Friday, May 30, 2008

Johnson On Smiley

I can't seem to find anything on their respective web sites about this, but I caught a promo spot that said Incognegro's Mat Johnson will be one of the guests on this weekend's The Tavis Smiley Show. You'll need to check with your local PRI station(s) to see exactly when it airs in your region.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

It's Out And It's HUGE!!!

You know, it's one thing when somebody tells you that a book has 900 pages. It's another thing entirely when you actually get the book for real, and the guy selling it to you reminds you to lift with your legs and not your back. At long last, and after much anticipation, The Nearly Complete Essential Hembeck Archives Omnibus is in stores!

But look at the size of this thing! It's frickin' huge!
(Photo liberally swiped from Hembeck.com)

Obviously, I haven't had a chance to read the whole book yet but I'm here to say that this is a book worth snagging! You see, Fred Hembeck spent years -- decades, even -- living the dream: he got paid to spout off about whatever comic book-ish topic he wanted. He was getting published by the big name publishers -- not to mention getting his own books out like Bah, Hembeck! and The Hembeck File -- and wax poetic about his favorite comics or make bad gags about superhero names and costumes. Heck, in Marvel Age he got his own talk show where he got to interview everybody who had a comic book title and show "clips" from their upcoming adventures. Oh, geez, and then he got to totally geek out and kill everyone in the Marvel Universe! (Ant-Man in the microwave -- still love it!)

In many ways, Hembeck was my idol. Heck, after getting a little name recognition as a letterhack several years ago, I tried emulating his cartoon-self-interviewing-superheroes-in-a-comic-strip format to try to get my artwork published...
(It never was.)

But the thing about Hembeck was that, even though he was seemingly everywhere, you could never track down everything. It wasn't uncommon (and still isn't, for that matter!) to run across Hembeck comics that you've never seen before. And so I've taken great pleasure in getting "nearly" everything he's ever had published. Except, of course, all those Marvel Age bits. And I don't see any of those wonderful three-panel strips he did for DC. But, given the sheer volume of material the man's produced, this book still qualifies as "nearly complete."

But, on top of the great work Hembeck did in many of those strips, the book also features an introduction to each section that puts the work in something of a more historical context. So if you find yourself racing through the comics and stumble across a what-the-heck-is-he-talking-about moment, you can step back to the nearest introduction and get a little more insight. A lot of collections like this wouldn't have included that, I don't think, so it's a welcome addition. Especially for the kids! (We all know kids love exposition!)

I find it hard to complain about this book. It is printed on newsprint, and is a paperback. But on any thicker paper or with a hard cover, and you wouldn't be able to lift the thing! However, even the oldest artwork prints remarkably clean, which is especially surprising given Hembeck's occasional use of Zip-A-Tone. The artwork throughout fits to the page size well, despite being created for different formats and different media over the years.

It's a great set-up overall. As I've been writing this, I've kept flipping to random pages and reading, only to find myself getting distracted and having to pull myself away just to complete this post. Wonderful stuff!

Many thanks to inker Al Gordon for getting the ball rolling on this particular compilation, and many thanks to publisher Erik Larsen for buying into it. And, of course many, many thanks to Fred Hembeck for years of yucks as well as some inspiration.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Image Comics

When Image Comics debuted back in the early 1990s, I was underwhelmed. Everything that came out in those initial few years struck me, still a teenager at the time, as a overly stylized artwork with little regard for good stories or good storytelling. To be fair, that was based largely on what I was seeing in ads and hearing in comic news stories, and I didn't actually sample any of the books at the time. I think I flipped through an issue or two of Spawn and Youngblood and promptly ignored Image's output.

Sometime in the late 1990s, though, I was asked to review some of their books. I was getting paid per review, I was able to effectively read somewhat extended runs of their books for free. I was still seriously underwhelmed. The stories, such as they were, plodded along at an agonizingly slow pace, and I didn't find the artwork THAT compelling to keep coming back after my reviewer gig went south.

I didn't really start branching out from marvel in my comics reading again until about 2005, not long after Erik Larsen took over as Image's publisher. Then, as now, I was primarily looking for comics that struck my interest, regardless of who published them. I distinctly recall at least sampling the likes of Girl Genius (Airship), The Goon (Dark Horse, by then), The Atheist (Desperado), Rocketo (Speakeasy), Lullaby (Alias), and Godland (Image).

I have to admit to being somewhat surprised by the quality of Godland (which didn't seem much like the Image comics I knew) and also that Desperado had some kind of partnership with Image. I remember being even more surprised when Rocketo got picked up by Image in 2006. And there was more: Stardust Kid, PvP, Mage, Battle of the Planets... This didn't seem to be the Image of a decade before; they were publishing books with stories in them, not just pretty pictures.

