5 Series: Children of the Sea

July 23rd, 2010 Posted by david brothers

I talked about the story and relationships of Daisuke Igarashi’s Children of the Sea on Comics Alliance a few weeks back, and I don’t want to go over that again. But, let me tell you what I really like about Children of the Sea, above and beyond the glacial pacing and intricate web of relationships.

I really like the way Igarashi draws fish.

It sounds stupid, but really, you have to take pleasure where you can find it. Everyone in comics has a specialty. Jim Lee has the classic superhero locked down. Eduardo Risso draws beautiful girls. Mike Mignola does creepy better than most. Marcos Martin has ill layouts. Every artist you like probably does at least one thing very well. Igarashi draws oceanlife.

Part of building a believable world is actually creating a believable world. You build comic books from the ground up. If you’re doing the comic book version of Fievel Goes West, you better be able to draw mice. Animal Farm? Learn how to draw pigs. Once you get that down, you can go in and add flourish, whether it’s fantastic background work or high fashion. The focus of your work has to be solid to begin with, or else your work won’t be believable.

Creating a setting you can believe in requires putting in work and getting the basics right. Igarashi is telling a story about the evolution, or destruction, of the ocean. A large portion of it takes place underwater, so if he’s drawing fish that look like a third grader did them in the middle of a sneeze… you’re not going to buy the story. So, by rendering the fish with an appropriate level of detail, you make it easier for someone to get into the story.

This isn’t particularly deep or a revelation at all, is it? It is something that I never really realized until I really put some thought into why I was such a fan of Children of the Sea. It’s not deep or particularly twisty in story. You don’t need a flowchart to figure out what’s going on. It’s not even the kind of action-packed raw violence I like these days. But the craft on display, the way that Igarashi’s attention to detail and clear love of his subject, is what keeps me in.

I’m not saying I don’t like the story. Not even close, honestly. It’s actually a pretty good read and does a fine job of keeping me interested on its own. But the fact that the art is killer does a fantastic job of drawing me into the work. Igarashi has the basics down pat, and it’s obvious. His people aren’t as detailed as the fish, and they generally appear a little more wispy and ethereal than is the norm.

I’m away from my scanner and on my netbook, so I can’t flood this post with images like I wanted to. The official SIGIKKI site has plenty of samples, so click through, or just trust me.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon


5 Series: Hellblazer

July 22nd, 2010 Posted by david brothers

My favorite Hellblazer run is the one Brian Azzarello had a few years back. In it, John Constantine was essentially cast as a trickster demon, stepping into and out of trouble with ease, and never really coming into danger. He ruined lives, found vengeance, and generally was just an insufferably smug magician douchebag. It was an extremely entertaining arc, and sort of set the stage for how I view Constantine. He’s good at what he does, with impeccable luck even when entirely removed from his comfort zone.

Peter Milligan’s ongoing run, on the other hand, is about a man that believes a little bit too much of his own hype. He has a reputation, and one that he’s earned several dozen times over, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Side characters, people who step into and out of the story, hate him. His best friend Chaz’s wife wonders aloud if he didn’t curse their daughter and cured her out of his own guilt. A noted local kingpin has heard of Constantine and isn’t even remotely impressed. He’s openly hostile and at one point is ready to murder him with no fear of repercussions.

Tucker was the one who put the idea of Milligan’s run being about Constantine failing in my head, and it’s one that’s proved to be true. He’s been forced to face his failures, whether recent or vintage, over and over. He did a cheap little spell to make some quick cash and it came back to haunt him decades later. His failure to rescue someone he loves, or thinks he loves, drives the more recent portion of the run. Milligan is putting Constantine up against something he can’t just magic away. You can’t fight time, and when you get old and your bones start creaking, you can’t just keep up with the big dogs like you used to.

Milligan is writing as much about Constantine’s rep as he is about Constantine himself, which makes for very interesting storytelling. Constantine is old and everyone knows it. He knows it, too, but he refuses to accept it. Like so many old men, he’s trying to hold onto past glories, but the old cliche proves true. The tighter he squeezes, the more slips through his grasp. He can’t bring anyone back from the dead, his magic is poison, and he’s made a lifetime’s worth of bad decisions. You don’t get to walk through a rainstorm and come out dry. Constantine suddenly has consequences to deal with.

Azzarello’s run feels like it’s haunting Milligan’s. I can’t not think of it when reading Milligan’s run, even though there’s not a direct connection between the two. I don’t even think Milligan’s directly referenced Azzarello’s run, but the difference between the two is striking. Azzarello’s Constantine, drawn by Marcelo Frusin mainly, was young and unsettling. Azzarello’s Constantine is cruel. His smile was something to be afraid of, and if he was happy, you were probably a neo-Nazi getting your face bashed in by a golem.

In contrast, Milligan’s just looks tired. Giuseppe Camuncoli and Stefano Landini draws him with thin, dishonest eyes and a prominent scar over his eyes. His permanent stubble make him look haggard even when his clothes are clean. Simon Bisley’s take is even more ragged. He looks like a beat up old boxer, with a broad forehead and ugly mug. He looks like about fifty miles of bad road, and so far past his prime that he’s completely off-putting to anyone with sense.

