mystery, hold it up to the light for all to see." If there is anything that is happening here, it is the desire for a complete immersion into an unfamiliar world, something that reignites our child-like sense of wonder, before we saw other survivors of Kryton, before we knew where the Joker came from, before we saw what other Time Lords looked like, in short, before we had all our questions answered. Here, we have almost none answered, and thats the very best part.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Elric and Disney: a perfect Memorial Day pair

Just got back from a few days down in southern California, taking the kids to Disneyland, enjoying the minor upgrades to the Pirates ride.

Also had time in the evenings to finish this sketch in my good friend Steven Wyatt's Elric Sketchbook, which already contains good pieces from Bo Hampton, Dan Brereton, JG Jones, Tom Yeates and others. Steve, by the way, has his Super Con on this weekend, so if you're anywhere near the San Jose area, go there this weekend for some great guests.

While its not the greates scan, here is the finshed piece with a couple of tweaks to do to it. Now you can see where the skull study was going.

If there is anything that you can say about Disneyland, its that they have perfected the art of vacuuming out your wallet, all the time making you pretty much enjoy it. I noticed any number of details on the Haunted House ride that I did with my oldest daughter 3 times, and I still like the London flyover in the Peter Pan ride.

Perhaps the other thing to note is just how good they are about making characters that seem born out of whole cloth right there, with all the details in perfect position. It is, lets face it, a testament to the great artists that they've screwed over the across the years. They have certainly had some of the best of the best to bleed dry, and we, as the audience, have let them feed us Mulan and Ariel and even a revisionist Cinderella (which has got to be the biggest nod modern plot conventions than they have allowed in twenty years) complete with alternate character arcs and a more proactive main character.

And i still had a good time, despite all that I know about the company. Becasue they are just that damn good at what they do.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Friday, May 25, 2007

Quick one: Red Nails

Pulled out my ragged copy of Savage Tales #2 yesterday for some cool skull reference, and got caught up in looking at the classic marvel Black and White from the venerable 1970's.

The issue itself is an odd mixed bag of text pieces, comic stories from Barry Smith, Gray Morrow, Joe Maneely and Berni Wrightson, and Roy Thomas really digging into the bad repros from the original REH pulp stories.

Scanned here is a detail of a panel from Smith's greatly celebrated, and rightly so, two part adaption of "Red Nails". While this has been reprinted many times (I believe that I already own two or three other versions), it says something that the metal plates that were in use on the printing process at the time are actually able to capture and convey, in a first printing only, the beauty of Smith's line work.

And here is the odd thought: Red Nails really has celebrated and revered many times over as perhaps Smith's finest Conan work (compared against Song of Red Sonja for instance), and I almost have a little trepidation about labeling the work as such. you almost want to go against the tide and prove someone or something wrong concerning the work... and yet the critic in me looks at the story and just wants to nod its head and go, "yup, that really is amazing work". Sorry, you'll get no dispute from me on this one.

The rest of the book, however, is scary funny. This is 1973 after all, and we're treated to the odd paste up ad for Satana, the Devil's Daughter, an old John Romita stat surrounded by about 5 different fonts on five other stats. I can imagine the original art work being one that you had to be careful not to flex for fear of everything flying off the board.

The Berni Wrightson story is the worst thing in the book. Its Berni at his earliest and it shows. There really is nothing here to suggest the work that would come along in Swamp Thing. This smells of simple inventory burn off... I wonder how long it had been sitting in the drawer?

Rather interesting is the Joe Maneely story, an artist that i've become more familiar with over the years. This work, which I doubt was ever meant to be published in B & W, conveys a lot of the Don Heck to the faces, which makes me wonder if Heck followed him or if it was the other way round. While the style is not my favorite, and as a young man would have very quickly dismissed as hack, nowadays, in my ripe old age, I see the skill beneath the work, and it is considerable. Some excellent draghtmanship and storytelling.

My favorite part of the entire magazine? The little icon of Conan reading in the upper left corner of the cover. Heh heh.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

In Praise Of: Batman Spectacular (DC Special Series #15)

Ahh, the dollar comic, the mistaken idea that we bought comics as if they were baseball cards: the more the merrier. No, we thought and bought like candy: we didn't look to see that the Snickers weighed more that the Reeses Peanut Butter Cup, we bought which one was tastier.

And there was nothing tastier than this dollar comic. Three Batman Stories by Nasser, Golden and Rogers, an artistic collection that would be hard to match until the Batman Black and White series well over 20 years later.

