Quote for the Week 12/20/11

"... I have more of an emotional attachment for these characters than I thought possible. I don't know what else to say that hasn't been said hundreds of times before so I'll just say thank you. Thank you for revitalizing my love of reading. Thank you for making me see comics as valuable entertainment. Thank you for all the wonderful stories you've given me. And thank you for all the ones you still have to tell. ..."
~ "The Walking Dead" reader Jason Winchell writing in to his favorite comics' letter column Letter Hacks with gratitude for the work of writer Robert Kirkman, printed in the back of last week's "The Walking Dead" #92.

Surprise?

Thanks to a request from my friend Davy (@davidbrustlin) I had a copy of this comic in my house for a few days:

"Fear Agent" #32, the last issue of the series. Now, I am notorious (especially to Davy) for reading (or watching) ahead, skipping over issues (or episodes), and generally 'spoiling' myself on all kinds of developments 'ahead' of me in serial narratives

I rarely find that my enjoyment of a story is ruined by knowing what's happened chronologically further down the river from where I stand in the current. The ideal? No. A disaster? Not really.

So I opened up "Fear Agent" #32...

...and I was delighted to find this message on the inside front cover.

Rick Remender, Tony Moore, and Dark Horse (@DarkHorseComics) are smart gents.

They saw my type coming a mile away:
You saw me coming didn't you, last issue of "Fear Agent"?

I read it anyway.

I liked it. A lot.

I found, in "Fear Agent" #32, a story I could mostly understand and although I could not appreciate its connection to the overall structure of the series, I did deeply appreciate its structure as an individual issue. I just plain, old-fashioned, enjoyed it. I followed the conclusion to its main character's emotional arc, felt its resonance in my own life, and was moved by it.

And as I write these words, I'm reading "The Walking Dead" #92 on the NYC subway without having read #14 through #91. I like it, but not a lot.

Not enough to commit to reading the ongoing zombie survival horror epic. Sorry. But still. This is not a bad thing.

I think of it as a test. If I can enjoy this issue for its emotional, storytelling, creative content out-of-context? The creators are doing something right.

So congratulations to writer Rick Remender (@Remender) and artist Tony Moore (@tonymoore). You made me love something. Even without having "read the book up to this point".

~ @JonGorga

Another Legend Gone


As much as it saddens me to have to do this, to post about the death of one comics great right after a post about the death of another, I don't really have a choice, since Joe Simon, co-creator of Captain America, passed away on Wednesday. Because I'm in the final throes of the most stressful finals of my life, I don't have the time to spend on a post commemorating Simon the way he deserves, but there'll be one, after the first of year.

In the meantime, here's to you, Joe Simon. 

The Gentleman of Comics is Gone

People revered Jerry Robinson in our industry because he created The Joker and worked on Batman when he was seventeen years old. I revered Jerry Robinson because he survived our industry with his integrity intact.

He died two days ago, here in New York City.

[via NYCGraphicNovelists.com]

In 1938, he started working for Bill Finger and Bob Kane on Batman as a letterer and assistant inker. A year later, he was inking the book, then naming Robin, on to creating The Joker, Two-Face, and the best butler in popular fiction: Alfred Pennyworth. Soon, he was the key writer, then he switched to penciling the adventures of the Dark Knight.

Later he moved over to newspaper strips, creating two different strips in the 60s and 70s, which in turn led him to two terms as the president of two different nation-wide cartoonists guilds. He next tried his hand as a comics historian, penning a comprehensive history of comics in newspapers.

Most remarkably, in 1975, he and superstar artist Neal Adams secured credit and a lifetime stipend for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, long-since cast-away. Siegel and Shuster were literally brought in-house and eventually fired from DC after selling them their biggest cash-cow: the first superhero, Superman. Thanks to Adams and Robinson, a small permanent salary was established and their names have been attached to every piece of media featuring Superman ever since. Although even partial ownership rights to their creation was still not granted to them or their families until quite recently, the first steps were made by Adams and Robinson.

In 1978, he upped his commitment to this industry and founded an international syndicate of comics creators, one that still exists today.

This man's accomplishments are not just wide-ranging, not just impressive. Not merely great. They were genuine. They displayed integrity.

When I met Jerry Robinson, very very quickly, in October 2o1o, I was delighted to discover that he was a gentleman. I also learned about his versatility that night: Artist. Writer. Historian. Humanitarian.

Jerry Robinson was an inspiration. A direct inspiration, as I foresee in his legacy a world where comics creators don't have to be cheated out of their rights or their pay.

Losing this man is a loss for us all.

~ @JonGorga

Defenders Assemble

If there was any question as to whether or not Matt Fraction was the most versatile writer in mainstream comics, Defenders #1 should settle it. In the last year, Fraction added both one of Marvel's flagship books (his Thor is a highpop masterpiece, beautiful and consistently brilliant) and the best event comic in a long time (Fear Itself, which still definitely has its faults) to his bibliography, which already included his work on Casanova, Invincible Iron Man and, my favorite comic of all time, Immortal Iron Fist. Now, with his first year as Marvel's main man behind him, Fraction pulls what could very well be his best single comic ever out of the box; if Defenders follows up on the promise of this first issue, we could have the first great epic of the Modern Age on our hands.

Of course, to give all the credit to Fraction would be a pretty serious sin; this is a great looking book. It has no pretensions towards "high art," it gives no concessions to photorealism; this is high-grade comics art, pure and simple. Terry Dodson's characters move with ease; this art is easiest the supplest I've seen in a long time. There's definitely a certain thrust to his panel designs, and his figures are dynamic even though, as comic art, they're necessarily static. Beyond even that, though, the figures have this marvelous rounded quality; they're cartoony and stylized like what Kirby might have looked like if he had traded blocky for slick. All of this only works, though, because the people finishing up Dodson are so damn good. The inker is his wife, Rachel Dodson, who has to be among the best in the business. Her default line is heavy enough to be noticeable, it's an important part of what gives the art its distinctively slick look, but not so heavy as to be overpowering, and certainly not heavy enough to strangle everything else on the page. This is a very good thing, because colorist Sonia Oback does a very good job of doing a lot with a little. Although a far cry from the "flat" colors that we saw in the pages of Thor: The Mighty Avenger and, more recently, Daredevil, Oback's palate is simple, almost basic, and she doesn't try anything clever: she gives the Dodsons' lines depth, but does a very good job of going just far enough, so that what we get is a comic that looks like a comic, and that doesn't have pretensions towards anything else.

Defenders is an honest book, just trying to be the best comic it can be, and at that it is a magnificent success; that it looks like a comic book should look is only half the reason why (although, too often, it is something that gets overlooked).

Fraction, of course, is the other half. He's helping his art team here: the book does well the things that comics are supposed to do well. It has forward motion, for one, a motion driven by easily readable panel design and a certain artistic thrust, but defined by the general structure and pacing of the comic. Aside from being a clearly distinct narrative, with a distinct three act structure, (note: this sentence so far should probably read "FRACTION'S NOT WRITING FOR TRADE! HOORAY!," but I'm trying to contain my excitement at a writer practicing what should be the basic tenant of comics writing), it gives each protagonist a proper introduction and moment in the spotlight, and sets up a telling internal monologue for each of them, one that emphasizes character in particular contrast to what comes out in the dialogue. This is not to say that the characters don't fit together, or something: the dialogue is an absolute joy, and it seems as natural as anything.

I want to emphasize that, when I use the word "motion," that I'm not just talking figuratively: the way that Defenders moves from place to place literally is impressive (and the panels with the team on the train, with the Surfer outside the window, keeping pace on his board, are AWESOME). Fraction is clearly concerned with it: a surprising percentage of the comic is devoted to it. I'm hoping that it's indicative of a larger tendency towards meditation on the mechanics of what goes on inside the pages of the book, both in terms of the mechanics of the actual plot and in terms of coherence. A comic doesn't have to be perfectly explained to make sense, but the ones that are both (and keep in mind that "perfectly explained" doesn't mean that everything is explained, just the right amount) are few and far between. Fraction is clearly thinking about how his characters get from A to B, and I hope that means that, in the long run, Defenders is going to hang together quite well, that all the pieces are going to fit together and that everything is going to make sense, at least in its proper moment.