It took me another year or two before I really made the connection. Image started becoming a publisher of good stories -- not just good art -- shortly after Larsen took the helm. He was directing the company's output in a way that hadn't been done before. Now, to be fair, this was based on the efforts begun by Jim Valentino towards the end of the 1990s, but the material that Larsen either approved or suggested or solicited was of an overall higher caliber than what had been tried before. Today, after having grown exasperated by the schlock put out by marvel and DC, I find myself buying a number of titles from Image: a company who was largely based out of imitating the styles of marvel and DC. My pull list these days includes Mice Templar, Pirates of Coney Island, Proof, Fell (TPBs only), and Fear Agent (TPBs only). I've had my LCS pre-order Scud, The Disposable Assassin: The Whole Shebang, The Nearly Complete Essential Fred Hembeck Archives Omnibus, and The Complete Captain Victory.

I think it's worth noting that Image has changed their publication outlook significantly in the past few years and, in my opinion, it's decidedly for the better. In the January prior to Larsen stepping up, Image had five books that were selling more than 10,000 copies an issue and nine titles that were between 5,000-10,000. This January, they had 14 titles sell more than 5,000, nine of which were more than 10,000. That might not seem like a huge difference -- and it certainly pales in comparison to the mid-90s when Image books regularly broke 100,000 -- but I think everyone would agree that it's a substantially different market now than it was then and, more significantly, a market that would not likely sustain a publisher like Image as it was originally founded.

So what Larsen is doing is working against a decade-plus-long perception of Image Comics as the purveyor of popular artists' vanity projects. That perception isn't going to change overnight, but I think he's making some excellent decisions in that regard. I give him a lot of credit for doing what he's doing, especially coming from the other side of the drawing table. (I might point out, too, that it was only today that I ever got around to sampling Larsen's Savage Dragon, one of Image Comics' mainstay titles. Larsen's work never happened to be in my sampling of Image books back in the 1990s. While the first stories are saddled with some annoying crossovers from other Image characters, the book moves along at a good clip and seems reasonably solid compared to the other Image titles I sampled once upon a time.)

Personally, I've really been enjoying the overall diversity and quality of output from Image the past year or two, and it looks only to increase. I hope Larsen continues in his role as publisher, and is able to move the needle of people's perception of Image. If you're one of those 30-somethings who, like me, got turned off to the early days of Image, it might be worth a look to see what they've been doing lately. It still may not be your cup of tea, but they're a much broader company focusing more on substance over style these days. And the comic industry needs, in my opinion, a lot more of that.

Quote Of The Day

The traditional model of mainstream American comics is like planet Krypton. It's comforting, we have a lot of real estate there, and we just installed a swimming pool. But it's gonna blow.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Moving Pictures: Linework Only

I thought this might be an interesting study in line versus shape; here's part #62 of Stuart and Kathy Immonen's Moving Pictures, posted last Friday...
Here it is again with the word balloons removed...
And one more time with all the black shapes removed, leaving only the actual linework...
I think many people naturally think of the more illustrative artwork when they think of comics and sequential art, but this shows pretty conclusively how wide the spectrum really is if more artists choose to work in different directions. There's only one discernible face in that last version, and only one figure that seems recognizable as a person. Despite how exceptionally clear Immonen is in his original!

There are a few artists who work in a more graphic and less illustrative format, but not many. There's Frank Miller's post-Dark Knight work, most notably Sin City. Will Eisner occasionally dabbled the style with some of his Spirit stories. Jim Steranko played with the ideas. But the list is pretty short for the number of comic book artists and, even then, you can't point to their work as EXCLUSIVELY graphic in nature. Immonen's Ultimate Spider-Man looks nothing like Moving Pictures, for example.

The reason, I suspect, for not seeing more graphic work in comics is not dissimilar to the reason why we don't see more minorities working in comics: the field is fairly insular and breeds/rewards repetition more than innovation. How many artists working in comics today, for example, are directly or indirectly, consciously or subconsciously aping Jack Kirby?

Not that there's anything wrong with copying a winning formula, mind you! But the American industry is set up to keep regurgitating that same formula with minor variations over and over. (Admittedly, there's only so much you can distort an image before it becomes wholly unrecognizable, but there's still a lot of latitude an artist can take.) The industry fosters more illustrative work almost to the exclusion of all other styles, just like it fosters the work of younger Caucasian men almost to the exclusion of other races or gender.

