Work in Progress: Toriyama and Mignola Got My Mind In The Gutter

December 3rd, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I’m trying to write about the panel layout in a comic that comes out this week and what it means. More specifically, I’m mulling over the best way to discuss the layouts, rather than being stumped or blocked. That sort of thing isn’t my strength, mainly because I don’t have the vocabulary for it. It’s a level of nitty-gritty that I only have a passing familiarity with. I can’t even fake it at a high enough level to convince people, you know?

I read most of my comics on iPad at this point. It’s cool, because if you press power and the button at the same time, it’ll save a screenshot. I can then dropbox that screenshot to my laptop, where I forget about it for a few months. I’ll trip over it later, always in the middle of trying to hook up images for paying work, and wonder why I clipped it. Anyway, here’s a page from Akira Toriyama’s Dr Slump, specifically volume nine.

Toriyama gets chewed up a lot because of the excesses of Dragon Ball Z‘s tv series, but the guy is a pretty incredible cartoonist. He can do realistic, he can do cartoony, and he can do stuff like this, where he shatters the fourth wall in the pursuit of telling a story. Arale (glasses girl) and Gatchan (weird pre-verbal flying baby thing) are hanging onto the gutters and above some of the art.

Comics have been breaking panel borders for years. Probably one hundred of them, if my memories of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comics are true. Spider-Man swings from one panel to another, Batman throws a Batarang through the gutters, and a Chris Ware protagonist… I dunno, cries and the tears land in the tier (“tear” ha ha) below him and collect in a puddle. You know what I’m talking about. Breaking panel borders isn’t that ground-breaking.

But this bit from Slump really caught my eye. It’s a cute joke in a dumb gag manga for children, yes, buuuuuuut… it’s also a great magic trick.

In the top panel, Arale and Gatchan are behind Senbei Norimaki. They’re facing us and speaking directly to us, right? So if that panel is panel 1, their kicking legs take up panel 2, then panels 3 and 4 are directly below that. Arale and Gatchan are facing away from us while Senbei runs directly at us. The camera’s POV has switched around.

Panels 5 and 6 to the left of those panels are where it gets really good, assuming you’re into this stuff. The camera swings back around as Senbei looks back at Arale & Gatchan & us. They’re on an angle now, instead of a flat bar, because the camera isn’t head-on any more.

I like how the dumb joke gives the spread a sense of place, too. We’re rotating around the same area, which I feel like does a better job of world-building than Toriyama’s generally randomized landscapes.

(also of note: the different ways Toriyama draws running. Speedo Sonic the Hedgehog spirals vs a pose… the spirals are rushing, right, while the pose is just “running normally”? I think.)

I also clipped this page from Dragon Ball. I think it’s from volume one.

Toriyama’s panel-to-panel storytelling is immaculate as ever (the rock-scissors-paper sequence in particular, check out Goku’s arms and how his body turns), but the bit I want to point out is the bump at the top of page 131. It’s another irrelevant detail, but it’s cool, because now you realize Goku hit the guy SUPER hard, right? Toriyama doesn’t call a lot of attention to it. It’s just another cute joke. But it really, really works. It’s Looney Tunes-style comedy. It’s fun.

(This was definitely a jan-ken-pon-ken joke in the original Japanese, right?)

Here’s three pages from Mike Mignola’s Hellboy in Hell. It ships this week. You’ll have to visit CBR for the rest of the preview. Page 3 has a little of what I’m trying to figure out, that tall red panel transitioning to tall black to tiny grey. I realize what I’m talking about is kind of vague, but I’m really interested in how you’re supposed to read this comic. The effect Mignola is going for. I really want to figure this out, which is a pretty good place to start from when writing about comics, I think.

But even talking about Slump and looking at this preview again has sparked further thoughts. I’m right that Mignola uses gutters in interesting ways, but I was wrong in thinking of it in terms of gutters alone. It’s about the pacing he creates by placing his gutters. The inset panels, the bit where Hellboy crumbles into dust… Mignola is giving his comic a lot of room to breathe, isn’t he? What’s that all about? Is it about atmosphere? Pacing? Something else? All of the above?