I like that Hellblazer has this call and response thing going on, even if it’s unconscious or unspoken. There’s a lot to like about Milligan’s run in and of itself. He’s got a great grasp on Constantine and he’s telling new and interesting stories with an old characters. He’s introduced new characters into the series, ones that I honestly would like to know more about outside of Constantine’s sphere of influence, and the stories have been great. The art is good, with Camuncoli, Landini, and Bisley doing great work. It’s a genuinely good comic, is what I’m saying, and this contrast between a run I enjoyed and a run I’m currently enjoying is like icing on the cake. A little bit extra on top of something good.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon


5 Series: Battlefields

July 21st, 2010 Posted by david brothers

The best war stories are ones that focus on the people involved in the war, even if it is to the exclusion of any attention paid to the war itself. I think that was my problem with Joe Kubert’s Dong Xoai–it had characters, but they were practically blank slates. Dong Xoai was tilted too far onto the side of simply telling the story as it happened and it lacked heart. Garth Ennis has made the specific kind of war stories I like his stock in trade, from his work at Vertigo with War Stories to his ongoing series of miniseries Battlefields at Dynamite.

Battlefields has a very simple, but fresh, gimmick. Each arc is three issues long and focuses on one front and one group of characters, with one person in that group usually serving as a focal point. This format, sixty-six pages and out, is an effective one, allowing Ennis to drop you into a life and pull you out of it over the course of three issues. You get just enough to be interested, and then the story’s over and you’re on to the next one. The pace keeps you interested, kind of like how a huge part of Amazing Spider-Man appeal right now is sheer momentum.

The variety isn’t what drew me to Battlefields (that was just the thought of Ennis doing more war stories), but it was kept me there. In the first series, you hip-hopped from Russia to Asia to Europe. The stories dealt with subjects like how to deal with war, healing from mental wounds, how people become hardened in the face of violence, or just how sometimes people were completely outclassed but still managed to make do. It shed light on actual stories by being based at least slightly on true stories, in the case of Night Witches, or simply took its cues from history and spun off into something else entirely.

The series varies in tone as well as content, of course. There’s a kind of black humor floating over Tankies, with a Corporal who talks funny and a crew who aren’t afraid to talk about it behind his back. You’ll chuckle at least a little bit at what they get up to. Night Witches is oppressive, taking place on one of the hardest fronts of the war and throwing innocents directly at the German army. There are jokes in there, but they’re the jokes of the doomed and damned. Nothing is pretty. Dear Billy is a melancholy love story. The war and action take a backseat to a woman and the man she’s fallen in love with. Happy Valley feels like a goofy getting-to-know you tale, where the curmudgeonly old vets have to welcome an eager and talented newcomer into the fold. The stories are always serious and treated with respect, of course, but there’s variety in how they’re told.

By and large, Battlefields is simple to a fault. The characters are invariably human, flawed in believable ways, struck by fear at inopportune times, and thrown into the thresher of World War II. No one comes out of the series the same way they entered it, and sometimes that means that people have to die. You aren’t reading about heroes or supermen. Not even close. These are, at best, decent people dealt a bad hand. There’s no flourish, no moment when someone jumps into the fray with two guns ablaze. There really aren’t even any of those motivational speeches that always seem to pop up in WWII tales.

The art is varied, too. Russ Braun, Peter Snejbjerg, PJ Holden, and Carlos Ezquerra don’t look all that much alike as far as style goes, but they’re all talented artists. Braun and Ezquerra bring an ugly grit to the proceedings, rendering tanks and the Russian front as being appropriately sandpapery. Snejbjerg is great at drawing human beings, so a conversation-heavy volume like Dear Billy is the perfect book for him. Holden gets to draw dogfights, something notoriously tough to do in comics, but performs well.

The crew of artists is a boon to Battlefields. This is, in essence, anthology comic, a series of short stories being published under one banner. Each story, in addition to being set in diverse locales, has a unique visual style. The art complements the story, so that sad stories have sad art and brutal ones look the part. It makes sense, Each story is set apart from its brethren visually and tonally.

So, boiled down–simple stories about normal people during a war delivered in satisfying chunks.

Good comics.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon


6 Writers: Inio Asano

July 17th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

When I was in high school, I was really into David Fincher’s Fight Club. The message of the movie, this twisted idea that we had been screwed over by mumble mumble that we should all just kinda go crazy because why not, man! Yeah! In hindsight, I was also a Rage Against the Machine fan, in high school, and slowly figuring out politics, so you’ll have to pardon my naivete. Fight Club actually served as an inoculation of sorts against further insanity of that type, so when I hit that point in your 20s where nothing makes sense, I was a little less likely to have a completely stupid reaction to my new found melancholy than I would have if I hadn’t seen Fight Club one hundred times and completely rejected what it put forth.

The one writer who has best managed to capture the feeling of oppressive melancholy punctuated by bright spots of enjoying life despite your depression of my early twenties is Inio Asano, creator of solanin, What a Wonderful World!, and several other works. His artwork is an interesting mix of realistic (almost to a fault) backgrounds and characters who strike me as a cartoonier version of Naoki Urasawa’s already fairly cartoony work. He draws people with very soft features, broad faces, thick noses, and wide mouths. He draws mouths kind of like Chris Bachalo does. He also draws some of the cutest girls I’ve ever seen in a comic.

solanin is about as true a portrayal of twenty-something ennui as I’ve ever seen. Your twenties are the first time you’re really out on your own in the world, away from the safety net of your parents and everyone being kind to you just because. You soon learn that your parents told you a whole lot of well-meaning lies when you were a kid. It isn’t as easy as “Go to college and then get a job” because college doesn’t guarantee a job. It doesn’t even guarantee you’ll be prepared for a job. The world isn’t kind by default. Someone has to do the crappy jobs, and it’s probably you, because the cool jobs aren’t as cool as you think they are and the ones that actually are cool are for people who are doing better than you are. All the things that defined you in high school fall away, because all of the grown-ups you suddenly have to interact with don’t care how well you ran track or how many spelling bees you won. They just want to know if you can get this done fifteen minutes ago. And hey, student loans!