Nasser and Rubenstein open with a Dave V. Reed story "Hang the Batman", that, for once, made excellent use of Reed's propensity for gimic driven maguffins, and deliver a great Detective story along the way. Very few writers have the wits to actually write a story with Detection along the way, and this has both solid plot and excellent, witty lines along the way. Nasser is controlled and Rubenstein givens him a great polish.

Next up, a young Michael Golden and Dick Giordano deliver a solid Ra's Al Ghul story with Talia and the Batman "...I Now Pronounce you Batman and Wife".

Golden is still a few year away from the height of his powers, but his innate sense of storytelling made for a single disturbing moment as Batman has to strike and knock out a naked Talia on board Ra's ship. i another artists hands, the scene would be one of simple plot mechanism, but golden render's Talia with such sexiness, that when we see her deliciously '70's dress flat on the bed, we don't need to see her naked to fill the panel out in our head. I doubt taht the image of Batman knocking out a naked woman with a single blow would have made Jeanette Kahn's day back then.

Finally, the semi legendary O'Neil and Rogers text/illustration piece, "Death Strikes at Midnight and Three".

My pages have been yellowing for years on this copy, and it only adds to the flavor that O'Neil is channeling Walter Gibson with the perfect compatriot of an artist in Marshall. Characters are a lead in to the plot as the late February chill hovers over Gotham. Within a page the Gotham prosecutor is dead, telling Wayne to " the blind man at midnight and three..."

ONeil's introduction to the Batman brings us the genius of a writer who has thought through his protagonist:

His upper face was concealed by a cowl that subtly altered the coutrours of his head and a voluminous cape billowed behind hime. Against the gloom of the alleyway, he was nearly invisible.
I always wished the DC would have reprinted this as part of the Black and White series. Roger's linework and design would have been striking and introduced a whole new generation of readers to his brilliance. I'm sure that the art is long gone and scattered to the four winds, glued down text yellowed brittle, if not already fallen off, but the sheer magic of the design at full size would be mesmerizing to see.

I wonder if Denny or Marshall kept any of that art.

In Review Of: Avengers #3 by Bendis and Cho

I know what you're thinking, "Why does he keep going on about this book if he doesn't like Marvel's offerings?" And the oddity is that I do want to like this book, despite all the odds. I loved the Avengers, and the little kid in me really wants to see a kick ass Avengers book on the stands to buy.

Unfortunately, we're so deep into post modern deconstructionalism, that I doubt that anyone can come along and do a straight forward "Marvel-style" team book for the next year or two. (When it finally does get done, it will be hailed as "a refreshingly modern twist on old skool team books"). All that aside, I keep wanting to see this team do some interesting things. I like Carol Danvers, always did, and seeing her get front and center is fun. The Widow actually acts like the Natasha that we know and love, and Ares is just a genius stroke of fun. I hope that Bendis gets all Englehart on his ass.

Two great moments this issue: Carol telling Ares that he's the God of War, to back off and make a plan to win the war, and the moment that Ultron takes over the Helicarrier's computers, and projects his old, original, evil ultron face, a moment that I want to believe shows us that no matter how he may be reforming himself into a facsimile of Janet Van Dyke, he is a robot who knows who he really is. Interestingly, the skitzo Ultron makes complete sense in the Jocasta context. Genuine Fanboy Chill.TM

Unfortunately, hate dealing with the negatives as well: the terrible cover, the over-reliance on the ass shots (tigra especially), the strangely tepid action shots that Cho doesn't do so well, the knowledge that this book has been so reviled for the idiocy of Ultron being made into a nude, metallic version of the Wasp, that I doubt I could ever even make a public admission of "Heck, its a guilty pleasure". the pacing isn't exactly what I would wish for: it takes a little too long for things to happen. Powers can continue to decompress all it wishes to, but the Avengers needs to have stuff happen and happen now. What, hasn't anyone see Pirates 2?

And, yes, the little kid in me loves the appearance of the original grey iron man on the last page. Its a cliffhanger that only a member of the MMMS or FOOM could love.

OK, you got my money. For now. And you haven't had that in a long time.

Monday, May 21, 2007

in Review of: Genshiken #8 by Kio Shimoku

i've praised the Genshiken series before for the accuracy of its portrayal of comic and anime geeks in a college setting, as well as for Kio's wonderful sense of comic timing and inventive structure, and the newest volume, Genshiken #8 here in the States, is no exception. Cool.

Interesting how the series has moved from the broad comedy of the group from the earlier issues to finally devoting an entire book to the dreaded "relationship" issue. How many series simply drop dead at this point, their plotlines slowing down into a morass of drippy sentimentality? Fortunately Kio's sense of pacing doesn't fail him here, as the resolution scenes take the right amount of time, stretching the moments that would appropriately gut wrenching to a potential young couple to a suitable length, before moving forward again. Finally we see some resolution to the tease of Sasahara and Ogiue.

