Friday, March 29, 2013

1987 and all that 004: too true

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

D.P. 7 #3-14 (Marvel)
by Mark Greunwald, Paul Ryan, Romeo Tanghal, Al Williamson, Danny Bulanadi, Paul Becton, Phil Felix

Realism in superhero comics is an interesting struggle. Because there is an inherently fantastical element to any story involving people with impossible powers, finding a way to keep them grounded is not always an easy or obvious task. Typically, these are narratives about grown men and women who make up secret names for themselves and throw on outlandish, bright, skintight costumes every time there’s someone evil to punch. This is not exactly a genre that lends itself to a believable narrative.  And it’s not that every superhero story needs realism, but those that do strive for it often go the “grim and gritty” route, seeing brutality and depression as the only means of bringing their demigod-like characters back down to Earth. To keep things exciting and intense without always relying on larger-than-life, city-block-devastating action, creators will turn to the ugliest, darkest aspects of human nature and heighten them to super-heroic levels. And certainly many great things have come from this strategy, but more and more often it feels like current creators are piling on the darkness without any rhyme or reason, and the results are just as unrealistic as anything, only bleaker and more violent. 'D.P. 7' offers a different approach, realistic not because of any darkness in tone but because of its pacing, telling its story in as close to real time as it can. At its best, this tactic makes the series better and smarter than your average comic book by far. But at its worst, it’s incredibly boring. As boring as real life.

'D.P. 7', or Displaced Paranormals 7, was a part of Marvel’s New Universe imprint, a group of titles that began in 1986 and existed outside of the main Marvel U. This was a brand new continuity (hence “paranormal” instead of “superhero” or “mutant” or “ meta-human” or what have you), and the whole point of it was to make things simpler and more reflective of the real world. Cutting out magic and super-science and other established elements of modern superhero comic books, the New Universe focused on the practical ramifications of people suddenly developing extraordinary powers. Lives fall to pieces. There is fear and paranoia and, above all, confusion. And for the stars of 'D.P. 7', these powers are treated like a disease, something with which they have all been afflicted and hope to cure or otherwise be rid of eventually.

My instinct is to call this series a “team book,” as there are many obvious parallels to groups like the Runaways, the Outsiders, and especially the X-Men. But these people aren't really a team, they’re just a group. Seven strangers who each individually seek help for their new found abilities from The Clinic, a mysterious medical facility that claims to be studying them in an attempt to understand and ultimately cure whatever gives them their powers. Unsurprisingly, The Clinic is not what it appears, and the people who run it are actually attempting to recruit and/or brainwash the new paranormals of the world in order to dominate it. Our band of seven discovers that something is amiss and flees, spending months afterward on the run. They stick together only for survival, and even that isn't enough to keep all of them around for very long. Group decisions are based on whose car they have or who whines the loudest, and even Randy, the closest thing they have to a leader, is really just an oft-ignored voice of reason. They form friendships and other bonds slowly but surely through their shared traumas and close quarters, but even then, there is no sense of a singular team identity. Before they can reach that point or even get close to it, they splinter, and never manage to fully regroup (at least within this run of issues).

Similarly, it is worth noting that, in the strictest definition of the term, this might not be considered a “superhero comic,” either. Yes, these are good-hearted people with superpowers, and they even take down a villain or two in their time, but they’re not exactly heroic figures. They don’t fight crime or actively seek to eliminate evil. When their lives are at stake, they defend themselves, and when The Clinic finally catches up to and captures most of the group, those strong enough to fight back do so and save the day. But there is no sense of great power equaling great responsibility here, or any responsibility. Again, for pretty much everyone involved, these powers are viewed as a burden, a hopefully temporary condition keeping them from their real lives.

It is those lives that make this series so strong. The characters are all whole and multi-faceted, each of them coming from a unique and detailed background, lives which they had to walk away from once their powers manifested. They vary wildly in age and social status, giving them all very different priorities and points of view. Though they’re all confused by what’s happening to them, their coping mechanisms run the gamut from calm, analytic curiosity to hysterics and outright fear. These stark differences help to establish the cast very quickly and connect the reader to each of them, as writer Mark Gruenwald solidifies their respective voices immediately. Even within each new issue, Gruenwald is sure to remind the reader of who everybody is and some of the details of their former lives, as well as regularly adding to their individual developments. It makes the series incredibly new-reader friendly. Hell, because 'D.P. 7' #3 is the first with a 1987 cover date, I skipped the initial two issues when preparing for this column, but never for a second felt lost or left out. Gruenwald weaves plot recaps and character histories into every chapter, and because his cast is so firm and complete right away, every line they speak or choice they make helps to deepen the readers’ understanding of them. They are always entirely themselves in everything they do and say, and without the consistency and diversity of the cast, this book would be a great deal blander.

If the character details are what make this book so solid, though, it is the plot details that weaken it the most. Not because the stories are bad or even badly told. On the contrary, it is mostly quite interesting and well-handled material. Like the storyline where Stephie tries to reunite with her kids, only to add to the chaos and drama of their lives by knocking out their grandmother and kidnapping them. Or Scuzz’s savage beating at the hands of a biker gang and doubly vicious revenge. These are sensitive issues, but because of the incredible legwork Gruenwald does with the characters, by the time we get to these stories they can be explored fully and honestly from all sides. We don’t hate Stephie for exacerbating the upheaval of her children’s lives, because we understand her motives and we know she’s not quite capable of thinking the whole thing through. But that does not make us feel any better for the kids when it’s happening. As for Scuzz, he’s the teenage rebel without a cause, a child with a big mouth and abrasive attitude but who means no real harm. Watching him get so mercilessly beaten is hard, and we understand the ferocity of his vengeance, whether or not we condone it. He’s too young to control himself, to be able to handle something like the violent near-death experience he’s put through. It might be senseless violence, but it’s not pointless in terms of the story.

