Friday, October 30, 2009

In Review Of: Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

There have already been any number of penetrating reviews of Asterios, a tour-de-force graphic novel by Mazzucchelli, whose growth into a true arteur from middling Marvel penciller is almost unprescedented within the industry, and this review will not only try to bring up any number of things that I like about the GN but also try to address the need/desire/aesthetics of the "formalist" Graphic Novel.

David has taken the baton from the esteemed Will Eisner, whose graphic narrative books address the idea of thinking beyond the panel into the page and all of its associative elements as being visual components that can be used to further the story. We're all familiar with the elements that he pioneered in The Spirit, the lucic panel borders, the lettering flowing within visual elements to approximate the intimacy of sound echo that movies have done such a good job of since Citizen Kane, the movement of the panels themselves to try to imitate the movement of the jostling subway car. Mazzucchelli has taken those not only to heart, but to further with differentiated art styles and colors, allowing him to work on any number of different levels withing the same scene. The scene where Asterios meets his future wife Hana at a party is loaded with multiple layers of subtext not only by drawing style, by color but also by the naming conventions used.

The question that Eisner never asks within his books, and that he wouldn't have probably thought to ask, is "does the use of these visual devices make the reader so aware of the page itself and the tricks being used that they ask as a visual distraction?" To this reader, whose last 36 years have been to try and understand all the best possible visual ways to tell a story, this formalist approach may simply be to distancing at times. And it is, make no mistake about it, an aesthetic choice all along the way, one that belies my belief that for the GN format to work it needs works of this level of sophistication and complexity. There is a dearth of works out there that one needs in hardcover, but this is one of them.

So I put out there that while we can debate the names used in the novel (Hana, a flower whose petals only open later in life, Asterios, whose last name places him as an extraneous bit of tissue, knicknames her Daisy, a lightly regarded flower as opposed to a rose or lily), and it is of more importance that we have the debate, in public thank you very much, so that the layers of the onion can be peeled back to reveal the work below. I don't think that this is a book of Joycean levels, and, in fact, believe that the artist who is trying to create "the great work" often misses the fact that he or she will have already created a master piece elsewhere (but it usually came so easily that they regard it much more lightly). Rubber Blanket #2 contains a story that within a much smaller number of pages contains a loose brushwork that has lost none of its visual appeal along with fomalist "choices" such as the deliberate use of minimal and sometimes over-printed colors to make a solid character study with as much depth as the well-regarded "500 Days of Summer" currently playing at a multiplex near you.

While I enjoy that David put as much work into the back story, I'm afraid that that the storyline lacks a lot of punch. More important than the resolution of the story is the trip to get there. Asterios and Hana's love and marriage are the put under the microscope in enough detail to tell you everything that you need to know about many of the choices that the characters make. I question that I need a color overlay to tell me that Asterios moves the spotlight towards himself, literally in Mazzucchelli's vision, while obstensibly praising Hana's art. I'm not sure that i do, but then again, i'm not sure anyone else outside of Eisner would have done it that way.

There is much to admire, and while I'm thinking the work through, I know that it will come off like I disliked the book. Things to love: the lower tier of panels that take in a range of Hana's behavior, depicting all the very human parts of her existence, at once invalidating the unique vision that we men have of the women that we fall in love with, at the same time rounding her out as a fuller being beyond all the incidental character bits that we're used to seeing. It compresses time in a different way than the standard montage. There are any number of interesting vingnettes that will stay with you far longer than the actual story will: the picnic at the meteor crater, that scenes with Hana's Broadway producer, the ordinary and yet revealing moments in the marriage that will ring true to practically any married couple. Alternately I thought that some of the storytelling devices we heavy handed and yet hadn't been done to death, or done at all, by others, and thus were worth doing.

Is it the masterpiece that some are calling it? Or is it merely a really, really good project that might get a little buried under the weight of everyone's expectations? Personally I think the latter, and thats a shame, because many a good project was lost under the heavy pressure that comes with audience expectations. David deserves major props for pulling it all off and creating a solid and inventive book. Only time will tell how many times it gets taken down and read.