I’m going to figure it out. How does “The Anatomy of a Hellboy Comic” sound? Does that sound like something you’d like to read, possibly later this week????

(Clem Robins’s lettering is super good in this, isn’t it? I don’t know what he’s doing different, but it really caught my eye, especially that “AHHHHHH”. Dave Stewart’s colors are as good as ever, too.)

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the devil does not jest, but he might sell you amway

October 3rd, 2011 Posted by david brothers

Ugh man, I think I should do something I hate doing, so I’m going to give you something I like first and then just do it.

From Abe Sapien: The Devil Does Not Jest, written by Mike Mignola/John Arcudi, drawn by James Harren, and colored by Dave Stewart:

I don’t have any real insight or in-depth mind-blowing criticism here. I just love how wet and vicious this fight scene is. Abe embedding the monster in the wall with his knife (look at his hands!), that punch (BAM) on the next page, and again on the page after that… and all the while, fluid is flying like it’s Mortal Kombat. This is the second time I’m writing about wonderfully bloody fight scenes in the past 24 hours (the other isn’t live yet, but I’ll link it), but basically, I just love how this looks. It’s disgusting and visceral.

Casanova changed when it was colored and all of the blood was suddenly visible. It changed the tone of the book. It made it… wetter. This is the same. It’s an ugly fight, even with the John McClane impression Abe’s got going on in page one, and I just love how Abe wrecks these things. The pools of blood on that last page especially. You get the sense that there Abe expended real effort while wiping the floor with these monsters.

Comics: more blood please. More sweat. More fluid. You can save those antiseptic, neat freak fight scenes for the children’s comics that children don’t actually read.

You can buy The Devil Does Not Jest (how good is that title? I thought they stole it from Milton at first) at your local dispensary or buy it on Dark Horse Digital on 10/19. (There’s a schedule, which is sadly free of Usagi Yojimbo but positively flush with Groo and BPRD.)

Okay, this part sucks (for me), BUT–you can help support 4thletter! if you want to. The site’s more expensive than it used to be (thanks to viewers like you, and I guess people on message boards hijacking images), and I’m fine with paying for it, but I do have ways to defray the costs. Long story short, though, I hate ads (see the ugly Project Wonderful ads on display right now, which will be gone once I have enough money to withdraw and cancel my account again) and I like doing Amazon Associates.

AA went away earlier this year, but it’s back, so now it’s back on 4thletter!. (Or will be.) Basically, if you shop through Amazon after clicking on (for example) this link, then 4thletter! gets a portion of the proceeds from your purchase. It doesn’t cost you anything extra, and in fact, it’s invisible. It’s low, like six to ten percent, depending on what was purchased. I can’t see what you buy specifically, but I can tell what sells, if that makes sense. I get a report that says I sold X copies of Y, but not who bought it.

You can also use the search box on the right, or click the hyperlinked titles of trades when I write about things. So if I recommend Adam Warren’s Empowered Volume 1 or the Amazon Instant Video version of Takeshi Miike’s 13 Assassins, you could click those links, buy it, and I would get… I dunno, fifty cents? Something.

So, basically, I hate charity. For myself, I mean. I’m not so poor that I can’t afford to host a website, but I’m not so rich that I’m going to turn down free money. I am, however, so incredibly guilty that I don’t like getting money for no reason, which is why there’s not a Paypal tip jar on the site. If you want something off Amazon and order it through this affiliate deal, I’m totally okay with that.

So here’s some stuff you might get a kick out of, if you were so inclined:

-DRC Music’s Kinshasa One Two– This is a charity project for the benefit of Oxfam and the Congolese performers on it. I first took notice because Damon Albarn’s involved in it, but the gimmick is really cool. He and a few friends (Danger Mouse, Dan the Automator) went to the Congo and recorded with actual Congolese musicians for an album of Congolese music. I feel like this is stuff I would never hear if Albarn and them weren’t involved, and I’m listening to it right now and seriously digging it. I may write about it later, I dunno. I don’t know if this is me being all ’80s baby black dude in love with ~A~F~R~I~C~A~ and wondering where his leather medallion went or what, but I really like how this stuff sounds. When it knocks, it really knocks. Here are some samples:

DRC Music – Kinshasa One Two (see http://drcmusic.org ) by DRC Music

-The Criterion edition of Olivier Assaya’s Carlos. Jet-setting, ’70s era, international terrorism crime feature. It’s five hours of style and terror.