The title regularly takes this careful, grounded approach to its difficult topics and complex characters. Yet even during the most fascinating and exciting of these stories, Gruenwald’s tendency to reiterate and re-explain things (which I praised moments ago with regards to the cast) often leads to the dragging of narrative feet. When the group finally fights back against The Clinic, they reveal its director, Dr. Voigt, to basically be this universe’s Magneto: paranormals are the next step in humanity and are destined to rule over normal people and blah blah blah. And the actual showdown with Voigt, who also calls himself Overshadow, is unquestionably a highlight. But once he’s defeated, there are not one but three different conversations amongst various characters, main and supporting, about how the administration of The Clinic will be handled without him. Not that this is an unnecessary decision to make, or even that it has no importance for the ongoing drama of the series. It becomes a power struggle between those staff members who support Overshadow’s maniacal visions of world domination and those who legitimately want to help the paranormals get some answers. But actually listening to them talk about it is mind-numbingly dull. It adds to the realism, because they are conversations that definitely have to take place, but it throws off the rhythm of the series and detracts from my personal interest as a reader. We have already seen the fight and learned what Overshadow was up to, so hearing it described to someone else offers nothing new. And the minutiae of hospital administration just don’t make for gripping fiction, no matter how you slice it.

There’s a lot of this kind of unnecessary stuff in the book: scenes that reiterate the events of other scenes, internal monologues that express out loud feelings already made clear in Paul Ryan’s detailed visuals, or even throwaway B plots that serve only to fill time or pad an issue but aren't really important pieces of the bigger puzzle. When Dave, the resident muscle man of the titular group, encounters a strange and secret community of paranormals with mental powers called the ESPeople, we get a whole issue devoted to introducing and explaining them. This would be fine if they were going to stick around or participate in the main story at all, but aside from giving Dave some protection from telepathic attacks and invasions, they are narrative non-entities. They prevent Dave from being captured by The Clinic, tell him who they are—literally just a group of people with mental powers living together—and offer him a spot in their little gang, and then, when he kindly turns them down, they wipe his memory and send him out to get caught by the very people from whom they’d protected him initially. And we never hear from the ESPeople again, making their brief time in the series all the more confusing and even less important than it seemed at first.

It’s the kind of thing that would happen if folks all over the world arbitrarily developed superhuman abilities. There’d be various gatherings of such people, formed for different reasons, and they’d inevitably run into one another at some point. And it’s true that, like in this example, almost any time 'D.P. 7' starts to feel boring or lose its focus, it’s still in the service of authenticity, showing the audience what a real-world version of the story at hand would entail. This means that the ending of each issue is not necessarily a climactic or thrilling moment. In fact, most of the final beats aren't like that at all. The problems of these characters are not all solved at the same time, and new ones develop constantly, so at the end of any given issue the cast is often still in the middle or even at the beginning of dealing with some new difficulty. Rather than force cliffhanger conclusions where they don’t fit, Gruenwald is happy to let his issues land wherever they naturally arrive at the end of 23 pages. It can mean that the high point of an issue comes in the middle, with the ending feeling more like a slow-burn prologue for next month, or even just a logical continuation of the current story that stops abruptly. I was surprised more than once to discover that a panel I’d just read was the last of an issue. But again, while this may be unusual and even a tad uncomfortable, it also goes a long way toward maintaining the realism. Life’s problems don’t get resolved in neat little chapters of the exact same length, so neither do the myriad narrative threads of 'D.P. 7'.

Essentially, 'D.P. 7'’s biggest virtue is also its greatest flaw. Gruenwald’s attention to detail and his focus on making everyone sound and feel true-to-life are why the large cast is so likable and easy to connect with right away. The characters are what hooked me, and they continue to be people in whom I am deeply invested, even though I have spent considerably less time with them than innumerable other comic book protagonists. Yet in taking great pains not to omit the tiny bits and pieces of his stories, Gruenwald often presents the reader with repetitive and/or dull material. Whole pages are devoted to moments that could’ve been handled off-panel, people tell us things overtly that we have already been more subtly shown, and plots spring up and are abandoned in the course of a single issue. The periods of excitement are all the more exciting for it, and more often than not the series’ realism goes in the pros column rather than the cons. But just as any real-life fun or frightening or otherwise adrenaline-producing escapades will always be punctuated by the doldrums of the day-to-day, so too are 'D.P. 7'’s best adventures split up by some of comics’ most mundane moments. Ultimately, it is the slow and deliberate pacing of the book that makes me a fan, because it gives the whole cast ample room to breathe and grow, as well as creating a unique world that also feels far closer to our own than I am used to in my super-powered fiction. But the pace is also what most often bothers me, a strangely contradictory aspect of what is generally an original and intelligent title.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

diary of a guttersnipe 03/18/2013: a girl named kathy wants a little of my time..................

by Shawn Starr

Quick reviews this week, because i’m 15 and irresponsible. Teenage dreamin' man, teenage dreamin'.


