2o11 in a Shortbox: The Best of the Year

Yeah, it's been a while. 2o11 passed. DC rebooted. Everything went crazy. I really still need to get this out there, so: These are my picks for the best comics I read last year.

To qualify, a work must be comics and must have become publicly available in its entirety, in English, and for the first time, either in print or on the web, between 1/1/11 and 12/31/11. The selections are presented by category, but not in any ascending or descending order.

BEST GRAPHIC NOVELS (over 100 pages)

"Scenes From an Impending Marriage" from drawn & quarterly (@DandQ)
written and drawn by Adrian Tomine
Imagine the bride and groom standing up straight and looking prim and proper. Ready to take the next big step in their lives. Except they probably don't feel ready at all. They probably feel exhausted and stupid and hungry. A comic originally made as a gift for the guests at his own wedding, one of Adrian Tomine's most personal auto-biographical comics, edited and expanded as "Scenes from an Impending Marriage" is funny, human and was the first comic to put me on the verge of tears with laughter last year.

"Habibi" from Pantheon Books (@PantheonBooks)
written and drawn by Craig Thompson
Was there any question when Craig Thompson releases a new graphic novel that it ends up on all the best of the year lists? Not in my mind. Thompson has Will Eisner's versatility in character design, Harvey Pekar's observational acumen, Jack Kirby's ability to enliven a line on the page, and an emotional intensity that I can find no analog for in my memory. "Habibi" is the story of two orphans surviving together and apart in a Middle Eastern country never named in a century never named. It is haunting, beautiful, and an education in itself.


BEST GRAPHIC NOVELLA (under 100 pages)

"Batman: NOEL" from DC Comics (@DCComics)
written and drawn by Lee Bermejo (@ljbermejo)
This book may not be the best Batman graphic novel I've ever read but it holds a spot somewhere in the top 10. Retelling Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" with the DC Universe characters sounds absolutely fucking crazy but by making the role of Scrooge ambiguous (is it The Joker, is it Batman?) Bermejo created a unique work of playful originality and breathtaking visuals.


BEST MINI-SERIES

"The Intrepids" #1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 from Image Comics (@imagecomics)
written by Kurtis J. Wiebe (@kurtisjwiebe); drawn by Scott Kowalchuck (@scottkowalchuk)
If Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had made the 1960s "X-Men" today it might have looked something like this: Smart, fun, action-packed, well-told. The characters are written on a tightrope balanced between unbelievability as teenagers and unbelievability as super-secret-agents, but you know what? I believed them somehow. Issue after issue, these kids react genuinely to their uncanny situations and convinced me of their wants and their worries again. Sometimes even in a somewhat moving way. That coupled with the 60s retro-future design work, the comics-pop colors, and the simple 'yellowed paper' flashbacks make this the best mini I read in 2o11. Or could it be because the book is just so much fun? Possibly, but then... that's the artistry of it.


BEST INDIVIDUAL COMIC-BOOKS (either from an ongoing or limited series)

"The Lil Depressed Boy" #1 from Image Comics
written by S. Steven Struble (@struble); drawn by Sina Grace (@SinaGrace)
I saw this slice-of-life book on the shelf and was immediately very, very impressed. Few comics succeed in being so entertaining with so little sensationalism. And the design of the main character (a simple puppet-like figure conceived for the original LDB webcomic) makes all the difference.

"Invincible Iron Man" #500.1 from Marvel Comics (@Marvel)
written by Matt Fraction (@mattfraction); drawn by Salvador Larroca
Man, if you have a character who is famous for, among other things, being an alcoholic and you are offered the chance to give him a side-story moment that only needs to sell in comic shops and not on newsstands... I should hope you would do an entire issue of your main character in a Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. And I would pray you were as talented as Mr. Fraction. Every third page seems to add another layer of meaning to Tony Stark's sad life-long battle against the "Demon in the Bottle," indeed to his entire story.

"Daredevil" #1 & #4-5 from Marvel Comics
written by Mark Waid (@MarkWaid); drawn by Paolo Rivera (@PaoloMRivera) & Marcos Martin
Really, really impressive superhero comics. Playing off of Bendis' (@BRIANMBENDIS) work from years ago (outing Matt Murdock as the vigilante superhero Daredevil in the tabloid press thereby making it publicly questioned but not publicly provable), but taking it one step further into reality: if everyone knows you may or may not be a superhero vigilante you wouldn't be able to step foot in a court room. What's an enterprising genius-attorney-secret/public superhero to do? Become a consulting law firm, an organization that teaches the common man in need of legal advice how to represent themselves. Genius. And somehow touching.

"Catwoman" #1 from DC Comics
written by Judd Winick; drawn by Guillem March
Yes, this book is drawn to 'gratuitously large proportions'. It is a superheroine/supervillainess comic with a lot of T&A but it's also a book with a lot of brains and a lot of heart. The dialogue breathes and rushes and pauses again between breaths. Kinda like that feeling of running down a hill into open land faster than your legs can safely carry you but you just barely avoid tumbling at the bottom and you push right on...
Did I mention this book is fun?

"Supergirl" #1 from DC Comics
written by Michael Green and Mike Johnson; drawn by Mahmud Asrar (@MahmudAsrar)
If "Catwoman" is the hooker with the heart of gold, "Supergirl" is the feisty little five-year-old who will bite you if you piss her off. Choosing to put this newest version of Kara-El into a more delicate situation (Kara wakes up from suspended animation on Earth with no memory of the destruction of Krypton) we see and 'hear' her freaking out on multiple levels at once. The portrayal of a teenager thrown into a situation she doesn't understand is more than competent and Asrar's art is a joy to read.

"Batman" #3-4 from DC Comics
written by Scott Snyder (@Ssnyder1835); drawn by Greg Capullo (@GregCapullo)
Scott Snyder has suddenly risen to the comic-book writing A-list last year and a large part of the reason is his head-turning writing with the Batman character, first on "Detective Comics" and then in this run of "Batman".

"Animal Man" #1-2 from DC Comics
written by Jeff Lemire (@JeffLemire); drawn by Travel Foreman
Completely re-imagining a superhero character is so old hat in a world post "Squadron Supreme" in the 70s/"Watchmen" in the 80s/"Planetary"in the 00s that nowadays it almost seems more impressive to simply take the elements already present and do it better than it's been done in a long, long time. Lemire's "Animal Man" is family-centered, high-concept, body-horror superhero comics that works, and it deserves accolades for that alone.

"the Amazing Spider-Man" #673 from Marvel Comics
written by Dan Slott (@DanSlott); drawn by Stefano Caselli
I almost declared the entire "Spider-Island" quasi-crossover-event the best story-arc of the year because it's very good, possibly among the best Spider-Man stories in a decade. But I was rather taken out of it by how silly it was at times. Too silly. In this epilogue issue Dan Slott's humor feels right however, like a great release after a terrifying ordeal.

"Sweet Tooth" #24 from Vertigo (@vertigo_comics)
written and drawn by Jeff Lemire (@JeffLemire)
Man, this book is just so damn beautiful. Death has never looked so good. Go read it.

"Diablo" #1 from DC Comics
written by Aaron Williams; drawn by Joseph Lacroix
Never-before-seen: A video game adaptation comic-book of real substance. A father-and-son story set against a fantasy back-drop.