That this is a concern which the book diligently does not confirm is impressive, particularly since the premise is that this team that the Hulk is putting together is the team that is going to protect the Marvel Universe from the impossible. One wonders what is impossible in the Marvel Universe, what with its mutant mermen, its sorcerers supreme, its ripped red women, its silver surfers; anything that Fraction throws at this team he's assembled is going to have to boggle the mind. Interestingly, Defenders seems to be aware of its status as a comic book, and I do mean the book itself rather than any of the characters, as they are all blissfully unaware. On the bottom of the pages, though, there are these little messages, advising the reader as to where the story continues and advertising what's going on in a few of the other, perhaps important, Marvel books. A device like this makes me wonder if were in for some kind of meta-adventure, one much more Grant Morrison writing himself into Animal Man than Deadpool's "comic sense."

If we are, there's no team that I would trust to do it more than I trust this one. Defenders is the last essential comic of 2011, and it may also be the first. I haven't been this excited for the second issue of a series in a very long time.

Ilias Kyriazis Self-Publishes New Mini-Comic

Mister Ilias Kyriazis, Greek comicsmith of "Falling For Lionheart" (the graphic novella of last year I had huge anticipation for, really enjoyed, and included on my Best of 2o1o List), has a brand new short comic called "The Dragon And The Ghost" soon to be self-published and available exclusively on his website.

[via Ilias Kyriazis' Google+ account]

Look at this gorgeous thing:
"Falling For Lionheart" was sad, funny, beautiful, enlightening, smart, explosive with action, delightful with romance, and still clear in its main plot-line. Drawn in smooth, simple, cartoony lines, still solid enough to give weight to the characters' realism, and colored vividly and dramatically. Further, the use of the two very divergent styles: slick superhero and rough underground make the story tick in a new beat from one moment to the next.

The comic is so good, it nearly defies description. And that is only part of why a review of it never appeared here from me. I really should have completed one, because there is not nearly enough awareness of European comics here in the US.

His few comics online are also great. If you're a Beatles fan, prepare for a mind-fuck of a comic in "The One and Only Billy Shears". Marvel at his adaptation "The Iliad in Sixteen Pages". The two pages of POV from within an ancient Greek helmet deserve an award in and of themselves.

"The Dragon And The Ghost" has been previewed here (in Greek) by Comicdom.com and I'm excited even though the article isn't in a language I can read. The comic's promotion is for several reasons... inscrutable.

The opening line of the comic's short description up on the website is:

"Deep in the forest lives Therr Zon Aakh, the last American dragon."

This is the three-quarter splash page that got me a bit tingly:

Yes, that does appear to be a cavern full of treasures of history, art, and nature. I'm not entirely sure what all that means? At all? But I'm in.

"The Dragon And The Ghost" mini-comic is available exclusively directly in his online store that opened here yesterday.

~ @JonGorga

Quote for the Week 12/4/11

"It's got unlimited potential. I mean, any art-form where you can use any word in the dictionary-- all the words Shakespeare used, you know, like, he doesn't have a copyright on 'em, you know? You can use any word you want. You can use a vast variety of illustration styles. They're very comparable to movies. I mean, both of 'em use words and pictures."
~ Harvey Pekar, the excellent late underground comics writer, in an interview recorded in 2oo8 for a documentary about Jeff Smith, available on YouTube here.

The Improvised Explosive Destruction of Quality of Life

"BOOM!", from CartoonMovement.com

A website now exists that is long, long overdue: CartoonMovement.com, a site solely for journalism-webcomics & webcartoons. (With an accompanying Twitter account! @cartoonmovement) The concept of journalism in the form of comics-- pioneered largely by the intrepid Joe Sacco (the comicsmith behind the brilliant and achingly painful "Palestine")-- has finally gone digital and there is fine work being done over there.

For example? The recent post entitled "BOOM!" written by David Axe (@daxe) and drawn by Ryan Alexander-Tanner (@ohyesverynice). A story about a single explosion on a lonely road in Afghanistan. Axe has done a marvelous job of reportage in recounting what it felt like to be isolated with only a few soldiers on a desert road and of the painful alienating effects drifting into his civilian life from the minor brain damage received as a parting gift from the incident. Alexander-Tanner's cartoony style is awkward at times but he translates Axe's experience into his rounded-black-lines-on-white world with grace.

The storytelling is focused and small when it needs to be small and encompasing and large when it needs to be large:

And effectively so.

The two tiny plates of metal colliding to create the circuit that sends the electricity to the cocktail that ignites and explodes. Action. Reaction. Panel 1. Panel 2.

The storytelling on the next page, in which we experience the explosion a second time, from within the armored vehicle-- and within the outlines of the "BOOM" sound effect-- is masterful. Not only dominating the page, but the six characters present in the main cabin of the vehicle, and the piece as a whole.

We must choose to care about these things, we must put our eyes on the situations unfolding from the choices of the few as they effect the many, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant the effect to one individual's quality of life. Comics like this one help me to do that better.

All of which leads me to the thought: Yes, this is good. Yes, this is important.

You should read it.

~ @JonGorga

Quote for the Week 11/27/11

Some may chuckle at the notion of Maus as one of a handful of truly indispensable works of post-World War II American literature. American literature since 1945 encompasses Nobel laureates Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison, along with Philip Roth, who if anybody ever listened to me, would already have his Nobel by now. The period also includes the likes of John Updike, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, and Thomas Pynchon, to say nothing of more recent authors such as Tim O’Brien, David Foster Wallace, and Louise Erdrich. Do I seriously mean to compare modern classics like Beloved or Gravity’s Rainbow to a comic book?
In fact I do, and to explain why I need to go back to that community college classroom fifteen years ago. The students in that class were by no means stupid. They weren’t in the least intellectually lazy, either. I find myself annoyed by teachers like the mysterious Professor X, author of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, who depict their students as lazy, ill-mannered lunks who have no business being in college. This view has no relationship to the reality I encountered in my years teaching in community colleges. After all, those students were giving up their weekends to take an introductory English course. They weren’t saints – I busted a plagiarist in that class, as I recall – but they understood, probably better than the kids in my classes at Fordham University today, that the American dream is built upon education, and they struck me as hungry to get started.
Still, no one in that class was ready for Saul Bellow or, God forbid, Thomas Pynchon. One of the first lessons of teaching literature in the real world is that you have to meet your students where they are, not where you want them to be. In academic jargon, this is called finding your students’ “zone of proximal development,” the sweet spot between what they already know and what they couldn’t possibly comprehend even if you were there to help them. The wonder of Maus is that it fits into everyone’s zone of proximal development. I taught it to those working-class immigrants in California fifteen years ago; I taught it at a third-rate night school in Virginia; and just last month, I taught it in an advanced writing class at Fordham, a prestigious, four-year private university. Every time, in every context, students told me they’d stayed up half the night finishing the book, and then when we discussed it in class, it took the tops of their heads off all over again. Maus is that rare work of literature that speaks to everyone while pandering to no one.

Not Just More Grist For The Mill

I didn't even have a chance to get to the comics to figure out that Mudman was just a little bit different. On the inside cover, just to the right of the indicia (you know, the information about the comic and the publisher, that little bit of a periodical that no one but Jon reads) is a little column written by the comicsmith, like the kind you find just before an old letters page. It's got the same sort of pop-philosophizing that those columns have, the same sort of short, terse, joyful sentences that remind you that rarely does anyone do comics just for the paycheck, that everyone who is in the medium is in the medium because they love comics.

It's pretty clear, from reading that little column, that Paul Grist loves the medium, and not only the medium, but the traditional understanding of the medium, and the medium's traditional delivery system: the comic book, "not," he writes, just to be sure that we understand, "floppies of pamphlets or any of those other slightly derogatory terms that people use to belittle the format." He's not talking, either, about "'sequential art' or any of those other terms folks use when they're trying to be clever about comics," nor is he "Writing for the Trade" or "planning on cramming the collections full of 'DVD extras' like deleted scenes, sketches, and 'directors commentaries.'"

