Monday, October 19, 2015

Original Art Sundays No. 225: Table of Contents Designs

Wow, what a rough couple months! Working two FT jobs and preparing to move!
I have a little time to breathe now. No comic work to speak of to post (about 10 or so pages in the rough stage, too crude for public consumption). I'm working on a large work, ideally to be funded by the Faculty Support Grant at the art college where I continue to teach as an adjunct.
Meanwhile, I've been working on binds- preparing some comic books to be sent out to be turned into hardcover books. The end result can be quite satisfying. I've been designing some Tables of Contents to go along with the books, and I'd like to offer some now.
 Night Force is a book I've been wanting to collect for some time now. Very smart horror title, it had its third incarnation a couple years ago, but the original run by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan will never be eclipsed. Since the logo has that big blocky style, I opted to keep the text centered and use only a small support illustration. There will be a full page B & W illustration facing the title page.
When planning these, it's important to allow for trim. Most comic binds are trimmed by the binder (at the option of the person placing the order, of course!), which means one can lose any text or image that crowds the border. I have a clean printout of this, and I'm reasonably certain I've given it enough air.
The central character, Baron Winters, made a couple small appearances in other titles, but since this book is already 35 issues thick (about 10 over standard), I decided to omit them. Is it cheating to call it an Omnibus then? Perhaps so, but it's my book!

The Roger Rabbit Table of Contents was just fun! Here, the image was more important than the credits, so I opted for simple listing of the titles involved. Again, there were editorial decisions as to what got included. I could have scanned and reprinted the graphic novels Return of Doom and Tummy Trouble at comic book size, along with the handful of Roger Rabbit stories that ran in Disney Adventure Digest, but it seemed counterproductive. I went with what we call a "straight bind" of just the two primary titles. Taking the masthead from the letters pages in the main title, and the dancing image from one of the stories, the layout suggested itself easily.

This is a book I've been working on for years. It won't be a particularly thick book, only about 4 or 5 issues worth of material, but it's a very important book to me. The Scarecrow of 
Romney Marsh has fascinated me ever since I first saw him on Disney's Sunday night show (which aired the same day the Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan!). I stumbled on the Blevins comics in Disney Adventure Digest, took about three years to find them all, and through a friend who attended a con where Blevins was appearing, commissioned a Scarecrow piece, which is used here as the primary illustration.
This will be a gilt-edged book with custom art on the cover. It will be housed in a shadow box, which will also contain a DVD case, which will hold the Disney Scarecrow films, the Hammer film Night Creatures (another take on the character) and a CD of music from the TV episodes. I have this one about 2/3 of the way ready to bind.
My mad plan is to send a bunch of these out in the next couple weeks, so the finished binds arrive at my new place, making one less box to pack. I currently have 12 books I'm almost ready to send out, including Night Force and Roger Rabbit. The ideal is that one replaces a library of difficult to file and manage floppies with a handsome library of bound editions!
Next: sketchbook work or finished pages...

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Original Art Sundays No. 224: Speedy Recovery denouement (and a Neil Gaiman review!)

Once more, here we go! Last time around for this particular Speedy Recovery book!
The Speedy story is done, at least as far as posting it. But there are some tidbits that were included in the first printing of the comic that I wanted to share here.

Here's the original idea for the front  cover, and the usual somewhat self-congratulatory afterword page. I'll let the text speak for itself for better or worse, rather than second guess copy I wrote 25 years ago(!).
I do like the original cover plan, in some ways better than the final. I would have had to redraw the car/plane to match the final version inside the book. But even though this version is more dynamic, it served as the basis for the last story page (see previous blog post).

And here's the back cover- an ad for the Packard Tesseract! I've been fascinated with Packards ever since I saw Harlan Ellison sitting in his on an episode of the old Anti-Gravity Room, a fun SF Channel series that was mostly young geeks sitting and talking comics. Clearly, part of the inspiration for the Packard was the TARDIS. Bear in mind that at this point in time, the Sylvester McCoy series was just ending in the UK and was only being sporadically broadcast on PBS in the states, so it was a much less known commodity then than it is today.
Process: This was printed out on colored paper, with the illustration down directly on the paper with colored pencil and markers.The cheesy frame on the illustration is just Photoshop stock. The Packard Tesseract is a great idea. I love the conceit that you need a mechanic, a quantum physicist and a poet to build one!
And I did get some reviews of the completed book. I got a kind note from Howard Cruse, who had also liked the Tranny Towers mockup I put together for a Xeric Grant (didn't win- much sadness!), and a brief note from Trina Robbins, who didn't much care for it. However, I'm pleased to report that we developed a friendship in later years.
And I got a postcard from Neil Gaiman.
This may have been one of the last such reviews Neil did. His career was entering a MUCH larger phase, and shortly after this, he stopped reviewing everything that was handed to him (perfectly understandable). But I cherish this postcard (with Charles Vess Stardust art, no less!) and the kind words Neil had for my work at the time.
Charles Vess!