Ogiue, as a character, has been relatively undefined for a while, and, like Kuchiki, used for comic relief relatively early, but has been stealing the show with Ono for some time now. The comic, while still centered on Sasha as the main character, has really been female driven for some time now, changing the balance from the early issues that teetered back and forth from Sasha, Madrame, and Kousaka vs. Saki and Ono. We're finally given the chance to see what makes Ogiue tick, and its certainly a time bomb in terms of her personal relationships.
So what are we left with? some wonderful scenes of fumbling college age relationships between the geek and the uber-geek, and a growing sense of where Sasha, the manga editor, might be going as a man. Kio wouldn't throw his characters under a bus for a cheap laugh, thank god, and we end up with no easy resolutions, but natural ones. Far more so than most romantic comedies, which, oddly enough, is what the Genshiken series has become.

I salute kio, whose work I find amazing and so effortless that it must take a hell of a lot of work to produce. Thanks. I have no idea if there are volumes to follow, but what we have now is one great read.

In Review of: Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!

In the growing number of volumes that exist on my bookshelf about comics, about the history of comics, and the importance that they play or don't play in our lives, I have an odd place in my heart for some of the essays gathered in the rather unwieldily titled Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!

One in particular that I wanted to discuss is the essay Oui, Je Regrette Presque Tout by Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats the Devil. A personal experience of longing and occasional self loathing, of missing the chance to acquire some original art, wrapped up in a quick overview of Starlin's Warlock takes less than 20 pages, but what a great 18 pages it is.

"You have the fever," a friend once told him, as he once again mentally cataloged his own art collection, as well as that of his friends. And you know what? I know that fever, I haven't had a day without it for a couple decades. I just hope that I'm past the self loathing.

While Starlin's run ended with issue #15 in print, the real ending of the story takes place issues earlier, as the current, in time, Adam Warlock goes ahead in time to his future self and sees what a disaster his life has become. "My life has been a failure, I welcome its end," opines the future Adam, and the current steals his soul, setting up a circular loop of causality that will boggle the mind as many of Starlin's metaphysical questions tend to do.

As a teenager, filled with the hormonal angst, that a nameless longing that can only strike those who have finally glimpsed a bigger world, only to be denied it by dint of age or ability, I read those panels and felt each and every word that came from Adam's gritted teeth. At some point or another, most teens have probably felt that, have thought of death and all its drama... and either decide to do something about it or not. The adult Starlin adroitly found the drama of Warlock's life and reduced it, no matter what, to an unhappy ending that anyone who has felt the sting of failure can respond to, something rather unheard of in comics at the time. While most people point to The Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel as sticking in their minds, Adam Warlock's death is far better realized.

The highlight of Gold's essay is his own story of collecting fever, and the role that it plays it played in his (and oh so many of ours) life. A chance encounter with a closed shop and a treasure trove of original art and a reclusive owner... its practically an origin story in and of itself.

He finishes with a thought:
there is a strange twilight awaiting collectors. Your moment passes and what you are left with is stacks of whatever monstroous accumulations you so desired. And you fade by some mechanical, spiritless process, like that little blue dot at the center of a screen in the days of solid state television.
Does that fate await us all, surriounded by endless "kipple" (to quote Phil Dick) that we once were sure that we needed? I ask myself that with each piece that I pick up, that little internal question that can start to discern, "why am I buying this piece of art?" there has to be a good answer along the way or the art goes back to the pile. And yet, it took dedicating a room of the house to show off the pages, making a wall and a half of the TV room the gallery to finally cement the fact that I was collecting this stuff because I liked to look at it. Just buying them and keeping them in a portfolio was an idiotic exercise. I didn't want to have them to have them, I wanted to look at them.

I have settled enough in middle age to deal with my failures and my successes, in my own sense, enough that I can function as a human being. I still recall Warlock's despair, honestly, but its a bit more at an arm's length these days. I still have the fever, but can take pills for that. And I'm glad that I have Gold's essay as a reminder that, when things could get bad, that there are brother's under the skin out there, who know it and felt it just like I did/do.