-Louis CK’s Louie is painfully funny. I wrote about it back in August after an episode floored me.

-Mellowhype’s BlackenedWhite. Wrote about this one, too.

-Charlie Huston and Juan Jose Ryp’s Wolverine: The Best There Is: Contagion is exactly what Wolverine comics should be like. No nonsense, lots of murder, and filthy nasty. No Angsty Comics.

-When I stop posting on here forever after tomorrow, NBA 2K12 is to blame. Sorry. (Go Hawks.)

Shill shill shill. Sorry. But yeah, I’m not begging, at least not intentionally, and I’m not trying to guilt you into buying things off Amazon when I link them. I’m just trying to be upfront so that you don’t see the little “4thletter” in the Amazon URL and get freaked out or whatever.

tl;dr: If you buy stuff from Amazon after clicking on special magical links here, you’ll help us out. Oh yeah, this only works if you’re in America. If you’re in not-America, your readership is enough, seriously. Thanks for reading all these dumb things I write.

Now back to your regularly scheduled program, which is Gavin writing funny things, Esther writing about Batmans, and me playing video games instead of getting any work done.

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This Week in Panels: Week 95

July 17th, 2011 Posted by Gavok

Welcome to Week 95. I got the full crew with me. David Brothers, Was Taters and Space Jawa. Oh, also Boco T. I’d have more to say for this intro, but I’m more excited about this happening.

Punk and Christian are the world champs, Daniel Bryan and Del Rio are main event bound, Mark Henry is awesome and John Cena will hopefully be off TV for a while. Oh, and Chris Hero and Claudio Castagnoli may be signing with WWE. All is well.

Let’s get into character.

American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest #2
Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy

Batgirl #23
Bryan Q. Miller and Pere Perez

Read the rest of this entry �

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Create, Consume, Recycle 06/13/11

June 13th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

stuff i made

-A quick preview of Adam Warren and Emily Warren’s Empowered: Ten Questions for the Maidman, a one-shot released last week that was pretty dope.

Graphicly just redesigned their site, and I took a quick look at what works.

-This is the remix: I took this post about X-Men First Class and turned it into this post, inviting dozens of comments from idiots about race. That sorta thing is sorta why I hate writing about race for a mass audience, because sucker ducks always got something to say. Whatever though. I’m gonna go sleep on this pile of money.

something i like

Four pages from Mike Mignola, Duncan Fegredo, and Dave Stewart’s Hellboy: The Fury, a series that’s going to be positively apocalyptic and more worthy of your attention than pretty much any other ongoing comic:

There’s something incredibly pure about Hellboy these days. Mignola and company have been pumping out quick series or one-shots that do a lot with a little. With The Fury, we’ve got three issues that can go in any direction, save for maybe the death of Hellboy. Then again, we’ve already seen him maimed, so that might not even be off the table.

This intro is enormously effective. It brings to mind a ton of things. I look at it and see a boxer’s long walk to the ring. It’s the stranger riding into town while strangers grip their pistols and spit. It’s Deebo walking up and everyone in the hood going silent. It’s the beginning of the big war conference in any movie ever, where warriors bang shields and monsters roar at the moon. Lightning strikes either as a show of approval or as an omen of disaster.

“Now I am become Death,” the witches say as they look on their handiwork. “The destroyer of worlds.” They’re not as powerful as they thought they were, and now they’re wracked with doubt and guilt. Then they spot a lone figure walking out of nowhere, and begin creating stories about him to suit their purpose.

“It’s Odin out wandering the world.” Wise and all-seeing, Hellboy is the all-father in human form. Wikipedia tells me that Odin is “related to ōðr, meaning ‘fury, excitation,’ besides ‘mind,’ or ‘poetry.'” There you have the title of the series and the tone. The Fury is the epic poem of Hellboy’s life. Hellboy’s stuck in a Homeric tale, and he’s almost at the end of his run.