Can we revisit this in about 10 years?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Selling Marvel to the Ladies and to the Masses: David Gabriel

Just a few random thoughts on Marvel Senior VP of Sales David Gabriel, who has a long interview running in the retailer only Diamond Daily, parts of which were excerpted by Heidi in The Beat.

"Everybody is in absolute agreement that the longer these stories play out, the less likely people are to be interested in them,” but denies this means “event fatigue”.

Really? That sounds like a very easy way to try and avoid the negative connotations associated with the phrase, "event fatigue", but if you have to double talk your way out of doing another Secret Invasion, then fine. I mean, my inner fan boy liked Secret Invasion, but too many books, too long, too much. I found myself really enjoying only the books that didn't tie in. David, while everyone talks up Secret Wars as the beginning of Marvel's infatuation with big crossovers, remember that Shooter made it so that you didn't have to get every other book to keep reading.

Later on in the year, we’re going to do an omnibus with full runs from things like Night Nurse, Hellcat, and some other things you really wouldn’t collect anywhere else. Because this a big omnibus celebrating the Marvel women, we can get the full runs into that and make an event out of its release.

Which will hopefully filter down into editorial not saying "Yes" to any new covers featuring tentacle porn. It is interesting that Marvel is clearly acknowledging that there is female readership that they haven't captured. I'm just not sure that they can overcome their desire to appeal to the regular fan boys who like their Ms. Marvel in a thong. It should be an interesting tug of war to see how much female readership they think that they can get with only a year long initiative. In publishing terms, I don't see a year as being a very long period to try and convince female readers that Marvel is actively interested in courting them.

Besides, who is the target audience that they're printing the Omnibus for anyway? I don't know of any women that even know about Night Nurse, much less the Claws of the Cat, and know none that are going to want to buy it out of some misguided nostalgia for comics that they don't even know exist. Hell, I HAVE the Claws of the Cat and I don't need it in omnibus form.

Now here's one that makes even less sense:

There’s a gap there because the idea is we want to sell out of the Premiere hardcovers first, making those the collectibles for readers that have to get a story right away and can’t wait on. Then those that wanted to wait could get the collection in paperback a few months later.
Now, however, they’re going to have to wait a little longer, as we’re going to push back the release of trade paperbacks out to about four to five months after the Premiere hardcovers’ releases. That should really give retailers that are selling those Premiere hardcovers an extra couple of months to sell them.

So lets attack this for a Sales perspective: the industry trend is going towards the TPB model, slowly but surely, so you're moving back the TPBs believing that you'll sell more hardbacks? The reality is that everyone that i know makes a quick internal decision: this is something that I want in X format. Classic Kirby FF? Worth it in hardback. The Brubaker Daredevil material? Softcover. And I'll read the heck out of it, but I'm not buying it in hardback, no matter how you make me. All the great sci-fi Annihilation material? You too forever to get it out in softcover. And i'm not buying that in hardcover. All you did was annoy the hell out of me and get my money later, not sooner. Wouldn't you rather have it sooner?

And thats the key here, you can't make me buy anything I don't want. If you only released the Daredevil in hardcover, I likely wouldn't buy it at all. By giving me the different formats you're more likely to get my money, one way or the other. In the music format analogy, don't just release it on cassette. Release it on CD, cassette, vinyl, and on iTunes and you'll get ALL of us to buy it. Would the average retailer want to sell two hardbacks or a greater volume of soft and hardbacks combined? The better strategy is to release both at once and let the retailer and customers decide the appropriate type of media.

On “The Heroic Age", coming in 2010:

If you remember the first pages of the Marvel books from the 70s, Marvel always had these lines at the top of the page, month after month, giving a synopsis of what the comic was all about. We have something already written up that explains what the Heroic Age is, and we should be ready to roll that out sometime in January.

