Monday, October 29, 2007

In Review Of: Annihilation Book One

So if you've been following this blog, you know that I've been reviewing the Annihilation: Conquest series, sucker that I am for a great space opera. And I'm keeping both fingers crossed that Conquest is actually that, a great space opera.

But now I take a step back and review the original space opera that set up Conquest: The Annihilation crossover event.

And here is the kick: I've not read a single page of it before.

Yup, I'm coming into this one cold, and decided to keep it that way until I could read the collections and get the whole damn thing in one shot. I simply hadn't counted on Marvel waiting this long to release the softcover of the series.

Hey, sidenote here, who would buy this stuff in hardcover? I've yet to find a shop owner that believes that this is hardcover material whatsoever. Lee/Kirby Masterworks? That's hardcover material, not this. This is killer softcover reading. Is anyone thinking that this is so deathless as to deserve hardcover treatment?

This collection covers the four issue Drax the Destroyer series, Annihilation prologue and four issues of Annihilation: Nova.

The Drax issues: lots of Giffen silliness, except here Keith uses his rather ideosyncratic writing in service of a dark story, and a fair amount of continuity retooling, delving back into the Starlinverse to use the Blood Brothers to help reintro Drax. Starlin himself clearly had tired of the character that he had created back in 1972, and turned him into comic relief in the mid '90's when the tone was a little (or a lot) less dark. I'm sure that Keith had Captain Marvel #28 and Marvel Feature #12 on his mind when he was working on this, with the return of the Blood Brothers. Drax is given a bizarre female sidekick, our entry into what is clearly a new and different universe. Drax is different, sarcastic, and I'm not altogether sure where his character arc will go, but he's a new Drax for the new millenium, and I'm willing to go with it for now.

The Annihilation Prologue: Nova takes over, front and center. Nova. Richard- I've been drawn by Sal and John Buscema and my finest moment was against the Sphinx- Ryder. Not my favorite. Here he acts as a stand in for Green Lantern, and the Nova Corps certainly have followed the precedent of the Lanterns. Nice continuity with some of the aliens being from older Marvel mags: a Rigellian and the blue skinned girl (not Kree) with the fin who is from the same race as Yondu from the Guardians of the Galaxy.

And the first thing they do is kill off the rest of the Corps. Thank god. Did no one over at DC realize that the moment that we actually saw the Lantern Corps, Hal Jordan ceased to be really special? The same thing would have happened here if they had simply knocked them all off. Good storytelling, nice idea.

And we reintroduce Annihilus. And ooohh baby, what a reintroduction it is. Less man and far more insect than even Kirby made him, and wicked evil.

Annihilus works well as long as we're willing to buy into the body count that a creature like Annihilus would leave behind. Fortunately, we're got time and pages to show it. This is not your Rich Buckler Annihilus. Makes you wonder how the Fantastic Four would ever stand up against this version.

This is the day that the Negative Zone decided to come and kick our asses.

(Two small teases: We get a small one page interlude with the Silver Surfer. Which makes me sure that this is not going to be a battle fought with only the lightweights like Nova. At some point, the power cosmic will come into play. And, two, we get a text page introducing newbies to Thanos. Heh, heh, heh.)

The Nova issues: Nova picks up Drax and his companion and they're off to meet Quasar. The first encounter with Annihilus does not go well. Pretty much at all. Nova and Drax get out with their lives and start thinking that they need to get better at, well, at everything. Ring the curtain, wait for the next part of the story.

Loads O' Fun: a great start to the space opera, tons of death, and a resurrection of a great old Lee/Kirby villian. Now if only we don't see the wimpy Silver Surfer when he shows up, don't see the conflicted Thanos when he shows up... and if only Mar-Vell were here to help save our butts. Some great Keith Giffen writing in the dialogue, nice pacing by Lanning and Abnett and, while varied, the art by Kolins, Walker and Olivatti is good. Having a solid artist like Giffen to help pace things out doesn't hurt.