"Northlanders" #36 from Vertigo
written by Brian Wood (@brianwood); drawn by Becky Cloonan (@beckycloonan)
"The Girl in the Ice" Part 2 is harrowing. Wrongly accused Jon must serve his community, even if what his community clamors for is a scapegoat. The clearest example I've read in the "Northlanders" series that the reality of life in the northlands at the turn of the last millenium was cold indeed.

"Criminal: Last of the Innocent" #1 from Icon
written by Ed Brubaker (@brubaker); drawn by Sean Phillips (@seanpphillips)
Although the following issues of this mini bored me slightly, this first issue rocked my socks off with its terrifying vision of modern American marriage combined with the loss of innocence we all must experience dramatized by the dirty scratchy art of the present day 80s and the smooth cartoony art of the main character's flashbacks/dreams of the 60s.

"Atomika" #12 from Mercury Comics
written by Andrew Dabb; drawn by Sal Abbinanti (@SalAbbinanti)
Atomika, the god of... something that by this point is a little unclear finally overcomes his treacherous father figure Aronhir in the last issue of this monumental series started in 2oo5. The final denouement was not the quite what I wanted as I felt a lot more emotional effect from the previous issue way back in 2oo9. But the epilogue-type stuff in here about humanity continuing on got me quite choked up. I hope this gets released in a single package one day- it'll read well and it might just get some major recognition.

"Spontaneous" #1 from Oni Press (@OniPress)
written by Joe Harris (@joeharris); drawn by Brett Weldele (@BrettWeldele)
Before the DC re-boot, this team had concocted the best first issue of the year. Quick, without feeling rushed, fun without feeling pointless, scary without being over-the-top, this unique story is told with Weldele's great watercolor style accenting a dark tale of obsession. But the real draw is Harris' dialogue for his female lead. Smooth and quirky, I fell in love at the first scene.

"ZEGAS" #1 from Copra Press
written and drawn by Michel Fiffe (@MichelFiffe)
Strikingly beautiful artwork, the kind that immediately grab your eyeballs and won't let go, is sadly rare in this world of comics. The balance required to make something VISUALLY beautiful while telling a story in tiny pictures WELL is incredibly difficult. Somehow Michel Fiffe can do this.

"A Skeleton Story..." #4 from GG Studios (@GGSTUDIO)
written and drawn by Alessandro Rak; translated by Adam McGovern (@AdamMcGovern)
This simple tale of crime-noir in the afterlife is so beautifully drawn that it might have won a spot by that alone, but the character designs, storytelling, and good old fashioned Disney-ish heart of this comic won me over pretty bigtime.


BEST SHORTS (under 22 pages)

"BOOM" on CartoonMovement.com
written by David Axe (@daxe); drawn by Ryan Alexander-Tanner (@ohyesverynice)
When I stumbled across this short but powerful webcomic, it felt like a little revelation. The current horror of IEDs and their ability to destroy more than mere lives on the battlefield. [I reviewed it here.]

"Bahrain: Lines in ink, Lines in the sand" on CartoonMovement.com
written and drawn by Josh Neufeld (@JoshNeufeld)
Truth about political difference demonstrated by two political cartoonists' work from the point-of-view of one American comicsmith. Powerful stuff.

"What Every Woman Should Know" on CartoonMovement.com
written and drawn by Susie Cagle
An intense presentation of the realities of abortion clinics in California in illustrations and sequential art. Regardless of where you may fall on the subject, things are not as they seem. Read it, educate yourself.

"State of Palestine" on CartoonMovement.com
written and drawn by Sarah Glidden (@sarahglidden)
It's only four pages and it tells the story of a clever political artist. Go read it.

The whole website is wonderful. Journalistic comics on the web, for free, easily shared. CartoonMovement.com deserves a medal. Four comics made my list.

“A Brief History of the Art Form Known as ‘Hortisculpture’” from "Optic Nerve" #12
written and drawn by Adrian Tomine
Choosing to give up on your dreams for your family and your own well-being is one of the hardest things an adult has to do. Sad, true, ridiculous, petty, human. All of these describe the main character of this sad, heart-warming, smart short tale.

"The White Room" from "Strange Adventures" #1
written by Talia Hershewe; drawn by Juan Bobillo
Beautiful and terrifying; short but haunting. This is excellent sci-fi psychological stuff. Go track it down and keep your eye out for those two names. I know I have.

"The Clock" from "Crack Comics" #63 (The Next Issue Project)
written and drawn by Paul Maybury (@pmaybury)
The pure Dick Tracy-high-impact-four-color-fun of this short piece is not to be reckoned with. The note the main character delivers to the bad guys on page one tells us what's going to happen, but it only makes the ride all the more fast and fun.

"I'll Never Let You Go" from "Amazing Spider-Man Spider-Man: Infested"
written by Dan Slott; drawn by Giuseppe Camuncoli
A more human presentation of the relationship between Peter Parker and his Aunt May has rarely been seen. In flashback and in the present we see their love grow: the short opens on the day May and Ben become his legal gaurdians and he yells "You-- you're not my mother!" but the adult Peter in the present says to Mary Jane (for the first time I can remember) "She's my mom, MJ."

"this one is not a dream" from "Dream Logic" #4
written and illustrated by David Mack (@davidmackkabuki)
A comic by David Mack about the death of his father. Abstract, yet human, unique in style. Heartbreaking.

Lil Depressed Boy: "My Life is Starting Over Again"
written by S. Steven Struble (@struble); drawn by Sina Grace (@SinaGrace)
Essentially the last entry in the old-style of the webcomic version of LDB tells a story about making your home, your fun, making your life-- wherever you can.

"Finder: Third World" Chapter 1 from Dark Horse Presents v2 #1
written and drawn by Carla Speed McNeil
My first introduction to "Finder" and the work of Ms. McNeil. Sharply realized characters in strange situations, all well-drawn. Even context-less (for me) I could tell there's cool stuff going on here.


BEST STRIPS (1 page)

"November in the North of England" in "Thought Bubble 2011" published in the US by Image Comics
written by Andy Diggle (@andydiggle); drawn by D'Israeli
Time travel. Crime. Morbid. Funny. All in a page.

untitled published in the US in "Jason Conquers America" from Fantagraphics
written and drawn by Jason
This little piece was finally released in the US last year in a slim one-shot collection of stuff Jason made that was never released in the US before: Man visits lover's grave. Man is shocked to find his lover's skeleton is having a picnic with -gasp- another skeleton! Shocking? Scandalous! Hilarious!

"on the way back DOWN"
written and drawn by G.M.B. Chomichuk
Take a second to look at this one-pager and tell me it's not gorgeous.

"I Can"
written and drawn by Jess Fink (@JessFink)
Inspiring, no?

"A Softer World" #727
written by Joey Comeau (@joeycomeau) and photographed by Emily Horne (@birdlord)
Yeah... I think.

"A Softer World" #724
written by Joey Comeau and photographed by Emily Horne
Oh yeah! Equally exciting and disturbing.

"A Softer World" #701
written by Joey Comeau and photographed by Emily Horne
I like it because I can't help but agree.

"A Softer World" #666
written by Joey Comeau and photographed by Emily Horne
All of us who've loved and lost can relate to this one.