Mudman, then, starts out with a little bit of a manifesto, with an explicit declaration of what it is and what it isn't, with a clear warning: what you have in your hands, says Paul Grist, is nothing or more less complicated or clever than a comic book. It's a pretty bold statement, when you think about, and it's one that's entirely unnecessary: Mudman is a hell of a comic book, the kind that is, actually and despite what Grist might like to claim, quite smart in what it has to say about comics, simply because it does well what comics do well, that is, it tells a story through only the essential parts of that story; everything else is left to the reader to fill in.

All comics, of course, operate in that way; the gutter is what makes comics comics. But Grist uses it particularly well, in part because the story he's beginning to tell, of a young Englishman, Owen Craig, who wakes up one morning and finds that he has the capability to become mud, is as much about the gaps in what happens as it is about what we (and he) know to have happened. The plot comes to us in bits and pieces and, in this way, reflects the way that the medium works. Grist is saying something about comics, and he really is being quite clever about it.

It helps that Grist gives the gutters such an important role on his page: rather than force them towards the edges with too many busy panels, the lines that surrond the action are thick and, although he isn't afraid to draw into them every once in a while, more often they invade the space normally occupied by action than the other way around. What's really impressive about it is he doesn't give a centimeter on this particular principle: the gaps are pretty uniformly twice or three times the size they are in most comics. When he does do something funky, it's a good clue that you're supposed to be paying attention: something outside of the normative boundaries of the universe has happened, or is about to happen. The panels, they really are the world that Grist is building, but there's something intriguingly ephemeral and metaphysical about what surronds it.

And that's all before you get to the art. I've wondered for a long time about Chris Samnee's influences and, if Grist's stuff on Jack Staff looks anything like this stuff here, he has got to be one of them. Mudman's got this great look, blocky and stylized and flat, and the characters move without seeming too loose or slippery. Sometimes it gets hard to tell his characters apart, particularly when they're wearing school uniforms, but that very well may be the point. Another side effect of the gutter-width, perhaps intended and perhaps not, is that the art has room, the characters don't feel cramped even though his art is relatively detailed. What's so amazing about that detail is that there is this preponderance of random seeming lines, but even those add to the art, and, upon closer examination, they make the figures complete.

If there's one thing that seems a little off it's how, on initial reading, the plot seems to barely hang together; there are a few things that just seem to be missing. What's sort of goofy about that, though, is that those holes, rather than being frustrating, draw you back into the book, make it seem really interesting and subtle. Whether or not it all fits together, I suspect everything is going to become clear in the next few issues but, whether or not it does, Paul Grist, by not trying to be clever, by embracing the medium as it was, has put together what may very well be the most interesting and important mainstream comic of 2011.

Variations on a Theme

Variant covers. What the fuck, right?

Different covers. But the only difference is... the covers?

So you can choose which one you like. Like the comic inside but hate the cover? Oh, a variant with something less horrible on it. My lucky day!

Or you could do what the publisher, printer, and retailer really want and buy both.

Nobody who steps into my store can make head nor tails of them the first time...

Some people buy almost exclusively variants.

Variant covers. A cultural force all their own? What the fuck, right?

~ @JonGorga

All-New, All-Different

I've been reading X-Men comics for a long time. Not as long as some people, of course: I'm barely as old as that massive selling #1 written by Claremont and drawn by Lee, but I've been reading X-Men comics a long time. Long enough that, when I started almost a decade ago, a mediocre writer given to melodrama, Chuck Austen, was writing Uncanny, a certain mad Scot named Morrison was writing New X-Men, and Chris Claremont, a man whose name is probably more closely tied to the group than any other, was writing a book titled (horrifically) X-Treme X-Men. It was, for sure, an odd time for Xavier's merry mutants: the three mainline books were vastly different from one another in not only tone and style, but also in quality. Although I've learned to love Morrison's take above all others from the period, in the moment I loved Austen's Uncanny the best: it had my favorite characters. Now I understand the book to be basically incomprehensible but, when I was thirteen, Austen had me. I loved the melodrama; I loved Angel's angst, I loved that Juggernaut was on the team, I even loved that storyline where Nightcrawler joins the priesthood, only to discover that he was ordained by a bunch of anti-mutant psychos.

All of this is to say, basically, that I'm pretty invested in the X-Men. Except for a two year period during high school, I've been buying and reading X comics pretty consistently for the last nine years; certainly, behind Captain America, they are the major superhero franchise I care about the most and, although I've come close a few times, I've never quite managed to quit them, although I did narrow my purchases from three books to just Uncanny. The last few years have been trying, to say the least, because the writing (from the two writers I hold above all others as the paragons of quality in mainstream superhero comics, Brubaker and Fraction) has been uneven at best and because I was forced to endure the art of Greg Land for a full half of the issues (of course, that the Dodsons did the other half was one of the reasons I hung on for as long as I did). Then, Kieron Gillen took over the book from Fraction and things started to change a little bit. There wasn't a major uptick in quality, at least not immediately, but the books certainly felt different.

And then Schism, a mini with two brilliant ideas and an editorially mandated ending that went on two issues too long, hit.

All the sudden Jason Aaron, he of one of the great crime comics of all time, Scalped, and a Ghost Rider series that is supposed to be very good, despite have been read been read by precisely no one, was writing a book called Wolverine and the X-Men and Gillen was writing a renumbered Uncanny. Despite my distaste for the renumbering, and my ultimate dismissal of the status quo setting mini as utter crap, I have never been more excited to be reading the X-Men.

Let me be very clear about why: both books are hilobrow pop art at their best. This is most obviously true of Aaron's Wolverine and the X-Men: Chris Bachalo's art is, of course, the key here. Bachalo's art is highly stylized, and there's no one in the industry who draws anything like it. The figures are reduced to their necessary components; there are no lines out of place, no extraneous muscles. Visually, the book is to the point, yet, it is, because it uses only those distractions (like the occasional benday dots) that add to the books overall style, incredibly detailed. In terms of story telling, Bachalo uses what we might call functional form; when things are calm, so are the layouts. When things get a little more madcap, the panels go a little crazy. He gets points, too, for his colors, which are understated without being drab; it would have been an easy out to go garish, but instead the book has a dreamy, almost water colored look. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, his designs are fantastic. Although no one receives a serious overhaul, everybody looks just a little bit different, and brilliantly so. In particular, what he's done with Quentin Quire and Beast stands out: the choice to go full throttle on Quire's punk streak is welcome, as is the t-shirt with the red exclamation point, the one he wears underneath his school uniform. As for Beast, well, I don't think I've ever seen such a compact vision of the character, bristling with kinetic energy.

If it sounds like there's a lot going on, there is: in contrast to the slow, melodramatic pacing he's employing on Incredible Hulk, Aaron just sort of throws everything out on the table here and, somewhat miraculously, everything works. There are a hundred ideas going a thousand miles an hour inside Wolverine and the X-Men, and each one is better than the last. The characterizations of Quire and Beast stand out here, too, and I suspect that they're the two to watch the most closely. The additions of an arrogant Shi'ar prince, a mutant born of the Brood and some miniature Nightcrawler-looking things to the cast add just the right amount of mysterious and intriguing to make the whole thing feel worth the energy it takes to read. This is a mad book, which takes its cues from Grant Morrison's time with the extended mutant family; it is, in this way, the inheritor of the best X-Men run of the last twenty years, and maybe of all time. If Aaron can sustain both the energy and the coherence of his first issue over his whole run, he might give Morrison his only proper challenge.