“He carries a hammer. Thor then.” He’s the thunder and the lightning, destruction and health, a terrifying protector. A hammer is used to build and destroy. Sometimes that’s the same thing. The myth parallels Hellboy’s journey, too. Thor battles Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent.

Hellboy is every god, every hero, every messiah, and not in some stupid Joseph Campbell sort of way, either. He’s fighting something that is the ultimate evil, so it stands to reason that he has to be the ultimate good. The only thing that matters is beating her.

This is the eschaton in progress, where evil breathes in before pulling the trigger and heroes stride down off the mountain, glorious in demeanor and unafraid of death.

It’s Mignola synthesizing all of his interests, from myths to ghost stories to Jack Kirby comics, and creating something fearsome.

More than anything, though, this has what a lot of theoretically exciting cape comics lack. This is exciting. It builds tension. This is how you do the slow walk.

Funny coincidence. Marvel’s Fear Itself, courtesy of Matt Fraction, Stuart Immonen, Wade Von Grawbadger, and Laura Martin, features the Asgardian host battling an ancient evils. I picked up the first issue and found it overwritten by far, though the art was nice. It had a bunch of people telling you why something’s scary or dangerous instead of that thing putting the fear of God in your heart. What little tension there is isn’t earned at all.

Fear Itself didn’t feel effortless like this does. The Fury is a snowball rolling down a steep hill, and the weight of the past few years does it wonders, but the difference is still striking. Maybe that’s unfair. I don’t think so, though.

There’s a gang of Hellboy available digitally. Read ’em in order, or check out The Island and the Third Wish, Makoma, or Buster Oakley Gets His Wish. I like those a lot, especially Makoma and Buster. Corben and Nowlan are beasts. Nobody should be able to draw cows as cool as Nowlan does.

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Hellboy: Being Human [Outtake]

May 17th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

this was going to run elsewhere, but didn’t, so now it’s here instead. i’d have done it different if i wanted it up here, almost definitely (this reads stilted to me), but hey, i wrote it, so it’s probably worth reading.

The assembly line nature of mainstream comics has allowed for a few alchemical relationships between members of a comic’s creative team. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby turned Fantastic Four into one of the best loved franchises in comics, Frank Miller and Lynn Varley revolutionized how comics were printed in Ronin, and Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and Jamie Grant made All-Star Superman and We3 among the most beautiful comics out. I’d like to add another team to that list: Mike Mignola, Richard Corben, and Dave Stewart, creators of today’s Hellboy: Being Human.

Pick your poison: Mignola, Corben, or Stewart. Stewart is one of the best colorists in the business, an Eisner winner, and a guy you can count on to make any comic book better just by showing up. Mike Mignola is one of the best success stories in comics, having spun off a silly idea he had once into two of the best series in comics and a couple of solid movies. And Richard Corben… he’s been in the game for over forty years, knocking out classic comic after classic comic. Together, you’ve got a powerhouse team that can do anything. "Anything," in this case, is "some of the best Hellboy stories ever."

The team has collaborated on Hellboy on five, six with the release of Being Human, separate occasions. The first time was 2006’s Hellboy: Makoma, or, A Tale Told by a Mummy in the New York City Explorers’ Club on August 16, 1993. This story took Hellboy to Africa and, in the cultural tourism that has made Hellboy such a fascinating series, through African folklore. In The Crooked Man, Hellboy takes a trip to West Virginia for a taste of good old fashioned Appalachian horror. The Bride of Hell sent Hellboy to France, and the flawless Hellboy In Mexico (Or, a Drunken Blur) sent Hellboy to (wait for it) Mexico (read our previous coverage of that classic here). Finally, Double Feature of Evil sent Hellboy to haunted houses and murky museums.

The easiest way to show why Mignola, Corben, and Stewart are so special is to spotlight their best work: Hellboy in Mexico. As far as I’m concerned, this was the best single issue of any comic released in 2010. It is, in essence, every Hellboy story. Hellboy‘s casual sense of humor, big action, folkloric inspiration, intense attention paid to atmosphere, and heartbreaking sadness are all in effect here. Mignola structured the tale as something Hellboy was telling his partner Abe Sapien, giving it a very personal and conversational feel. This isn’t someone recounting a happy time in their life. This is a bad memory and a source of emotional trauma for Hellboy.

