Saturday, December 29, 2007

In Review Of: Modern Masters -#12 Michael Golden

The Modern Masters series from Twomorrows Press has counfounded me a bit, starting with making Alan Davis their first book. I think that Davis is really, really good, but not the artist that I think that I would have started the series with. Still, that is a moot point. What concerns us today is the 12th volume in the series: Michael Golden.

I was there in the beginning of Golden's career, and was immediately taken by the fact that, within a few months it seemed, DC comics in 1977 has lucked on to two very striking talents: Marshall Rogers and Michael Golden. The early stories by Golden, one stand alone issue of Batman, and the Batman family stuff in the dollar comics were eye-catching in the extreme. There was a two page Man-Bat splash, as well as a two page Demon spread that were more dynamic than almost anything published at DC over the last decade. After years of fairly pedestrian work, DC would discover two greats right before the now infamous Implosion. Looking through this book should have been a real joy.

I emphasize should have been. Oh, the book has been put together with care and love by John Morrow and Eric Nolen-Weathington, the reproduction is very nice, the interview covering a great scope of Golden's career. The problem is mine really. I was so dis-satisfied with the reality that there is no deeper to Golden's artwork. To paraphrase, to him, its a job and one that he took to pay the rent and to try to do the best he could. he sort of drifted into the work from doing vans and skateboards, without a great love of the medium, and was pushed into going to NYC to visit Marvel and DC.

Feh, thats what i have to say. Reading the interview and reading his rather non-commital answers to questions about the Nam, or the single greatest annual story since Kirby drew the monumental FF Annual #1, Avengers Annual #10, leave me flat. I want there to be some more emotion, some more reaction on his part. after all, I found his art to be so interesting, so dynamic that I want to believe that there is something more there than craft.

And its clear that there isn't.

And its my own fault as a fan really, to have put my expectations on the artist and the art, and now I find myself reading it with a different sense of how the art came about. I have one Golden original, from a clever little Batman/Talia/Ra's Al Ghul story from the Batman Spectacular issue also featuring art by Rogers and Nasser. And yes, the art betrays the slightly muddied lighting sources that plagued Golden's work in the first year or two, but otherwise is a fun little piece of art. And I never saw any sweat stains or deep pencil grooves in the bristol.

And now I know why. Because it was easy.

Friday, December 28, 2007

My first experience with original art

And I recount this with the gravity usually reserved for telling a story of how one had sex the first time, except that this time was better.

Mid 1970's and I'm a kid living down in the Diamond Bar area outside of LA, occasionally to some slightly distant shops outside of the little area that I'm living in. Typically via the understanding other parent, since mine could care less, then and now, about comics. However, I had friends whose parents would actually take part in the collecting part of it, and would be willing to drive to shops where other bit and pieces could be found: the missing book, the upgrade on the vintage Neal Adams work, etc.

So we're outside of the town, I forget exactly where, and I have amassed $20, which was a lot for a 12 year old back then. Where it came from, I don't know, perhaps it was birthday money. I certainly didn't have a job back then. There were no comic shops in Diamond Bar back then, perhaps still aren't now. I've not been back in 20 years. What they did have were the trusty 7-11 with the understanding owner, and a couple grocery stores that still had spinner racks in them, so going to an actual comic shop was a huge treat. Kid in a candy store and all that.

So I'm filling the in the last couple of Master of Kung Fu's that I need to have a complete run, and the shop owner says, "I have an original from MOKF, would you like to see it?" "Really," I ask, as though somehow the idea of an actual original hadn't occured to me. "Yeah, its from Gulacy." I was, of course, already infatuated with Paul's art already, and since he had never been at a convention that I had been, the idea that one of his originals was in the area wouldn't have dawned on me.

So he pulls out a portfolio and in there is a page from MOKF #42, inked by Tom Sutton, using the patented confusing-in-a-non-novel-way flash forward effect that Doug Moench was never to use again. And I was blown away to find myself looking at the non-repo blue on the page, and looseness of Tom's inks at full size. It was quite an education for the 10 minutes that I spend looking at it.