"A Softer World" #661
written by Joey Comeau and photographed by Emily Horne
This one is among the few times "Softer World" leans more on the visuals than the writing. Both parts are awesome though.

"A Softer World" #628
written by Joey Comeau and photographed by Emily Horne
Funny because it's probably true of most of us if we're really honest with ourselves.

xkcd: "Sharing"
written and drawn by Randall Munroe (@xkcd)
Among the best things I read on the web last year. This simple, six-panel webstrip says everything about freedom, piracy, and 'sharing' by referencing the current terror over digital comics piracy (any kind of digital piracy really), against a well-regarded work of sequential art: the famous children's book Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree".

xkcd: "Depth Perception"
written and drawn by Randall Munroe
Just... wow.

xkcd: "Lanes"
written and drawn by Randall Munroe
As I have a few people who've survived cancer in my life, this was a bit chilling but very much eye-opening.

written and drawn by Anne Emond (@comeeks)
A really wonderful and unique use of color to represent a feeling in lines. This is exactly the type of tool-building I want to support for the medium, this is the reason I write this list every year. Synesthesia is the key to good art. And here it's amazing.

And that's a good place to end.


_______________________________________________________
And finally, graphic novels I wanted to read (or finish) but didn't:
"Anya's Ghost"
"His Dream of the Skyland"
"Marzi"
"Mangaman"
"Vietnamerica"
"The Homeland Directive"
"RUST"


We all only have so much time in a year. You just got a (literal and figurative) snapshot of how many comics I read with mine.

Strange, last year I couldn't wade through all the graphic novels and barely had enough single issues to choose from, this year the reverse! The industry in America is in flux. Digital seemed to be slowly becoming the standard method of consuming comics, but we now know that it actually only accounted for about 10% of comics sales in North America last year. [ICv2 source.]

~ @JonGorga

P.S.:

"One Soul"
published by Oni Press, written and drawn by Ray Fawkes (@rayfawkes)
Eighteen lives. One Soul.
Fawkes' graphic novel uses the Ditko-style nine-panel grid x2 to create a double spread that give each character their own narrative space that is then repeated as the characters age. It's about life and death.
It doesn't hang together as well as I wanted it to.
It's not the best graphic novel I read last year. But it came close. Blame Craig Thompson for releasing his second major graphic novel in the same year. It's a unique and daring work. You should read it.

Glyn Maxwell, Young Avengers, and Art's Present Past


One of the great pleasures of my new life as a postgraduate is the ability to pursue things that I just didn't have the time for when I was a student. My favorite of these pursuits is a foray into a genre, poetry, which has always made me feel vaguely illiterate; because I now work at the school from which I graduated last May, it wasn’t so strenuous to find a way in, and I'm lucky that my job has afforded me both the access and the time to take a class on the subject. (I know that this is not-comics, but bear with me.) We've been focused mostly on the sonnet but, last week, my teacher decided to expand our horizons a little bit and gave us a packet that included the poem above, Glyn Maxwell's "My Grandfather at the Pool." It's really an amazing piece and I suggest that, if you are inclined to do such things, you take the time to read it out loud. In particular, those of you who are interested in how words sound as well as what they mean should do this; I can't quite explain how stanzas like "This photo I know best of him is him/With pals of his about to take a swim" feel as they trip over your lips and spill out into the world, and its something you really should experience for yourself. 

Although I could type your eyes off, counting the ways I love "My Grandfather at the Pool," I'm going to go ahead and break one of the first principles of the appreciation of poetry (Archibald Macleish: "A poem should not mean/But be") as a way into a thought I've been kicking around for awhile, about the nature of stories that people get particularly attached to, that is, the kind of stories that produce fans. In the poem, Maxwell describes an old photo of his grandfather, taken around the start of the First World War: 

This photo I know best of him is him
With pals of his about to take a swim,

Forming a line with four of them, so five
All told one afternoon, about to dive:

Again, you should read this out loud-- it’s nice reading, sure, but poetry is meant to be spoken and to be heard; let it bounce around your ears for a while and see what happens. 

Back to the picture: Maxwell is clearly looking at this photograph in the present tense. The immediacy of “This photo” (as opposed to “That photo,” which would suggest distance) even seems to put it in his hand, and we’re looking at it with him as he narrates: 

Merseysiders, grinning and wire-thin,
Still balanced, not to late to not go in,

Or feint to but then teeter on a whim.
The only one who turned away is him,

About to live in the trenches and survive,
Alone, as luck with have it, of the five. 

Leaving aside the harrowing beauty of that passage, take note of two, or maybe even three, different tenses. Although almost the whole passage is in the grammatical present, it's “not to late to not go in,” after all, “About to live in the trenches and survive,” is suggestive of the future and “The only who who turned away is him,” is ambiguous and possibly in the past. Maxwell gets all of that time, past, present, and future, out of one little photograph.

Reading “My Grandfather at the Pool,” I was struck by the fact that this is true of art as well as of documentation; although Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in the early 16th century, she’s been smiling all this time, right now, before now, and she will after now, too. Odysseus is still finding his way home. At the same time, though, he's also landed on Ithaca's shores, met up with his son, and is now slaughtering his wife’s suitors. Similarly, Steve Rogers is still dead and Bucky Barnes is still Captain America, even as Barnes is the Winter Soldier and Rogers has put the flag back on. I only have to look at the painting, or open up Homer, or take the lid off of my longboxes for it to be true. 

The point, here, is that all the stories that have ever been written or painted or photographed, and so on, are happening right now or, if I’m a little more careful, they have the potential to be.* This is because art doesn’t operate the same way that our experience of time in the real world does; my first time reading “My Grandfather at the Pool” is past, but the poem is always present (and this, despite the fact that its writing and its subject are past as well!) Maxwell is always holding the picture of his grandfather, and his grandfather is always turned away. 

This is an important point for fan communities. When a story that you love is moved into a new direction that you don’t like, the original story, the one that you loved so much that you can’t stand this one, can’t be ruined, by definition; it’s still happening, it’s always happening.** Watching Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie respond to Young Avengers fandom after the preview pages for their new YA series hit, I’m reminded of my esteem for those two creators (Gillen actually pointed to a fact of comic book production that might sate some of the criticism when the book actually comes out next month, and McKelvie doesn’t think that the changes are much more than superficial) but I’m also frustrated that we’re having this conversation at all: there are plenty of legitimate reasons to call serial art bad, but insufficient similarity to what came before is never one of them.***  Young Avengers fans are perfectly welcome to dislike what Gillen and McKelvie do with the characters, of course they are!, but they need to be able to evaluate the comic fully and in its own terms before they can make a legitimate judgement about it, or even about its relative merits. Although I don’t want to speak categorically, much of the criticism of the YA preview, certainly all of it that I’ve seen, fails on both counts.  

Maxwell ends “My Grandfather at the Pool” by bringing into the clear the sentiment he has, to that point, implicitly expressed about the nature of the photograph he’s holding in his hand:

And things are stacked ahead of me so vast
I sun myself in the shadows that they cast:

Things I dreamed but never dreamed were there, 
But are and may by now be everywhere,

When you’re what turns the page of looks away,
When I’m what disappears into my day. 