Your twenties are when you learn that you’re not half as special as they claimed you were. In fact, you’re not special at all. You’re normal. You may have some skills other people lack, but you’ll still have to work your butt off for that to matter. Your twenties are when you finally wake up. And yes, it isn’t the end of the world, but when you’re in the middle of that? It’s like drowning. solanin opens just as that ennui is hitting Meiko Inoue hard. Nothing is working out like it was supposed to, her boyfriend is in stuck in a state of being almost successful, and she’s just… tired. She’s listless.

This doesn’t stop her from enjoying life when there’s something to enjoy. She loves watching her boyfriend perform, she has fun when they set off fireworks on the beach, and she enjoys the company of her friends. But, there’s always this miasma where rent and a career and her future are sitting and lurking, waiting to pounce. All of the pressures of adult life, all of the stuff you simply can’t prepare for, weigh heavy on her shoulders.

When I think of coming-of-age comics, my first thought is of books that struck me as dwelling on the pain of life. I’ve always thought of them as being about sad sack people who are obsessed with being sad. I could never relate to those. It just never clicked. It makes me uncomfortable, to be honest.

Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion is the first anime that comes to mind when talking about misery and depression. It’s practically misery exploitation at times, stacking trauma and vile acts one on top of the other until characters collapse in an orgy of hate and self-loathing. It’s ugly and off-putting and entirely too cynical to be entertaining these days. The message of Evangelion is “life sucks and then you die.”

Asano’s work preaches the opposite. I think that’s why I enjoyed solanin and What A Wonderful World! so much. They refuse to wallow in misery. solanin is about growing up and understanding the fact that life sucks, but also recognizing that the bad parts aren’t the full picture. There is a lot to life, and while there is a lot to dislike, there’s also a lot to enjoy. The point isn’t the sad parts. The point is how the sad parts are broken up by parts where people prove that it’s always worth having good friends. There are those moments where you just stop and look up and everything is wonderful. It doesn’t make the sad moments less sad, but they do make a difference when you need them to.

What A Wonderful World! is kind of a test drive for solanin. Designs and ideas appear in WAWW! and then later appear in refined form in solanin. The result is that solanin is a carefully crafted work of stunning optimism and honesty. Life is going to suck. There’s no getting around that. Once you hit that point where you’re an adult, rather than a child, you’re in for a hard time. The trick is weathering those hard times and appreciating the good times. That’s the message of solanin.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon


6 Writers: Eiichiro Oda

July 16th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Emotional trauma makes for good backstory, doesn’t it?

The cast of Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece certainly seems to be proof positive. All nine crew members have some kind of significant traumatic moment in their life that set them on their current path. The severity of the moment varies. Sometimes it’s a friend sacrificing a limb (two crew members), sometimes it’s the death of a family member (two), sometimes it’s having your entire hometown wiped off the face of the map (one), or sometimes just the death of a good friend or six (three).

Tragic pasts quickly become old hat and boring if you read comics for any length of time. For some reason, though, it just works in One Piece. You can’t get enough. They’re spread out far enough, and executed well enough, to be interesting, instead of trite. They’re also a signifier that a character has finally become a true member of the crew, rather than just a guest star. So, how has a series with no less than eight tragic pasts (if you want to quibble over Luffy’s origin) not turned into cheap soap opera?

Rather than leading with the tragic past, like you’d see in your average superhero comic, Oda keeps it in his pocket for later. It puts me in mind of the process you go through when making new friends. The first few weeks are the probationary period, where you just kinda hang out and have fun and don’t get too deep into things. After a while, though, your guard is lowered. You’re hanging out, you’re used to each other, and you share a little more than you normally would. After that, you begin sharing embarrassing things, and eventually, things that scare or bother you. By that point, you’re on together forever status. You’re trusting someone with your innermost thoughts, the sort of thing you keep walled up deep inside your head.

In real life, you get to know someone’s laugh before you get to know their tears. One Piece follows a similar arc. Characters are introduced, we get a good grasp on their personality, and then later, when it becomes relevant, bam, we get to see that little bit of ice that sits deep in their heart. Sometimes it’s just relevant and not too tear-jerking, like Sanji’s tale of the time a dude nearly starved to death to save his life. Sometimes it’s really, really sad, the sort of thing you avoid reading on a bus because then you look like a crazy person. Sometimes, it’s a complete and utter emotional apocalypse.

The flashbacks to the past are always relevant, too. They aren’t just thrown into the mix just for cheap heat. When we find out exactly why Nico Robin has been on the run, it’s because her past has finally caught up to her. When we find out why Nami has been a thief for the past few years, it’s because she can’t bear that burden alone any longer. It’s always something that either sheds greater light on the story at hand or something that moves the plot itself along.

This technique has worked out wonderfully for Oda and One Piece. Characters are defined by their dreams first, whether that’s becoming king of the pirates or finding the sea where all the fish in the world congregate. When the tragic history comes in, it adds further depth, rather than creating their entire reason for going on adventures. It’s extra context for a character you already enjoy, helping that character to be just that much more well-rounded.