Oddly enough, I didn't catch the original art bug then, probably because I knew that price, even at 1970's rates, was well out of my reach then, lacking parental involvement. But I started to have the idea of what it should look like. And the differences that exist between printed art and the originals. I don't think that I've looked at printed art the same way since.

What do the Comics owe you? Anything? Nothing?

I've been thinking long and hard about this for a while now, and while of course the answer is obviously "nothing", the matter is more personal for those of us who became so infatuated with the smell of ink on cheap newsprint. We, the aforementioned addicted people, have obviously looked around and tried to figure out ways to make a living off of what we love, whether it meant becoming a dealer, a comic artist, editor or writer, or perhaps a publisher of fan related material. It makes sense to try to find a way to make money doing what you love.

The only problem is that comics is a brutal business. And as I type that, I struggle with how that sounds, yet it is the truth. Every bit of experience I have tells me that is the truth, every interaction that I had with other professionals, from Gene Colan, George Tuska, Herb Trimpe and Dave Cockrum to the modern era artists tells the same story. The American comic business has a relentless series of deadlines on work for hire that will burn a person into the ground unless they are (and I know someone who is) almost inhumanly fast with their pencilling.

Valerie has a list of quotes that she has heard, over her years in editorial, that are chilling, and worth going to read over at her site when you're done here.

So what does comics owe me? Will it give me back my sanity after working two 22-hour days in a row on Good Guys #1 (and still having the book come out late)? Will it give me back my dignity after having to kiss ass to get the next shitty job that was running late out of a company, so that you can get blamed on the work, when the "star" penciller is the one screwing all the others down the line from him? Of course not. But we make our choices. Comics did give me the rush of walking into any comics shop in Manhattan and seeing my name on the cover of the Batman book. That is as singular a thrill as many of us will ever get. Just as any job has the good with the bad, this is the story of what bad you'll take to get the good.

"The problem is that they think comic books owes them. That's the problem with hiring fans."

And the problem with hiring editors that are fans, hiring fans to work on the books. The word professional was bandied about pretty casually inside the industry, when, typically, the industry is anything but. The same people who would complain that an artist didn't handle his or her work professionally, were most likely the same people who begged the artist to take the late job and bring it in on time. The cardinal rule of doing unto others doesn't seem to play out here very well.

One problem is that the comics industry, from Weisinger and Donenfeld in the 40's to now, has been its smallness. Even when the books were selling in the millions, they weren't supported by advertising the way the traditional periodicals were, and so the money being paid out was small, enough to keep an indentured servant class that either didn't know how to do anything else, or didn't want to leave because this what they loved. In the last decade, I know that I did a back flip when I saw the first Mazuchelli cover on the New Yorker. At last we had the chance to go uptown. As anyone, in any career can tell you, options are leverage, and leverage is good. Otherwise, you're in a small industry that has more people, far more people, than work. That is not good.

"And I asked them why I wasn't being hired anymore, give me a reason. I mean, what else am I good at?"

The piecemeal way that American comics are done has also done its share of damage to artists, trapping them into a niche that doesn't allow for them to do anything else, and certainly not to have skills that would allow them other options. In the age of scanned pencils (and Lenil Yu, I'm looking at you) where does the inker go? In the age of Comicraft, where does the letterer go? I somehow doubt that any of us thought, "when I grow up, I'm going to get trapped in a niche!" but that is what happens, and its sad. The artist should, and usually does, go into things will a series of skills, some more developed than others. Just working in one area shouldn't preclude getting the opportunity to show the others. Of course, many times, it does.