My teacher closed out conversation of the poem by pointing to that second stanza, in particular “But are and may by now be everywhere.” “When’s that now?,” he asked. It’s now. Right now. That photograph documents a particular moment, and it will do so until it and each one of its reproductions is destroyed, and so that moment is always happening, no matter what James Maxwell and his friends wandered into later. Similarly, those first issues of Young Avengers? They’re happening too, right now, in your longbox or between the pages of the hardcover, and they don’t have to be colored by what came next-- art, unlike life, doesn’t work like that. If those are the stories that you want, then you should go to them. That’s why you have them. Cherish them because, inevitably, they won’t be the same as what comes next; that's what exciting about the telling of new ones, after all. 

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*Let’s save a conversation about the flashback for a different day.

**This obviously isn’t universally true, as George Lucas’s various versions of the first Star Wars trilogy and lost episodes of Dr. Who can attest, but I would say that those are specific examples, one of a creator belatedly editing his own work and the other of shortsighted behavior by a broadcaster, and that they speak to specific circumstances. 

***Similarly, insufficient faith to the source text is also not a very particularly valid critique when we’re talking about adaptation, but I’ll have to find another poem if I want to talk about that. 

Transatlantic Exchange

Quickly, I wanted to draw your attention to two pieces of process that cropped up over the last couple of days, one from an American working on a European comic, and the other from a European working on an American one.


The first is from former X-Men and Defenders artist Terry Dodson, who is working on the second volume of his so-far-only-published-in-Europe Songes series. I like Dodson's art because I think it strikes an interesting balance between traditional, stylized, cartooning and a kind of real feel-- I believe it, if that makes any sense. I also really like his process posts; because they tend to follow a particular cover or page from conception to finished product, they're both comprehensive and instructive. In this particular case, the lines in the inked image, on the left, are quite thin, and they give the page a confusing aspect, like there's too much going on. In the colored page on the right, the narrative is significantly clearer, despite the addition of a couple of extra elements even over and above the color. Although I tend to dislike coloring that has so many layers, Dodson's art works because it's complex, that's what makes it dynamic and fun to read, and the coloring adds a kind subtle depth that's lacking in the inked page, particularly when Dodson is using such a thin line.

The second of the posts is from David Aja, who often posts preview of the inked and then colored pages before a new issue of Hawkeye comes out. Now, without getting too deep into the weeds here, this is a great page. I love how well Aja mimics the aesthetic of a side scrolling arcade game, down even to the way that Spider-Man is turned slightly away in that middle panel and the way that Hawkeye falls straight down on the bottom left. I am particularly interested to see what purpose, exactly, a page this referential serves in the greater scheme of an issue, because it's either going to work or, well, it isn't. But the important thing to note here is in the thing itself; while the color clarifies the Dodson art above, here it serves to add pop, while the narrative is perfectly clear from the inked page alone. This isn't to say that the colored page isn't better, just that the color isn't necessary here in the same way it is above. This is because its component panels are devoid of unnecessary ornamentation; while much of Aja's early work on Immortal Iron Fist has exceedingly beautiful, detailed, composition, his work on Hawkeye has tended to emphasize complex page structure and panel interaction even as his what's inside those panels becomes increasingly minimal and crisp. His work, always fluid and kinetic, now consistently demonstrates the narrative clarity and playfulness that characterized the best pages and panels from Immortal Iron Fist.

To put too fine a point on it, I think that Dodson's style is representative of contemporary American (or Anglo-American) comics creation and, although my knowledge of Eurocomics is sad and minimal, I have a feeling that Aja's is similarly representative of a Continental style; to a large extent, I expect that we can trace the former to the energetic maximalism of Jack Kirby, while the latter probably springs from Herge and the limited frills of ligne claire. Of course, Aja's minimalism bears a striking similarity to trends in American art comics, and I think this points to an interesting split in American comics in general. In this context, it's heartening to see Aja's work become so successful, just as its nice to see Dodson make some overtures to the overseas market. I have a feeling that crossover projects like these are going to become increasingly common and, to the extent that they can encourage people like me to expend the extra time and resources necessary to pursue comics either published in Europe or drawn in European styles the same way we try to discover American ones, I think that they're a good thing. 

Process: Brandon Graham

Over the last year, I've mentioned, I think probably repeatedly, that I admire the work of Brandon Graham. Graham has recently turned to tumblr, a platform through which he has shared, among other things, process work. My favorite bit of this detritus from this detailing of how the sausage is made is the below layout guide, which Graham sent to artist Giannis Milonogiannis for Prophet #31.*

It's easy to forget that comics is a collaborative process; often, we want a clean division between "writer" and "artist," but I think it's important to remember that many creators are both, even if they are credited as one or the other. Here, Graham is stepping into a part of production that we tend to think of as the artist's purview; elsewhere, like in the Marvel Method, the artist is probably much more responsible for the plot of the book than the writer is. One of the things thats interesting to me about this is the way that each group of creators seems to work differently, so that one particular thing that makes for a successful collaboration between Graham and Milonogiannis might not be useful for Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips or for Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. There is, it turns out, more than one way to make good comics. 

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*I don't think I'm going to do a top ten list but, if I were to, chances are that Prophet would be the book of the year. If you haven't checked it out yet, its time to give it a shot. 

Fare Thee Well, Karen Berger

Today, the news came that Vertigo impresario Karen Berger is no longer working for DC Comics. A rumor that this was coming has been bouncing around for awhile, and I'll leave it to people like Tom and Rich to talk about Karen's career specifically or to guess at what's coming next for the Vertigo imprint.

I will say, though, that I think this is the kind of thing that is bad for comics, or at least it is for us comics people. Although Image is in the process of stepping up to the plate, so to speak, and despite the fact that various comics from Boom! and Dynamite have managed to pass a very high bar in terms of quality, there's not a company in the market right now that is producing the same high number of very good, non-superhero, books that Vertigo was putting out even a couple of years ago. If that era is winding down because the imprint failed as an intellectual property factory farm, it suggests that the industry has gotten even more not-comics focused than I had feared.

Of course, there are always other avenues for high quality comics, but monthlies like Prophet and Fatale are exceptions rather than rules, and books put out by Drawn and Quarterly or Fantagraphics can be intimidating for the uninitiated. It's important, or at least it was for me, to have something like Vertigo around as new readers begin to take comics seriously; although I'd been reading them on and off for close to a decade, it took a chance encounter with Sandman, or maybe Transmetropolitan, on the shelves of my public library for me to consider that maybe there was more to them than spandex and superpowers. By 2006, those readings had driven me to the comic book store and, luckily for me, those were heady days for the imprint, with books like Fables and 100 Bullets in their primes, with Y the Last Man entering its final act and Scalped just about to start up. Without complex, interesting books like those, I'm not sure I would have stuck around, but, because they kept coming out, I kept going to the library and to the comic book store, and I kept looking around, and, eventually, I found my way to comics that better resemble traditional literature as well as superhero books that suggested that that genre, too, was one that had value, at least in the right hands.

And, so, my debt to Vertigo's steward is a great one. It's her fault that I'm out here, kicking this ball around. Thanks for all that, Karen Berger. I wish you well.