It’s fair to say that One Piece is a happy manga. It’s about friendship and adventure and beating up bad guys. This doesn’t stop it from having a certain amount of depth of character, though. None of the characters, barring idiot Luffy, are just happy. Several of them needed a breakthrough before they became happy or learned to trust people. While you’ll come across emotional landmines every once and a while, the overall mood of One Piece is a very well rounded one. Oda can flip from happy to sad and back again without breaking the book.

Oda is over 50 volumes deep and creeping up on 600 chapters in a series that is extraordinarily character-driven for a manga of its genre. The action is good, and the jokes are pretty funny, but the real meat and potatoes of the book is the way the characters act and interact. Oda keeps ringing the Sad Backstory Bell, but for some reason, it gets better and better every time. It never becomes trite or boring or pat. By delaying the big emotional breakdown, by pushing the tragic past off until he absolutely has to bring it up, he manages to make the impact that much more powerful. This is killer writing, and I hadn’t expected to see something so grown-up, albeit wildly exaggerated on occasion, in a kids’ manga.

At its worst, One Piece is just pretty good. At its best, it’ll leave you a stupid blubbery mess in public.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon


6 Writers: Adam Warren

July 15th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

You ever hear someone talk about how certain writers are “idea guys?” Essentially, what that means is that some people consistently have good ideas but somehow manage to be poor writers. Maybe they don’t stick the landing, maybe they layer on too many ideas and don’t bother with execution, I don’t know. I don’t know that I buy the premise, to be perfectly honest. Most people I would think of as idea guys, people who come up with stuff that’s original and interesting, also tend to be good at the rest of the writing.

Take Adam Warren for example. He’s got a distinctive take on dialogue, which ranges from clipped to wordy to self-aware to self-conscious. The dialogue is clearly his work, but it isn’t completely obvious in the way that say, Warren Ellis or Brian Bendis’s tics are obvious. He’s good at characterization, too, knowing how to toss in the right mix of humor and pathos and outright absurdity to keep you interested. His pacing tends to be off the chain, with stories that begin at high speed and then just keep ratcheting up higher and higher. And hey, he’s a cartoonist, and his art is dope. I mean, that’s the total package, right?

What I might like most about Warren are his ideas, though. Cape comics tend to dabble in science fiction by having characters declare that they are futurists shortly before engaging in the same boring old ideas and technology that they had years ago. Tony Stark fights guys in bulky robot suits or corrupt businessmen. Reed Richards innovates endlessly with no visible effect on anything ever. Lex Luthor is a supergenius who apparently keeps all his inventions to himself. We’re told how smart people are, but rarely ever get to see it in action.

Remember when Chuck Dixon brought a distinctly Guns’n’Ammo flavor to Punisher and Batman? Suddenly everything was Kevlar nomex weave this and terminal velocity that and, coincidentally, a whole lot more interesting. Dixon brought it just close enough to how things might actually work in real life to give the books a boost.

If Chuck Dixon brought Guns’n’Ammo to Punisher, Adam Warren is the guy who brings Scientific American and a fat folder of esoteric technology-related Wikipedia bookmarks to the superset. Iron Man: Hypervelocity is honestly probably the only Iron Man comic you need to read if you want an Iron Man story that fully engages with the character and the world he theoretically lives in.

Iron Man is theoretically a high tech hero, but his high tech is usually limited to what, a new kind of laser beam and an uglier suit? Warren and Brian Denham created an Iron Man story that actually used real-life technology to enhance Stark’s fake comic book tech. Repulsors are all well and good, but at the end of the day, they’re just a laser beam. Rockets in your shoes aren’t high tech, and neither is on-board radar.

Normal Iron Man putters around on his jet boots and sometimes uses his hands to adjust his trajectory. He’s essentially your generic airplane, or maybe an arrow. In Warren’s hands, though, Iron Man gained a new tool: high-speed thrust vectoring. It’s not a new technique by any means, but it is a fantastic visual and interesting to see. Boiled down, thrust vectoring is the act of changing the direction of your propulsion, Iron Man’s rocket boots, to instantly adjust his trajectory. When combined with propulsion from Iron Man’s palms, you suddenly have an Iron Man who doesn’t maneuver like a man at all. He’s infinitely more maneuverable and isn’t stuck on just a horizontal or vertical plane. The sky is his playground. Rapid fire direction adjustments means that dogfights suddenly aren’t just about your on-board computer screaming about some guy on your six.

Or say Iron Man goes underwater. In the past, he’d have a special underwater suit. You know the type. It’d look a lot like a diving bell, or like something Jacques Costeau would use. Not in Hypervelocity, no. Function doesn’t have to battle form. Warren introduced another simple idea, supercavitation, and suddenly you’ve got an Iron Man who can travel underwater at disgusting speeds.

Look at your average comic book military figure. He’s just a dude, usually cast in the Sgt Rock mold, who has to keep track of several different moving parts in an operation. At the heart of it all… he’s just a man. Warren pulled another idea from real life, this time smart drugs, and threw a little sauce on it. Meet wardrugs. Take them and you get enhanced processing power, focus, artificial emotional stability, and a host of other benefits. Call it Sgt Rock Plus.