That said, Uncanny is the most exciting its been in a really long time. Kieron Gillen really kicks it into gear with the title's first #1 since the sixties: where Aaron's book is wild, though, this one is reigned in. Although some writers would take the opportunity, when writing a team book with a team that's half ex-supervillains, to do something utterly incomprehensible or suffocatingly moralistic, Gillen makes Cyclops' vision for his team just Machiavellian enough for the enterprise to make sense; it helps that his characterization of Cyclops as the military leader of a sovereign state, inherited from Fraction but perfected since then, is spot on. The rest of the team feels right, too: Magneto, Namor and Emma are, perhaps rightfully, arrogant; Storm's humble power is striking; Colossus and Magik are convincingly tortured. Dr. Nemesis and Danger, two characters who sometimes get short-shrift because they have gone relatively undeveloped except as plot devices, get some of the book's best moments. This is a team book at its best, controlled, except the one place it shouldn't be, that is, the villain, and Mr. Sinister here is a perfect counterpoint to Cyclops and his Extinction team.

Although I've been really impressed with Carlos Pacheco's art in the past, here, despite its few flaws, there's something stopping it from transcending from mere high-quality into a kind of brilliance. There's nothing wrong with it, per se, but I do sense that Pacheco is holding back a little bit, perhaps mirroring the control of the writer. I wish he would let loose a little bit; it's a good time to be reading the X-Men, in part because there's nothing conservative about either of the line's new books. If Pacheco begins to take the same chances that Gillen, Aaron and Bachalo have, we could have another brilliant new book on our hands.

Quote for the Week 11/20/11

"Thing is, I really like comics. Now, when I say comics, I'm not talking about 'sequential art' or any of those other fancy terms folks use when they're trying to be clever about comics. I'm talking about 32 pages of folded paper together with a couple of staples. Comics. Not floppies or pamphlets or any of those other slightly derogatory terms that people use to belittle the format. Comics."
-Paul Grist, on the first page of the first issue of his Image comic Mudman, convincing me to put it on my pull-list even before I've read the damn thing.

Limited Risk

Tom Brevoort, Senior Vice-President of Publishing & Executive Editor at Marvel Comics (@tombrevoort), wrote this on his Formspring account, in answer to "re: Destroyers: Is Marvel now preemptively cancelling yet-to-be-solicited books based on anticipated sales?":
"Not exactly. We've been saying for months now that we're going to be putting out fewer limited series, and instead focusing on our core monthly titles in response to where the marketplace seems to be right now. That's what we're doing. And that means that some projects that were initiated earlier are going to fall by the wayside. But at least among the best of those in terms of ideas, there's nothing saying that we can't revisit them later if conditions change." (His account is here at formspring.com/tombrevoort)
Not sure this bodes well for much of anything... Is he doing a bit of damage control on the several cancelled minis of late? Is he presenting us a 'new economy' policy? Both?

Limited series, mini-series, maxi-series, whatever you want to call them are the place where larger companies like Marvel (@MARVEL) experiment. As such, it's where the next great series comes from. "Luke Cage: Noir" was four issues that made it to my '2oo9 Best of the Year' list. "Marvel 1602", although not a favorite of mine, has made the company a lot of dough and brought a lot of fans of Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) to the Marvel corporate characters in a sideways manner.

Minis are a very good thing. Less of them is potentially a very bad thing. But, as always, if it's really a matter of saving absolutely required green to keep the company moving to keep bringing out more comics later... then I'm for it.

~ @JonGorga

What Makes the Art Sequential?

"Being in a sequence," you're probably saying to yourself after reading that title.

I posted this on Flickr recently:
Sequential Art?

So... is it comics?

A few nights ago at the house of someone who's work I'm editing I was reacquainted with my Bard College senior project. I'd e-mailed it to her on request months ago and she printed it out. I wrote over two years ago:
"In his ground-breaking book with a textbook approach to explaining comics, Comics and Sequential Art, Will Eisner defined comics immediately as “the arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an idea” but then far more simply as “Sequential Art” (Eisner 5) i.e. visual art in sequence. Scott McCloud followed Eisner’s lead in his own Understanding Comics when he put forth his suggestion for a dictionary definition of comics: “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (McCloud 9) and continued in the following pages of Understanding Comics to demonstrate how his definition broadened the world of comics both historically (McCloud 10-17) and artistically (McCloud 18-20) by demonstrating that many things were comics, simply because many things had not appeared to be comics by old, restrictive perceptions. This thesis borrows McCloud’s definition, attempting to simplify it nearer to Eisner’s compact version, synthesizing them to: visual art in deliberate sequence to create meaning. McCloud’s “juxtaposed” is the first to go as there are several kinds of juxtaposition in comics (left to right panels, top to bottom panels, pages left to right) and not all are key to the medium, McCloud’s “pictorial and other images” falls under the umbrella of “visual art”, McCloud’s “deliberate sequence” is the most important part of his definition, as images in sequence are to be found in a few cases that are not comics but not in deliberate order, and is thus retained exactly, and McCloud’s “convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” can be summed up as the creation of informational/aesthetic “meaning.” Simpler, more concise, and more accurate: visual art in deliberate sequence."
Putting images into a sequence. Is it enough?

~ @JonGorga

Quote for the Week 11/10/11

"I had only the germ of an idea for Lentil. It started out as just a lot of pictures of a boy playing the harmonica. I didn't have any idea whether I was going to have words with my pictures or not. I thought the drawings might lead to a series of lithographic prints, not necessarily to a children's book at all. But once there got to be some words, the words grew and then the pictures grew."
~ Robert McCloskey, children's book creator, in an interview with Leonard S. Marcus as collected in "Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book", page 109.

[Brought to my attention by my friend and collaborator Ellen Stedfeld (@Ellesaur).]

Seeing SuperMen and Women As They Were

So the new DC Universe has launched. The first month of new series and newly re-launched series has passed and the shared fictional universe inhabited by the DC superheroes 'will never be the same'. Sorta-kinda-not-really.

[Josh has already reviewed two of the re-launching books "Justice League" #1 and "Wonder Woman" #1, and I intend to review at least one of them myself, but here I'm trying to take a big-picture outlook on this relaunch and the superhero characters at its center. This is a snapshot, a time-capsule, of the moment before long-time superhero reader Jon Gorga has read a single one of DC's New 52 issues.]

The truth is that this is far from the first time these characters have been reinvented. (1986's "Crisis on Infinite Earths", most notably.) The highest-profile retro-fitting maybe. Mentioned in newspapers. Advertised on TV. But still. As I've written before, these long-running pop culture characters have to be treated like rubber bands. Stretch! Stretch who these characters can be! Make Ray Palmer, the superheroic, super-shrinking Atom, a widower to a crazy serial killer. (That was done back in 2oo5 in the near-universally-revered mini-series "Identity Crisis".) Make Batman and Superman aging neo-fascists. (Frank Miller seemed to have no fear in pushing that concept in his works "The Dark Knight Returns" and "The Dark Knight Strikes Again".) Place Superman's famous crash-landing in the corn fields of the USSR instead of the US circa 1938. ("Red Son", Mark Millar's alternate take on the DC mythos is also a popular one.)

Over these past weeks of reading and rereading, I've (re)encountered:

4 versions of Wonder Woman
9 versions of Superman
and
25 versions of Batman...
plus:
3 versions of the Martian Manhunter
2 versions of the Flash
2 versions of Green Arrow
3 versions of the Question

And so on...

Reading DC: I Decided to Start at The EndI finished reading all the non-continuity Elseworlds stuff sitting around my house from Frank Miller's goddamn Batman to J.M. DeMatteis' Realworlds TV producer Batman to Warren Ellis' interpretation of Adam West's Batman to Brian Azzarello's First Wave Batman to the kiddie Batman from "Batman: Brave and the Bold".

Then I moved onto the origins of these fantastic characters: "Batman: Year One", "Superman For All Seasons", "Superman: Earth One" (which I reviewed when it came out last year), "Superman: Secret Origin", "DC: The New Frontier".

I followed this with two issues of "Justice League of America" circa late 1973 I've had sitting around for a very long time. #107 and #108, which make-up "Crisis on Earth-X!" specifically. And I chose to finish in entirely unfamiliar territory: a copy of Jack Kirby's "OMAC" #6.

The result? A whole mess of Batmen, actually. I realized that my first childhood favorite was still my favorite among the DC pantheon and the amount of his appearances among my reading material from the company belied this.

But in that, I discovered something about all these different interpretations of the character: they are all completely different but they all have something in common. Something that makes them all still qualify as Batman.