Welcome to the Starlinverse, Nova, enjoy the ride. I suspect that it's going to get a hell of a lot tougher from here.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

In Review Of: Logos and Comic Covers

Todd Klein, over at his blog, has been doing a great deal of work on a nine part series on the design and evolution of the X-Men franchise logos, from 1963 to present. In his final part (link here) he presents a number of unused ideas from Rian Hughes that have been comped on to artwork.

Its been a tremendously enjoyable series for the illustrators and designers among us. And it points out how the design around and on top of the artwork directly effects our preception of the artwork. I can't count the number of times that I was at Acclaim watching good cover artwork overwhelmed by the vertical stripe text area that they insisted on having on the covers. It denied the artists to make more of a splash with the artwork, and thus, more possiblity to attract readers. (Oddly enough, as the rest of the comic companies were going full bleed and removing many of the borders so that you could groove on the full Lee or Portacio X-Men, Acclaim went for less artwork. Sigh. I would have loved to have seen more Rags Morales Turok. Hell, I would have loved to have inked more Rags Turok. I did two pages of samples that blew socks off of people back then.)

This is something that I've been bugged by for years, both as an illustrator and as a designer. Lets take a look at Marvel through the years, and critique what they've done for design over the years. We'll see the evolution of Marvel adapting both logo area and cover design to work with both the spinner rack and newsstand, and then move on to experimenting with the direct market.

Start at the beginning, looking at the space around the classic Fantastic Four logo. Interesting negative space, a large logo, with an odd jumble of letter forms. Yet it stands out from across the room, which is what its designed to do. There is very little trade dress around it, something that Marvel would work on soon enough.

I don't think that we can overstate the importance of having Jack Kirby as your cover designer. His work screamed out at you from the page, and he would border design elements on the edge when given the opportunity to help focus the eye. The last think that you really would want to do is restrict a Kirby cover.

Please note FF #140, not a good month for the cover designers, not a good time in cover design period. They were trying to come up with a story hook for the book, and have just as many baloons as on FF#1, but in a far less elegant manner.

What I was always fascinated by were the little corner symbols that they chose to put on the upper left of the book. For instance, I thought, would you be more likely to buy this comic by the fact that it had a guy made of fire, or a big orange rock guy rather than the rest of the cover? John Byrne said that he left the Dave Cockrum heads on the X-Men book for the same number of issues that Dave drew the book before changing it to his drawing. They left the horrible Shang Chi corner guy up there long after Gulacy came on the book, which I never understood.

I was particularly hard on the production guys doing Marvel Team-Up, which had a horizontal Marvel banner, the MTU (Oft called Marvel Throw Up by the less charitable among us) logo, the abridged Spider-Man logo followed by whatever other logo was co-starring with Spidey. I always noticed when they had a co-star that didn't have his own logo, because clearly Saladino or Brodsky or one of the production guys had to quickly knock something together. Or, they decided to try a new logo, perhaps to rebrand the character, even though the word "rebrand" wouldn't be coined for another 15 years.

Just how crappy is this stat of the Ghost Rider? Do we even know who created it?

As Marvel moved in to the seventies, the top banner Marvel Comics Group logo became the standard, thus removing a half inch of space from the page. There was also a solid color drop that started to come in behind certain logos, or on certain months. Someone clearly had decided that the Captain America logo was too busy and they would alternate either black or yellow behind it to make it pop. Of course, given that it wasn't just "Captain America" then but "Captain America and the Falcon", you had a logo treatment that took literally almost 50% of the cover surface area!

I mean, just how big and bold is this Cap logo from issue #104? And doesn't Captain America scream purple to you?

A "Yellow" month for Steve and Sam.

I also liked that they decided to make it easy of us kids perusing the spinner racks, but putting the name on the upper left corner, so that you could take a single thumb and finger connection and flip through all the books in a particular spinner slot in one fell swoop.