Chatter: Chris Ware at BCGF I

Chris Ware:
Books are innately interactive. To read words on a page and make up images in your head and that thing is different than what someone else imagines. It's the strangest intellectual experience of all time. 
It was interesting to hear Ware speak to this, in part because he's abandoned the traditional bounds and binding of books with Building Stories,* but also because my own thinking on this is slightly different.  Comics, it seems to me, are more interactive than traditional prose storytelling, since comics require that readers connect panel to panel, that they literally draw the missing story themselves, or at least close the space between the two. Similarly, its the artist's job to draw the reader from panel to panel in a way that makes closure possible; a failure on the part of either party means that the art itself fails.

Perhaps, then, it is better to say that comics are collaborative rather than interactive. I suppose the same argument could be made about books, but, formally, an author can give you much more in a paragraph than a comics artist is able to by drawing panels that need to be put together when a reader comes along. Surely, the experience of completing somebody else's work for them is stranger than reading a traditional piece of prose?

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* Incidentally, I've decided not to attempt Building Stories until I've actually completed Jimmy Corrigan. In trying to give oneself a comics education, its important to take one step before you take the next one.  

And, NOW!: The Indestructible Hulk

And, NOW! is a series of posts about Marvel NOW!

The Hulk is probably one of Marvel's more confusing characters right now, certainly much more than any of his teammates from the Avengers movie, all of whom have had relatively stable comics versions for some time. There are the colored Hulks, for one, and Banner and Hulk were separated for a while and didn't he spend some time off of the planet, or something? All of that should be set to change, though, with Marvel's best under-the-radar writer teaming with one of its favorite artists to handle a character who seemed to get a particularly favorable response from audiences last summer.

Look: Mark Waid's main idea for Indestructible Hulk is fabulous. We've got Banner and Hulk together again, which is great, and we've got a Banner with a real personality and a certain amount of ambition, which is nice to see. The good Dr. is intent on using his time as himself to save the world, and he's decided that he's going to manipulate his greener half for destruction that's both necessary and controlled. I love that Waid has, finally, written a Banner who is  comfortable in both who he it is that he is and in what it is that he can become. I love that, finally, we get a Banner who understands that he is, as he tells Maria Hill, incurable.

Given all of this, Indestructible Hulk should be a great comic. But its not. This is Lenil Yu's fault. I know a lot of people like Yu, but I'm not sure why; to my eyes, his work looks sketchy, half-finished, like he just kind of churned it out. Many of the panels use a grey or green gradient as the background which, as a time saving idea, isn't so bad, except that the lack of any distraction behind Yu's figures mean that there's nothing to distract from the fact that his figures are stiff and over dark. When something does happen in them, it doesn't really make sense; this issue's second half is devoted to an utterly incomprehensible fight scene, six or so pages that don't come together coherently and which do their best to suggest that, imagine this, fighting is chaotic, without giving any actual idea of who's winning or what's going on.

Even when less complicated movement is required, Yu is apparently unable to suggest sensical spacial relations. Take, for example, the panels to the right, which are essentially the crux of the book. Banner, having pitched his services to Maria Hill, asks "What it'll be?" and both of them are turned towards the  storefronts in the background. In the next panel, though, things fall apart: as the Dr. asks "In or out?," he appears to be turning away from Director Hill, apparently so that we can get a good understanding of her answer. I think we're supposed to assume that she picks up the two-by-four from the boarded up storefront so, leaving the problem of how she grabbed it so fast aside, why is Banner all of the sudden facing away? That doesn't make any sense either physically or emotionally-- isn't this a moment when he should be looking her right in the eye, particularly since he's just barged in a top secret S.H.I.E.L.D mission? Even if he was bashful about this proposal-- which he obviously is not-- why would he put his back to her rather than simply turning his head to the side? Why would he turn all the way around and then finish his question? Just so Hill could hit him? This is not a panel that makes very much sense. It's too bad, too, since this moment could be the book's emotional center rather than simply the point at which the plot turns.

And, holy hell, that isn't even the worst sequence in the comic! No, no, that particular honor goes to this marvelous disaster:

I just want to be clear about this: I love panel interaction. Panels that don't interact are the sign of a staid, traditional cartooning style that forces a reader to completely close the space between panels himself. Those artists who make their panels talk to each other, that is, those artists who suggest a way of reading to the reader are often much more interesting and their work is often a lot better for it. This here, though, is a heavy mess. First of all, how do you bump a sitting person in the middle of their back as you walk by? You'd have to be walking sideways to manage it, particularly if you're walking across their body and not towards it. That unlikely movement is insignificant, though, compared to what that guy's hand is doing: is he patting Maria Hill on the head? It certainly looks like he is, doesn't it? Is there anyone, in the whole of the Marvel Universe, who could get away with that? What makes this guy so special? To make the whole thing even sillier, the panel on the left is a medium shot while the panel on the right is a close up of Hill, so a guy who has a bicep as big as Banner's face appears to have tiny, tiny hands and S.H.I.E.L.D's director apparently has a big, big head. I don't even know what to make of it-- how do sequences like this ever get published? Is anybody actually looking at these comics before they go out?

Variance: Art Adams

Art Adams on FF #1

No Sleep Before Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Fest


The Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Fest was a week ago Saturday, so all of this is a little belated, but I just wanted to take a second to say that, as someone attending the festival for the first time, I kind of loved it and I kind of hated it. Although my initial impressions, all formed during two panels featuring Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware and Lilli Carre, among others, and moderated by festival cofounder Bill Kartalopoulos, were all very positive, my quick jaunt in the show area of the festival itself left my sweaty and breathless. I can see why the fest's organizers like the space, at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, but the sheer number of people milling around made it impossible for me to enjoy myself and, more importantly, to do the discovery that I came to do. Of the eleven books I went home with, I had walked into the show intending to buy six, with an established desire to also check out Blexbolex, whose books I ended up buying at Desert Island later, rather than in the exhibit hall itself.

That I shimmied out of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel as fast as I could manage isn't any kind of tragedy, but I would have liked to have been able to investigate more stuff before I became too flustered to function, particularly since the festival did a very good job of attracting European and Canadian publishers with whom I have very little experience or exposure. I also would have liked to have spoken to Jordan Crane; although I purchased all four volumes of his Keeping Two collection minis, I would have liked to have had his ear for awhile, if only to say that I give The Last Lonely Saturday to anyone who doesn't believe that comics are worthwhile. That I didn't feel like I was able to is, I should add, my fault and my fault alone.

Obviously, I think its good that people are showing up to shows like this, and, obviously, I'm happy for the BCGF people that their show was such a rousing success. But I also want to say that I don't think that the organizers were prepared for the kind of crowd they were going to get: the day's first panel, which featured Spiegelman and Ware, was standing room only, and a few people were sitting in the Knitting Factory's bar and listening in to the discussion as it was going on. Kartalopoulos, for his part, seemed  genuinely surprised that there was going to be such good turnout for Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware. I don't really know how to explain that. I want to like BCGF, I really do, but unless they move venues next year I don't think I'll be going again.