More thoughts on the essays in Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers! later.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

In Review Of: Vinne Colletta

20th Century Danny Boy offers up a fascinating post two days ago, which, if you go back to '80's Marvel and the Jim Shooter reign, dredges up a ton of dirt and manure and doesn't even attempt to bulldoze it back into a recognizable form when all is done. Danny gives us a scan of Colletta's "exit interview", a scathing letter written to other Marvel editors, and a long, anonymous interview/discussion with Vinnie about Shooter's firing. It's behind the scenes more than you ever wanted to do, and its fascinating as all hell. Once and for all it should dispel any rumours that all was well and good at the House of Secret Wars, and it should also dispel the idea that editors pick artists for a book solely on their brush lines.
He also indeed did take a lot of shortcuts in his work, in some cases he erased the pencils so he'd not have to ink them. Jack Kirby would draw detailed backgrounds only to see them simplified by Colletta. Yet there were other sides to Vinnie.
Eddie Campbell joins in with a very on target appraisal of Colletta's strengths,
his finishing style was distant from the superhero house styles at both DC (Murphy/Giella) and Marvel (Sinnott/Giacoia). But he was fast and dependable. Ah Fate! An artist's strength becomes his undoing.
as well as noting something that I noticed years ago: you can't judge by reprints, which most folks have to do. This directly effects those who use small lines, whether by brush to feather out (and the Joe Simon/Jack Kirby/Syd Shores '40's Captain Americas suffer greatly in this regard) or using a crow-quill pen, which Vinnie used a lot of in Thor and elsewhere.

So how to appraise Colletta without damning him or covering over his faults? If you liked his talents, and clearly he knew his way around a pen nib, then enjoy the original printings of his Thor. If you didn't like his work, and I thought that most everything he did was crap, even if he did get it in on time, then forget it and move on.

But... as Eddie brings up, there is the notion that artist can get trapped in his own reputation. I got caught in the same trap that Colletta did: I made a point of making myself as someone that never missed a deadline, and in making myself valuable by getting work out, I compromised the work, thinking that the editors would finally reward me with the good job on a regular deadline... and instead they start to look at you as a hack. (Nice. Nice way to get people to work hard for you.)

The question here is: why would Thor or the FF ever be late? We know the speed that Jack could produce pages, its documented fact. There is no reason that Thor should ever be late. Or FF #40 for that matter. Two of the fastest guys in the business and they can't keep up on the regular deadlines for the book? Doesn't jibe for me. Occasional rush issue fine, but month after month?

Any answers?

edited to add: Mark Evanier brings up the same point about Thor not being late in his column here that I did. And doesn't mince words on how bad Vinnie's work was. Good for him.

Kirbyfied and Ditkoized: When to Reboot

Our friends over at Trout in the Milk have some interesting comments on the Eternals comic, some of which got me thinking in a slightly different direction (since I've not been reading Eternals)
The Marvel Universe has grown incredibly boring as time’s gone on, because after it stopped its imaginative expansions it had nothing else to do but consume its own heart…but these Eternals, Deviants, and Celestials are different from what they were before, now. They’re potentially interesting. You could do things with them, now. The way Jack left them they were far too radioactively Kirbyfied for anyone else to risk touching them, but so was everything at Marvel, once upon a time…and what wasn’t Kirbyfied was Ditkoized, which can be even more dangerous.
and I started to question just how much time goes by before we will allow radical reimagining of beloved characters. Certainly we all want to avoid the "trapped in amber" version of a character that never develops, but how, really, did it take before we were able to move on from the Wein/Wrightson version of Swamp Thing? The character had to fall into development limbo/hell (except for a cool brave and bold drawn with panache by Aparo) and near cancellation before Moore got his hands on Alec Holland. Has anyone really been able to re-write swampy since then?

It used to be that if you wanted to work in mainstream comics on, say, Iron Man, you had to accept that Tony Stark was who he was and you had to accept all the background with Stark Industries and Whitney Frost and Happy Hogan et al. Since the Image Comics era, it has become far too easy to simply reimagine and reboot the character and not have any parameters to work within, whereas before, you were given too many restrictions. Neither is entirely the best place to work.

Just the semantics of "being radioactively Kirbyfied" killed me, but it certainly makes me try to imagine: who else Could have picked up the baton in Marvel in the 1970's and run with Machine Man or Devil Dinosaur? 2001 the series? It took DC poaching Starlin to make a run at the New Gods (which Jim did beautifully in Cosmic Odyssey), or Gerber and Rogers on Mister Miracle (which, to this day, I still think of as a bizarre pairing) Lets face it, hiring a Herb Trimpe or Sal Buscema to continue Devil Dinosaur is simply unthinkable, so its good that they didn't do it.

The real trick: when will someone turn Nick Fury: Agent of Shield into a viable series? After Steranko's turn, you have to go to Chichester and Guice's version for anything that isn't worth recycling.