From Warren Ellis' original pitch for the one-shot "Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth":
"The Batman sees how to end it -- and tells Blank how to see the world. What worked for him when he's teetered on the edge. How to perceive the world." Batman, the man who "tries to make the world make sense by thinking about it..." (Batman/Planetary Deluxe Edition, p. 50)
From the script to the same:
"[Elijah] SNOW; YOU'RE NOT A COP ARE YOU?
SNOW; I DON'T THINK VIGILANTE IS THE RIGHT WORD, EITHER.
...
BATMAN; DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR PARENTS?
BLACK; YES.
...
BATMAN; DO YOU REMEMBER TIMES WHEN THEY MADE YOU FEEL SAFE?
BLACK; YES.
...
BATMAN; THAT'S WHAT YOU HOLD ON TO.
BATMAN; THAT'S WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR OTHER PEOPLE.
BATMAN; YOU CAN GIVE THEM SAFETY. YOU CAN SHOW THEM THEY'RE NOT ALONE.

PAGE FORTY-SIX
Pic 1;
A half-page portrait of the Batman, head and shoulders -- THIS is the reason he does what he does. This is the lost core of the man.
BATMAN; THAT'S HOW YOU MAKE THE WORLD MAKE SENSE.
BATMAN; AND IF YOU CAN DO THAT --
BATMAN; -- YOU CAN STOP THE WORLD FROM MAKING MORE PEOPLE LIKE US." (Batman/Planetary Deluxe Edition, pgs. 91-94)
This got my wheels spinning... Batman changes his point-of-view through sheer willpower and that altered POV is absolutely required to do "what he does"? If Warren Ellis (@warrenellis) says it, it must be true!

Same sentiment said faster, perhaps, by Brian Azzarello (@brianazzarello) in "Batman/Doc Savage: Bronze Night" one-shot:
"I know I can make the world better. ... Hell, from before I could think for myself, that's all I thought to do." (Batman/Doc Savage Special, pgs. 4-5)


In "The Dark Knight Strikes Again", on his return to Earth after a very long sojourn, at Batman's request, Hal Jordan the Green Lantern thinks:
"How strange that it would be you. The mean one. The cruel one. The one with the darkest soul. ... How strange that you, of all of us, would prove to be the most hopeful."
(The Dark Knight Strikes Again Deluxe Edition, p. 202)
"The Dark Knight Strikes Again" really should be titled something like "The Justice League Returns" as it's more of an ensemble piece than the name suggests.

Furthermore, a careful reading of Neil Gaiman's (@neilhimself) "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" brings us a parallel as the supposedly dead Batman speaks to his long-dead mother Martha Wayne:
"You don't get heaven, or hell. Do you know the only reward you get for being Batman? You get to be Batman." (Detective Comics #853, p. 19)
Perhaps a better selection from that work, that comes closer to the meat of the answer I want, is:
"I've learned... that it doesn't matter what the story is, some things never change.
...
The Batman doesn't compromise. I keep this city safe..." (Detective Comics #853, p. 12)
Batman is the man who makes the world a better place by altering his point of view.

But what about those other two heroes of DC's holy trinity?

Superman seems so simple on the surface that most discount him entirely. 'Superman isn't brave, he's invulnerable', I've heard people say. This is a mistake.

Superman is vulnerable in that he is too emotional, too nice. Too perfect.

Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Strikes Again" presents Superman as a man broken by the yoke of his own fears. A superhuman so afraid of any loss of human life, he allows for a complete destruction of the quality of all life.

Reading DC: Reaching "The New Frontier"The sequel to "The Dark Knight" quadrology from 1986 is almost universally reviled among comics-fans. It's a tremendously dark and depressing portrayal of the DC Comics superhero characters. In the end, Superman is convinced by the daughter he has had with Wonder Woman as well as Miller's fascist Bruce Wayne that the remaining superheroes ARE categorically different, ontologically different, and unquestionably better than petty, average, normal human beings. So why NOT rule over them and force them to live better lives? Millar's Emperor Superman from his "Red Son" comes to the exact same conclusion: be the alien overlord, force the peons to be good.

In the movie "Kill Bill:Vol. 2", David Carradine gives a soliloquy on the nature of Superman in the middle of a fight scene with Uma Thurman. Quentin Tarantino very smartly cribbed from Jules Feiffer's famous essay "The Great Comic Book Heroes" when he had the character of Bill say:
"Superman didn't become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red "S", that's the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears - the glasses, the business suit - that's the costume." ("Kill Bill: Vol. 2", 2oo4)
So:
Superman is the secret identity.
Clark Kent is the disguise.

But:
Clark Kent is the everyman.
And Superman is like no man.

Emotionally and psychologically very human but ontologically alien. Biologically Kryptonian. Somewhere in-between is the real person, Kal-El. The Superman, the Ubermench, the In-Between Man. He may not be the everyman, but he is of every person who's ever lived.

Somebody wise once wrote: Batman is a man trying to be a god, Superman is a god trying to be a man.

I think that's the truth. Just not the whole truth. They are both men and both gods, both effect change in a positive way, but from different sources of energy.

-Superman is 'good' striving forward, positively
-Batman is 'bad' striving forward, positively.

That's why Batman appeals to people who find the Superman character repulsively simple, while Superman fans rarely fail to be Batman fans also. Batman took negative energy, used it, and spun it positively. Parents murdered in front of him at an early age. So he struggles to fight so that none may have to experience what he did. Superman took positive energy and spread it exponentially. He was shown kindness by his adopted planet from day one, despite his great loss in never knowing his birth parents, his birth home. He struck out to make others feel as welcomed and safe as he was.

So then...

Is Wonder Woman just a female clone of Superman? Just more good vibrations? A god trying to be a woman? It's been suggested that as she is the enemy of Ares, and thus the enemy of War, she is the peace-maker of the DC pantheon. ("Super Heroes United!: The Complete Justice League History", Justice League: The New Frontier DVD, 2oo8) Yes, but they are all peace-makers! I think Wonder Woman might be among the clearest examples of what all mythic characters are at their core: ideas striving to be alive. Womanhood. Strength in femininity. Fortitude in the face of social-bondage.

And what of these other men and women with remarkable abilities?

The Flash has been portrayed as a man running away from his past and/or toward solutions. The Martian Manhunter feels like an old soldier brought into a new fight. Green Arrow is the superhuman social conscience. Black Canary is the superheroic working woman. Green Lantern is a bureaucratic superhero, a space-cop who has to answer to the intergalactic Guardians. The Question is the spiritual warrior.

They each serve a purpose, fill a role. All evolved from very simple to complex characters, and all have their own personal struggles. All reflect something different back at us, the reader.

I believe, now, what I've always believed: superheroes are an intrinsic part of the human psyche exploded and clarified, expanded into colorful representations of our desires, our needs, our hopes, and our dreams. DC was there first and, in some ways at least, did it best. And I suspect no re-boot, re-launch or re-imagining will change that.

P.S. ~ I'm looking forward to reading some non-DC comics for the first time in roughly two months...

Words and Pictures with Jason Latour

At last weekend's New York Comic Con, I did some reporting for Bleeding Cool. They were kind enough to let me mirror some of the interviews that I did for them here at THE LONG AND SHORTBOX OF IT! This is one of Jon's favorite upcoming creators, Jason Latour, talking about his writing on the nonnoir Loose Ends and how his process is changed because he is both a writer and an artist. It was originally posted to Bleeding Cool on 10/16/11

JK:Will you tell me a little bit about Loose Ends?

JL: Basically, as it’s billed in the subtitle, it’s a southern crime romance, which is to say it’s a story set in North Carolina that travels throughout the Southeast. It follows what you could call a doomed romance, and it’s very much in the spirit of something like True Romance or other older movies like The Intimates and non-noirs. It’s very much about the execution of the story, more than a plot driven character thing.

JK: How did the book come together?

JL: It’s always been a passion project of mine, I’ve always been interested in crime fiction. I wanted to tell something that was sort of a personal story and a genre study, and Frank Brunner was also looking to do something similarly. He’s an unbelievable artist, and we became close friends and started kicking the story around, and eventually it became such a large part of our lives that we decided that we should hole up and actually do it.