Corben and Stewart (and letterer Clem Robins) handle the art chores, and the results are predictably fantastic. Corben’s Hellboy is straight out of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, with a bobbly, goofy looking head and jaw and a brawny physique. His monsters are even creepier, with their desiccated skin, disgusting claws, and missing chunks. The thick, doughy figures have real weight, and are pleasingly exaggerated.

Dave Stewart gets a chance to do some interesting rendering, thanks to Corben’s detailed pencils. Hellboy gains definition that he doesn’t have under Mignola or Duncan Fegredo’s pen, making for an entirely different reading experience. Mignola and Fegredo created a world littered with shadows and gloom for Hellboy to stride through. Stewart and Corben pull Hellboy into the realm of pop comics, thanks to Hellboy’s bright red skin tone contrasting with the muted, dusty palette of Hellboy in Mexico.

In short, Hellboy in Mexico is what comics are supposed to look like: a peek into another incredible world. It’s incredible, and this week, the team is back together for another shot.

Hellboy: Being Human features Roger, the homunculus Hellboy met fairly early in the run of Hellboy stories, on his first field mission. Here’s the solicit text, courtesy of Dark Horse:

A horrible witch and her zombie servant host a dinner party for a family of corpses, and Hellboy and Roger turn up to blast them all back to hell in this team-up story from Roger’s early days at the B.P.R.D.

This one’s a simple, personal tale of horror, showing us an early glimpse at how Roger and Hellboy grew to become friends and how hate can twist a life into an ugly mess. Being Human refers to Hellboy, Roger, and the witch who menaces them. What’s it mean to be human? Do you have to be homo sapiens, or is it something more?

Check out the preview below.

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BPRD: Hell on Earth – New World 04 [Exclusive Preview]

October 28th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

As far as ongoing adventure comics go, those series meant to reward both years of reading and capture the new reader while telling the story of a specific set of characters, Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, and Guy Davis’s BPRD is the best, bar none. It beats the best of the Big Two easily, and they do it by simply being very good at the basics: strong characterization, building subplots over time, quality art, and simply telling a good story. They know when to let things creep in the background and when to bring in the bits where a guy with twin guns goes up against a two-story tall monster. There are no stunts here and no marketing-based character deaths. Just some fine storytelling.

I’ve written about BPRD before. It was one of the 5 Series I spotlighted this summer, where I focused on how it’s similar to and different from cape comics.

The new series is called BPRD: Hell on Earth, with New World being the subtitle. There’s an unspoken rule in comics that the more colons and clauses a title has, the more likely it is to suck. Not true for BPRD, unsurprisingly. To catch up on the new series, check this thing I wrote on ComicsAlliance bringing you up to speed. If you want to jump into the series, there are a few entry points. It’s actually pretty easy to hop right into Hell on Earth, to tell the truth. The status quo is “The Earth is screwed, didn’t you read the title?” and everyone is reintroduced pretty well in the first issue. It’s not a clunky “The focused totality of my psychic powers” introduction, either. It’s much more organic. But, if you want to start from the beginning, B.P.R.D., Vol. 1: Hollow Earth & Other Stories introduces the series and is a collection of stories. The series changed over into being specifically about something (rather than being short stories) in B.P.R.D. Volume 3: Plague of Frogs. If you’re patient, you can pick up B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs Hardcover Collection Vol. 1, which covers the first two trades (I believe) and drops in February.

Thanks to the kindness of the folks at Dark Horse, I’ve got the exclusive preview of BPRD: Hell on Earth – New World 04. Words by Mignola and Arcudi, art by Davis, colors by Stewart. Here’s the pitch:

Trapped in a massive firefight with a horrific tentacled behemoth, the B.P.R.D. are rescued by another wild monster, while one agent chases the evil responsible for this chaos.

I really like page two, panel five. The exploding Humvee looks good. It isn’t realistic, but it approaches realism through clever cartooning. It’s all short, rough lines. Lots of implied motion in there. That and the ill zoom on page six are great.

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Fourcast! 63: Hellboy: Whom Gods Destroy

September 27th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

-You Made Me Read This!
-David made Esther read Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, Vol. 3: The Chained Coffin and Others.
-It was good. A nice mix of creepy and funny, and Esther digs the character of Hellboy, too.
-Esther made David read Chris Claremont, Dusty Abell, and Drew Geraci’s Superman/Wonder Woman: Whom Gods Destroy.
-David made it two and a half issues in before tapping out.
-It may not be unreadable (there are a lot of word balloons to read), but it is unbearable.
-6th Sense’s 4a.m. Instrumental for the theme music.
-See you, space cowboy!

Subscribe to the Fourcast! via:
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The Mask Is The Man

September 6th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Hellboy: The Storm (Mike Mignola/Duncan Fegredo) wrapped up this past week. It was a lead-in to the upcoming The Fury (get it?) and pretty fantastic. Elves, armies, kings of England, you know how Hellboy stories go.

Anyway, in the letters page was a pretty interesting question.

The scene in question from Mignola and Corben’s Hellboy in Mexico:

It’s not artistic license! Just like Clark Kent is Superman, and Bruce Wayne is Batman, the wrestler is his mask. The mask is sacred, and represents his true nature. When the mask is removed, or lost in a fight, the wrestler loses more than just the match.

So, after being infected by evil, the luchador up there turns into a heinous vampire bat-thing. He’s been corrupted. After Hellboy kills him, his identity, his true nature, is returned to him, and he finds peace.

Where’s my No-Prize?!

(If you haven’t read Hellboy In Mexico, or A Drunken Blur yet, you absolutely should pick up one of my favorite stories of this year.)

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The Cipher 08/03/10

August 4th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

“I’m tryna get to this place that my grandpa told me bout as a child/ Told me only a few could make it and the fakest aint allowed/ Be a star out your game and aim above the clouds/ and if you miss, youll at least be amongst your own crowd”

Slightly different this week! Music recommendations, none of which are probably endorsed at all by Gav and Esther (Est?). Amazon is doing this 1000 albums at $5 deal, and I found some stuff I like. Here’s some recs.

Lauryn HillThe Miseducation of Lauryn Hill: L Boogie is nice, and this was probably her peak. A little more R&B than rap, but a rap album nonetheless. Before I wanted to marry Erykah Badu, I wanted to marry Lauryn Hill, and this album is pretty much the reason why. Samples: Doo Wop, Ex-Factor, Everything Is Everything
D’AngeloBrown Sugar: Way before he dropped his naked video and instantly made an enemy of every young black male around my age and gave every young black girl around my age whiplash, D’Angelo dropped Brown Sugar, a dope R&B album that was profane, beautiful, and pretty much immaculate. Also: “Brown Sugar” is about smoking weed. Samples: Cruisin, Lady, Brown Sugar
NERDIn Search Of…: I’ve loved this record since high school. It’s upbeat, melancholy, has some ill punchlines, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to do the entire album at karaoke at some point. “It’s the kinda high that got me leanin’, 120 speedin’ in the rain, meaning of a hydroplane.” Samples: Lapdance (NSFW), Rock Star, Provider
A Tribe Called QuestMidnight Marauders: One of the top five greatest albums of all time. If you don’t like this, we can’t get along. If you like Low End Theory over Midnight Marauders… we’re gonna fight, but we can be friends. Samples: Award Tour, Electric Relaxation
The RootsHow I Got Over: It’s only five bucks. Go watch Dear God 2.0 and then just buy it already. You need this in your life.
OutKastStankonia: Awright awright awright arrararawright… OutKast is the greatest rap group of all time and this is one of several high watermarks for the group. Toilet Tisha is another ill spoken word/instrumental track, Stanklove is heavy, So Fresh So Clean is a certified classic, and all the music videos rule. Plus Kast is one of the few groups that’ll let a song breathe, just because it sounds dope. Samples: B.O.B., Ms Jackson
Blu & ExileBelow the Heavens: I like Blu a whole lot. I think he might be the rapper most in line with where I’m at right now, if that makes sense. Atmosphere defined one era of my life, Cannibal Ox/Company Flow/Aes Rock another, and so on. There’s probably some examination that needs to be done in there. Anyway, dude should make more music more often. I’m a big fan. Samples: Blu Collar Workers, So(ul) Amazing (maybe it’s the MOP sample, but this jawn reminds me of Premo a whole lot)