Back to choices however. I made the choices that allowed me to get into comics back in 1992 in a niche position, because I couldn't bear to live without seeing my name on that cover. I did make the right choice back then, no matter how many sleepless nights it involved, no matter how much sciatica came from sitting in the same position in the same Brooklyn apartment night after night after night. Because the same shit exists in every profession. So we had all better really enjoy the highs because the lows are the same crappy lows, and we only go around once.

Comics doesn't owe me anything, but it gave me plenty.

Monday, December 17, 2007

In Review Of: Local #2 by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly

Have been catching up on some reading recently, and realized that I've been spending a lot of time absorbing work and looking over the racks, trying to get a handle on the current zeitgeist in comics. Local #2 came my way via Sam at Blue Moon Comics after a spirited discussion about Paul Pope that ended in a sematic draw.

Local works in stand alone stories, so they're easy to review, easy to read and that makes them damn hard to draw and write. After all, lets face it, while there may be a bias against craft among certain elements in the comic book world, it takes real craft to make things look easy. (You want an example? try to write a good Beatles song. Maybe been done 10 times since 1970 total.) Kelly's art, echoing Pope, certainly works on its own merits without him being a total stylemonger, and has a nice feel for the negative and positive elements of the art. In a black and white book, that is absolutely key.

Local #2 is located in Minneapolis, Kelly's hometown, and he draws with a great feel for the locale obviously. Megan, obstensibly the book's protagonist (or at least re-occuring character), has an interesting flirtation with a guy who sneaks into her apartment and leaves her notes and polariods. And, no, she does not know him. From one odd little set up we get a tasty little slice of life story, one that rings true in the final panel when it ends. I won't spoil it for you if you decide to pick it up, but its a fun little read that, really, seems inevitable that it can only end the way that it does. That is, I tell you, a nice bit of writing, and, given the amount of silent sequences that need to convey the story, some nice drawing by Kelly.

While there have been more than a few discussions about what makes comics 'tick', one of them being the telling of stories that contain a mix of pictures and words unique to the graphic medium. This is one of those that verges on fitting that definition. The is a great degree of information and mood given in single horizontal panels that allow our eyes to linger across the cinemascope presentation before moving on. There are, really, three characters in the entire story, and as such, we're given a minimum of talking heads to present who these people are.
You could make a nice little art house vingette out of this issue.

Coming up, more issues of Local soon.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

If you emailed me about artwork...

I lost a bunch of email today, so if you did email me and didn't get a reply, please send again! Sorry all!

Comics Criticism: Art or Science

Back in the '90's while working for Defiant, I recall going to the Chicago Con, before Wizard bought it, and manning the booth to sign some comics and talk up the company. I also volunteered to look at portfolios with the editors at the time, and I know that many of you are thinking, "God help those poor people", but no, I was nice. And more importantly, I wanted to actually do something to help.

The state of portfolio reviews in comics is poor, horribly subjective and downright bizarre to most people who have never done professional work. Yes, lets get the obvious out of the way first: art itself is subjective and yes, there are clearly different styles for many different types of comic work, so we'll confine ourselves to the narrow band of Marvel/DC /Image /WildStorm etc superhero styles that exist. We're not talking about Fantagraphics, Last Gasp, and the like, which clearly have different styles, different aims.

As much as you might pity the poor beginner who signs up to sit through a number of different portfolio sessions at San Diego, Wonder Con or Wizard Con, and basically is given so much conflicting advice that they leave with no idea of essentially where to star, the person in the worst position is the moderately talented artist. Yes, this person has digested much of the beginners mistakes and eliminated them from his or her work, so they've advanced into the shadowy netherworld of almost employable but not quite. The mistakes are more subtle, harder to pick up on in a quick review, more detailed in the subtle terms of what needs fixing. This person is not in a great position.

While reviewing those portfolios in Chicago, I tried to concentrate on saying, "Here is a clear objective: spatial separation, black spotting, helping the penciller's composition. And here is why this doesn't work." Or better, "Here is why this does work," since its many times easier to make the positive example stick that hitting the person over the head with WHAT (whack) THEY'RE (whack) DOING (whack) WRONG.