JK: Does being an artist as well as a writer change the way that you write for someone else?

JL: Certainly. I think that it gives me, maybe not a better understanding but a more personal understanding of what he’s doing, and what it's like to have to sit and toil away at a page. I know firsthand what kind of problems sort of rear their head in the process of converting a word into an image. To some extent, I think it helps me to visualize what’s going to go into a script as well as when to let go. Other than that, it's more or less the same job as any other writer.

JK: Anything else coming up the pipe?

JL: Art-wise, it was announced today that I’m doing a two issue B.P.R.D mini series, it’s Scott Allie and Mike Mignola, with Dave Stewart coloring and I’m also doing an X-Force one-shot with Ivan Brandon, and Enrico Renzi is coloring that.

Words and Pictures with Gabriel Hardman

At last weekend's New York Comic Con, I did some reporting for Bleeding Cool. They were kind enough to let me mirror some of the interviews that I did for them here at THE LONG AND SHORTBOX OF IT! This is Gabriel Hardman, talking about his brand new Secret Avengers gig, why he loves drawing Beast and his work for the digital comics platform Double Feature. It was originally posted to Bleeding Cool on 10/16/11

JK: First, could you talk a little bit about how you ended up on Secret Avengers?

GH: I got a call from Lauren Sankovitch, who had been the associate editor on Agents of Atlas, which I drew a couple years ago, and she’s great, and I had worked with Rick Remender briefly on Doctor Voodoo, I did a little flashback sequence, so we had experience working together and I was interested in the group of characters and working with Rick again, and it was as simple as that.

JK: Could you talk about how you’re approaching the new series?

GH: I’m in the process of figuring that out right now. I mean, I’m drawing the first issue, and I’m always looking for a way to ground the characters in a real world, but then have room for it to go crazy and be big and science fiction.

JK: Is there a character you’re particularly excited to be drawing?

GH: I like doing Beast. There’s always something interesting about characters like that, that you have to make look real and work but not, you know, look mundane. It has to be exciting and fun. So, Beast and, to some degree, Hawkeye, as well. I read West Coast Avengers when I was a kid, and some of the other characters were in other Eighties books, the New Defenders and stuff like that that I enjoyed, so there’s a certain amount of familiarity and sentimental feelings about them.

JK: Can you talk a little bit about your work for Double Feature, the “The Liar” short story?

GH: Yeah. My wife and I wrote it, I drew it, and it's a kind of crazy espionage thing. It’s an eight-page story that you can get through the Double Feature iPad app, which has a lot of extras and extra functionality to it, you can see my process, the pencils and stuff like that, so you’re getting a lot for 99 cents. We want to do at least a couple more short stories and very likely there’ll be a creator owned graphic novel.

JK: Does the process feature of Double Feature make you feel exposed at all?

GH: Honestly, I don’t mind it. In general, I don’t like people seeing the process stuff, because I feel like it should all be sort of magic, you know? I think it's better if people don’t know how things are done. But the way that the Double Feature app works is so good and thorough that instead of being some half-assed sort of thumbnail printed somewhere that is out of context. This is everything in context, so you can really see the process of it. That made it feel like it was worthwhile.

Words and Pictures with Cliff Chiang

At last weekend's New York Comic Con, I did some reporting for Bleeding Cool. They were kind enough to let me mirror some of the interviews that I did for them here at THE LONG AND SHORTBOX OF IT! This is Cliff Chiang, talking about his work on Wonder Woman, and it was originally posted to Bleeding Cool on 10/16/11

JK: I was wondering how you like drawing Wonder Woman?

CC: It’s great. We’ve been given a lot of creative freedom with it, to be able to take it in this direction has been a lot of fun.

JK: What are you guys doing with all that creative freedom?

CC: Well, we’re just trying to tell good stories in a way that people aren’t expecting from Wonder Woman. There’s a lot of preconceptions about what a Wonder Woman story is, and we’re trying to blast through that.

JK: is there a way that your Wonder Woman is different than the way she has been approached in the past?

CC: I think other people have also done this, but that there’s more eyes on it now. I think we’re trying to do a very straight forward Wonder Woman, that isn’t tied up in backstory, and just present her as a very straight forward warrior.

JK: Do you have anything other than Wonder Woman going on right now?

CC: No, Wonder Woman is taking up all my time.

Words and Pictures with Ryan Kelly

At last weekend's New York Comic Con, I did some reporting for Bleeding Cool. They were kind enough to let me mirror some of the interviews that I did for them here at THE LONG AND SHORTBOX OF IT! This is Ryan Kelly talking about his upcoming ongoing series with Paul Cornell, Saucer Country, and it was originally posted to Bleeding Cool on 10/15/11

JK: Ryan, can you tell me about Saucer Country, the new book you’re doing with Paul Cornell?
RK: Well, Paul could tell you a lot more, but unfortunately he couldn’t be here this week. It’s going to be an ongoing, I have a good way of explaining it to most people, but I don’t want to spoil. There really is a good way I could explain in two sentences, but I’m afraid of spoiling it for people and so I’m still slowly learning how to explain to people. Roughly, it's about aliens, but overall it's about everything that goes into the American mythology of aliens. As far as I know, it could be about anything from abduction to saucer mythology, close encounters of the first kind, the second kind, the third kind, maybe hybrid star children… that’s only things I get from the first script, and I’ve only read the first script. I read the outline, the second and third scripts are done, but I haven’t read it yet. The editors have read it. So, roughly, what I can say is this: it’s about this woman, she’s the governor of New Mexico and she’s running for President, and what we find out in the first issue is that something happened to her. Something bad happened to her. What we understand is that she’s been abducted, but we don’t really know. She’s in this situation where she has to run for President, but she also has to tell everybody what happened. That’s a conflict that we see in the first issue, the first arc. I don’t want to get too much into it. All we know is that the aliens could be anything. She does get a team together, an academic on alien mythology, you know, on abduction, someone who is really knowledgeable, some visitors from space. Also, she has her publicist, some of her political people together, because she has to run for President and she’s also got to find proof, to figure out what happened to her. She’s having dreams. It’s kind of dark. She believes she’s having visitors, she’s having experiences. I’m treading really carefully about the story here because I don’t want to spoil too much, we’re at a very early stage, but just so you get the gist of what it’s about. It’s a mix of hard sci-fi and political drama/thriller. I think it’s going to be introduced in February.
JK: Can you talk about you’re going to approach it as an artist?
RK: It’s interesting. They’ve really just let me run with it and do my thing. There’s been some challenges early on about how to depict them, you know, the grays. I’m investigating and learning more about this and doing research on the hundreds and thousands of people around the world that truly believe they’ve had experiences of the third kind, that they’ve been abducted. I’ve been doing a lot of research, and I want it to be really scary, I don’t want it to be like an alien invasion, like what you would see on movies or tv. I something kind of new, but also kind of familiar. I’m inspired by everything from Whitely Striber’s Communion, and also Stephen Speilberg’s take in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so I want to be scary, but I don’t want to give away too much: they have black eyes, they’re scary, they’re frightening. I want people to use their imagination, without having to give too much. I want there to be a lot of mystery, a lot of black, a lot of darkness. But there are also a lot of people standing around in business suits talking, because it's also like a government conspiracy. I’m going to mix in some of that.
JK: Can you talk a little bit about your book FUNRAMA?
RK: Funrama is a total side project. Every artist has one of these. You know how it is. I work on it every minute I’m not working on my real work, it’s a total side project, but I’m totally dedicated to it. I’m going to be doing it for the rest of my life. Funrama is like me doing superheroes, if I did superheroes. There are characters and stories in it that I created when I was 11 years old. All of my characters, I created them when I was a little kid. I’m bringing them back, because the whole point of doing this is fun. I’m not making a dime from it, no money from it, no publisher. It’s kind of like remembering that comics are for fun, that that’s what I do. I won’t call it a hobby but… that’s why I call it Funrama. Funrama is a place, it’s a power, it’s a spirit. It could be anything. I’ll be drawing it for the rest of my life. Probably until I’m about 80. There’ll be a hundred issues, and I’ll still be doing it. I’m really dedicated to it.