The Heroic Age took place between 1963 and 1969 or 1970 and your synopsis should use words like "Kirby" and "Ditko" and "Lee" and "Kane" and "Steranko" and "Heck" if you really want to get it right.

New Work: The Human Hourglass Page 8

If you head on over to, you'll find that I've got a new page up. Now, mind you, its been a bit since I've updated, but i've been trying to get a head on my own internal deadline and at the same time provide you with the best work that i can produce.

Its all a learning experience. This whole writing, pencilling, drawing and toning thing. yeah, one big hairy learning experience. Slowly but surely, I'm digging it.

If you've not clicked over to the yocomics site, take a look and let me know what you think of the story so far. I promise to keep a regular flow of pages for a while. As well, soon I should have some new commission pieces with Red Sonja inks as well as some Bruce Timm inks. I'll post those soon!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

10 Panels That Always Work

One think that I remember going into the comics business was seeing photocopies of this sheet of paper floating around the Defiant offices... and wondering just how many years that thing had been photocopied and copied again...

Wally Wood was a masterful artist who ground himself down into the ground with comics and deadlines and hitting his head against the wall in an effort go gain some, hell, ANY recognition and financial renumeration for his work. And he'd pretty much fail, time and again. Read the biography, Wally's World and see the sad deterioration of a really great artist. Just seeing his classic EC work is one thing, but there are other pieces out there, a beautiful western painting that i don't necessarily have the link to, that show just how damn good he was.

Interesting, when you look at this sheet, just how many panels of comics that you've read and loved will pop into your head! There is a great deal of suggestion in this layouts themselves, tension and mystery hiding in some of the crops, sturdiness or reassurance in other framing devices that can really add (or detract as the case may be) to the story they are used in. It just goes to show that, like chords in pop music, these elements can be recombined over and over again in new and interesting ways to make endless variations.

I have never reached a panel and found myself pulling this sheet out and going, "Hmm, what is the next cool panel going to be?" but, having assimilated it, its like having a good amount of tools at your disposal, so that you can look at the thumbnails and see that action that needed to be contained in the panel and pick subtly different ways to emphasize the action or the mood. Having these panels down in one places is like knowing those chords by heart.

Thanks Woody.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Iron Man #18 page 4: Tuska and Craig

As promised, Tuska doing a great issue of Iron Man before the writers started to phone it in allowing George to do the same for a lot of years. here is the original, cleaner than you'll find on the original printing and miles better that you'll see in the Essentials issue of Iron Man.

The penciller in me enjoys the establishing shot in the first panel, and how dropping the border on the second brings our attention from the prone Tony Stark to his cousin, Midas and Madame Masque. Excellent technique in leading the eye.

Take a good look at the delicate inking on Tony's face in panel 2 or the face of Madame Masque in panel 3. George wouldn't get any inking that delicate for the next 20 years or so. And its a shame.

Friday, October 16, 2009

R.I.P. George Tuska

Just learned from Danny Boy's blog that George Tuska has died, and it brought back plenty of memories of his Iron Man's, as well as a host of other series that he worked on.

George was the artist on the first issue that I ever brought (Iron Man #64), only the second comic that I had ever seen, and I was completely and utterly perplexed by being thrown into the middle of a confusing Dr. Spectrum story. My seven year old brain was trying desperately to understand some of the visual language native to comics (speed lines, pointers on word balloons, certain visual shorthand that unique to Tuska) and try to understand the story at the same time!

None the less, i did figure it out, and would go on to buy up a ton of back issues with George's work, as well as following the series going forward. George was never my favorite artist, his work as a bit stiff and as he went on in his career ( a career that had been going on for a long time!) he relied on many of the same poses and faces. It was a revelation to come across Iron Man #11-18, where a number of the issues were inked by Johnny Craig, the grand EC veteran, and they brought a finishing skill to Tuska's work that was missing from most of his inkers. I think that George was very poorly served by his inkers over the years, and the evidence is right there.