Batman And Robin #18 (DC)
by Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, Mick Gray, John Kalisz

[Batman cries...a lot]

Age of Ultron #1-2 (Marvel)
by Brian Michael Bendis, Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary, Paul Mounts 

The story of one man sitting down without a plan, for an unspecified amount of time, only to rise up when he had one.

Crossed: Badlands #25 (Avatar)
by Garth Ennis, Raulo Caceres, Digikore Studios

Ennis returns, and all is right again with 'Crossed'. It’s about the British Empire, and religion, and guys being tough...oh and there's a scene where two “Crossed” partake in anal fisting.

Thor: God of Thunder #6 (Marvel)
by Jason Aaron, Butch Guice, Tom Palmer Sr., Ive Svorcina

I really like my comics about pagan gods who beat the shit out of each other to instead be about sad aliens being sad.

Links links and more links!

Oily Comics reopens its subscription service. Five quality comics a month for three months, ain't no better deal in town.

Well, i guess from my twitter feed a lot of people know what trying to get tickets to SDCC feels like now.

As a consumer the idea of curated and “first come, first served” convention policies really intrigues me. From the strength of BCGF and TCAF it seems like (especially in the era of self made comics) curation is the best policy. It both insures a certain level of quality is present throughout the show, and quickly cements the show's “identity”. TCAF is quite clearly a international show, while BCGF is firmly an art comics focused show. The increased financial importance that these shows represent for many small press publishers also makes weeding out the “professionals” and the “amateurs” seem more vital to the shows continued success, and if a “professional” is not chosen, it seems unlikely that they couldn't drop off books at a friends table, as in the case of BCGF where i don’t think i could go five tables without seeing a Retrofit Comics production.

Lena Dunham writes something for The New Yorker, i suspect about puppies.

Executive notes on "Blade Runner". Some of the highlights include “The movie gets worse every screening.” “The have to put back more tits into the Zhora dressing room scene”. I’d love to see a book of production notes from classic films, it would provide an interesting look at the Hollywood system and their thought process.

A transcription of a Tom Spurgeon, CF, Brian Ralph panel from BCGF a few years back.

"Nathan For You" is a funny show. You should watch it.

Like everyone else said, the new Connor Willumsen comic on Study Group is amazing.

I’m kind of shocked MOCCA has such a strong panel lineup, and that they somehow got Dan Nadel to participate, since not even a year ago it seemed like that dude had a blood feud with that festival. Next thing you know Box Brown will be at BCGF ‘13 (Also someone please record the Ryan Sands / Jillian Tamaki panel for me, and maybe the Anne Koyama / Mickey Z / Zach Hazard one if you have time).

Of course it was a Celebrity Apprentice podcast! How did i not call that.

Dylan Horrocks sketches the King. "Kid...comics will break your heart."

Friday, March 15, 2013

1987 and all that 003: the only thing we have to fear

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Wasteland #1 (DC)
by Del Close, John Ostrander, David Lloyd, William Messner-Loebs, Donald Simpson, Lovern Kindzierski

Horror in fiction tends to involve the jumpy, the gory, the hideous, and/or the monstrous. As a genre, horror often aims to shock its audience, to have us screaming and leaping out of our seats and staying up at night to avoid the inevitable nightmares. That said, being scared is not necessarily the same thing as being horrified, is it? The sudden thrill of a masked psycho killer lunging out from the shadows might startle me and get my heart racing, but I don’t feel any deep-seated disgust, displeasure, or discomfort because of it. There is no true horror there, only cheap fear, and though some may argue that this is a subtle, even needless distinction, it is nevertheless a significant one when it comes to talking about 'Wasteland' #1.

There is nothing in in this debut issue to be scared of directly. No ghosts, no demons, no murderers, none of the most classic and obvious tropes of the horror genre. Instead of trying to instill quick, fleeting fear in it's readers, 'Wasteland' #1 offers an examination of the fears and flaws of its characters. In doing so, it becomes a lesson on or reminder of the power that our own emotions have over us, their ability to influence our decisions and shape our lives in ways we cannot control or understand. This is a comic book that wants us to be afraid not of its content but of its implications, uneasy at the thought our own internal processes. The three narratives contained in this issue work together to paint a portrait of humanity as slaves to our own curiosities, anxieties, biology, and desires. They fill the reader with a creeping, lasting dread, a purer and more personalized kind of horror, not shaken off quite so easily as your average monster or slasher story.

Del Close and John Ostrander share the writing duties, always at least plotting the stories together if not necessarily writing the scripts (though some of those were done collaboratively, too). Close is a legend of the improv comedy community, but his comic book work seems to be limited to this title and a handful of back-up stories for First Comics’ 'Grimjack' (also written with Ostrander). Having one half of the writing team be a primarily non-comics guy is beneficial for 'Wasteland' #1, and not just because of his zany autobiographical story at the end of the issue. What Close brings is a conceptual freshness and experimental approach to the storytelling that results in unique and often very funny stuff. Ostander, meanwhile, keeps the narratives tight and crisp, allowing full stories to be delivered in succinct, nine-page packages.