In Neil's own hand!
I find Neil's handwriting quite legible, but just in case you can't make it out, here's what it says:
"Hi Diana-
Thanks for "Speedy"- I enjoyed it (especially the pun names- some were worthy of Will Eisner)- my only real problem was that it seemed uncertain what it was- a parody, a pastiche, a retro-story, a superhero thing, or what, and the storytelling seemed to lurch a bit: right now they aren't yet people- you have to believe in them too.
Congrats on the degree! 
Looking forward to the next Speedy Ricuvveri-
Neil Gaiman"
A generous and fair review, I think.
(That's a very old address, by the way. Don't write me; I'm not there.)
A former department chair who became a friend, Tom Haakenson, once said you should never go back. But I don't think that applies here. I do like these characters, I think there fun and exciting, and I need to do more stories featuring them. I just need to take Neil's advice, and make the execution live up to the promise. These are good characters, and they deserve another day on the page.
Next: we'll see.... back to an older story, work on something new... I'm rather enjoying this getting things completely done stuff. I'll see if I can keep that horse galloping!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Original Art Sundays (Tuesday) No. 223: Speedy Recovery, pp. 22 and 23

Well, a tad late, but I've certainly done worse by you guys!
Here we go...
Coming around the plate on the last few pages of Speedy Recovery and His All-Girl Orchestra No. 1.
In the aftermath of the adventure, all that remains is tying up some loose ends, plot-wise, and a bit of fun.
Things that work: the inset panel of the check in panel 2, the group shots in panels 4 and 5.
Things that could work better: the rendering of the check in panel 2 got away from me a bit (too stiff, and the numbers bleed off the check!), the need for just a tad more heavy black in panels 1 - 3. Also, even though it's a VERY busy panel, the last panel on p. 22 could use some more weight.
The panels are all touching on p. 23. This is a visual device that's supposed to slow narrative. It works here, but I've seen it be less effective.
Somehow I got really good at drawing people kneeling in this book!
I love the way the last story page turned out. Again, put the rolling rubber stamp of sheet music to work above the band! I honestly don't recall if I twisted the image on a Xerox or in Photoshop, but I love the effect, if it's not overused.
Granted, there are implausibilities here. How could she pack a trombone without anyone noticing?
Still, all in all, a fun story, I think.
Next week: coda.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Original Art Sundays (Monday) No. 222: Speedy Recovery, pp. 20 and 21

A day late!
Spent a delightful time this weekend at Autoptic, talking to more indy publishers, distributors and creators. Saw many old friends.
The new work schedule is more manageable, but I'm still adapting.
Here are the next two pages of Speedy Recovery.
When we left our erstwhile band, they were escaping the manacles in Toby Continued's dungeon.
The calm after the storm, and a pun to round it out!
What's working here: the open two-panel/ one-panel effect on the bottom of page 20. The silhouette image of Speedy presenting the ruby slippers is one of the key images that drove the creation of this book.
And the Ruby Slippers reappear!
The dark semicircle arc framing the 2 panel spread is a trick I picked up from Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise, though I doubt he's the first to use it.
Rather than hand rendering the brick walls this time, I used adhesive back pattern sheets, sort of a custom Zip A Tone or Chartpak, for those who remember that!
Only a couple spreads left of this issue, then it's on to something new.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Original Art Sundays No, 221: Speedy Recovery, pp. 18 and 19

Well, on schedule for another week! How does she do it?
Seriously, how? I have no idea!
I worked 25 hours overtime again this week,and I go in for another 15 hour shift in just an hour or so. Thank the Deity for archives, eh?
But it's funny. When I'm working too much and teaching, I'm more driven to create than when I'm simply working too much.
Back to our story.
Speedy and the girls in the band are chained to a dungeon wall, singing an off-key note (foreshadowed by showing Mae Aswell singing painfully, back on page 6). This is a desperate attempt to stop Toby Continued from opening the gateway to the sonic dimension and setting himself up as ruler of all.
I was concerned that the implosion of the sonic universe gateway was too quick, too "pat" to read well, but I was reluctant to expand the moment of crisis.
I think, in retrospect, that the cast shadows from Toby's prone figure in the top panel of p. 19 do more harm than good. But I do really like the big block "WHUMP" of him passing out and falling down in the previous panel.
Rendering on the bricks was lighter this time, to concentrate on the characters. It always annoyed me that so little attention was given to getting out of the physical traps after resolution of some mad doomsday plan. Devoting a page to getting unchained from the wall just seemed practical. And the "guitarist" reference brings the band skills back into the story.
Could I have pushed the background further on p. 18? Possibly, but I wanted the little "pop" of the gateway closing to be a key moment.
I loved Helena Handbasket's pose at the bottom of p.19.
All for this week, folks. If I keep posting two pages a week, we have 3 or 4 more weeks of Speedy!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Original Art Sundays No. 220: Speedy Recovery, pp. 16 and 17