So This Happened...

I'm pretty sure he played Pull Shapes.

NYCC!

Friends and readers,

Jon and I know that we have, as of late, been neglecting this blog. When summer ended, he and I suddenly got really busy, and things here slowed down a little bit. Fear not, though, they should pick up again soon, if only because of this weekend's main event, New York Comic Con.

Keep your eyes on the space for the last part of the much delayed Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett interview, and whatever new stuff Jon and I manage to pick up at con.

-Josh

Weekly Process Roundup 10/7/11

The Weekly Process Roundup, which hits every Friday, is dedicated to showcasing everything other than finished product from The Long And Shortbox Of It's favorite creators. Some weeks are better than others.

Diana

While I was in Greece in June, both that country and the comics industry were undergoing a bit of upheaval. Although I got back to the States before protesters started climbing the walls of the Acropolis, it seems sort of appropriate that among the most initially controversial of the New 52 was one of the two I was most looking forward to, Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang's Wonder Woman. There was something so crazy about the idea that I thought it just might work and, although part of my initial excitement for the title faded after I realized that it was based on a misjudgment of Azz's awful Superman run, I'm glad to see that the title does, indeed, sort of work.

Don't get me wrong; it is certainly flawed. It leaves too many open questions for my liking, and it doesn't do a very good job of introducing Wonder Woman, or, at least, it doesn't beyond a vague sense of her personality (which, admittedly, has a certain kindness and an element of self-deprecation that I did not expect), the fact that she is Wonder Woman, and that she prefers the name Diana.

That last bit is intriguing (in fact, the whole comic is intriguing), and I will be interested to see where Azzarello takes it, but, for now, he does more to introduce the order of the universe and the threats that his heroine is up against than he does of making us aware of her as a character; I have no doubt this will change as the series moves forward but, for now, it is a little frustrating. What is less frustrating (perhaps even welcome) is how little this resembles a straight up superhero comic; Azzarello has said that this book is really more of a horror comic, but, while it certainly has elements of horror to it, I'm not sure I would take it that far. Instead, it seems to be cribbing a little bit from some of the stronger "superheros as mythology" stories of the last thirty years, Alan Moore's Swamp Thing in particular, taking the deconstructive tendency of those comics and applying it towards more traditionally mythological characters, that is, Brian Azzerello is writing Greek Mythology like the Greek Mythology that was passed down to us, with capricious and jealous gods and heroes willing to defend humanity from them. I don't know very much about the publishing history of Wonder Woman, but I wouldn't be surprised if this was the most actually classical reading of her as a character.

It helps, of course, that Cliff Chiang is as good an iconographer as they come, and that colorist Matt Wilson seems to understand that. His Wonder Woman (in fact, all of his gods) have an ethereal, otherworldly quality to them, they stand out from the drab background of the human world. Interestingly, for reasons probably having to do with the hand-drawn panels, his work here reminds me of Jeff Lemire's. It's more confident than Lemire's hand is, though, and the lines are thinner and less sketchy; the world that Chiang makes is obviously an imperfect one, and that adds greatly to the atmosphere of the book.

If Azzarello can manage to introduce his Wonder Woman to us over the next few issues without having to stop the story that he's put into motion and Chiang's art works stays strong, this book may very well number among the best of the New 52; if you have to pick one of them, I would make it this one.

The Prodigal Cartoonist Returns

Dylan Meconis, the Portland-based cartoonist behind the killer webcomic Family Man, has been on a creative hiatus since the spring. During her "summer vacation," she apparently did a lot of thinking and plotting for her main gig, and she also had time to work on something new, a little joy of a bonus comic she calls Outfoxed.

The pretty crazy cool thing about Outfoxed is that it's very, very different from Meconis's work on Family Man. She's said, for one, that the art style here comes more naturally than the one she uses in her long form comic, and it shows. This stuff is just looser, a little less serious, a little more consciously cartoony, significantly more fun. Don't get me wrong, I adore the ongoing story of Luther Levy, and I'm glad to see that it survived the hiatus unscathed, but this stuff is wildly slicker and more inventive. If she's being honest about the fact that this is what comes naturally to her (and I have no reason to believe that she's lying) it means that she has to reign herself in when she draws Family Man, that she has to control her wilder designing and cartooning impulses for the sake of telling a more serious story.

If this is the case, Dylan Meconis is, straight up, one of the most talented cartoonists I've ever encountered, and probably also among the smartest. Check this out if only because of the art; from the unhurried lightness of the lines that come together to make the form of the protagonist to the heavy blockiness of the noble hunters, it's a beautiful piece of work, one I hope comes out as a physical minicomic sooner rather than later, if only because I would like to see the beautiful colors in real life. The story isn't perfect (it's relatively clear that the tight storytelling that accompanies the labor that is Family Man is a side effect of Meconis challenging her natural tendencies), but there's really only one place that it presents a serious issue and, anyway, have you seen the damn thing?!

HABIBI

On Tuesday, the postman brought me a present. Since I preordered it, I knew it was coming. I hung out at the post office so long waiting for it that I was late for a shift; there was even a brief but excruciating period when I could see the box on the shelf, but, for lack of a slip, could not retrieve it. This was certainly a waste of time, but I've been waiting for Habibi for so long, since I read Blankets five years ago, that I did not really mind. And, because Craig Thompson told Bookslut in 2004 that he was aiming for completion in 2005, I figure I wasn't the only one.

I unboxed it as soon as I got my hands on it; the book itself is a work of delicate beauty, with inlaid gold color and intricate, presumably Islam influenced, designs. Be careful when you grab it: I've been carrying it around, and, apparently, I've been holding it with my thumb on the inlay, which has begun to rub off. The book looks just as nice on the outside as it does on the inside (and the ink on paper won't rub off!); everything we've come to expect from Thompson, the distinctively highly rendered cartoons, the visual puns, the gorgeously complicated splash pages, it's all there. If anything, the time that Thompson spent on Habibi means it looks better and more well thought-out than Blankets. I think part of what made the earlier book a work of sloppy genius is how accidental everything seems; Habibi is striking for the opposite reason, because every line and panel and every space where there is nothing, they all seem intentional.

So let's get one thing out of the way: despite the fact that it is clearly the work of Craig Thompson, Habibi is not Blankets. It doesn't have the same inherent gravity, and the book doesn't keep you as close. Although this fable comes close to the quality of Thompson's autobiographical impulse, it's too intentional, and, anyway, our expectations for it were almost certainly too high. There's no way that Habibi could be all the things I expected it to be, since my expectations were almost certainly unreasonable.

Let us, then, try to move Blankets and my high expectations for its follow-up out of the way, and try to evaluate this new work on its own terms.

Habibi is pretty great. It's flawed, for sure, but the sheer mass of great ideas outweighs the fact that the sprawling fable just feels too big, too spread out, and the strength of the characters is enough to drag you through a good deal of exposition dealing with Islamic theology, mysticism and science: at moments, the book feels like a half effective crash course in Islam. The point of this exposition is unclear to me; Thompson must mean the biblical stories to be allegorical for the events of the story, or maybe the other way around, but allegory and allusion don't work if you have to explain what it means, which is precisely what happens. When the stories do work, or at least when they work better, it's because they are being told in the context of the story itself, because they are stories within the story. The allegorical method might merely be that natural progression of Thompson's tendency towards nonlinear storytelling, his penchant for revealing things at the moment of their highest impact rather than at the moment of their actual happening.

Usually, this works like magic; sometimes, however, Habibi is just too sprawling. Revelations get lost at the moment when they would suddenly make sense, events are frustrating because they are too far separated from the revelations that give them meaning. Like the bits about the magic squares and the Arabic letters, some of which I could probably read a few more times and still not fully understand, the book's sheer size tends to slow its force as a narrative, which is exceedingly frustrating.