Of course this is speculation on my part. For all I know it was Ostrander who had the outlandish concepts and Close who handled the pacing, and I am sure they both did handled each to one degree or another. But if you read the credits for each story and compare them to how those stories read, it seems clear to me that for the most part Close was the broad idea man while Ostrander filled in the details. Whatever the case, it is a duo that clicks right away, as all three of the tales told in this debut are original, successful, and whole. Each one is also paired with the artist most suited to it stylistically (out of the four that 'Wasteland' used for every issue), a decision that would have been easy to mess up. So this is a creative team firing on all cylinders immediately, which is an essential part of what makes 'Wasteland' #1 so effectively eerie.

The opening story, titled "Foo Goo", is drawn by David Lloyd, and is probably the best part of the issue in both concept and art. The plot is admittedly a bit light, relating the story of a group of four people who come together to take foo goo, a mysterious plant/mushroom that is rumored to provide the ultimate high to any who try it, only to end their lives an instant later. And that is exactly what we see. One by one, the characters each have their tastes, and then their bodies rise up in an uncontrollable fit of what could be drug-induced ecstasy, but could just as easily be intense pain or merely be the inexplicable spasms of sudden death. We never learn if the promised high is realized, but we do know for sure that no one survives the foo goo experience, as we also watch a pair of detectives make their way around the room from corpse to corpse the next morning. The story hops back and forth from the present tense of the detectives to the previous night when everything was actually going down, and this temporal shifting is one of its biggest strengths, particularly in regards to Lloyd’s art. Often transitioning between the two days from panel to panel, he makes dying look exciting while life seems boring. The scenes with the foo goo group are all heightened lighting, underlying tension, and sudden bursts of action and energy. Meanwhile, for the policemen, the aftermath of this strange suicide pact is nothing special, the fourth example they have seen in less than a year. They are archetypes, the detectives, and the lighting of their panels is flat and dull, because they live in a world of routine and order. Though they died for it, the four “victims” all got to escape the drudgery of that world for at least one fleeting moment, and the way Lloyd draws it, you almost understand why they’d make that call. It is a question the detectives ask out loud more than once: why do people keep using foo goo if they know they’ll die? The answer is embedded in Lloyd’s imagery, right up to the final panel when one of the cops decides to see for himself what all the fuss is about.

The specific motives of the dead folks vary from hubris to loyalty to boredom to something like spiritual greed. These characters do not necessarily represent the worst aspects of human potential (though some of them do), but they certainly act as examples of extreme personalities, so devoted to their mindsets and trapped in their own momentum that even after watching one another die dramatically, they press forward until all have had a turn. There is also that strange group hysteria, the passive-aggressive “no one is forcing you” peer pressure in the dialogue that makes it easier to comprehend why someone might go through with this. Once you’re sitting at the table, you've already agreed to die.

Is it an anti-drug story? Arguably, but I think of it more as a warning about the edges of human curiosity and exploration. Some stones are best left unturned, no matter how grand the revelation they might be covering. It is distinct from yet not dissimilar to the message of the next story, "R. Ab." which we learn stands for “retroactive abortion.”

"R. Ab." is more on the sci-fi side of the spectrum than horror, but it is no less disturbing for it. A more overtly cautionary tale, it takes place in a not-all-that-distant future. People get married over the course of a single video chat in this world, and babies are commodities that get delivered and can just as easily be disposed of. After conversing for only a few minutes, Sal and Hal decide to get hitched. Then, in rapid succession, he gets her a cushy CEO position, their baby arrives, and both parents neglect the child in pursuit of their careers and ignore his crying for six months until they just can’t stand it anymore. So Sal and Hal opt for a retroactive abortion, which amounts to backdating some paperwork to make it so their son legally never existed and then tossing him out a window. This decision gives them a renewed sense of happiness and relief, and so, in a warped yet predictable ending, they decide to give parenthood another try.

It’d be a gruesome story if it weren't handled so comically, and that begins with William Messner-Loebs. His lines are exaggerated, his figures amorphous caricatures with eyes and teeth barely contained by their heads. Everyone and everything looks so cartoon-ish, down to the toilets being labeled “waste unit,” and it establishes an immediate lightheartedness even before we understand the nature of the narrative. Messner-Loebs is clearly having fun on these pages, and that translates back into the story, making it seem far more ridiculous and amusing than it would if rendered in a more grounded style. The story also moves very quickly, whizzing past us toward its grim finale, and the art services that speedy pacing, too. It is cramped without being unclear, and the characters are very frenetic, never fully settling into their lives. There is a constant motion to the script that’s reflected in the art, all helping to amplify the humor and undercut the infanticide of this tale. But no amount of goofiness can entirely erase the still-heartbreaking image of a child thrown away, falling into non-existence without a sound or a prayer. It’s a tough pill to swallow, even though this is a nameless kid who we met only a few pages before, because Messner-Loebs plays up the fear and sadness in the child’s face. So this is still a story with the power to horrify, because like "Foo Goo" before it, "R. Ab." shows the ugliness and danger of the most intense of human impulses. Here, we see the potential damage of blinding ambition and, to a lesser extent, relying too heavily on technology. Perhaps more fitting warnings now than they were at the time.

Another aspect the opening two stories share is the idea of societal pressure as a powerful and threatening force. In "Foo Goo" it is the peer pressure I mentioned before, and the notion that people might rather kill themselves than admit to others that they have made a mistake or that they’re scared. And the only reason Sal and Hal bother getting married or having kids at all in "R. Ab." is because that’s what people are supposed to do. It’s all just transactions for them; there’s no romance there, no genuine desire for family. They are fulfilling obligations, and badly.