Every so often we see some logo work that echo's the negative space of those early FFs. We can see how much larger the Leave it to Chance logo was, in a design similar to the 1963 Marvels. After the initial 4 issue run, the UPS logo would be added, and the logo would be shrunk down slightly. Too bad.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Oh, By The Way...

I'm really hoping that someone says something nice about my new header on the blog.

Been meaning to do that forever.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

In Praise Of: Girls With Slingshots by Danielle Corsetto

Staggered home last night after watching "The Future is Unwritten", Julian Temple's bio pic on Joe Strummer, and got into an animated discussion with the wife, not only of the merits of hearing "London Calling" at high volume in a theatre with a good sound system, but on art that doesn't fall into a single marketable niche. Music, theatre, movies, comics: if you're outside of the tiny slice of the expected norm, you find your self as the also-ran, the almost, the most likely to pull a "Firefly" on DVD.

I don't know Danielle Corsetto, have never met her at any of the conventions, but I appreciate that she has, little by little, piece by piece (the old fashioned way) built up a great little webcomic that would have not found a home anywhere except the internet.

Girls With Slingshots deserves a load of praise for being well written, for having evolved into being well drawn, for having a great cast, and for having great timing. None of these are nearly as easy as good cartoonists seem to make it look. Thankfully Danielle has worked out the kinks ( or in the case of Candy, in) on the personalities of Hazel, Jamie, Maureen, Clarice and Jameson, so much so that they have taken on their own voice, one that doesn't simply seem like the two hemisphere's of Danielle's brain taking positions and shouting at each other.

It should be said that occasionally Danielle writes herself into a corner, as she did last week, with Hazel and Zack, and you could tell that she wasn't sure what she wanted to say, thus the detour into slapstickville, and the current storyline with the talking cactus, McPedro. But that is all part of the fun, honestly. I find myself wondering if she's decided that her Moonlighting-killing moment of Havel getting laid is something that will never happen, and I actually hope that that is not the case. She's too good a cartoonist to believe that the strip will fall apart if Hazel finally falls into bed with someone. In fact, if she did, chances that she'd end up pining even worse when she can't get it again, so the humor is actually accentuated. Will Jamie give it up either? I'm voting for never here, only because the virgin having the best curves in the strip is just a great idea. No need to worry about jumping the shark for a long time here.

Hop on board the bandwagon early and go on over to Girls with Slingshots. Pour a shot of tequila and join in with the girls. Its a hoot. And I mean that in all the best ways.

Bill Watterson on Schultz and Peanuts

Bill Watterson, the reclusive artist of Calvin and Hobbes, emerged recently, for just a moment, to write a review of Schultz and Peanuts, the new Schultz biography by David Michaelis that is making such waves in the news currently.
The comic strip grew slowly at first, but as its vision expanded and the characters solidified, it caught fire with readers. Schulz's fixation on his work was total, and his private life suffered as a result. Mr. Michaelis uncovers quite a bit of Schulz's more personal tribulations. Schulz's strong-willed and industrious first wife, Joyce, grew disgusted with his withdrawal, and she often treated him cruelly. As the marriage finally unraveled, Schulz had an unsuccessful affair, and he later broke up the marriage of the woman who became his second wife. Schulz's life turned more peaceful after he remarried, but he never overcame the self-doubt and dread that plagued him.
It is certainly noteworthy that Watterson would comment on Peanuts, since so much of the book is concerned with the concealed pain that Sparky supposedly had, and how that bittersweet view of life drove the strip's humor. Watterson's Calvin was a marvel of conflicting humor and impulses, and he has, above just about everyone else, chosen to withdraw from the world of cartoons and art and leave the magic intact. With Peanuts, for many years, one had to live with any number of superficial interviews that very easily served both Sparky's, and/or the syndicate's needs without giving any real depth, any real window into the sardonic humor that made Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and Linus so memorable. So it is with Watterson. We are left to open up the three volumes of collected strips and relive Spaceman Spiff again and again with with naught but a hint but what lives behind Calvin's raised eyebrows. There is no man behind the curtain here for Toto to discover. The great and powerful Oz of Calvin and Hobbes telecommutes.