Marvel books in particular have indulged in established characters having killer robots specifically designed to kill them. Iron Man, Hulk, Spider-Man, and I’m pretty sure even Captain America have run into them, whether they were LMDs or Spider Slayers. Why not apply that to something other than killer robots? Hunter/killer drones piloted remotely by flight sim nerds back at the base. Give them a high bandwidth link to the field and suddenly your Xbox 360 is a training device. Ever done an escort mission in a Star Wars game? Then you’re qualified to work for SHIELD.

Or hey! You know what Iron Man needed? You want to know an easy way to instantly build character in a comic? Give him an on-board music player and fill it with character-specific tunes. Oh wait, Warren already did that. Too late, suckers. Just 9,000 songs on the playlist, though, so I’m sure you can do 9,001 and call it a night.

Artificially intelligent personal subroutines that run subconscious threat assessment, resource allocation, and repair functions. Backups of your personality for emergency situations. A mecha underground, where all the forgotten and ruined robots go to play and create their own subculture. LMDs created for custom wetworks. Fire and forget assassins, ready for any situation and self-sustaining. Capekilling units that employ weapons specifically designed to puncture superhardened targets. Creating a concrete-hard wall of sound underwater that becomes a crippling shockwave–literally, music as a weapon. Technotaku specifically tasked with predicting the future based on known data. The speed of the human brain being a “cognitive clockspeed barrier” for artificial intelligences–robots can only think as fast as humans can without some kind of new technology. Microdrones meant to paint a target for further engagement by a variety of compatible hardware. A SHIELD helicarrier that doubles as a deathtrap for invading forces. Autonomous repulsor target acquisition and elimination. Mollywire. Fuel-air suicide bombs.

This book was six issues. The final issue was time-synched to Iggy and the Stooges’s “Search and Destroy” because the issue took place over around three and a half minutes. It’s filled with fresh ideas. And yet, for some reason, the most Tony Stark has done in the past few years is stand around naked in some fake virtual reality room, talk about how his armor is in his bones now, and fly around like he always has.

Innovation isn’t Tony Stark fighting a a giant robot. Innovation is Tony Stark taking real life and making it doper. Innovation is Tony Stark pirating software from evil organizations because they thought of something he didn’t, but he thought of a way to make it better. Innovation is a Tony Stark who doesn’t just run through the same old stories again and again, with hardware that’s barely any different from 1963 or 1999.

I mean, the military has a pain ray. It shoots a microwave beam that cooks people from nearly a kilometer out. You can control it with a joystick and a screen if you need to, which turns a war zone into Duck Hunt. That’s way more hype than simple lasers and a shoulder-mounted gatling gun.

Adam Warren is an idea guy in the best possible sense of the phrase. If you want to kick something into high gear, really peel back what makes it work and throw a whole bunch more stuff into the mix without breaking your character, he’s the man to come see. Hypervelocity is what Iron Man should always be like. Something fresh, something moving at Mach 8, and something that takes something from real life and makes an ill comic book concept out of it. Warren just pours ideas onto the page at a rate no other writer can match. He drops them out there into the world where they’re just aching to be explored.

Anything he writes, man. I’m there, sight unseen. His main series right now is Empowered, his “sexy superhero comedy” that manages to have its cake and eat it, too, with regards to commentary on superheroes. He had a killer run on Gen 13, the kind of run that Teen Titans has been begging for lately.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon


6 Writers: Jeff Parker

July 14th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Well, isn’t this perfect timing, what with Jeff Parker’s latest volume of Atlas just being officially announced as cancelled with its fifth issue?

You ever suddenly notice someone’s work? It’s clear that they’ve been working for years, but one day you just wake up, roll out of bed, and go “Oh! That guy!” That was me with Jeff Parker. I’d read a few issues of his Marvel Adventures work and thought they were pretty good. I thought his “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santron” story was pretty clever, the kind of story that quickly becomes a Thing On The Internet. I liked what I read of X-Men: First Class, too.

What really caught my eye, though, was his Agents of Atlas. It was the closest Marvel has come to doing DC-style comics in years. He dusted off an old What If idea and ran with it. Somehow, someway, Agents of Atlas ended up being a pretty good comic that avoided continuity porn and instead told a really solid story with a strong cast of characters.

Your average team book these days, your Avengers, X-Men, JLA, those kind of books, are coasting. They star characters we’ve been reading about for years and we fill in the blanks ourselves. They’re pre-fab comics, with all of the motivations and relationships built in. Have Wolverine talk about how he doesn’t have to follow your rules, bub, and make Spider-Man a whiny little shell of a man and you’re good to go.

Parker, though. He puts in work. If you didn’t believe in Jimmy Woo, smooth secret agent, before Agents of Atlas, you will after. Same for Marvel Boy, Namora, Gorilla Man, and whoever you care to name. A steady stream of banter, particularly out of Gorilla Man, keeps the fights moving along at a quick pace. In the downtime, the team bickers, argues, and reminisces about the old days. They make plans. They explore their world, and in doing so, make you believe in their world.

Team books require a deft touch, but Parker is one of those guys who knocks out team books like it’s nothing. The most important aspect of building a team is building the relationships between the characters. You can have James Bond, Catwoman, and Tarzan on a team together, but that thrill fades when you realize they don’t mesh at all. “Wouldn’t it be neat if…” only goes so far.