I have an original from Iron Man #18 that I'll scan and post later so that you can see the work in all its black and white glory.

None the less, I met George for the first time just about 6 years ago, and he was an extremely nice man. I continue to stress going out and meeting your heroes before they pass away, and in this case i'm glad that i got the chance to chat with him. He did a great Iron Man sketch for me that i have to this day.

Someone with more material to scan should really go back and some of George's work from the 1950's so that we can see it. That would be cool.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Stalking the 70's Artists

Steven Grant writes today one of the finest overviews of the 1970's comics art scene that I've ever run across, and its worth your time to read it both if you were there, and if you came along later and want a little history behind the 1980's. A couple of thoughts on his post:

Steven posits that its an oddity that the early 1970's rush of talent resulted in such a meager showing of great comic art from those involved, even though they laid the groundwork for the 1980's. I think that while he talks later in the article about how this is partly because it is easier to make a living in comics by imitating another's style, it also misses the point about those involved being either driven out by the deadlines, or the editorial style or simply having already given their world the initial gift of their art.

I've made the case in an earlier post that without the '70's groundwork, there would be no '80's comics. There would be no "All New, All Different X-Men" by Cockrum to make a Billion dollars at the box office, no Englehart/Rogers Batman to rip off, without Starlin, there would be no Marvel Sci-Fi comic universe to surf outside of the one that Kirby invented. Many of the creators that Grant talks about had no other choice, business-wise, but to conform to what was being offered to them. Either make those deadlines and conform or leave. Steranko left, Gulacy stayed, Starlin kept trying to leave and coming back, Adams left and found more money in advertising while keeping a toe in comics, Weiss stayed but turned in relatively small amounts of art. Smith left, Kaluta kinda left but only somewhat.

And yet this storied group left a great mass of artwork out there. It may not seem like it given the amount of dross that those pages are surrounded by, but that doesn't take into account the selective memory of their work. I've long since forgotten the other comics that I bought the same day as the Kaluta Shadow, perhaps an Ernie Chan Batman, perhaps something by Irv Novick, but I remember almost every panel in the Shadow book. God knows what other issues I bought the day that I picked up Captain Marvel #30, but I can quote almost every panel by heart from that Starlin comic. As Lou Reed once said, only 1,000 people ever listened to the Velvet Underground, but all 1,000 of them started bands. You didn't need to have Kaluta or Smith or Steranko produce like Kirby and Kane for them to galvanize another generation of comic artists to get drawing. Those pages have been burned into the memory of every reader of that time period.

And it set the stage for Chaykin to move on and produce American Flagg! later on for First. I wouldn't have wanted to see him try that series any earlier. He wasn't ready for it, and neither was the market. Steranko had to go out and produce "Red Tide" for Preiss and fail miserably to put a crack or two in the wall. Eventually the wall would fall, but it would take repeated efforts to bring it down, and, as usual, the pioneers are the ones that suffer.

Peaks? You could argue that Adams was never better after 1971, or Starlin after 1975, but Chaykin was at his best in 1982, and Gulacy in 1976 or 1980 depending. Different artists peak at different times. And their influence will extend differently because of that. There mass of Americans in the 1970's did produce fascinating work, and did so under the guise of mainstream comics, which, in itself, is a trick.

And, since I don't believe that the decades meet perfectly on the calendar either, I say that the 1980's comics started with the first issue of John Byrne on the X-Men: #108.

I agree with Grant on the Filipino artists, whose work, while many times technically more accomplished than the Americans was also claustrophobic when printed, and more "illustrat-y" and inhibited the readability of the comic story.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Human Hourglass Page 12 sketch

Sometimes I just love the energy in the pencil sketches.

Pencil on 8.5 x 11 paper, photocopied to darken the lines. For The Human Hourglass page 12.

Monday, October 12, 2009

These truths we hold self evident...