Schultz also, apparently, phoned his pain and loneliness and imagination from a much closer area code of Santa Rosa, but the roots of those emotions clearly go back in time and place to somewhere so far removed they may as well be Oz. I'm already reading Schultz and Peanuts, as well as reading how angry his family is in the New York Times, and will post a review soon.

Monday, October 15, 2007

In Reveiw Of: Nova #7 by Abnett, Lanning and Chen

Continuing on my reading of the Starlinverse, the crossover Annihilation:Quest books, as I'm such a sucker for space opera. I'm still not sure how I feel about the last Quasar issue, with Moondragon becoming a true dragon, so I've not put my snark filter on and ripped the issue to shreds. I'm withholding judgement on that one.

This one, Nova 7, I have to say that I'm going after. First off, Granov's covers get a thumbs up, they've been decent promotional posters. I think that I'm a little put out that Chen needs two inkers to get everything to come together each issue. Are they that far behind the deadline? Is Scott Hanna simply too slow? I will say that I'm surprised at the story arc here. What is a little odd is the separation of the series that we're following: Nova, Star Lord, Quasar and the interminable Wraith. I was really hoping for some overlap on the stories to keep our interest as we jumped from book to book in the publishing schedule.

I liked the idea of a kree Nova, but Abnett and lanning had it in for her after only two issues. So we're stuck again with Richard Ryder, who has been a sap since Sal Buscema was delineating him in the 1970's. And worse, we've had to deal with three issues of Gamora, deadliest waxer in the galaxy, to judge by her costume.

I mean, must we? I thought that we'd moved beyond this. Its inspired an entire server full of internet snark over costumes like this, and, besides, Gamora used to have the kick-ass fur on her collar. If you were her, would you possibly ditch the fur? Space is very cold, and we wouldn't want to excite the fanboys now, would we?

Drax the Destroyer makes another appearance, and this time shows up infected with the technovirus, which makes no sense whatsoever. We're going to get into another of those, "did you actually do your homework?" scenarios by the end of the issue. After all, Drax is a Golem, pure and simple. Soul of Heather's father, trapped in dirt and formed by the god Chronos. The prior issue had him getting a beat down by Nova, which is already somewhat questionable, but they've decided to make Nova a major cosmic badass so OK. But there is no way that Drax should get infected with a technovirus. If anything, he shjould be more immune than Super Skrull, who is clearly fighting the virus over in the Wraith book. Finally, at the end of the issue, Drax puts on a space suit to go chase Nova, which is clear idiocy. Drax has never needed a space suit in his life.

And yes, these are fanboy points, but if you're going to play with the toys, you've got to respect some of the continuity as well. The Starlinverse wasn't built in a day, you know.

Final points: Nova has taken a couple twists that you wouldn't have seen at the first issue, which is good. Star Lord is great fun and far, far, far too short a run. It should be running for 7 or 8 issues to really give us the epic that team deserves. Wraith is boring and stupid. Ronin tortures the Wraith for two days to get him to talk, the Wraith finally laughs at him and says, "I live for pain." and then proceeds to conveniently tell the Accuser everything he needs to know. Quasar is a good quest book, also one that should be about 8 issues long, as 4 simply doesn't give you that good ol' "Marvel-epic from the 70's when the writers would smoke a spliff and go off on yet another tangent for an issue" feel.

And this could use it that feel. In fact, it would totally set if apart if it actually had that. Lets not overlook the value of being different.

Coming up next: an entire generation of children have been born in between Cho's Avengers #3 and #4. We talk to many of those children as they graduate college and see what they think of the Ultron epic that wouldn't end.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

In Review Of: Meanwhile... the Milton Caniff biography

With the deftness of a brush, Milton Caniff could conjure up a multitude of attributes to the clothing, the cars, the planes, the jeeps, the characters that lived in his worlds: Terry's and Steve's. It is an interesting balancing act that Robert Harvey has to do here: present Milton the man, and like all good biographers, separate Milton the man from Milton the cartooning legend and Milton the myth. It’s not an easy task, and for his troubles, I'm going to be harder to Harvey than he deserves.

Certainly, if there are any cartoonists from the early days of the medium, days in which the cartoons reached a huge audience and provoked strong reaction from loyal readers, Caniff is one of the ones that deserve a 1000 pages. Active for 50 years of serial cartooning alone, not to mention all of his extra curricular activities during World War 2, Milton was there with a generation of giants who bestrode the ink stained world of the syndicates and papers in the 1930's. Harvey has his work cut out for him. And he pulls most of it off rather well.

However, which is almost as meaningful as the Meanwhile.... title of the book, Harvey spends more time than necessary lingering in places, and while I'm sure it is in the interests of completeness, we get bogged down in the second half of the book with profusion of events during the long Steve Canyon run. Harvey is simply too close to the subject. Close enough to get the early years and the formation of the man who would guide Terry and the Pirates into the national limelight to get it right, for which we should be grateful, but too close to back out during periods when the microscopic detail is no longer necessary.

And, in reality, Caniff comes off as a fairly nice guy, who enjoyed great success with his work, but he's less interesting for his lack of faults than the work is. by his very words, Milton makes a point out of what makes his characters interesting, and he has very few of those qualities. Milton was a good guy, worked incredibly hard, and succeeded, but it is the product of that work that is more interesting than the man. Terry and Miss Lace won a place in the hearts of the nation at a time when they were perfect for the readers.

Along the way we continually run into memorable bits: Harvey's admission that Sickles was the better artist, and his showing the panels to prove it. His beautiful evocation of the New York cartoonist's scene in the 1930's, one filled with youth and booze and watering holes and a camaraderie that should warm the heart of anyone that ever had the dream of making a life drawing pictures. You can feel the ink stains on Milton’s fingers as he works long in to the night, Sickles and others in their New York railroad studio. His meeting with Hal Foster is also memorable.

Now the criticisms: Harvey's writing style is verbose, and on the back indexes, when he is not being copy edited so strenuously, it’s a hard slog. Even so, there are times in the book when I would love to see him pared down, but that is pretty infrequently, so my props to the editors. The choices of artwork are good, nearly perfect even, and the reproduction solid, so that the great sweeps of Caniff's blacks maintain their density and impact. (If only people could see the originals, they would be far more impressed by the impact of the full size artwork. I know that the comic artist works for reproduction, but the originals have such an impact.) The summation of Caniff that takes place at the end of the book is as well written as it needs to be. It accurately sums up what we think that we've seen throughout the book: Milton was a giant of his profession, and the world recognized that.

I wonder how many will be tempted to slog through the 944 pages. And the truth here is that you need not work your way thorough everything here. There is plenty good to be found along the way for the casual fan. I sometimes wonder that there are fans of the medium who will pick up a tome like this just as they would Finnegan’s Wake: they pick it up because they think that they should, not because they want to. They guilt themselves into making the effort. And Milton deserves more than that, at least in my estimation. He entertained millions of readers, and for once that number is not an exaggeration.

Oh yeah, I can’t stand the dust jacket. Tossed it out in favor of the cover that I’ve scanned here: simple, clean and beautful. Milton might appreciate the great use of negative space.

Quick Hits: Steranko and the X-Men logo

Excerpted froma comic book resources article also mentioned in todd klien's blog): Jim Steranko's comments about taking on the X-Men book, and the design for the now-famous X-Men logo:
“At first, I didn’t want to work on the X-Men because of all the five-sided panels. I couldn’t relate to the characters, I didn’t know how to make it work, so I asked to work incognito on the book. But I signed my name to my first three covers. And that logo they had was awful. Logos were trademarked, but they let me redesign it, just to get rid of that awful logo. I never got paid for it.”
Certainly one of the most iconic logos, if not the iconic logo that Marvel Comics has had since 1962 - and Jim never got paid for it. Sigh.