What I might go to, though, are happenings associated with festival but outside of the exhibitor hall. I thought all of the events and showings that I attended were excellent, and over the next few weeks I want to pick apart a few of things that Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman said in that first panel, as well as think about the gallery settings for the work of Lilli Carre and Blexbolex which, as always, is an exceedingly difficult venue in which to approach comics as a kind of readable art. I first wrote about Carre's art in a gallery context almost two years ago, and its going to be satisfying to approach again, particularly since the work she showed at Desert Island comics was much more appropriate for gallery walls that what I saw before. The work of Blexbolex and Oliver Schrauwen was similarly suited for viewing in this way, although, I think, for much different reasons, and I'll talk about that too.



All of this is to say that I think BCGF was extremely stimulating from an intellectual point of view, so much so that I'm going to spend some time writing about it, but that I wish that it had done a better job of allowing for the serendipity of discovery at the tables of the people who had come to share their work.

Process Variance: Stephanie Hans

Stephanie Hans did this neat .gif of her process for her Young Avengers #2 variant cover.

And, NOW!: Iron Man #1

And, NOW! is a series of posts about Marvel NOW!


Let's get one thing straight: Greg Land is not a bad artist. He's not a good artist, either, but I think I've been hyperbolic about his work in the past and I just wanted to clear this up. Although I'm not attracted to his artificial style, which is a stiff and lightboxed parody of photorealism, I am willing to admit that his lines are solid and that his characters have a certain boldness, a kind of magnetic density that draws the eye towards them and away from the rest of his compositions, which, themselves, merely suggest scene dressing.

Part of the problem with that kind of composition, though, is that individual panels often closely resemble one another. To avoid a repetitive page, then, Land is forced to pull the reader a great distance in between panels, effectively slowing any natural movement from one to the next by forcing the reader to close more space than he or she should have to. Since the relaunch of Uncanny X-Men, a year ago, though, he's been doing a few things that ease the reading experience, like varying compositions in interesting ways and, most importantly, allowing panels to interact with each other through the gutter. In the sequence below, for example, the cell phone flies out of one panel, up and over the gutter, and into the next one. The move between individual compositions is kind of awkward, the first indicates movement and while the second is still, but the airborne phone suggests, very deftly, how the character in the white shirt moves while the reader is in the space between.

All of this to say that I'll defend Greg Land, yes, but only up to a certain point-- his human characters all have exaggerated soap opera facial expressions that leave much to be desired. Like Sal Larroca before him, though, his style lends itself to the drawing of machines, so that his version of the Iron Man armor is dynamic in the same way that his drawings of people are stilted, at least in terms of the individual panels. This seems to make him a perfect choice for Iron Man and he may indeed prove to be, but only if Kieron Gillen does his damnedest to keep Tony Stark in the suit rather than leave him out of it.

Basically, its up to Gillen to write for his artist's strengths, in a way that Matt Fraction didn't always manage to do when he was writing for Larroca. Reading this first issue, it seems likely that this will be the case, since Gillen is eschewing Fraction's fascinating corporate espionage angle in favor of a more traditional man-of-action faces down terrorists kind of plot, one that will require Greg Land to draw more than one kind of armor. For his part, the writer does a pretty good job, even managing to relatively concisely explain a piece of information from an old Iron Man arc, even as he's placing it at the center of his own story. It's a masterful example of how good shared universe writers can relay enough information to keep new readers in the loop while still managing to keep old ones interested. Gillen has experience with this particular kind of counterterrorism story, often pulling it out during his Uncanny X-Men work, but much of that stuff was sort of out there and I expect that he's going to play Iron Man much more traditionally.

I think Fraction and Larocca's work with Tony Stark is probably definitive for the next little while, but if Gillen can keep it up, and if Land can behave, then we may very well have another classic on our hands. 

Process: Pasqual Ferry

Pasqual Ferry draws Wakanda. I was determined to avoid A+X, but this looks good enough that I'll have trouble passing it up.  

The Bendis Age: Hickman's Fantastic Four

Somewhat amazingly, I was not the only person to think of using the extremely clever and witty title Marvel Then for a series of posts on the Marvel era that started coming to a very slow conclusion last month. Because I'm that guy you go out to dinner with, you know the one, who refuses to order the same things as someone else, I've decided to retitle the series, this time emphasizing that its Brian Bendis's exit from The Avengers family of titles, more than anything else, that marks this as the beginning of a new era. Welcome to The Bendis Age. 


Why not start where all this began, right? Before I move forward, though, a quick word about what's going on here: these BENDIS AGE posts aren't going to be comprehensive, except in one very particular case. Instead, they're going to be quick and improvised, and they're going to reflect a very simple truth about me as a comic book reader: I'm not doctrinaire about my purchases. I don't have enough money to be. Every month, I have to choose what to buy and what not to buy, and every month I don't buy something that I did buy the month before, often because I want to try something new.

As a purchasing strategy, I think its the only viable one. As a strategy for keeping track of serial storytelling, though, it kind of blows. As I flipped through my shortboxes, picking out books I think would be interesting to reread at this particular moment in time, I'm struck by books I bought but didn't read-- much of Journey Into Mystery, until I realized I wasn't reading it and stopped buying it*-- as well as the books that I bought, but just not consistently. Hickman's neat little duo of Fantastic Four comics are among these.

Of course, the fact that Hickman got me to buy Fantastic Four at all is something of a feat, since I don't think there's a character in all of comics that pisses me off quite as much as Reed Richards. Although the insufferable smartest man alive is one of comics' greatest stock characters, Marvel has five such characters that I can think of off the top of my head. Reed doesn't have the charm of Tony Stark, the menace of Bruce Banner, the humor of Amadeus Cho or, even, the pluck of the recent iterations of Hank Pym. He's just kind of a know-it-all, and, worse, one who chronically doesn't seem to remember who he's got around him because he's got so many other things to do, because, more than he's interested in them, he's interested in solving puzzles and saving the world. Reed Richards simply isn't a very good dad.

Although I don't harbor quite the same distrust of the concepts of the other members of the extended Richards family, the only truly great character in the bunch is Benjamin Grimm, the ever lovin', blue eyed Thing. It used to be that Yancey Street's favorite son was the only good reason to tune into the book-- you could certainly be excused for getting your fix from New Avengers, at any rate. I don't think I'm the only person to think this way- the scuttlebutt on the book is that it never sells as well as Marvel thinks it should and I expect that this reason is this: the Fantastic Four, as characters, have a tendency to be grating at best and, at worst, simple and boring.

But it wasn't always this way. You only have to go so far as Matt Fraction's ongoing reading of the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby collaborations on the earliest issues of the book to see that, to see the extent of the universe that the Fantastic Four were born into, to see the sense of wonder that that classic team up evoked not only in the reader but, also, in the characters themselves. If you can, find some examples of Kirby's collage pages from this period, itself a suggestion that the drawn comic book was not the final frontier, that comics could be much more than illustrations and word balloons printed using a four color process.