Tom over that Comics Reporter has spent a great deal of time thinking about assumptions that he has had in regards to comics, and put together a rather thoughtful column about them. While we both have come to comics from a similar perspective, I find that my idea of comics has changed radically in the last 20 years to encompass both my experiences with becoming a professional in the comics industry (and all the revisionist/disillusionment that comes from that), as well as having children and watching them come to comics from a number of different angles rather than one direction: the spinner rack.

We hold these truths self evident: That comics will come out each week in a serialized periodical format in the corner drugstore. Well, yeah. 30+ years ago. One of Tom’s sacred cows is that the serialized form of comics will continue, and yet he scans one of the lovely paperback books that collected Peanuts in the “foursquare” panel format, a format that was in all the bookstores of the 1970’s and had a lot to do with the continued availability of the older Schultz works while other comics artist’s work languished and disappeared from the public consciousness. To me, the serialized work makes little difference in the impact of the work. My own daughter reads each issue of wonder Woman as it comes out and sees no difference between that and the New Frontier work, which to her is only two issues long. All she knows is the TPB version of New Frontier and it makes absolutely no difference to her whatsoever. It makes little difference to me know except that I can see the seams of the collections: the artificial breaks ever 22 pages to cliffhanger out, the occasional change of artist as the story arc needs a break.

Whereas Tom found himself reading and collecting the Celestial Madonna storyline, yet was even more intrigued by the Kree/Skull War, I found that it is hard to imagine loosing my science fiction cherry to anything by the Thanos War. Instead of the making the Kree/Skrull war into more than it was in my head, I can’t possibly extricate my childhood brain from being melted by Thanos’ desire to use the Cosmic Cube to become God. I can’t be nostalgic for someone else’s loss of virginity while experiencing my own.

The Kree/Skrull war also finished completely unspectacularly, whereas Englehart actually got to finish the Celestial Madonna storyline in much better fashion.

Tom talks about wanting comics to fashion as an entertainment for a child, which is something that I agree with, having two daughters, but in writing the sentence “Whether or not there are comics for kids, I still want comics to function as a pastime for a child.” Tom falls into the trap of seeing “comics” as a thing, not as a medium. Try substituting “movies” for that sentence and you’ll see how quickly it falls apart. More than ever before, I want comics that entertain my children and comics that they can move to as teenages and comics that we can discuss as adults. I want my children to love the cinematic form enough to go from Nemo to Harry Potter and Star Wars and then on to countless movies after that. Same with books, same with comics. The medium should make no distinction between ages. The material presented in the medium is the distinction, that’s all.

Tom’s last point, about material lasting forever is an interesting one. At what point have Superman and Batman run their course? There have been plenty of other characters that have had their day and since moved into sustained existence only in the presence of back issue bins and Yahoo chat rooms. That last great new Doc Savage book? Didn’t buy it. Same thing with the last new issue of The Shadow, Tom Mix, Furry Freak Brothers and Longshot. Had the discussion with my wife the other night about why Neil Simon’s work seemed to work so well in the 1970’s and not so much after that. There are times when the artist’s work finds favor with the current cultural zeitgeist and then peters out and the nostalgia factor starts to kick in. I don’t know where I stand on this, given that I prefer stories that have beginnings, middles and ends (and to do this with my favorite Marvel characters, I just pretend that the book ends at a certain point and move on. Should I like the direction that a book goes later, I’ll just pick it back up.) but then I get used to having those different artists and writers moving in and out of the books, so its easy to abandon that completist mentality that I used to have. Captain America seemed like a great idea in 1940, wasn’t relevant again til Kirby made him fun in Tales of Suspense, made some interesting points in the 1970s with Englehart and then pretty much dropped off of the radar of interesting (Stern/Byrne aside) until the Brubaker/Epting run.

Nothing lasts forever. Great stories do last though, and maybe one of the reasons that they last is satisfactory conclusions that leave the audience feeling, well, satisfied. Satisfied that they got the story, whether they liked the ending or not.