Your leader needs to serve a purpose that the other people on the team cannot. Each team member needs a gimmick, but if it’s cheap, it doesn’t work. Each character needs a point, and stereotypes aren’t good enough any more. We’ve read about rebels and sticks in the mud forever. Rebels are boring. Wolverine is boring. Atlas doesn’t have a Wolverine, and it doesn’t need one. Instead, it has a death robot that’s hiding a few secrets. It has a temperamental Atlantean princess. It has a goddess who should probably work on the friendly fire some.

I can think of a fistful of team comics Parker has written that were worth reading. Exiles put a new twist on an old series and made it interesting again. He played around with off-kilter versions of heroes we already know and used the fact that they were different to play around with what we expected to see happen. This was another series that was here and then it wasn’t, but I liked what I read. It was equal parts funny and fun, the sort of comic that fans claim they want and then do not buy because Spider-Man isn’t in it.

Thunderbolts is off to a rip-roaring start, simultaneously subverting our expectations for characters and plots and reconnecting us with old favorites like it was a comic book family reunion. This is just the latest example of Parker pulling strings on a tattered and beat up old idea and finding something new and interesting to do with it.

The new Atlas shuffles the story around some and comes up with a 1950s paranoia-inspired take on the team. It pushes the creepiness of the team, this kind of vague fifth column uneasiness that has been circling in the background, right to the forefront. These are powerful people who do not necessarily have what we would consider our best interests at heart. Jimmy Woo inherited an ancient organization that had been used for crime for quite some time. He wants to do good, but inertia is a tough thing to counter.

I eat this stuff up. It’s always nice to find someone new to follow, and it’s even nicer when they rarely ever let you down. Parker is a guy I watch because his sensibilities and style of writing click so well with what I want out of comic books. He likes making the old new again, and not just by slinging references in your face or bringing it back to 1985. It feels fresh. The latest stab at Atlas is gone, or will be soon, but his next project is Hulk with Gabriel Hardman and Elizabeth Breitweiser. Hopefully this gets him the name recognition that’ll let him write whatever he wants without fear of cancellation. This stutter step stuff is for the birds.

(This is the third writer in a row I’ve written about who is also an artist.)

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon


6 Writers: Naoki Urasawa

July 13th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Naoki Urasawa’s eighth volume of Pluto wraps up the series, maybe not in a neat bow, but very well nonetheless. It pulls on almost every string from earlier in the series, mopping up plot points and character arcs and setting the stage for the final confrontation. By this point in the series, any idea you might have had that robots aren’t as human as you are me has been ground into dust by several scenes of irrational acts and open tears. Volume six ended with a robot and a human embracing each other and bawling their eyes out. Gesicht comes face to face with the bad guy of the series and is ordered to destroy him, but refuses to do so. Epsilon demonstrated an amazing level of compassion for human life.

The one thing that Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka keeps coming back to is emotions, and particularly the effect hatred has on life. Hatred was the only emotion that could awaken an advanced robot, because it is the only emotion powerful enough to upset a balanced person. A man lost his family in a war, and in the depths of his grief, he began to hate the world. He created Pluto, the robot that has destroyed the seven most advanced robots in the world, out of that hatred. Behind all of the doomsday plots lies the hatred of a man who has found himself turned obsolete by the passage of time and an invading country.

Atom was deactivated, or killed, halfway through Pluto. His father, Professor Tenma, reawakens him by introducing the memory chip of Inspector Gesicht. Like the other advanced robot, only a strong emotion could pull Atom from the state of psychological indecision, for lack of a better term, that kept him deactivated. In Gesicht’s final moments, he was consumed with sadness, self-loathing, feelings of betrayal, and yes, maybe even a little hatred. the memory chip did the trick. It woke Atom up by giving him the capacity for complete and total hatred.

What’s crucial here is that Atom was not given hatred. The chip did not say, “Here, hate.” He was given the capacity for hatred. It logically follows that robots did not previously have the capacity for hatred. They can be happy, they can be sad, they can show compassion, and they can cry rivers of tears, but they cannot hate. Why? What is it about hate that makes it so forbidden?

Have you ever actually hated someone? I don’t mean “hate” like most people do, where they hate peas or Joss Whedon or Glenn Beck. That isn’t hate at all. I definitely don’t mean the lazy, impotent, cowardly hatred at the basis of white supremacy, or the hatred by default of most bigotry. I mean the kind of hate that sits in your heart like a little ball of lead. The kind of hate that lets you look at another man dead in his eyes and wish more than anything else that you had the power to make him stop living, stop breathing your air, or just shrivel up and wink out of existence. The sort of hate that makes you take a poke at him just to see what would happen, except you know exactly what’s coming next, you just don’t have enough regard for your fellow man to do the right thing and walk away. Hate is antisocial.

Here is a fact: hate burns. You cannot passively hate. I think a lot of comics people praise to the heavens and claim are nice are, at best, polite. That isn’t hate. That’s disinterest, dislike at most. Hate takes effort. If you hate someone, you’re obsessed with him. You think of him when you’re at work, in the shower, or late at night when the thought of him keeps you awake. Just the very thought of him is offensive and inescapable.

This is unlike most other emotions. If you look at love and grief, both of them have a vital social aspect. Love is when two people find happiness in each other and grief is about the loss of that happiness. There’s a certain amount of interaction required for these emotions to work. You cannot grieve in a vacuum. There has to be something that you’re grieving for. Sadness is maybe a little different, being that you can be sad without help from anyone, but sadness is cold. It’s passive. It doesn’t consume and burn you up the way hate does.