David David David David Banner: Amazing Spider-Man 639, Hellboy: The Storm 2, Baltimore: The Plague Ships 1, The Boys 45
All Eyez on Esther: Definitely: Secret Six 24, Red Robin 15 Maybe: Batman Odyssey 2, Superman: The Last Family of Krypton 1
Gavinmatic: Magog, Secret Six 24, Avengers: The Origin 5, Avengers Prime 2, Captain America 608, Deadpool 1000, Doomwar 6, Gorilla Man 2, Hawkeye and Mockingbird 3, Hit-Monkey 2, Punisher vs. MU 1 (maybe), SHIELD 3, Secret Warriors 18, Young Allies 3, Irredeemable 16

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5 Series: BPRD

July 20th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

When someone dies in cape comics, the first reaction tends to be some flavor of, “Oh, they’ll be back. No one stays dead in comics.” Which, okay, that’s fair. Marvel and DC have cultivated a revolving door sort of status quo for whatever reason, and you’re more likely to see someone back than not if they were ever worth anything.

BPRD, though. Maybe it’s due to being a product of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, maybe Mignola, John Arcudi, and Guy Davis are more willing to break the toys they’re playing with, but when someone dies in BPRD, whether a main cast member or a random cannon fodder schmuck, it counts. There’s no hand-waving, no cheap tricks to squeeze a few more dollars out of some IP, none of that. There’s just a villain saying “He won’t,” and then someone you’ve grown to love, another in a long line of lost souls, is gone forever.

Having genuine stakes is part of what makes BPRD so entertaining. Batman will never die, Superman will never die, and Spider-Man will never die. Liz and Abe and Johann can and will bite it, or be moved so far out of their comfort zone that we become uncomfortable and unsure. You don’t know what can happen, because people can and will be taken off the board as needed.

BPRD is theoretically Hellboy‘s little sister, but has a very different approach to storytelling. Hellboy always struck me as being as much about the creatures that Hellboy gets into it with, and the mythologies he walks through, as about Hellboy himself. BPRD is about Kate, Liz, Abe, Roger, Johann, and the way that the pressures of their job, which is leading headlong towards some kind of apocalypse, bends them in funny ways.

The cast is really what makes BPRD work. The plots are great, and Guy Davis’s art is fantastic, but I think that the way the characters bounce off each other is my favorite part of the book. When the series kicks off, they’re stuck in a post-Hellboy rut. He left the team fairly recently, and he was in a very real way the sun to their solar system. Without him, they have no center, which means that certain people find their roles have shifted in strange ways after the change. It’s positively melancholy, like they’d just found a hole where there shouldn’t be one.

Over the course of ten or so volumes, you get used to these characters. You see Abe trying to fill Hellboy’s shoes and coming up short. You see Kate trying to keep the BPRD under control and on the ball. Roger is desperate for a friend and imprints on people. Liz is haunted by visions of a toxic future and finding herself increasingly divorced from her friends. The normal humans are overwhelmed and outclassed, but there to do their job.

A lot of the characterization is left for you to figure out. No one explicitly says that Roger is emulating his role models, but it’s clear if you pay a little attention. When Liz goes all wan and sullen, the way Guy Davis shows her cutting her eyes and poking out her lip is crucial. Abe butting up against authority is another clue. No one stands up and says, “I am feeling sad.” The BPRD talk like people, which means that a lot goes unsaid, people say a lot of things they regret, and they don’t always tell the truth. The little bit of digging required to really get these characters makes you even more invested in them. You realize things and it hits you like a bolt out of the blue. “Of course, that’s why this happened and why he said this.”

The story these characters are pulled through peels back like an onion, and you’re right there along with the BPRD. It’s like Lost, if Lost was better written, had dope art, and wasn’t massively frustrating. Only one person has the answers, and he’s more interested in being cryptic or obtuse than actually answering any straight questions. When he does begin answering questions, it’s too late. Answers are pointless at that stage. The apocalypse is here, and no one gets to stop it.

It begins with frogs. The frogs soon turn to monsters, and they run rampant over the countryside, quietly building an army. Another man, a corrupt businessman, decides to get his supervillain on, with unexpectedly catastrophic results. Something that once seemed like a minor infestation was discovered to be more rotten and vastly more widespread than expected. And through it all, the rock of the BPRD, Hellboy, was completely missing in action.

Imagine a snowball sitting at the top of a hill. A push in any direction and the snowball will roll down the hill, gathering mass on the way, until it becomes a problem. When we come in on BPRD, that snowball is already halfway down the hill. The problem is that the BPRD don’t have the perspective needed to see the full shape of the terror that’s coming, and missing that perspective leaves them ill-equipped. They’re playing catch-up, and while they do notch several wins, they aren’t fighting against something that you can just win against every once and a while.

The structure of the series, the sheer size of what Mignola and Davis and Arcudi are throwing at the BPRD, is only obvious once you’ve gotten hooked. BPRD is a juggernaut. Once you get it, once you see how it works, you can’t stop any more than the BPRD can stop what they’re fighting against. You start looking for angles, outs, and ways for the team to come out on top. The snowball is coming down the hill and your head is turning too slowly to actually see it in time. You start to put this together and that together and you realize that, no, things don’t look very good for our crew. But it’s an adventure comic, right? These things always work out well!

Except, BPRD is off in its own little world. It isn’t Superman or Spider-Man. When people die, they stay dead. And really, just when I was getting comfortable, a villain said two words that changed everything and reminded me of just what I was reading. This is the real deal.

That’s something else that works in BPRD‘s favor. Nothing is created or consumed in a vacuum. BPRD is part of a 20-year old franchise that is in and of itself part of a larger tapestry of stories. You cannot separate BPRD from that tapestry, unless you’ve somehow managed to avoid serial superhero comics or adventure fiction entirely. Stories like BPRD, which you could honestly transform into a mainstream cape comic with a few minor changes, have certain expectations. Deaths don’t stick, enemies return, and if someone changes, they’ll be back to normal soon. BPRD bumps up against these expectations repeatedly and to great effect. You think that Liz or Kate or Abe or Roger will go back to how they were in book 1, but no, they won’t. The only thing they’re going to do is grow into whatever shape they need to fill in the next volume.

The key word for BPRD is freedom. Mignola, Arcudi, and Davis, among others, have the freedom to tell whatever kind of stories they want to tell, free of whatever expectations you may have coming in. The BPRD itself is free to act and live and learn and grow in ways that most major comics characters cannot, for better or for worse. Characters enter and exit the book as they need to and in a variety of ways. The cast isn’t static, and people you thought were lifers really aren’t. BPRD is free to push and outgrow its boundaries and become something completely unlike what it began life as.

The format of BPRD clicks, too. The series of miniseries is what I think all ongoing mainstream comics should adopt. Keep Amazing Spider-Man and whatever other series are creeping up on a thousand issues. That’s fine. Giving a character a series of miniseries, each able to stand on its own, but when taken together build up to a monster of a story… that’s the good stuff. BPRD is one of my favorite ongoing series, and the format is a large part of that. There is a clear reading order, clear stakes in every volume, and a slow upping of the ante that leaves you with something like chills by the time you get to the latter volumes.

Eleven volumes is a tough row to hoe, but not when the writing, art, and overall package are this good. This is grown folks’ comics, with the level of quality and cohesiveness that all comics should shoot for. You get invested, you pull the plot apart while the characters do, and in the end, your eyes bug out and your mouth gapes a little and you’re left fiending for the next volume.

(My only suggestion, the only thing that could make BPRD a better comic, is to dedicate, say, four issues to the origin and day-to-day life of the mad scientist up there. He shows up a mere handful of times, but he’s got my complete attention every single time. He’s great.)

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