Jonathan Hickman, as talented as he is, wasn't quite so ambitious, or at least he wasn't here. But, from the beginning, he was interested in reinvigorating a stagnant idea. In a postscript to his run, published instead of a letters page in the last issues of both Fantastic Four and FF, he writes about his first goal for his work with Marvel's first family:
I still remember how disappointed I was when I found out my boss, Tom Brevoort, wasn't going to put "THE WORLD'S GREATEST COMIC MAGAZINE" tagline of my first issue of FANTASTIC FOUR. The dispassionate, analytical side of my brain understood it, but I swear to God and I do mean Jack Kirby, the hopeless romantic in me was crushed.
The fact that Hickman was able, since that first issue of Fantastic Four, to cast aside that dispassionate, analytical side in favor of that crushed hopeless romantic is directly responsible for the success, artistic, critical and, in a relative sense, commercial, of his run with these characters. Because he was able to transform the Fantastic Four from insufferable super cardboard cutouts into heroes with significant and interesting pathos, he made them readable again. Hickman's take on the group, which pits love of the family against a responsibility for the world, the addiction to the puzzle against the embrace of imagination, chooses the latter in both cases and casts Reed in his own father's absent role, before revealing to him his own failings, evident to readers for years. For the first time in a long time, maybe for the first time since Lee and Kirby, Hickman was able to discard the cold stare of Reed Richards in favor of the ebullience, the straight wonder, of Reed's creators.

This last issue of FF, even moreso than his last issue of Fantastic Four, demonstrates that this is exactly what Hickman was trying to do, that focusing the book up rather than down was the plan from the start.
Reading the two first family books over the last little bit, and particularly before Hickman wrapped up his three year arc on the book twelve or so months ago, was to be convinced that anything was possible and that most things were plausible. Everything was fair game-- the death of Galactus, the death of the Human Torch, the Mad Celestials, an alliance with Dr. Doom. Anything could happen. Anything could be.




Process: Jamie McKelvie

Jamie McKelvie shares an uncolored page from Young Avengers #1

Today Is Election Day

Go vote. If you don't vote, shame on you-- whatever happens, you've lost the privilege to complain about whatever happens next.

To get you in the mood, go read Caleb Mozzocco's Super Endorsements series:

Remember that this is Bizarro. 
Update, from the desk of Paolo Rivera:



Marvel, Then: Intro



I'm hunkered down in my apartment*, waiting for Hurricane Sandy to pass me by. Happily, this means that I am catching up on months worth of reading I have piled up next to my mattress, but I also figured that it was a good time to quickly intro something I'm going to be doing over the next few months, in conjunction with the House of Ideas' Marvel NOW! yearly culling of established ongoing series in order for the company to replace them with new number ones in an attempt to temporarily raise sales relaunch, namely, the consideration, first, of the books whose era has just ended (Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca on Iron Man, Ed Brubaker on Captain America, Jonathan Hickman on the Fantastic Four, and so on) and then of the books that are replacing them.

In some ways, this series started last week, with my review of the initiative's not very good flagship title, Uncanny Avengers #1. That was sort of a false start, though, since the first few posts, which I've not very cleverly titled "Marvel, Then," are going to focus on what's ending, rather than what's new. Because of the staggered roll out of new titles, though, some of those posts will run concurrent with the posts, titled, again very cleverly, "Marvel When?" that deal with what's new NOW! that an era that's a decade old has come to a close.

That time frame, of course, is the same one in which Brian Bendis has been writing The Avengers. His work on that franchise over that span, while hardly the greatest superhero comics produced in the period, made possible the existence of some much better work. If he hadn't brought Luke Cage to the forefront of the Marvel universe through sheer force of will, for example, it seems unlikely that Immortal Iron Fist would have happened. I have a feeling, too, that his use of the Thing in New Avengers is partially responsible for the success of Jonathan Hickman's Fantastic Four. Bendis's move to other projects, which would have presaged a monumental change even if Marvel hadn't cloaked it in a line wide changing of the guard, presents by far the most important questions of this new era, at least when we think about Marvel as a business: can he replicate his Avengers success with All-New X-Men? Will his high word count writing style, the superhero board room approach, translate well to a much different kind of series? How about Guardians of the Galaxy? Is it going to be any good? Given that it mostly exists to gin up excitement for the movie adaptation, could it possibly be any good?

While Bendis's contributions are important, and while his arrival at Marvel marks the beginning of a renaissance for the publisher, I don't want to minimize how important, maybe even how much more important, I think Hickman, Fraction and Brubaker are to the company's artistic success over the last decade. Before them, too, were people like J. Michael Straczynski and beyond those three there are people like Kieron Gillen, each of whom helped to make Marvel's recent production stronger than anything from the Big Two comics companies in quite a long time. So, for the next few months, besides posts on the new Iron Man, Thor and Captain America series, you can expect commentary on the old ones, as well as whatever else piques my interest during this most fascinating moment in the history of the House of Ideas.

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*Although this is posting Tuesday, I wrote it on Monday after I was sent home from work.

Process: Paolo Rivera

I know I posted some process from Paolo not very long ago, but I want to highlight his last post, which deals with his work on Mythos: Captain America, because, in it, Paolo goes beyond the art itself, beyond comics, really, and deals with its afterlife.

Of Mythos as a whole, that is, of the comics themselves, Paolo writes:
The series did less than amazing in terms of sales, but Marvel still followed through with the project until we had enough issues to collect into a beautiful hardcover. If nothing else, it proved to be a fantastic platform for jumpstarting my career — aside from being paired with a top-tier writer, I got to illustrate the cream of the crop in terms of Marvel characters. And all that while I was still a rookie: when they gave me the job, I had painted just 34 pages for them.
In the pantheon of creator origins, Rivera's story is kind of extraordinary. Although he was one of the few comics artists in the last few decades to immediately jump to the big leagues, I'm not sure he has ever been introduced with that overused "superstar artist" epithet, despite the fact that the quality of his work is often much higher than those artists that are. Instead, he began his career by working for the House of Ideas, and, perhaps more interestingly, he has only produced a couple of dozen books for the company over the ten years he was signed to an exclusive contract with themWhile I'm cynical about the ability of mainstream comics companies to see and recruit truly talented artists, its not hard to see why Marvel kept Rivera around for so long-- look at these pages, both from Captain America's Mythos issue: 



















Although the one on the left is unequivocally beautiful, the one the right is fascinating, formally: check out the way the Rivera suggests differences of time in the top three panels, although all three frame the same space. Obviously, this is exceptional work, but anyone who suggests that nothing interesting happens in mainstream superhero comics isn't paying close enough attention. 

But Rivera doesn't just pull these images out of thin air. His process, which he very generously describes in more or less detail on a regular basis, is one of the most intensive I've ever read about. Rather than bluffing his way through the parts of a page he thinks people are unlikely to notice, Rivera takes every detail into account. He sketches everything from multiple angles. He takes reference photographs and, when he can't, he sculpts a reference out of clay. Take a look:



Of this technique, he writes:
One of the things I love most about Marvel heroes is that they don't always look the part. In fact, Captain America was the first in the entire Mythos series who had the classic heroic look (despite the fact that he doesn't start out that way). Creating that square jaw from scratch ensured that I got exactly the look I was going for, panel after panel. This was the largest of the maquettes I've made — the head's about 2 inches tall — and I still use it as a general reference for all types of heroes. 
I think he probably builds whole pages, both in reality and in his head, that we'll never see, things that are just as good as what he has published. It's hard to escape the sense that Rivera would have found success as a fine artist, had he not decided that what he really wanted to pursue was a career in comics.