That obsession, that burning, is why hate is so dangerous. It consumes and controls you in a way that other emotions don’t. The other major emotions are a push and pull, a tug of war between you and someone else. Hatred is a one-way street, and as long as that avenue is open, it’s all you get.

After awakening, Atom is quiet at first. He says nothing and does nothing. He just sits and thinks. He’s focused internally. Then, he draws out the plan for an anti-proton bomb, something that could crack the earth and kill all life on it. He escapes soon after, and walks in the rain with wild eyes and a mean demeanor. He eventually eases back and returns to some semblance of his usual self, but several characters express concern about his mental state. His sister Uran, an empath, believes that Atom, and his emotions, may be so strong that he’ll kill Pluto. She specifically mentions his grief and hate.

In the fight with Pluto, he comes very, very close to doing just that. He pulls off Pluto’s arm, rattles off a list of Pluto’s sins, and then screams, “I’ll never forgive you!” He’s pissed, and he has every reason to be. But then, after a break in the action, he finds himself breaking into tears. He remembers Gesicht saying, “Nothing comes of hatred” just before dying. Atom can’t sustain the energy for hatred. It requires too much focus, too much ill will, to keep going for long. It’s unsustainable.

So: balance. A balanced mind cannot be composed of hatred. You’ll burn out quickly, like a candle put up to a blowtorch. Having the capacity for hatred, though, is different. You could look at it like the last step toward being human. It’s getting in touch with and learning to compensate for your lizard brain, that little tickle that says, “I don’t like him either, let’s kill him.” Knowing that it exists, and what it can do, is important, and you can’t control it until you know exactly what it is. Hate is a fog. It obscures the truth and reality.

The big threat of Pluto is described as hate personified. It is a man who was so consumed with hate that it was all he had left. Thus, hate is defeated on several levels. Atom defeats his own hate, coming to terms with his grief. The personification of hate, an example of the world-cracking damage hate can do on two legs, is eliminated. A being that was born out of hate finds some measure of peace. Hate, something that held back progress and represented genuine inhumanity in the pages Pluto, was the villain all along. Atom says as much on the final pages.

That’s Naoki Urasawa. Eight volumes and 1500 pages to hammer one point home until you get it through your thick skull. “Hate kills.” Everything before those pages was to emphasize and re-emphasize his point. The careful web of character relationships, exciting action scenes, and intricately drawn figures were build up for that one scene. It was to make you care, to make you relate.

It works.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon


6 Writers: Stan Sakai

July 12th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo is probably the most consistently good comic currently being published.

If I were on the outside looking in, I wouldn’t expect myself to like Usagi Yojimbo. There’s not a lot of space for casually brutal violence, curse words, and femmes fatale in funny talking animal comics, y’know? But, no– it turns out that this book is right up my alley. Sakai isn’t trying to tell some continuity-tangled epic or reinvent an old genre. He just wants to tell chambara tales, and he created a character and a world that’s flexible enough to support anything he wants to do. I don’t think I’ve ever read a volume of Usagi Yojimbo that I disliked.

The first Sakai book I read, or at least read knowing it was Stan Sakai, was Usagi Yojimbo 8: Shades of Death. I picked it up on a whim maybe six or seven years ago off a vague inkling that I liked when Usagi Yojimbo showed up on the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. It turns out that blind luck got me the volume where the Ninja Turtles guest star for a story arc. The story is the kind that shouldn’t work–full of magic, time travel, and a crossover between two franchises, but it absolutely comes together in the end.

Shades of Death is actually a pretty good cross-section of what Sakai is capable of. Other than the TMNT story, he does a brief story about Usagi as a child, one where Usagi gets trapped in the intrigue of a small village (“Shi”), and a funny short about Usagi and some tokage lizards. There’s a mix of mysticism, samurai action, horror, and just plain old comedy, and none of it seems out of place.

The Ninja Turtles story was good, but “Shi” is fantastic. In it, Usagi randomly wanders into a village after tossing a stick at a crossroads and letting the gods decide his fate (remember Yojimbo?). He ends up in the middle of a magistrate’s plot to steal a bunch of gold from a village. Usagi is forced to defend the village from four assassin’s collectively known as “Death,” or “Shi.”

When the time comes to kill the assassins, Usagi and Sakai do not shy away from the violence. It’s shown without ever dipping into exploitation, but it remains exciting. Usagi dispatches the villains one-by-one, and Sakai’s clean linework and layouts keep the action interesting. After the battle, when confronted with a man from the village who wants to prove his worth, Usagi effectively puts him down with simple words. Sakai draws Usagi with an off-kilter stance and overly-shadowed face, ramping up the menace, and it’s as effective on the page as it is in the story. You get the feeling that Usagi’s blood is still running hot and that bothering him right then would definitely be a mistake.

On the other end of the spectrum, and directly after “Shi,” is “The Lizard’s Tale.” This short story wouldn’t be out of place in a Looney Tunes short or goofy Saturday morning cartoon. Usagi wakes up to find himself surrounded by tokage lizards, who then proceed to imprint upon him and follow him around, defying his best efforts to get rid of them. This is a largely dialogue-less piece, unless you count the sounds of the lizards, but you don’t really need words to make this work. It uses Tom & Jerry storytelling to get the job done.