The final third of 'Wasteland' #1, however, does not address this concept of external influence, nor does it examine the outliers of the human experience in the same way as the two preceding stories. Instead, "Sewer Rat" is an autobiographical narrative from Del Close about a time in the 60’s when he took too many drugs and got temporarily lost in the sewer. Rather than try to further shake up or scare the reader with a third example of the worst in people, the issue wraps up with Close providing an honest, open look into a time when he wrestled with his own fears. In his willingness to reveal and embarrass himself, there is an implicit invitation for the reader to do the same, to think back on a time we were confused or frightened like the man about whom we are reading. It’s less a warning of what could happen to us and more a reminder of what has and, more importantly, will happen to us down the line. Nobody can avoid fear altogether, but Close’s adventure shows us that if you ride out the terrifying times, they too shall pass.

Donald Simpson is on art duties for this piece, and he steals the show. How could the artist not be the true star of a hallucination made into a comic book? It’s not groundbreaking stuff, but it is very clean and clear, which is important when the script meanders like it does here. There’s not a lot of forward narrative momentum, only lateral; Close is already in the sewers when the story begins, he explores them and trips for a while, and then he lucks upon a way out. That is about as in-depth a plot synopsis as I can provide without breaking it down one panel at a time, but Simpson’s visuals are enough fun to carry us through. He walks the line between realism and surrealism, drawing scenes of the unbelievable in a way that makes us almost believe them. And that’s what hallucinating is like, anyway, so it’s an apt approach. The other technique Simpson employs that I like is the use of uniform and widely-spaced panels. Though the exact layouts shift from page to page, there are a lot of grids, and everything is contained in rigid, rectangular boxes. Each of the panels might show us something insane or hard to understand, but as a whole they provide a steady rhythm which, again, is a big help when the narrative feels a tad aimless. Simpson reins in Close’s story just enough to make it entertaining and easy to follow without detracting from its inherent fantastic absurdity.

'Wasteland' #1 doesn't exactly show us reflections of ourselves, but it asks that we examine ourselves nonetheless. It tells us that we each hold the potential to be like the characters we see here, that normal and even well-intentioned people can become monstrous, too. And even if we don’t feel frightened by ourselves, even if we’re confident that we’ll never succumb to our most extreme impulses and compulsions, we are reminded that such people exist among us every day. They’re out there, seeking knowledge they can’t handle, irrevocably damaging their kids, talking one another into suicide, and any number of equally horrifying things.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

interview 002: val staples

by Alec Berry

For those unaware, Val Staples is a colorist most well known for his work with Sean Phillips on the books 'Criminal' and 'Incognito'. He has recently made the switch to Marvel where he has been coloring the books 'Deadpool' and 'Red She-Hulk' among others, and has returned to writing with a webcomic entitled 'Divination' for MTV Geek. I figured now would be a good time to catch up...

Describe to me what you get out of it. Why be a colorist?

Originally I wanted to break in as a writer. Coloring was a result of Matt Tyree and me splitting creation duties when we dreamed about breaking into comics with self-publishing. Coloring suited me well as I enjoy making artwork pop while adding to the story-telling. It's definitely a tough job. I've seen rate cuts, dry spells, changes in creative teams resulting in lost work, and more. So it has it's ups and downs. It's definitely NOT for everyone.  But creating something that so many people enjoy is a very rewarding experience.

You’re freelance. Are there contracts similar to artist contracts for colorists at either Marvel or DC? If so, is that something you’d want?

There was a time when exclusive contracts were all the rave. These days they aren't as common. Plus I've heard ups and downs about them from talent. For me, I think I'd enjoy a couple years with an exclusive. It would take the pressure off the month-to-month, and I'd like to have the time to plan my schedule more regularly for a couple years.
From my perspective, there are two kinds of coloring, like anything else. There’s coloring that does the job and coloring that’s more involved with the story. Talk about that difference.

I try to tell a story most of the time, but 'Criminal' and 'Incognito' are when I really pushed what I could do with story-telling via colors.  I used colors to focus on mood and push the eye across a page. How you use intense colors or white can really pull you through the art. The opposite holds true if you have a lot of light values with darker, more saturated color contrasting against them. Then you can use different colors themselves to walk you through a panel or a page.

I like to think I'm pretty clean all the time. I'm a colorist you don't really “see.” I tend to be a softer touch that works alongside the artist. Coloring can certainly get messy. There are times when a colorist and penciller don't mesh. You can end up with muddy values, colors that fight the modeling indicated by the artwork, and so forth. I try to never do that but I also make mistakes from time to time like most everyone.

When you typically start a panel, what’s the process? Background first? Figures? Take me through your usual plan of attack.

For me, the first thing I do is lay out my colors. I probably shouldn't work this way as I think having any existing values on the page throws off your intent with design and color, but when you have deadlines looming, it's the fastest way to work through a page. Regardless, I tend to mull over the color choices for quite a while. Then I work background to foreground on the page.

Do you ever pre-plan or maybe, I don’t know, thumbnail color schemes? 

Not really, but I do tend to work pages in terms of harmony. So, I'll put together a scene based on a color palette that I feel ties it all together.

Who are your guys, influence wise, and what do you admire about them in terms of the work they produce?

Working today there's a lot. I look at colorists both seasoned and new because you see a lot of great things being done. Growing up, I was partial to Earl Norem and Bruce Timm from their work on 'Masters of the Universe'. I try not to emulate anyone too closely though. I want to be my own, even though I don't think I really stick out as having a style of my own. I love to look at other art, but I don't study it and try to replicate it. Maybe I should, but I don't.

Is there a specific book (not comic book) about color theory you would recommend to someone?

I know there are some books out there, but most of what i know is self-taught or picked up on through school. I had a great Fundamental Design course in college that was fantastic about color theory. That course helped spark my own exploration into what I felt worked and didn't.  For people interested, I'd say one thing to really look at is successful advertising.  Good creative agencies and advertising designers and artists know how to use color, composition and contrast to sell a product or produce an emotional response.

There’s a trend in the industry right now to ship titles twice, sometimes three times a month. How does this affect you or other colorists who work on those books specifically? Do you feel this brings you an opportunity for more work or does it shred your ability to hit deadlines?

If you are the colorist on both books, it can often mean that you do two issues a month for that title. If the editor offers you the projects, you simply need to manage your workload.  If someone is talented, easy to work with and meets their deadlines, they'll usually keep getting work . But there have been times where I've witnessed some colorists (usually new colorists) take on too much work. They overload themselves, start blowing deadlines and eventually find themselves without work just as fast as they started. It doesn't hurt to say no to work if you have too much on your plate. Editors appreciate the honesty and colorists can learn their own limits and adjust their schedule accordingly over time.
Is your Marvel NOW! workload any different than previous Marvel work, in terms of editorial?

Not really. The editors at Marvel are good people and they all know by now what to expect from me, and I can work to give them what they want.

What can you say about comics at the moment? As both an industry and a medium. 

I wish people bought more comics. People across the world have a love affair with comics. They they love the movies and pop culture, but they don't buy them. But we comic readers and fans can help. We can share comics with friends if they have a passing interest in the movies and TV shows that comics have inspired. Also, give the gift of a comic or a gift certificate to a local comic retailer. There's a great big world of awesome titles out there to which we may expose new readers.

What was the decision behind no longer working with Brubaker and Phillips? You left sort of abruptly, not completing 'Last of the Innocent'. Why? You have mentioned wanting to reunite. Is that a plan of yours for the future? 

It was Ed's and Sean's decision. Dave Stewart is awesome, though, and I completely understand them wanting someone of his caliber on their projects. I loved working with both Ed and Sean and have the up-most respect for their work. I would love to work on their books again if given the chance.

Anything else you’d like to add? 

Thanks again for this interview. I'm grateful for the opportunity and I appreciate all the support from everyone who enjoys my work in comics. And, please try out 'Divination' at MTV Geek. It's a comic I co-write with Gina Iorio that's illustrated by Julia Laud and lettered by Crank!. Plus, it's FREE to read with more story coming soon. Please go check it out!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

diary of a guttersnipe 03/11/2013: an old man walks into the streets..

by Shawn Starr

It’s Joey Aulisio's birthday! To celebrate, here's some drivel.....


Guardians Of The Galaxy # 0.1 (Marvel)
by Brian Michael Bendis, Steve McNiven, John Dell III, Justin Ponsor

I'm pretty sure everyone has read a comic or seen a movie that was meant to make you shed a tear (just a single one though). These kind of things tend to have a 50/50 work/fail ratio on me because deep down i’m a big baby who was not hugged enough as a child or something, but 'Guardians Of The Galaxy' is not one of those instances.

Instead it comes off as twenty pages of “i wish I knew my daddy” with a macho revenge ending that makes you groan with cliche. It seems a lot of writers like to apply these themes of empathy and revenge to one-shots, everyone want’s to make a comic where Clint Eastwood’s papa hit him at the start, but he staves off those demons of abuse until some rapscallion kills his wife and Clint finally catches up with them and unleashes all that rage. Maybe a bottle of whiskey is involved. And spitting, definitely spitting.

(God, did you guys see the end of "Unforgiven" ? That scene still gives me chills.)

Anyways, our Clint in this scenario is some kid whose mom let some alien (who looks unnaturally like a human, convergent evolution towards Homo-Sapien characteristics in the Marvel Universe is insanely prolific) knock her up after he crash landed in her backyard. It turns out there's some space war going on and he’s actually royalty so the “bad” aliens come and try and off him as a child (to sever the royal bloodline) but all they do is kill his mother and make him mad.

Flash forward 20 years and you find out this whole story has actually been him talking to Iron Man and then we get a little box at the bottom saying  “To Be Continued in...Guardians of the Galaxy #1!”

So i guess this will never be mentioned again.

Sex #1 (Image)
by Joe Casey, Piotr Kowalski, Brad Simpson, Rus Wooton

A fine first issue.

Batman Incorporated #8 (DC)
by Grant Morrison, Chris Burnham, Jason Masters, Nathan Fairbairn

If Grant Morrison's only decent issue of 'Action Comics' taught anyone anything it's that you can't kill IP (intellectual property for you laymen), so his sudden attempt at killing off the past five to ten years of his Batman “creations” over the past eight issues kind of rings hollow. Sure Damien is dead, or seems to be, I didn't see no casket so the jury's still out, but his value is found in his existence, which makes his supposed death all the more sorry, because he will be back, the market demands it!

Young Avengers #2 (Marvel)
by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Mike Norton, Matt Wilson

This opening arc seems like it should be taking place about twenty issues into the run. Instead of focusing on bringing the team together, we have two issues devoted to two character's relationship (Wiccan / Hulkling) that only really makes sense if you have read the run involving those characters previous relationship that took place over the course of  five years and two mini-series. It’s an interesting enough story, it's just that there is no real ground to stand on if you’re not into 15 pages of teenagers talking about their relationship, and five-one page updates on the rest of the team who we aren't going to meet for a while.

Hellboy In Hell #4 (Dark Horse)
by Mike Mignola, Dave Stewart

Ahhhh, yeah, That's my Mignola!

Other things James Stokoe has ruined in Mark Andrew Smith’s life:

. His amateur ATV career.

. His Mighty Morphin Power Rangers themed sushi restaurant.

. His patent on a blanket that also doubles as a hat (he would never have to be referred to as a school teacher again!).

. His run at the Guinness Book of World Records for most names in a single name.

. His album of J-Pop inspired Johnny Cash covers.

. His network sitcom.

. His credibility.

. His collection of animals in Kangaroo pouches figurines.

ECCC decided to post the majority of their panels online, some for pay and some for free, luckily the only one that mattered fell into the “free” category ‘Putting the “Graphic” in Graphic Novels’ features smut luminary Howard Chaykin (fresh off the completion of 'Black Kiss 2', a comic about how fucked up the movie industry really is + trannies) and recent newcomer and rising post-porn star Brandon Graham ('Pillow Fight', 'Perverts Of The Unknown') along with Matt Fraction and Joe Casey who kind of tangentially relate to the field insofar as they write comics with the words “sex” in the title and they needed to fill out the panel (Also present was Fiona Staples which makes zero sense, if 'Saga', just for showing tits and balls, counts as a sex comic i need to reevaluate a lot of things in my life). As with all things, Chaykin, Casey and Graham provide all the highlights, the real blockbuster reveal on the panel turns up about two thirds the way through where Howard Chaykin, yes THEE Howard Chaykin, tells everyone he was a camp counselor at one point.

Joey and Chad Nevett did something of a audio variety but won’t tell me what it was. I am annoyed.

I guess MOCCA is now the cool place to be in the month of April, i thank MOCCA for letting me in on that fact well past the point of me being able to attend. Seriously, you have DeForge and Forsman at your con and your only press announcement is “that guy who draws the retarded clown comics is coming” ? What did you want me to think MOCCA? WHAT?

Jonny Negron: "For me, [my imagery is] not as shocking. I’ve exposed myself to so much outsider art or alternative art that a lot of that stuff is not that obscene to me. I draw what I draw because I know that it will cause some kind of reaction for the viewer.

Have i linked this before? I don’t know, but Michael DeForge's entire 'Ant Comic' series has been compiled in a single page for your viewing pleasure. Those are some fine comics.

The John Darnielle WTF podcast was very good, although i’d suggest a large quantity of alcohol be on hand while listening to it

After seeing the newest 'League Of Extraordinary Gentleman', I’m not sure why they did not also use this hardcover format for their Century titles.

Toren Smith died, from my understanding he was a major figure in the early US Manga movement, particularly in translating some major works. That is sad news. Also in other sad news Kim Thompson has lung cancer, comics would not be the same without him.

Tom Spurgeon’s ECCC con report. Along with interviewing Gary Groth.

Chris Sprouse removed himself from that bigot Orson Scott Card's Superman script due to media attention; because that's how moral stands are made, via complaining about unwanted attention. The fucking coward.

Friday, March 1, 2013

1987 and all that 002: rebirth in the family

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Batman #408-412 (DC)
by Max Allan Collins, Chris Warner, Ross Andru, Dave Cockrum, Mike DeCarlo, Dick Giordano, Don Heck, Adrienne Roy, Todd Klein, John Costanza, Agustin Mas

I don’t know if Jason Todd ever stood a chance. At first, he was just a near-identical replacement for Dick Grayson when Grayson left the Robin game to become Nightwing. He was sort of a watered-down version of the young man for whom he was meant to stand in, the first Jason got the job done as Robin but offered nothing new, no reason for readers to warm to him or see him as anything other than a cut-rate attempt at recapturing the magic of the original Boy Wonder. So it makes total sense that in 1987 DC would take a stab at rewriting his background and personality in a post-Crisis world, providing an opportunity for Jason to carve out a more unique and possibly interesting space for himself in the Batman mythos. Sadly, though, I think they gave the task to the wrong guy, because Max Allan Collins wrote Batman as a lighthearted, almost goofy title, which did not really line up with the angry street youth persona of his revamped Jason Todd.

There’s too much silliness in the narratives that surround Jason’s introduction to take him entirely seriously. Yet he is so unstable and full of rage that he almost demands to be taken seriously anyway, to the point of sticking out as an abrasive and ill-fitting character in several places. Collins never marries the character’s attitude to the series’ tone, and that sets Jason up for failure from the get-go.

The basic concept for the character isn't terrible: a Robin with less self-control, but one more accustomed to hardship. Also more used to being self-reliant, which makes him less obedient but theoretically more capable in the long run. He's good enough to care for his dying mother for over a year, but brazen enough to steal the Batmobile’s tires, it’s easy to see why Batman is so quick to take on this new ward. There is obvious potential for an exceptional Robin in a decent-hearted kid who also has familiarity with crime in Gotham and can hold his own in a fight. The problem is neither Batman nor Collins handle Jason the right way, so he has wild changes in mood and behavior that make him too unpredictable and grating to be a serviceable sidekick.

His meeting with Batman and ultimate recruitment as Robin connects to a forgettable plot about a nefarious elderly schoolteacher who uses her students to commit crimes. Ma Gunn is a laughable villain, puffing on a cigar and correcting her kids’ grammar in the midst of their criminal activities. Her evil side is revealed as the cliffhanger to 'Batman' #408, where Jason is dropped off at her school and she sicks the other boys on him, saying, “Who wants to snuff the little stoolie for old Ma?” with a self-satisfied grin. It’s outrageous and overtly comedic, and continues through the next issue, culminating in her smacking Batman with her purse (even though she has a gun) when he interrupts a museum heist. It’s not at all a bad story, just a fluffy one, with relatively low stakes and a bad guy who never poses much of a threat.

And I think Collins was aiming for that with Ma Gunn. I think he was having a lot of fun getting to be the writer for Batman, so he cut loose and added a lot of humor to his short time on the title. In the next story-line, Two-Face commits a string of robberies, and the number-based puns saturate almost every page. From Two-Face working with the Dopple Gang to Robin saying, “He may be seeing double,” in the last panel of 'Batman' #411, Collins lays it on thick, writing a comic book that has no desire to be grim or gritty in the least. Two-Face robs casinos and ballparks doing minimal damage, guns are drawn but rarely fired, and all of his henchmen are twins.

     The problem with this approach, though, is there is very little room to explore the deep and significant damage from which Jason Todd is trying to recover. You see this clash in the Ma Gunn story just a little, inasmuch as the severity of Jason’s life story—drug-addicted Mother and career criminal father both died, leaving him to fend for himself on Crime Alley— doesn't fully mesh with the levity of Ma’s whole shtick. But it really becomes a problem in the Two-Face story, which actually does attempt to further develop Jason’s history and identify some of his wounds, but can never fully pull it off because it still wants to be a comedy in the end. Jason, having recently discovered that Two-Face murdered his father, nearly strangles the villain to death, which is pretty much on par for an already short-tempered kid who was told he could be a superhero and then faced with his father’s killer. But there is no space in Collins’ script for Batman to address this incident appropriately, because by the end of the same issue Two-Face has to be defeated and Robin has to be an enthusiastic young hero again. Corny jokes about the number two don’t really fit next to in-depth conversations about loss and rage and revenge. So Batman just tells Jason that these are hard things to deal with for everyone, and then immediately says all is forgiven and takes the kid back into the field. It is rushed, irresponsible, forced, and unfortunate, and it completely explains to me why Jason never outgrew being a broken, unlikable rebel.

In his final issue on the book, Collins shifts his focus away from Jason almost entirely. Technically he’s there in 'Batman' #412, but the story barely needs or uses him. Another none-too-impressive villain, The Mime, steals church bells, shoots a honking car, and disrupts a rock concert because she has an agenda against noise, and Batman effortlessly shuts her down. Robin assists, but his role is a minor one, and adds nothing to his character. Not every story needed to center on Jason just because he was new, but it would have been nice if there were more than a single, two-issue arc with him as Robin before he became a supporting character.

This is all the work Collins would ever get to do with the boy hero he rebuilt, and it is sketchy and uneven at best. Though individually these issues make for humorous and fast-paced Batman tales, the overall portrait they paint of Jason Todd is too unclear and/or simplistic. Other than his short fuse and enormous baggage, we know very little about him, which is likely why those few elements became his defining characteristics. Collins did not give himself room to give Jason the space in which to grow, heal, or even learn, so he became trapped as an insolent punk. That’s not a guy people are eager to hang out with, and less than two years later, readers voted for his death.

     It feels inevitable, now, that Jason would grow so unpopular so quickly, but I guess that’s only because I know that it happened. As shoddy as Collins’ establishment was, the character could have been salvaged in theory, made somehow redeemable by a clever trans-formative story. Instead, his wildness and fury were leaned into, a logical next step considering the direction in which Collins had been heading. It wasn't just that Jason was angry, but that even under the tutelage of Batman he had no fitting outlet for that anger, no means of facing his true problems and moving past them. You can’t just keep throwing a berserker into fight after fight with the hopes that eventually he’ll run out of rage. That’s not how violence or anger operates, and it certainly isn't the kind of training or therapy Jason needed. But Collins’ style had no place for truly deep, painful, emotional storytelling, so even in his short time at the helm he managed to make Jason quite the stunted, damaged young man.

But at least Collins had a good time doing it, which is evident throughout. It’s important to see the lighter side of Batman once in a while, and remember that good and interesting stories can be told through him without all the brooding doom and gloom. If only these issues did not try to simultaneously introduce a kid bursting at the seams with doom and gloom, I think they’d be far more successful as a run. Perhaps even Jason would have been more successful as a character, too, if his retooling had been handled with a little more depth and care. We’ll never know, and now the poor guy is the poster boy for DC’s teenage angst. His first misguided steps down that road began here, all the way back in 1987.