Of course, the fact that his production is extraordinary neither makes him immune to market forces nor excuses him from paying the rent. In fact, I imagine it was something of a detriment: he's admitted that he's a slow painter, but, given how much work he does before he even touches the gauche, it would probably be more accurate to describe him as a pure and simple perfectionist. Still, perfection has its price, and I imagine the way it was limited production could be hard. Working on Mythos, however, helped him alleviate some of that stress:
The fact that I was commissioned to work on Marvel's flagship characters so early on was a privilege I recognized from the start, however, the benefits extended to my original art sales, which quickly became a third of my income (a much-welcomed addition since I was such a slow painter). If you're not familiar with the comic book art market, the price paid always comes down to which characters are on the page. Art is a commodity like everything else, and fame always trumps any intrinsic value. Captain America was (and always will be) more famous than me, but he has been kind enough to let me share in the spotlight.
I will tell you that, because I'm a recent college graduate, I never think about the original art market and, accordingly, know nothing about it. I had no idea that value in that world was figured in that way. Although I could imagine a market where value was determined by the relative fame of the artist, since everybody has their own favorite B-List character, this makes much more sense: Captain America will always be more famous than Paolo Rivera, and Batman will always be more famous than Jim Lee. Rivera's honesty about all of this is a thing to behold and, while I imagine that someone who wasn't some kind of fan of Marvel couldn't produce art that celebrates it like Rivera does, it's refreshing to see him admit that one of the perks of getting to draw the company's flagship characters is being able to up his income by a full third. A full third. 

Of course, an admission like that could be dangerous for artists, since its conceivable that they could end up stiffed on pay, with the big companies using that reasoning as an excuse: "Well, yeah, your royalties are tiny, but have you ever thought about original art sales?"

A few weeks ago, I heard Sean Howe describe his recently published history of Marvel as a story about pop culture because its a story of how art met commerce, and Rivera's post is a good reminder that its that confluence that conscientious readers of comics, that any conscientious consumer of culture, really, always need to be thinking about, but particularly when they're making decisions about what to buy and how. While it's tempting, maybe even partially true, to point to Paolo Rivera as story of a big comics corporation getting it right, Rivera's experience is, ultimately, atypical: he was as lucky as he is talented. And its important to remember that.

Review: Uncanny Avengers #1

I desperately want to like Uncanny Avengers #1, although mostly for sentimental reasons: I've been reading comics with the word Uncanny in the title since I was a seventh grader, when I started buying them off of a spinner rack near the counter of a Waldenbooks at the mall. Although I look back on those years, Chuck Austen was writing the book, with more than a little disdain, I liked it then because Nightcrawler was leading the team, and I just kind of stuck with it, only stopping for about a year in my senior year of high school and then again in college, for about six months and in protest, during THE SECOND COMING X-crossover.

So, yeah, I'm attached to the adjective, and I want to uncritically love this new use of it as much as I loved the last one. It should have been so easy to do, too, since it has, in Rick Remender, a competent writer and because it is being drawn by John Cassaday, one of the industry's brightest talents, finally returned from an exile in the Desert of the Cover Artists. Alas, it was not to be-- Uncanny Avengers is vulgar and incomprehensible.

It doesn't help, of course, that Marvel's bloated Avengers v. X-Men event, out of which this new series springs, ended as messily as it did, basically returning the Marvel Universe to a status quo ended when Brian Bendis undid all of Grant Morrison's New X-Men work in the pages of House of M (a story that Marvel's characters are, sort of inexplicably, now referencing every few pages).* Mutants, all of the sudden, are back, and they're popping up all over the place, in Beijing, in Cyclops's cellblock, everywhere. The premise of this book is simple: those mutants need help, and Captain America is determined to be there for them. His first order of business is to find them a leader (doesn't anybody at Marvel realize how condescending that is?), and the list of those who are unqualified is quite long. Scott is, obviously, out. Wolverine's past is checkered. Xavier is dead. Magneto used to be a terrorist. Who knows where Hope is. Onto this scene, from the pages of X-Factor, waltzes Alex Summers, first to admonish his brother, at this point a matter of course for a Marvel good guy, and then into the company of Steve Rogers and the mighty Thor who tell him, without prompting, that he is the leader that his people need. Cue the requisite hemming and hawing and then...

Cut to a fight scene, in which Captain America, Thor and Havok are on hand, out of nowhere and from across town, to fight a lobotomized Avalanche. This is how this book moves, with little regard for plausibility and continuity; from there, we're shuffled along to a moralizing internal monologue from the Scarlet Witch, kneeling at at the grave of Professor X. Rogue doesn't take kindly to this, and they prepare to fight when, out of nowhere, there's another completely illegible, although much more mysterious, fight scene. All of this is, of course, followed by a big, wacky reveal at the end. At this juncture, I think it's important that you  keep in mind that I'm talking about a story in which a man who dresses up in a flag and throws a round shield at things is teaming up with a Norse god and a man whose "x-gene" gives him the ability to blast things with powers he gets from exposure to sunlight to fight someone who, in the first page of the comic, has his frontal lobe removed and replaced with a computer and can cause earthquakes-- and it's the mode and mechanics of the storytelling that I'm finding implausible.

This is particularly hard to take, since the book has a lot of other things going for it. Remender, for his part, just stuffs it with interesting ideas, from the suggestion, at the beginning, that Havok might be the one to step up as a leader for mutantkind to the reveal, at the end, of a returned Red Skull, who needs Professor X's brain for some nefarious scheme for the destruction of that same people. Look, this could have been very good stuff, like a Matt Fraction story with a legacy villain and an occult twist. Rather than aping the slowburning plotter of Invincible Iron Man, though, Remender has picked up on the hyperactive tendencies of certain parts of The Mighty Thor, introducing too many big ideas to bring any of them to a satisfying resolution, at least on the level of this individual issue.

Remender's inability to pick one subject and stick with it is particularly galling because it wastes John Cassaday's considerable talents. Cassaday, who hasn't published any narrative work since the release of Planetary #27 in 2009, really does deserve better than this because, while Uncanny Avengers isn't the best thing he's ever drawn, it is an excellent reminder of why he's one of the few artists I follow faithfully, wherever he may go. His style, because it seamlessly transitions from photorealistic to cartoony and back, often in the same panel, feels natural, almost real. More than any other artist, I'm struck by how easy Cassaday makes it for a reader to suspend disbelief. This only works, however, if the narrative that he is drawing is, itself, natural, that is, if it flows comprehensibly. Uncanny Avengers does not.

Some of this, certainly, could be forgiven; Cassaday's art is good, and it's nice to see a writer as excited about his own ideas as Remender. Unfortunately, the book's dialogue is too often either reheated sermonizing from the end of AvX or stilted and manufactured, much like the conflict between Rogue and the Scarlet Witch, and that's just too much to take. If Marvel wants this to be a successful series, and since it's the flagship in a new era for the company, I'm going to assume they want it to sell well, they would do well to do some actual, honest-to-goodness editing here, if only to pin the writer down. There's too much good stuff here to let it get away like this again.

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*I think there's probably something to be said for the fact that Marvel is starting its NOW! era with a recursive move-- the company's stories are stagnant even when it makes an explicit attempt at moving them forward. At least the idea is a good one, one that should never have been abrogated in the first place.

Process: Lewis Trondheim

Lewis Trondheim's cover for Ralph Azham volume 5. 
The English edition of volume 1, from Fantagraphics, is out now.