You also get the sense that the narrative isn't the point, not quite. There's a lot going on here, beyond the stories of Dodola and Zam, their separations, their reunions, and their love. On that level, the book is very much like Blankets, just significantly more complicated and not pulled together as tightly. On another level, I get the sense that the exposition about Islam is an attempt to soften perceptions about it; I remember reading somewhere a long time ago that this was part of the intention behind the new book, and I wonder about its efficacy, given that Thompson's audience is almost certainly playing the choir to his preacher. Above all that, though, Habibi is a story about stories and, more specifically, it is a story about stories told in both pictures and words: Habibi is, all the way up, a meditation about comics.

The way Arabic is written is a peculiarly situated way in to this contemplation: as a language that is recognizable yet illegible to most of the intended audience, it is possible for us to look at the calligraphy and both understand that it is words and see that it is also a picture. For someone who reads Arabic, though, the connection is more clear; as an illiterate, I understand that the pictures are words, but someone who reads Arabic understands both the word and the picture together. Thompson then pulls a brilliantly clever trick: in the penultimate chapter, he draws nothing but Arabic letters, English letters and panels-- nine equally shaped rectangles on the page. "Orphan's Prayer" is nothing but exposition, words (which we can understand to be pictures as well as words) strung together to make meaning placed within the traditional context of the comic-- the domain of the word and the picture. For Thompson, the word and the picture are one and the same, born separate, coming together, rent apart, and then coming together again, leaving behind the legacy in the form of an adopted child.

Habibi is, then, perhaps the most subtle in-medium defense of the medium of that I've ever read. It's mere existence is, of course, a testament to how far we've come in the battle to make people take comics seriously, but, even beyond that, Thompson made his book, which he knew people were going to read because it is his first major work since Blankets, which is partially responsible for the vanguard of comics intellectuals we now have fighting the good fight, the biggest weapon we have yet in that fight.

In this regard, Habibi may be proven to be even more important than Blankets, and I will be interested to see how, once the initial critical reaction passes, readers of comics, hopefully a larger group than before, consider them both together.

Weekly Process Roundup 9/23/11


The Weekly Process Roundup, which hits every Friday, is dedicated to showcasing everything other than finished product from The Long And Shortbox Of It's favorite creators.


Weekly Process Roundup 9/16/11

The Weekly Process Roundup, which hits every Friday, is dedicated to showcasing everything other than finished product from The Long And Shortbox Of It's favorite creators. Sometimes, we have weeks that are both slow and hungry.


  • This isn't technically process, but its exciting anyway: enter Brubaker and Phillips new project, FATALE!
  • Ba shares some sketches and strips!
  • JH WILLIAMS III finishes his BATWOMAN countdown!
  • JILL THOMPSON has some things in the oven (literally)! (above)
LATE UPDATE:
  • FRANCIS MANAPUL penciled a graphic album a while ago, and now its being translated into English and he's sharing some of his work!

A Verifiable Classic

The new edition of Blankets, set on top of a copy of Habibi
The first time I read Blankets, I think I was a junior in high school. I know it must have been around then, anyway, because I discussed the book at length with my friend Lauren, and she and I got to know each other when she starred in a movie I made at the end of my sophomore year.

(The movie, if you're curious, was a "stranger comes to town" story, set in a high school. I wonder how it would hold up, if I were to watch it now. Luckily, it's either lost to time or buried under a pile in my closet, so I'll probably never have to find out.)

One day a week, I would walk from my high school, on the outskirts of what passes for a downtown in Chicago's north suburbs, to a tutoring appointment. The end of school and the beginning of the appointment were staggered by a couple of hours; this heartened me, insofar as it meant that I wasn't the only one getting help, but it also allowed me a weekly foray into Highland Park's public library. In a moment at which libraries are increasingly being threatened, I am continually grateful that this particular library continues to hold on, even though I haven't actually spent more than a few consecutive weeks at home in almost three years. Without that library and, in particular, a couple of shelves just the other side of the science fiction section, I'm not sure you would be reading these words right now. Without the Highland Park Public Library, without their ever growing collection of comics, a collection that now takes up several whole bookshelves, I'm not sure I would have discovered that there was more to the medium than four color caped crusaders, nor am I confident I would have eventually discovered Kirby, Moore or Gaiman.

To say that my visits to those shelves are an important part of who I am now is like saying that those tutoring sessions I was killing time before helped me get into college; that is, it would be nothing other than true, although I used to be loathe to admit it.

It was on one of those days that I discovered Blankets. I think it must have been winter. I think I must have slipped the book under my red parka to protect it from snow. I remember sitting in the waiting room at the tutoring center, and opening the book. I remember not getting any work done that night. I remember sitting down on my bed, and reading Craig Thompson's book all the way through.

Let's call that 2006. I've occasionally thought about buying a copy since then, but I never really saw the need: it was always at the library, after all, and I still go home for stretches long enough that my ability to find a copy of the book seemed assured. But with the release of Habibi looming, Top Shelf released an edition of the earlier book that is as beautiful as an object as it is a marvelous piece of comics, an edition that physically matches both the dimensions of the new book and the spirit of the old one, that is to say, Top Shelf released an edition that belongs on my top shelf. So when I ordered my books for the semester, I ordered Blankets too.

And then, with the books I actually have to read for my second-to-last semester in college, it showed up on my doorstep, big and thick and beautiful, all white and black on the inside and highlighted in various dark blues on the outside. Last night, five years after I made this mistake the first time, I opened up Blankets. Two and a half hours later, I was done. Sure, I tried to put it down. Maybe I even succeeded, once or twice, but never more than briefly. By the end, I was committing the cardinal sin of comics reading: I was skimming, just a little bit. Looking at the words rather than the words and the pictures. I had to reread the second half of the last chapter. I did, but rather than really conquering Blankets, it had, for the second time in my life and five years after the first incident, conquered me.

I can't really tell you why I fell so hard for Thompson's book the first time around. There's a distinct possibility that I liked it because everybody else liked it so much; even now, I'm not convinced my critical self is entirely independent. I suspect, however, that I was taken in by the spirit and the romance, by the impressionistic conveyance of a feeling-- love-- that I had been longing for a couple of years already but had eluded me up until that point. I suspect that, when I first read Blankets, I fell a little in love with Raina at just the same moment that Craig did.

Since then, I have more than once fallen in, and then out, of love, and now, rather than see the sort of love I would like to share with someone, I see in Blankets the arc of my own relationships. I see the quilts stuck in the cubby hole (and I know that I am not yet brave enough to dig them all out). I understand that Thompson chooses to reveal memories slowly, in the same way that we only allow ourselves glimpses of pains past, and I understand that, while it is a book about many things, Blankets isn't really a book about anything. It functions in the same way that our own narrative instinct does, it is a story constructed with a beginning, a middle and an end, and with motifs and themes and characters, but without being self-consciously about anything, like, say, the journey of a Jewish kid from the north suburbs of Chicago that begins with a stop at the library between the final bell and ACT tutoring and ends with him sitting at his computer, writing about how he got all the way there. And the story that bookends that story is just as striking at the end as it was at the start.

I think I know, by the way, why that is. Has there ever been as effective an impressionist as Craig Thompson? The simultaneous reality and unreality of the comics medium probably makes stories told in the medium inherently impressionistic, but Thompson really manages to get the senses confused, to tell a story with the feel of fabric in a fully visual medium, relating not the exact actuality of a moment but instead revealing in its complete, if not exactly its persistent, truth.

Habibi comes out in a little under two weeks (although I hold out hope that it will arrive early enough that I can lug it to Brooklyn for the Brooklyn Book Fest); I believe I read, somewhere and several years ago, that Thompson wishes to do for Islam in the new book what he did for Christianity in the old book, that is, humanize it. The fact that I can't find the quote anywhere makes me wonder if I made it up and, to a certain extent, I hope I did. Although, because of its subject matter, some will measure Habibi's success by its characters, I think we can expect carefully honest and earnest constructions; instead, I hope the book is judged by the standards and in the terms that Thompson has already set. I hope it (and, after having just reread the earlier work, I am confident that it will) has the same classic comics appeal of which Blankets is now a verifiable example.