Back on schedule and posting two pages for one week, as a way of thanking readers for tolerating my erratic postings.
When we left, our villain had just laid out and begun the final steps of his mad plot.Speedy and the girls are chained to a dungeon wall, forced to listen as Toby Continued rips open the sonic dimension.
No read on...
Some things that I like here: the overlapping and larger notes, implying escalating volume. The strangely shaped notes on page 17. Speedy's "sour note" is fun!
Also, the lines "Sing along", "But we're dying!" and "you need the practice" are classic deadpan.
Speedy's shirt collar just barely creeping over the panel border at the bottom of page 17 is a fun touch.
The art works well here from a narrative standpoint, though I think Speedy's hands got a bit too big in the last panel.
Drawing sound is an interesting challenge. Devices like musical notes and symbols are fairly common, and I like playing with them. One of the most interesting approaches was used by Bernie Wrightson in his Marvel adaptation of the King Kull story "The Skull of Silence". Wrightson's original intent was to bleed out the color panel by panel as silence took over, but Marvel's colorists and printers blew it. Still, an intriguing idea.
Next: more Speedy!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Original Art Sundays (Thursday) Nos. 218-219: Speedy Recovery, pp. 14 - 15

Before I teach my Comic Book Writing class tonight, I wanted to update the blog. I've had some decent scanning time, at last!
Here are the next two pages of Speedy Recovery and His All-Girl Orchestra.

This page is the text dump. The back story is explained, and the villain's master plan is revealed.
When doing this kind of page, it's important to keep it visually interesting. The top tier deals with the reality of the situation. The second and third tiers are visualizations of the plan, images that support the text. They're also the character's imagination, so quotation marks are used rather than word balloons, though it's still just Toby talking.
The page has curved panel borders, formed by rolling notes. That rolling rubber stamp was just what I needed to make this story what I wanted!
Sidebar: rubber stamps are cool. In the mid-70s, experimental filmmaker Ken Brown did a short done entirely with rubber stamps, called STAMPEDE. I searched for it online, but came a cropper. Brown is still very active, and occasionally there's a retrospective of his film work.
Ahem. Back to the issue at hand.
Info dump is tricky. How much is too much? In general, it's a good idea to treat text blocks like word balloons. Old school comic writing held that no word balloon should exceed a word count of 30. Let's look at that:
Toby, panel 1: 25 words
Toby (offscreen), panel 2: two balloons, 27 words and 18 words.
Teir 2, sonic explosion text: two captions, 62 words and 18 words.
Bottom tier, ruler of the world fantasy: two captions, 21 words and 13 words.
Clearly , the most problematic is the first caption on the center tier. In retrospect, it would have been better to break that up in thirds. The places for the text breaks are obvious- the ends of each sentence- but that poses some layout challenges if the image is still to read uninterrupted.
On to the next page.
 This page requires almost no text. It's just Toby Continued putting the last steps of his mad plan into action. Visually, I wanted the POV of his hands hitting the keyboards followed by a reverse shot of him in action. The intent of the "eye ellipses" was to show the dimensional portal mentioned on the previous page starting to open. I'm not sure how well it works visually. If the notes emanating from it increased in size as they did so, it might have been more visually clear.
The music in Toby's body was fun to do. I took some of my favorite sheet music, twisted it around on a Xerox, scanned and reversed it, then used a light table to find shapes that matched the form needed. Then it was on to the light table with the x-acto knife, followed by some glue stick work! By finding pieces that echoed the form, I added to the dimensionality of that form.
Was there a faster way to do it? Maybe. But as with the rocks, I wanted to do as much hand work as possible. As Charles Schulz said when asked why he didn't use assistants on Peanuts, I don't want to give up that much fun!
Next: more Speedy, as events build to a crisis.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Original Art Sundays (Friday) Nos. 216 - 217: Speedy Recovery, Centerfold

A pattern emerges.
I post some art, then I work too much. I have almost 40 hours of OVERTIME on the current check! Finally I can't stand putting it off any more, and I post again.
My schedule at work may become more uniform and manageable soon. Until then, we do our best by it.
Here are two more pages of Speedy Recovery. This is the center spread. Rather than continuing to wait until I can do scans on the BIG scanner, I opted for scanning on the dinky desktop one at home. I'll replace the scan with a better one ASAP. I have the corrected scan now, posted below.

Until then, here we go.

And the villain stands revealed!
This spread was great fun to create. The first panel is just a square of black construction paper! I went back to the old saw about the eyes being the most expressive part of the face for the rest of the top tier.
Drawing the half-music man, Toby Continued (!) was a treat. Simple design- leotard, angular face inspired partially by Bill Everett's classic version of Sub-Mariner, then fill the left side (reader's right when the character is facing the reader) with black. I found a rubber stamp of musical notes on a roller and used it to fill in the sound half.
I rendered each of the stones by hand. I considered using a texture fill in Photoshop, or some custom printed Zipatone, but for this page, I wanted that hand rendered look. I started texturing them (see the stones by Speedy's chest?), but decided against it- too distracting and too time-consuming for the results.
I had a two-page backstory of Toby and Speedy meeting in music college. It was the Doctor Doom origin, only in music school. I liked it, but Peter Gross talked me into leaving it out. He contended that multiple flashbacks in the same story confused the reader. I don't think that's always true, but in this case, I think he was right.
Next: the plot thickens.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Original Art Sundays (Friday) Nos. 212 - 215: Speedy Recovery, pp. 8 - 11

Finally back! Working so much. New story on the board, a very ambitious 2 or 3 page thing, but I want to finish posting this one first.
When we left our stalwart group, they were planning to go to Runnovia for a gig, playing big band music for royalty.
Read on...

Notes on these pages:
I love the name Runnovia. It's so Rocky and Bullwinkle!
Page 8 (the airport scene) REALLY would have benefitted from more background in the first two panels. I was going for a remote airfield feel, but there's just too much left out for it to fully read. I do like the flying Packard. It was inspired by Harlan Ellison talking about his Packard on the old Anti-Gravity Room series and by the flying sedan Will Eisner used in a couple very early Spirit stories.
Page 9 (the grand ballroom scene) resolves much better. I had real fun inking those arched cathedral ceilings! I don't know enough about architecture to get every detail, so this is pure swipe file stuff.
Page 10 (the lead-in to the next big moment) also resolves nicely, I think. Speedy's kneeling and the reflections in the floor tiles in Panel One are nice touches. I love Speedy's little "not now" out of the corner of his mouth in Panel Two!
I'm not completely happy with the way the vibrations on the valet are rendered, but I wanted it to be less obvious than simply drawing in a ghost image and speed lines between the two of him. After all, if it were blatantly obvious, Speedy would have seen it right away!

Page 11, the cube dropping over the band, is exactly what I wanted it to be. I particularly like Sandy Beaches, the drummer, passed out over her kit. I like rendering transparencies. We learned in commercial art school that those streaky lines indicating glass or plastic just aren't right, but darn if they don't look right in something like this!
I'm stopping there because the next pages start off with a two-age spread, and rather than cobble it together from multiple scans, I want to wait until I can get to the MCAD large format scanner and get a clean scan of the whole thing. I have a mountain of scans I need to take care of, and will make time for it Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, I think. 
For this section of the book, I had a great confidence in the work, and a conviction that I really controlled my storytelling. That held for most of the rest of the book (posted soon), and was very satisfying. I look back at this whenever I lose confidence in craft. While there are always things that can be improved, looking at your strengths can help you through rough patches, even if they come from 16 years ago!
Next: more Speedy Recovery.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Original Art Sundays (Wednesday) Nos. 210- 211: Speedy Recovery, pp. 6 - 7

Back in the saddle again!
Here are the next two pages of the "Speedy" Recovery and his All-Girl Orchestra story.

The circular layout to introduce a large cast of characters is a very old device. I don't remember where I first saw it, but I remember being impressed with it in Bizarre Sex #9, the first Omaha the Cat Dancer story.
This also sets up the puns that wreak havoc throughout this story (and any following Speedy stories, of which there are none so far).
The backgrounds vary widely here, but they are still much more sparse than they really should be.
Setting up the girls as musicians with other jobs echoes Doc Savage's Fabulous Five, each of whom has a career as a leader in their field, but drops everything to join Doc on his missions.
So it is with Speedy and his band.
Some rather obvious (to me, at least) plot setups here- Mae Aswell's inability to carry a tune in a bucket, as we used to say, will figure prominently later.
Also, the nation of Runnovia, whose name is inspired by my fondness for the writing in the classic Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons, plays a big part in this adventure, beyond the quest for the ruby slippers.
In general, I love using curved lines and wave forms as design elements, something I got away from a bit in some of my later work. But hey, it's always there, and I can always go back to it.
Next: more Speedy, as the adventure picks up speed (so to speak)!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Original Art Sundays No. 206 - 209: Speedy Recovery, pp. 2 - 5

Offering a few pages today to catch up with myself. I'm still in a bit of a holding pattern on new work, but will stop indulging my imagination and whimsies and get new work done soon.

A decent chunk of story this time, largely because I didn't want to break up the prelude, also to catch up with my self-imposed schedule a bit.

Some thoughts on these.
Aside from the sloppy rendering of the bus in panel 4 and the slightly too sparse background on the MGM panel, the only real issue with this page is that the banner announcing the time and place is too small. The Scarecrow image on the wall is based on a sketchbook image of that character that I posted a while ago.
The next page is largely based on shot photos from the 1939 movie. Structurally, the biggest issue here is that the mapping of heavy blacks in the last panel, where Judy's handing Susan the ruby slippers, doesn't read properly at first glance. It needs to be clearer in isolating background and figure.
The following page is fairly successful, including a subtle bit of foreshadowing in panel 2. The date ellipse is, again, too small. Also, sparse backgrounds in the first and third images of the central banner panel. But I rather like the scolding heads in the last panel. For the life of me, I can't recall what specifically inspired that image.
The final page of this batch works fairly well. The use of the Scarecrow art from page one to reinforce that it's the same house is a nice touch, I think. The second panel echoing the cover shown on page one helps anchor the story. This page is also the first time in the story proper that we see our central character other than in silhouette. Originally, the last panel of this page was intended as the splash page for this book.
The big problem on this page is that I neglected to leave space for the title and credits- something I tend to forget when putting my own books together!
This book touches on a number of themes that are important to me: Oz, country life, trust issues, reluctance to accept your place in life, and music. Always music.
Next week: more Speedy. I had just intended this as a placeholder while I geared up for new work, but it's better than I recall it being, and I'm enjoying it greatly!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Original Art Sundays (Tuesday) No. 205: Speedy Recovery, page 1

Almost over illnesses, not working either job today. So an opportunity to post after some serious neglect!
Here's the first story page of the Speedy Recovery narrative.
More of a teaser page, a bit more of a descriptor than the cover, this is modeled after the old Life magazines, of course. I had been watching Fantasia and was taken with the image of Stokowski conducting in silhouette, added a couple simple design elements (while strangely neglecting a date or price on the magazine cover), and there we are.
No Photoshop in putting the original books together. I Xeroxed the pages down from 11 x 17" to 8 1/2 x 11", trimmed a bit, set them up on old-school flats, doing the pagination via a mock-up, and ran Xeroxes of the flats. I then took them to Kinko's where I had the covers printed and the run stapled and trimmed. MCAD did no have a service bureau then!
Next: well, the next page, of course!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Original Art Sundays, no. 204: Speedy Recovery, cover

Back in the saddle again, after a month of other posts!
I'm dipping into the vault again, while I finalize a Surrealist Cowgirls mini-project.
This was my second published comic, done as my senior project for completion of my BFA in comic book illustration from MCAD.
The concept is simple: a man ends up on a series of mystery-adventures, when all he really wants to do is conduct his all-girl big band.  A bit of an unintentional riff on The Trouble With Girls, an adventure/comedy book about a reluctant spy type. I'd read that book years before and forgot about it until I found my copy in my collection, after I completed this, and realized the parallel.
Here's the cover for Speedy Ricuverri and His All-Girl Orchestra no. 1:

The fine print: this was done in pastel over ink, on colored paper. Note the paper texture showing through the title banner ("in this issue..."). Letting the local color of the paper serve as part of the background is a nice touch, reminiscent of Coles Phillips fadeaways, though not used as elegantly here as Phillips managed to do. I popped in a couple nice Deco elements to reinforce the Big Band era feel. I do love the design of the title, but the "R" could be a bit more distinct.
I should have named the book "Speedy Recovery", since nobody knew that was how Ricuverri was pronounced until they read the book! Not much point in having an unexplained pun on the front cover.
Lots of inspirations for this book, but I'll talk more about those in coming weeks. For this piece, I used the aforementioned Deco elements and a layout from a Cab Calloway VHS tape. The look of Speedy, our principal character, is part Superman, part Clark Gable, and a touch of Rocky from the first movie.
I'll be posting some more pages of this in big chunks as the weeks go on- I'm not interested in spending half a year posting it, but I would like to get the whole book posted.
Next: either more Speedy or that pesky little Cowgirls thing that drags out so....

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Best Comics of 2014, No. 1 (tie) Rasputin and Second Avenue Caper

Finally finishing this up! Hope you find it worth the wait.
I couldn't decide between these two books, so I'm naming them both No. 1. And I could not imagine more different books.
Rapsutin, published by IDW, is a supernatural take on the near-mythic historical figure. Alex Grecian's writing is tense, empathetic and witty. Riffing on Rasputin's supposed supernatural abilities, the series begins with the character's execution, then flashes back to his childhood.
Example of Rissomo's work
from Rasputin #2
IDW's non-licensed titles tend to have a bit of a "house style" to their art, especially in the horror line, and this is ostensibly a horror book, at least in part. While Riley Rissomo's line work has the same sketchy energy as Damien Worm's work on The October Faction, for example, the art in Rasputin has a greater variety to its page layouts, and Ivan Plasencia's coloring has a much greater variety than the constant somber Earth tones of the former book. I get it, you guys like Ben Templesmith's work.  Gritty monochrome. I like that, but as Rapsutin clearly demonstrates, there are other approaches already!
There are many subtleties to the art in Rasputin, ranging from its clever use of anatomical illustration as a plot device to the use of white and pastel colored panel borders.
In terms of the writing, it speaks well for the book that it begins with the character's denouement (read: death by multiple assassinations), and yet pulls the reader in deeper with each issue. This despite the foregone conclusion!
The second Best of 2014 works on a  different kind of magic. Joyce Brabner's Second Avenue Caper, her first long-form solo work since the amazing Flashpoint: the La Prenca Bombing (1989), reiterates the quality of her work as a solo writer. Her work is often eclipsed in the public mind by that of her late husband, Harvey Pekar. Between savoring Flashpoint and her work in Real War Stories, I've always thought that her solo writing was unjustly neglected.
Now Second Avenue Caper is out, so to speak, and the reading public is finally giving her work its due. If I had to categorize this, I'd put it in the burgeoning category of Graphic Memoir. By melding some of her late husband Harvey Pekar's personal anecdotal style (wow, that's an awkward phrase!) with her incisive political writing, Brabner has created a riveting document of the unlikely camaraderie forged in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. What begins as two old friends sharing a cup of coffee becomes a whirlwind of guerrilla healthcare, gangsters, and international drug smuggling, all in the name of attempting to survive an undefined and ill-treated disease. The story is reminiscent of Dallas Buyer's Club, but without the cynicism that I felt dominated that film.
Zingarelli and Brabner use the silent pause to great effect!
Mark Zingarelli's art again brings American Splendor to mind, due to his connection to that project. He faces the challenge of a dialogue-heavy narrative very smoothly, using the standard devices of changing angle and distance cleanly, and controlling pacing through the use of silent panels.
As is the case in the best nonfiction narratives, the whole is larger than the sum of its parts and readers are left with the sense of surviving the harrowing early days of the AIDS epidermic alongside Joyce and her compatriots. As a caregiver working with People With AIDS, this work resonates with me. My co-workers have told me many horror stories of these early days, so Second Avenue Caper rings true.
That about does it for 2014. I'll be back to posting art this weekend!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Best Comics of 2104, No. 2: Wonder Woman: the Complete Newspaper Strip 1944 -1945

With two Wonder Woman titles on this list, my reverence for the character is quite clear. I was delighted when IDW announced this volume late last year, and it lived up to my expectations!

This collects the COMPLETE run of the strip. Bruce Canwell of the Library of American Comics informs me that there were no Sundays for this run, so this is it!
Marston's writing has many of the same elements of his comic book work- highly imaginative stories, lots of action, and implied larger themes. He even brings some of the bondage scenes that many have searched out in his work into play, no mean feat for a syndicated comic strip. While some may think standards were more relaxed in this (barely) pre-Code era, I would like to point out that readership of the funnies was huge in the 1940s and didn't carry the stigma it did in later decades. Therefore, strips had more of an adult readership. Also, attempts to censor comics have been around as long as there have been comics, so to use the Code as a barometer doesn't really cut it.
I'd also like to echo Trina Robbins' point about this whole bondage thing. Many comics of that era showed women being forced into submission, but Wonder Woman was the only one that consistently showed a woman breaking free under her own power!
We're also treated to the usual supporting cast. Steve Trevor is on board, as is the Cheetah (possibly my favorite WW villain from the Golden Age), Queen Hippolyta and the Amazons of Paradise Island, and Etta Candy and the Holliday Girls!
the "thick line elephant" in the strip
Harry G. Peter's art doesn't have as much room to stretch in the strip format as it does in the books, he does a more than serviceable job here. Bear in mind that in the 1940s, strips were printed much larger, so the art did have some room to breathe! Peter's line vary from the mostly thin and more regular lines seen in the above strips to some wildly chunky brush strokes as the strip evolved. The elephants in the final strips are key examples of this.
Some readers have complained about the price tag, basically $50, relative to the content, 175 pages. While this is a bit leaner than some of the other volumes in the Library of American Comics series, I have no serious issues with having the whole run in one durable, handsome volume (with a bookmark ribbon, no less!). IDW has been taking some real chances on this series. I haven't seen sales figures overall, but this volume is ranked 108,000 +- on Amazon's charts, compared to the Batman Silver Age Dailies (mid- 75,000 range) and the Russ Manning Tarzan dailies (same range). So it appears the series overall is doing well enough, and while lagging a tad in sales, the Wonder Woman volume is holding its own.
Let's hope so. IDW has been doing some remarkable work in this series, and I for one would love to see more!
Promo from the syndicate
Next: Best Comics of 2014, No. 1.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Best Comics of 2014, No. 3: Outcast

Next entry in the series, an unexpected book that's met with deserved success.
page from issue 1, courtesy of
Entertainment Weekly
I came to Kirkman's Walking Dead through the TV series (which I came to a couple years in when I saw one of the episodes broadcast in B & W and found it quite compelling- wish they did more of those!). I enjoy Kirkman's work on both versions of that story a great deal, even though, as previously noted, I'm not big on zombies. I also enjoyed his work on Invincible, but I didn't keep up with it.
Outcast is a bit different, but with a similar tone to Walking Dead. Perhaps that's to be expected. After all, the same creator is likely to give different works a similar voice. But even with the tension comparable to that of  Walking Dead, this book takes on a markedly different tone. It's a much more personal and quiet form of horror. While post-apocalyptic zombies demand group responses for survival, exorcism and demonic posession are much more personal, almost intimate in an odd way.
The story of Kyle Barnes, a survivor of sorts of demonic  possession, Outcast has a smaller, more intimate ensemble than the rambling Walking Dead narratives or the burgeoning high school cast of Invincible. Kyle's blessing/curse is his innate ability to detect and/or cast out demons- fortunate, since possessions seem to run in his family and town.
Springer cover for contrast
Barnes endures torment after torment. He survives his mother's abuse of him in his youth, which ties into the posession. He takes the hit (so to speak) for his wife beating their child, which makes him more of an outcast in his small town. He allies himself with a man of the cloth, Reverend Anderson (whose denomination isn't clear), who is also a posession survivor.
It's a somber book at times, with a much slower pacing than Kirkman's other efforts. The art works seamlessly with the script to complement the mood. Colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser uses tightly controlled and subdued palettes, which blend seamlessly with artist Paul Azaceta's thick lines and just sparse enough backgrounds. While it's not a perfect parallel, Azaceta's work here reminds me of Frank Springer's work on the original DC series Secret Six from the late 1960s.
The first TPB is out. While I've been picking up the floppies, I'll probably check out the TBP from the Library, just to see how the pacing works in a collected volume.
Much has been written on the Interwebs about trademark issues, the "scandal" of Outcast being optioned for a series after only one issue, and other matters of comics/media politics. To these histrionics, I say, "pfaugh." While I like a good media blitz as much as the next gal, I have little use for it in evaluating a comic on its own merits.
And seen on its own merits, Outcast is a more, dare I say it, thoughtful horror book than many of those around. While Kyle's ongoing torment does get a tad tedious at times, the book is well paced enough to remedy that particular problem.
And unlike Walking Dead, Outcast is intended as a finite series, which gives us the greatest rarity in horror comics: hope.

Next: Best of 2014, No. 2: a neglected bit of comic strip history!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Best Comics of 2014, No. 4: Tooth & Claw

Grinding away at these, despite continuing to work 45-50 hour weeks while I do class prep. I love doing these pieces, but finding the time remains a challenge.
Today's entry is another fine work by Kurt Busiek, whose Astro City made the list previously. I also loved Arrowsmith, and would be tickled to see its return. At any point! Print it, I'll buy it!
Plot development woven with
magic action!
Tooth & Claw has been described by others as "Game of Thrones with animals". While that's a bit on the nose, Busiek does use the animal mythos to tell his tale. It's a world of magic, run by sentient and slightly anthropomorphized critters. The species tend to go with their character types. As a lover of bison, I was a bit saddened to see them portrayed as aggressive and warmongering, basically dumb working class stiffs.
An early Issue 1 page, using art and
design elements to advance story
and build character.
That aside, there are several traditions that come into play here. It relates peripherally to the Omaha the Cat Dancer school of funny animal comics, in which the characters are more human than animal and species is used a shorthand for character type, as noted above. Other significant offerings in this area include Bryan Talbot's Grandville series and the Blacksad series, both of which had new books out in 2014 as well. There's also the mythology of humanity being succeeded by sentient animals- not much of a spoiler, really. As soon as the Colloquy started talking about the mythical Great Champion, it was pretty obvious it would prove to be a human, despite the red herring at the end of Issue 1. But that was a great red herring! A fox astride a saddled cricket- brilliant!
Ahem. Past precedents for sentient animals surviving humanity's demise include Clifford Simak's CITY and the classic MGM Christmas cartoons Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Men, the latter being the last MGM cartoon in CinemaScope. So it's not really a new concept, but the execution is fresh and uniformly professional. If it loads properly, here's the first of the two.

I've not seen Ben Dewey's art prior to this book, and the art integrates so cleanly with the text that I can't imagine a better fit. His work has verve and just the right amount of detail, plus plenty of the ornate flourishes that fantasy fans crave.
The revised cover for issue 1
The first Tooth & Claw trademark.
Butt floss riding up the tail? Really?

It needs to be noted that an unintentional trademark infringement required a title change to The Autumn Lands: Tooth & Claw. Two things come to mind.
1. Does this mean my copy of the first printing bearing the original title will be (gasp!) collectible? Oh, big whoop. Actually, I rather hope not. I've beat my copy up so much by repeated readings that it's worthless to anyone but me now.
2. Given the nature of the original work bearing said trademark, Busiek & co. are better off not having any association with it. I've included a cover of the earlier work bearing the title to prove my point.
All that said, Tooth & Claw remains a compelling story. Like the best of Busiek's work, it's rousing adventure coupled with smart, sensitive characterization and a storyline that, though walking a well-trod path, remains innovative and engaging, well worth the reader's effort.

Next: Best of 2014, No. 3, one that was left out.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Best Comics of 2014, No. 5: The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage

When they first appeared, most of the books in the Valiant line left me cold. I did eventually come to love Archer & Armstrong, especially the Barry Smith issues, but their revisionist version of Magnus, Robot Fighter did nothing for me, and I saw the new characters as spinoffs of that, so I mostly didn't bother.
Well, looks like I might have been missing out.
The latest Valiant revival includes a magic-based title, The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage. Now, while I don't go nuts for EVERY comic about magic, there are some I cherish, like the Smoke and Mirrors miniseries of a couple years ago, good Doctor Strange stories, and the magical aspects of Gaiman's comic book work, especially the first Books of Magic mini-series. Looks like I should add Doctor Mirage to that list.
de la Torre's art from Issue 2.
The Mignola influence is clear.
By writer Jen van Meter (how is it that this book is neglected in a year when comics are taken to task for a lack of female creators?) and artist Roberto de la Torre, who also did some nice work on The Hand storyline in Daredevil a few years ago, The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage tells of widow Shan's attempts to reunite with her deceased husband, the only spirit she cannot access. 
The five-issue mini-series, now complete (and presumably awaiting collection) is mature in every sense of the word. While it does contain a smattering of grisly content, its maturity derives more from the subtlety of its storytelling and characterization. Odd to say about a book about ghosts and Nazi wizards, but The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage is quite introspective and tender, but not lacking in action and energy.
In a Comics Alliance interview, van Meter says, "From a character perspective, one of the imaginative challenges becomes, “Who is this person that keeps walking into the worst day of somebody else’s life’ over and over and over again?” As I was trying to develop the personality of the character, I was thinking a lot about other people I know who handle things like that, like ER Doctors. I know a couple people in medicine who deal with fairly traumatic sides of what they do and I’ve know some cops in my life. I was trying to kind of think about what their resilience is, what are the personality quirks that go with being able to keep that job and stay healthy. Where are the cracks for people that are having a hard time with that role? The maturity to it for me is trying to bring a thoughtful perspective to what it would be like to really be this person and not have it all be just battling monsters."
The coloring by David Baron is subdued and spot on, enhancing the story's flow elegantly.
Elegant may be the best word to describe this book, despite de la Torre's art having nuances of raw, unbridled Mignola in spots.
The best way to describe The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage is that it's a smart, magical superhero Gothic romance. Not a bad way to spend five issues! 
No word on following appearances of the character. But as always, we live in hope.
Next: Best Comics of 2014, No. 4, which bites and snarls. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Best Comics of 2014, No. 6 : Serenity: Leaves on the Wind

Running behind my self-imposed schedule, as I'm prone to do, but we persevere!
Today's entry is a reprint of my review from Goodreads, with a couple points expanded and some cool images thrown in.
Cover art for issue 1, without copy
When I see a Star Trek film, even the embarrassing ones,I feel like I'm revisiting old friends (hey, your friends can embarrass you and still be your friends). Yeah, I know it's fiction, but there's a level of familiarity and comfort that welcomes me into the story.
Multiply that by 10 for this book.
If anything, Serenity: Leaves on the Wind is more meaningful in that respect. We get to catch up with the lives of characters we've grown to appreciate and care for, characters we've not seen for a while, in a well-written story that's completely consistent with both on screen and in print predecessors. Kudos to Zack Whedon for carrying on Joss's story!
The art is tight yet fluid, and integrates well with the text.
The story actually began in Dark Horse's 2012 Free Comic Book Day flipbook. The Serenity side was titled "It's Never Easy" and featured a prequel to the events in Leaves on the Wind, including showing Zoe's pregnancy. The prequel art, by the very talented Fabio Moon, is consistent with Georges Jeanty's work on the miniseries proper, though I find Moon's work a bit more quiety aggressive (if that makes sense). I've included representative pages of both in this article. You be the judge!
Moon's art on the FCBD issue

However, from the standpoint of comic binding, this series is somewhat frustrating. Some of Dark Horse's best stories in the Firefly/Serenity arena are only available in small hardcovers. This means they can't be rebound without gutting the book.
But that's a minor concern for most folks. Serenity: Leaves on the Wind is a remarkable achievement. It's touching and tender, action driven and philosophical. It's consistent with its source material while being fresh and new.
My one regret is that Inara is not in this story. We learned during the reunion special that, as many of us suspected, Inara has a fatal disease. In pre-press for this series, Whedon said that was a story that would be told another time. I hope so, as I'd like to see more, but only under the right conditions.
After completing this miniseries, I'm torn on hoping for more. I'd rather see measured doses of quality stories than a glut of mediocrity. As long as they're of this quality, I'll take as many as I can get, but the quality has to come first. If that means we have to wait a while, so be it. I waited months between the final two issues of Watchmen. I can wait for this if I have to, despite my eagerness to learn Inara's fate.
Continuity page from issue 2, spotlighting
Jayne's character
Variant cover for issue 1
Note on reading and process: I read this as floppies, not as a trade. While it may pose frustrations for some, I recommend this approach for Firefly/Serenity material. It feels more like watching new episodes, and having to wait to find out what happens is exciting!
It's worth noting that a hardcover was released in November 2014, for those of you who prefer to read it all in one fell swoop!
Next: Best of 2014, No. 5, as the Doctor is in... sort of...