The older editors that I worked with usually had the best vocabulary to describe what it was they liked about a page, but also what wasn't working and WHY it wasn't working. That was key for me at least. Younger editors would have, sometimes the eye to pick up on what wasn't working, but couldn't, for their life, tell you why it didn't work. And the freelancer was left to go puzzle out what the hell to do, while all the time worrying about their next assignment.

I think that this is why people responded so well to the Scott McCloud books: we were desperate for a shared verbal vocabulary by which to discuss our visual vocabulary. To many miles separated the terms by which the arcane art of combining words and pictures could be discussed. McCloud hits on many of the themes: we use language stolen from the film industry or the novel world and oft times it just doesn't hit all the things that it needs to. Try translating Yiddish into English: one yiddish word invariably needs a whole phrase or two of english to get its point across. Comics are like yiddish: one simple panel could convey what might take a whole paragraph of words to get across. Are comics easy to critique? To that I answer: Oy Vey.

By the way: for any of those people that I talked to in Chicago all those years ago, I dearly hope that I made some sense, and that maybe I helped out just a little bit. If I didn't, I'm sorry. Know that the criticism was at least well meant by someone who actually cared.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Howard the Duck - Breaking the Fourth Wall?

No, brilliantly, on page 7, two AIM agents are WASHING the fourth wall. Inspired post-deconstructionist wimsy courtesy of Templeton and Bobilla.

Sadly, this is the dreaded "plot" issue, and Templeton squeezes a lot of stuff into the issue. It moves so damn fast that we barely take note of She Hulk's pink panties late in the issue. (Nice to see the Jennifer picks a color that compliments her skin tone. Can we thank the colorist for that one?)

In many ways, I'm rather glad to get the plot out of the way. We all know that Howard works best in set pieces, pretty similar to the Marx Brothers, so move the characters from point A to Point B as fast as possible and lets get to the funny stuff. Works for me.

Some good social commentary on this one, with Jennifer Walters trying to actually be a lawyer with a judge who would have been well at home at any of the celebrity trials of the last couple years. Beverly, who is sorely underused in this issue, gets some time on the Larry King show, and Howard finally gets to see MODOT, the player behind this rogue group of AIM scientists. I'd say that we're setting up for a rousing finale with a lot of explosions in the final issue when it all goes to hell.

This is a fun series, and I can't recommend it enough as an antidote to the over the top brutality of the Annihilation:Conquest series. and I like Annihilation:Conquest. just, man, you gotta have something to laugh at as well. As Alan Weiss used to say to me, "its all comical books, you know!"

Just posted: an interview the Templeton here. Go read it yourself! Waaugh!

Monday, December 03, 2007

All Hail, ROM - Greatest of the Spaceknights

Finished my piece for Floating World Comics in Portland. SPACEKNIGHT - A tribute to Bill Mantlo is coming up on December 6th, and since all the artwork will be auctioned to raise money for Bill's care, if you're in the Portland area, you should go. Floating World is at 20 NW 5th Ave,

I won't be there, but this piece will be, along with a hundred others, so go and have fun and bid generously on some of the artwork. Props to Bill and Sal Buscema for taking a shitty '70's failure of a toy and making it something that people genuinely loved and remembered. That, my friends, is talent.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Desolation Jones: The Commentary track by Warren Ellis

I have commented before on my love of the work Desolation Jones by Warren Ellis and JH Williams. Now we have the commentary track to listen to/read. Yay!

I like how Warren decided to confront the ghost of Raymond Chandler head on the first series by taking The Big Sleep and putting a few new twists onto it. Chandler's book has been adapted so many times that it might want to be printed on Silly Putty. And that's a good thing.

In any case, I enjoyed Warren's comments on the first issue from the JH Williams arc and will do some poking around to see if he has commentary on the other five issues. If I find the link I'll post it later.