Sakai’s never had a problem with telling stories in Usagi Yojimbo. There are a couple of bits that he picked up from movies, such as Usagi’s leap out of a window to dodge an arrow or using a still camera for an entire story to great effect, but by and large, Usagi Yojimbo is just made up of solid cartooning. The stories draw their inspiration from a variety of films. The most notable references/homages are from Akira Kurosawa’s chambara pictures, as I can think of a couple of Yojimbo riffs off the top of my head, but Sakai’s done a pretty deft (but goofy) Godzilla strip, too.

Usagi is one of those books I binge on a few times a year. I’ll hit Amazon and pick up several volumes, tear through them in a few short days, and then wait. Usagi Yojimbo is Grab Bag Comics, the sort of series where you know you’ll get something you’ll enjoy, but have no idea which genre you’re going to get it in. Sakai’s interested in telling simple stories, tales you can drop in on whenever you like and get something good. Usagi Yojimbo is dependably good, and I’m having trouble thinking of a series that’s matched its run. That’s something to be respected in the modern comics industry, I think.

Of course, after writing this, I noticed that the volume I spent this entire essay praising is currently out of print. You can find it used for pretty cheap, or you can preorder the new edition for 01/2011. Honestly, though, if you want a taste of Usagi, you should start with last year’s Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai. It’s a short original graphic novel about the time Usagi wandered into a demon-infested forest. It’s maybe a little more serious than the average Usagi tale, but it’s nicely spooky and seeing full-color Sakai is pretty great. After that, jump around in the series. The reading order isn’t essential the way it is in a continuity-focused comic, and Sakai is great at getting you caught up without loading up on infodumps.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon


7 Artists: Doug Mahnke

July 10th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Doug Mahnke does one thing better than everyone else, and that’s draw Wonder Woman.

The biggest reason why he draws the best Wonder Woman is easy: the hair. It’s this very straight, wet, flat look that looks so good it should’ve become part of her official look.

He does another thing better than most people, and that’s depict action.

Violence in comics is weird. When it’s wrong, it’s wrong, and it just looks stupid. This is particularly true of the post-Lee artists, guys who draw in the remnants of one of your typical early Image Comics styles. That sort of overly built, action figure style really doesn’t lend itself to a proper portrayal of violence. It looks like action figures moving across a page while an unseen child goes “Pow! Pow!”

Comics art tends toward clean. Bryan Hitch, Stuart Immonen, John Romita Jr, Dan Jurgens, Mark Bagley, whoever whatever, they tend to draw these really neat scenes, clean lines, so on and so on. The action follows. It’s pretty clean and simple, and when people get bloody, it’s a very reserved kind of bloody. It’s not really that brutal. Mahnke, though. Everything this guy draws looks like it’s had a belt sander taken to it not five seconds before, and when he draws an impact, he draws it like it’s the only thing that matters on the page. You don’t even really need the sound effects at all.

Mahnke’s work isn’t interesting because of any particular attention to detail, I don’t think. It’s interesting because of how he approaches his subject matter. Some artists go for detailed draftsmanship and scale (Bryan Hitch), some for body language and realism (Frank Quitely), and some for photorealism (any artist with Photoshop and a host of garish filters). Mahnke… I think the key to his work is restraint.

He draws his characters very muscular, just on the far side of ripped, but not the usual steroid case you expect to see in comics. They tend toward the slim, but filled out. They’re just big enough to be superhuman, but not so big that they look overdone. It’s clear that they aren’t normal, but they aren’t so abnormal that they look ridiculous. They’re just right in that sweet spot between human and super. They work so well on the page because they’re believable.

But that’s all beside the point. When Mahnke draws people fighting, it looks good. The gritty way his lines end up, the slim but powerful figures (with real weight), and his ability to capture the perfect mid-action panel are just a few reasons why. David Aja does choreography, Jack Kirby did bombast, and Mahnke is good at finding just the right moment to freeze the frame.

It’s all about that right moment in time. Aja captures it fluidly and about as close to “in motion” as you can get on a comics page. Mahnke doesn’t have the same style or approach to comics as Aja does, but I don’t think that his is any less effective. There’s a page from Batman: Under the Hood where Jason Todd is beating the Joker with a crowbar. The final panel on that page, where the crowbar is in direct and intimate contact with the Joker’s face, hurts. It’s that moment after the impact, after the Joker’s head has started to turn, but before Jason’s completed his swing. It’s ugly, and that specific moment might be the ugliest.

You can see it in other books, too. Kyle’s limp form as Manitou Raven stabs him in the chest in JLA: The Obsidian Age. The part in Green Lantern where Carol Ferris has Sinestro’s arm blocked and is working her way around his throat. In Final Crisis, Frankenstein taking the head off a dog while his giant wolf thing chews through Wonder Woman.

Panels are always specific moments in time. That moment has to convey whatever feelings or actions are required to create a fully realized story. Creating the perfect panel is probably pretty tough, considering that you’ve not only got to draw well, but capture a specific moment in a scene.

If you’re too late, there’s no impact, no juice. If you’re too early, it’s all still just potential energy. Getting it right… that’s something to be respected. Some artists manage to miss that killer moment almost every time. Their art is just passable, just short of acceptable, but it gets a book on a shelf so I guess it has some value to someone. With Mahnke, though… I’ve never felt like that. His gunfights (as in Team Zero), his superhero battles (Justice League Elite), his brutal hand-to-hand (Batman), and even this sci-fi magic wishing ring stuff he’s doing over in Green Lantern… all of it looks right. It looks like it hurts.

(And honestly, if Doug Mahnke were the only person allowed to draw Wonder Woman and Lobo, I’d be a very happy camper.)

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon