Wednesday, April 30, 2008

This Week's Surprises

I'm usually pretty up-to-speed with what comics are coming out when, but I really enjoy getting surprised form time to time when things show up sooner than I anticipated or I "discover" something as it comes out that was completely flying below my radar.

Yesterday, I received my comp copies of Kirby Five-Oh! in the mail (a day earlier than it went on sale) and it is abso-frickin-lutely gorgeous! If you have ANY interest in Jack Kirby, I highly recommend you pick this up. It will look great next to your copy of Kirby: King of Comics. I can't wait to see the hardcover version!

The other surprise was in the comic shop today as I was browsing the new releases. It's a web comic that totally flew beneath my radar and, regardless of how good or bad it actually is, I couldn't pass up on the title or the price. Ninety-nine cent comics aren't exactly common, but it's a great (I think) gimmick to get people to try a new title. The other thing this book had going for it was the incredibly catchy title: I Was Kidnapped by Lesbian Pirates from Outer Space! How could you not want to pick that up off the shelf?!?

Evidently if you want to go the cheap route on the latter of those books (or just sample it before buying), IWKBLPFOS is available for free via Drunk Duck.

Jonny Crossbones

Maybe it's just me, but has anyone else noticed a seeming resurgence in ligne clair comics? You know, the stuff where people immediately start making comparisons to Tintin? Here's a quick description, courtesy of Wikipedia...
Ligne claire (French for "clear line") is a style of drawing pioneered by Hergé, the Belgian creator of The Adventures of Tintin. It is a style of drawing which uses clear strong lines which have the same thickness and importance, rather than being used to emphasize certain objects or be used for shading (for this reason it is sometimes also called the democracy of lines). Additionally, the style often features strong colours and a combination of cartoonish characters against a realistic background. The use of shadows is sparse and all elements of a panel are delineated with clear black lines. The name was coined by Joost Swarte in 1977.

Well, I stumbled on Les McClaine's Jonny Crossbones last night. It's the story of Jonny Crossbones (a young man who inexplicably looks like he's wearing a skeleton Halloween costume, which is seemingly wholly unnoticed by all the other characters) and Gretchen Fiveash (the niece of a wealthy archaeologist and researcher) who find themselves pulled in to an adventure, as two unethical professors from the local university have begun stealing antique pistols that once belonged to the pirate Captain Bill Strangler in the hopes of finding his lost treasure.

The story thus far is indeed reminiscent of Tintin, both in the artistic style McClaine uses as well as the overall themes and structure of the strip. Two things stand out as markedly different, though. First and (and for our purposes here) most superficial is that McClaine is using the web as his delivery system instead of dead trees. Second is that the character design of Jonny is unique in his world. All of the rest of the characters would be equally at home in a story about Tintin or Tozo or Julius Chancer (Rainbow Orchid). But Jonny stands out almost as a silhouette. I think it works decidedly in McClaine's favor, as the reader can more easily see themselves in the protagonist. While the character does stand out, his visual resemblance to a skeleton identifies him as the true everyman -- he's been stripped of everything that marks him as a unique individual to what we all have in common. (Curiously, stripping all of his unique features in a world where those features are not normally stripped away makes him just as unique as everyone else!)

The opening (and current) storyline is called "Dead Man at Devil's Cove" and has been running since late 2004. It serves as an introduction to all the characters and does an excellent job of presenting them and their relationships. The plot moves along briskly, but it doesn't seem overly rushed, showcasing McClaine's good sense of pacing. So while the comparisons to Hergé will largely be more geared towards the ligne clair, they will also be apt with regards to the overall approach. Fortunately, though, McClaine's is a different enough type of story that it doesn't feel like he's trampling on Hergé's grave or trying to ride on his coattails. He took notes from the man, but isn't copying from him.

My understanding is that the first two chapters have been printed in pamphlet form, but I can find no real evidence of this. I can only find one oblique reference McClaine makes to the first chapter being printed, and one database that suggests the books' publication -- although no one seems to have any actual concrete information about them.

With that said, you're probably best off reading what's been posted online. Due to his apartment building flooding and the subsequent green-lighting of his and Javier Grillo-Marxuach's The Middleman as a TV series for ABC, he hasn't made any story updates since late 2007. That should give you guys plenty of time to catch up on the latest adventures of Jonny Crossbones...

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Pirate Tales

Richard Becker was an art student in the mid-1970s and became a painter after being influenced by the likes of Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth. Beginning in the late 1980s, he gravitated towards the theme of pirates and he's become one of the most prolific artists to work on the subject. In 1992, he started his own publishing company, Black Swan Press, and produced eight issues of Bloodthirsty Pirate Tales. Unlike many pirate-themed comics, Becker's were primarily accounts of real pirates with special features on weapons, ships, etc. of the time. In 2002, he revived the idea for two issues of Pirate Tales.

Both issues have the same basic structure. They open with a lengthy story; have a few shorter, illustrated, informational pieces; there's another, shorter comic story; they have a text piece discussing piratical pulp novels; and the books close out with a few pin-up pages. Most of the material is written and drawn by Becker, but some of the pieces are by the likes of Dick Swan, Spain Rodriguez, and Dave Matsuoka.

Becker's background in painting is evident throughout the books. Although printed in black and white, his painted pieces are attractive and have pretty solid layouts. Although he does have a distinctly different style than Pyle or Wyeth, their influence is evident.

Becker's pen and ink pieces -- the longer, introductory stories -- don't fare quite as well. His individual panel layouts work fairly well, but his page layouts hamper some of the panel-to-panel readability. It's sometimes difficult to follow how the text on the page is supposed to be read due to occasionally unusual panel distinctions and poor balloon or caption placements. Further, the illustrations themselves -- while executed well in and of themselves -- are a bit overly fussy for reproduction as a comic book. I suspect many of the fine lines would get lost were the issue shrunk to a "normal" comic size instead of the larger magazine size it is.

I think, though, that the biggest weakness in these books is that Becker could use a stronger editor. There wasn't anything obviously bad with his writing, but there were a few instances where there were noticeable (to me) changes in the style of dialogue, so characters didn't seem consistent. I also noticed a number of errors in punctuation that, in at least two instances, made understanding the text much more difficult than it should have been. The stories were readable and generally enjoyable, but they could have been much more powerful with a slightly different approach.

The comics have a cover price of $7.00 each, and I paid $6.95 for mine. For that price, I can't say I recommend either of the books. Worth taking a look if you find them in a bargain bin, though. Personally, I'd prefer seeing more of Becker's paintings and his Pirate Art Book might be worth grabbing.

Becker recently released the graphic novel Blackbeard the Pirate and regularly does a one-page comic called "Captain Scurvy" for Pirates magazine. I haven't seen the graphic novel (which reprints his Blackbeard stories from Bloodthirsty Pirate Tales) but the comics are fully painted pieces and are mildly amusing.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Colonia

A couple of weeks ago, I was at my local comic shop and the owner told me that he had recently picked up several boxes of comics that I might be interested in; lots of off-the-beaten-path stuff. As I began browsing through the boxes, I did indeed find a number of things I'd been interested in... complete runs of The Waiting Place vol. 2, Mister X, and Heart of Empire for example. I also stumbled across a complete set of Colonia by Jeff Nicholson.

The story opens with Jack and his two uncles escaping from a pirate ship as it goes up in flames. We soon learn that their modern casual dress is not in fact apocryphal, and that they seem to have slipped from their present into a world who's reality is similar, but markedly different than our own. Things become more surreal as Jack meets another band of pirates, headless Spanish Conquistadors, a slip-side traveler from yet another reality, a talking duck named Lucy, some mermaids, an angry tribe of Aztecs, and a group of semi-intelligible, bowling dwarves who've captured Jack's grandfather believing him to be Rip Van Winkle. Not surprisingly, Jack and his family just want to go home, so they use the golden eggs laid by Lucy to fund the pirates' sojourn up the coast of Colonia to where Massachusetts (and their home) ought to be.

The story is somewhat reminiscent of other fanciful, stranger-in-a-strange-land stories like Wizard of Oz or Abadazad. One of the twists here, though, is that the bizarre qualities of this new world aren't as immediately apparent and even those that are noticed are initially written off by the protagonists as eccentricities. What's easier to believe, after all: that you've been captured by time-displaced pirates or that you've been captured by some modern pirates who dress up in 17th century style clothing? That you've been talking to a six-foot tall man with fish for his heads, hands and feet or that you bumped your head on a rock when you washed ashore?

Despite the cursory similarities to other stories in that ballpark, Colonia does not really draw upon them directly, preferring instead to recreate the general feeling of wonder and adventure, rather than rehashing existing material. Creator Jeff Nicholson does an admirable job presenting the story, as well, as readers experience the oddities of this world right alongside Jack. We know what he knows, and the mystery of how he ended up on this world is revealed to us in exactly the same way one might unravel the problem if you were experiencing it first-hand.

The art is generally charming. There's something of a simplicity to it that invites the reader in. Of particular interest to me is that, despite the simplicity, the characters are all readily identifiable at a glance and all of the female characters sport different looks and body types. This is NOT like the art one might find in an Archie book where Betty and Veronica only differ in their hair color.

There were a couple of spots which seemed at something of a discord with the rest of the books. Not that those portions were badly drawn, mind you -- in fact, they were drawn better than the rest of the book, as Nicholson was using reference material. Fortunately, the references are mainly limited to buildings and structures so the characters are able to remain consistent throughout the series.

I was actually somewhat disappointed when I got to the end of #11 to see Jack being captured in a classic "to be continued" moment. From the research I had done, there's been no 12th issue in the several years since it was published. Even after the whole series had been collected in TPB form by AiT/Planet Lar. Although his Colonia Press web site seems to be down now, a cached Google version of it cites a third trade paperback coming in 2009 with entirely new material, presumably picking up where #11 leaves off. That should give curious readers ample time to track down the first two trades and read them before the next chapter is released.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Violet Miranda

Last week, a package arrived in the mail containing issues #1-4 of Violet Miranda: Girl Pirate. I vaguely remember ordering them, but I'm at a total loss as to when and where I first heard about it. I love these kinds of pseudo-surprises because I've completely forgotten it's context and I can read through it with no preconceived notions other than that I must have thought it sounded good based on something.

The story concerns two girls, Violet and her best friend Elsa Bonnet. Their fathers were both pirates who once served under Calico Jack Rackham, but have since retired to live out a peaceful existence with their families on a small island. The girls dream about being swept away by some dashing buccaneer and are, therefore, quite excited when they spy a ship headed their way. It turns about to be Calico Jack's son, looking for revenge. He and his crew kill the two fathers and take their wives and children on as prisoners. Over the course of the next several issues, Violet and Elsa go from being prisoners to pirates in their own right and give Jack Jr. a run for his money.

The story is well-crafted, and the transition from prisoners to pirates flows smoothly and logically. I've seen this type of direction tried by any number of creators in the past, and it often feels clunky and poorly executed for the sake of getting to the more action-oriented parts of the story. Writer Emily Pohl-Weary takes a bit more time with that portion of the story, devoting a whole two issues to the transition thereby ensuring that the change is not abrupt. She's clearly cognizant that such a transition is an intriguing part of the character's journey, and it's refreshing to see that Violet is not saddled with the cliché epiphany in the middle of a mindless fight sequence.

The visual storytelling through the series is solid. There's some clever narrative tricks artist Willow Dawson uses that border on being called Eisner-esque. Issue #2, particularly has some very nice narrative devices in it, notably Jack Jr. beginning to expound on some history and the sword fight training. That said, though, I think the art is going to be the biggest turn-off for many people.

As I said, the storytelling is solid, but what I think will be a hard sell for many readers is the actual illustration style Dawson uses. It's much more graphic and less representational than many comic book artists' styles. There's very little cross-hatching or texturing in favor of solid black shadows, for example. Hair tends to be drawn as a singular mass than a series of individual strands. While these artistic choices are not wrong by any means (I rather enjoy them in fact) I suspect it will not be comfortable for those who are more familiar/comfortable with "traditional" comic book artwork.

But why not judge for yourself? Here's page 4 from issue #3...
"Thanks for pointing out this neat looking book to me, Sean? But where, oh where, can I find a copy? My local comic shop does not seem to have any!"

Well, the book is Canadian. Most of issues in fact sport full page ads for a Canadian magazine organization. And there's obviously nothing wrong with Canadian comics, but they, I don't believe, have a deal with Diamond, meaning that there's almost no chance of them showing up in an American comic book shop. (But THAT is a subject for another blog post!) In the meantime, though, you can buy the books online from the publisher, Kiss Machine.

And The Winner Is...

For the best blog post title summarizing this weekend's Stumptown Comics Fest: Auguste of the Pandagon blog with I went to the Stumptown Comics Fest and all I got was this awesome book about an 11-year-old troll-fighting Orthodox Jewish girl. (Nomination courtesy of my lady-friend.)

Friday, April 25, 2008

Growing Up With The X-Men

Henry Jenkins has just posted masters student Lan Xuan Le's "intimate critique" of the X-Men franchise. Here's an excerpt...
The increasing number of alternate universes validated my increasing distance from the "canon" that I was originally so keen to obtain. It only added to the multiplicity and richness of the X-men text. While this move inspired fan anger for "selling out" the franchise and violating the integrity of the story, I saw this move as a way for the franchise to preserve its heteroglossic mythology. Each one of these re-imagined beginnings was designed for me, the interested audience that found itself excluded from the long-running history of the comic book. I finally felt courted by a universe that likely was not speaking to me, but from which I had appropriated strategies of resistance.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Comics' Lack Of Progressiveness

Who can tell me what's odd about this cover I posted yesterday...
The answer is that it features a black woman kissing a white man. Why is that odd, you ask? Because it's the ONLY one.

Seriously, the only one.

Yesterday I was actively looking for comic covers that featured any sort of romantic relationship between a black woman and a white man, and this was the only one I could find. Star Trek was the first TV show to feature an interracial kiss, but there was not even a hint of that in any of the comics. The Star Wars franchise features a fairly racial diverse cast, but nowhere do they cross that line into interracial romances.

How about any of the Tarzan titles? The whole point was he was this white guy in Africa! Nada. Conan? Nothing there either.

Fantastic Four, the first title to introduce a black superhero? The first mainstream comic to even mention the idea of homosexuality? Nothing.

How about the amazing slew of underground comix? Stuff from Robert Crumb maybe? Vaughn Bode? Gilbert Shelton? Kim Deitch? The folks who ripped down the walls of comic book conventionality, ran over them with a steamroller, burned them to ash, and then buried them? Well, I'll admit that I don't have access to each and every underground comic ever made, but I sure as hell can't find any instances of any interracial couplings touted on a cover.

Well, what about New Avengers? Jessica Jones is indeed Caucasian and Luke Cage is indeed African-American, and I applaud Brian Michael Bendis for establishing that relationship. But that's an African-American male with a Caucasian female. And that, as I understand it, is more socially acceptable and a completely different animal.

"Wha...?"

As I understand things from a lady-friend who happens to be black (read as: well-informed first-hand on this subject), there's something of a hierarchy of social strata with regards to interracial dating. It's more acceptable, for example, for a white man to date a Hispanic woman than it is for a Hispanic man to date a white woman. Without getting into an extended description of all the permutations, I'll sum up by saying that, effectively, black women are at the bottom of the totem pole. White men have a tendency to pass them over because they're considered too far beneath his station, while black and Hispanic men strive to further their own selves by partnering upwards with Caucasian women. That essentially leaves black (and Hispanic) women with a smaller pool of potential partners, further shrunk by the fact that black men are about 25% more likely to wind up in the prison system than their white counterparts.

Obviously, I don't condone that thinking. Before having some of these discussions with my lady-friend, I had no real clue that such issues still existed. Call me naive, but I've always held to the notion that color, race or creed are simply non-issues. Trite as it may sound, it's what's inside that counts. "Peoples is peoples."

That said, there have been some white man/black woman relationships portrayed in comics. Coincidentally, I just finished reading Heart of Empire: The Legacy of Luther Arkwright which features just such a relationship developing between Hiram and Angela as a sub-plot. Shard and Wild Child were an item for a while in various marvel books. More famous is the romantic interludes of Iron Fist and Misty Knight. And more recently, Yorick and Agent 355 developed a romantic relationship in Y: The Last Man. These types of character relationships are rare, indeed, but not unheard of. And I suspect that it's actually not far removed from the per capita number of real interracial relationships like that.

BUT it's still only been depicted on a comic cover just the once. Hardly seems appropriate for what should be a more progressive medium.

"A-ha! Sean, you're forgetting about Storm and Forge!"

Well, I have to admit that I did forget about them at first. But you'll remember that Forge is a Native American, not a Caucasian. On that social strata I mentioned earlier, that falls into a different category. (And, I might add, the relationship they began in Uncanny X-Men #186 doesn't even get suggested on a cover until #289, a dozen years later!)

Back to my point, though... out of over 150,000 individual issues over the course of the better part of a century, there's exactly one cover that features a black woman kissing a white man? I know that comics historically aren't particularly progressive compared to other media, but are they really that far behind on this specific issue? Somebody, please tell me that I'm just totally not seeing earlier and/or more examples!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

On A Personal Note...

Earlier this afternoon...
This weekend...
Those of you who've known me for a little while can probably figure that ideogram out.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth Day Comic Strips

Today, if you didn't realize, is Earth Day here in the northern hemisphere, where we celebrate our planet and do what we can to help preserve it. To help celebrate, a number of cartoonists have dedicated today's strips to the cause...