I don't have a solution, but the "sameness" of artistic expression in comics further emphasizes just how insular our little boys' club has become.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

High Moon Notes

Dave Gallaher and Steve Ellis have put together some notes for their work on High Moon. I know from speaking with Dave in the past that he's put a LOT of thought into the development of this specifically as an online comic. Even though his commentary there isn't "complete" (in that I know Dave put a LOT more consideration into the story than he comments about) I think it's definitely insightful and a must-read for anyone who wants to learn about comic book storytelling.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Styles Over Substance

I see marvel's running their own "Cover of the Year" promo from their website. I'm going to go out on a limb of skepticism here, and bet that the winning cover will be a lushly illustrated one. Joe Jusko, Greg Horn, Mike Mayhew... somebody like that.

There's nothing wrong with any of those artists, certainly; they're all very talented illustrators. But I'm betting that anything that's more designerly in nature will be glossed over. This kind of stuff...
... where layout and structure are more important than photo-realism.

There's nothing that makes one approach better than the other, but the painted pieces have more flash, and tend to be less subtle in showcasing their creators' skills. And I won't be at all surprised to see people responding more to that than to a more nuanced approach.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Bryantman

I recently discovered that Bryant Heating & Cooling is using a character named Bryantman as their mascot. As you might guess, he's a superhero who battles the evil forces of extreme temperatures that can affect your home heating and cooling system.

I'm generally bemused by marketing campaigns that borrow heavily from comic books. It rarely strikes me as truly appropriate, and seems to come more from an ad agency whose creative lead happens to like comics. It does give me pause enough to take notice of the company and their marketing, but I suspect that it rarely has a positive impact on sales.

But in the case of Bryantman, I began sorting through the character's microsite, to see A) if they had any online and/or downloadable comic books and B) who designed/developed the campaign. I haven't found any information on the agency responsible, nor do I see any comic books. Interestingly, though, they do have some illustrated text stories and a pair of movie clips. And it dawned on me that Bryant is NOT actually emulating or borrowing from comic books at all, but from superhero movies.

The key, if you don't check them out for yourself, is in the second movie where the hero utters the line, "I'm Bryantman," as if he were Michael Keaton portraying Batman for the first time. Indeed both video clips are fairly well done, and it's clear that they both had not insubstantial budgets applied to them. The text stories, by contrast, are less well-executed, and seem to have been cranked out relatively quickly with only a few modest (and generic) illustrations.

What does this mean?

This means that the comic book -- once the defacto source for superheroes -- is not as important as it once was when it comes to adolescent power fantasies. Technology has become sufficiently advanced that it's feasible to generate new superheroes in a medium other than comics expressly for the use of marketing. One could understand seeing new superheroes being created for movies, as those often have substantial budgets for special effects. But that it's now affordable enough for a 30-second commercial...?

And this gives me, at least, some concern. The comic book industry, collectively, has not been overly healthy for several years, but what it did have going for it was the unabashed creativity that could be borrowed from for larger, mass market operations. We got movies like Hellboy and Men in Black and Mystery Men because of this. And the reason that could be done in comics is because the creation of comics costs the same regardless of how many aliens and zombies and spaceships you throw into it. It's just about the creator's imagination. Whereas creating those same ideas in some sort of movie or film format tends to be cost-prohibitive.

(When going from season one to season two of Red Dwarf, the producers wanted to brighten up the mostly battleship grey sets. Due to cost limitations, about the only thing they did was add a giant, inflatable banana to hang near one door.)

Rather, creating those same ideas in some sort of movie or film format tended to be cost prohibitive.

So does anyone NEED to look towards comic books for inspiration for movie and TV ideas any more? Not really. How many people who saw and enjoyed The Incredibles ever read a comic? How about Sky High? My Super Ex-Girlfriend? Zoom: Academy for Superheroes? It'd certainly be cheaper if the movie studio didn't have to option the rights to use somebody else's character, certainly. But when that gets down to TV (Who Wants To Be A Superhero, Heroes) and now basic commercials and marketing (Bryantman), where does that leave the comic book industry?

Don't get me wrong; I 'm not a big fan of translating comic book stories to other mediums. Personally, I simply enjoy the comic book format more than other media, but in a society that, by and large, prefers TV and movies, is the comic book industry sustainable as it currently stands?

Notice that I said "as it currently stands." I don't doubt that comics will continue to exist in some form and I know I, for one, will continue to seek out good comics regardless of whether I track them down through my LCS, download them from the web, or have them beamed into my brain through some yet-to-be-invented implant. But I continue to see signs that the market is not equipped (technologically, logistically, or financially) for the changes that are inevitably coming.

Oh, don't worry. Batman and Spider-Man and all your favorite characters will still be around, but you can already see there's less focus on their comic book adventures than on their filmed ones. (C'mon! They're seriously considering an Ant-Man movie, for Pete's sake!) But I will be keeping my eye out for systematic changes that will likely have a dramatic impact on the comic book industry over the next couple of decades.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Occasional Superheroine Hates Comics; Film At Eleven

Our Pal Val (she's the one on the right in that pic) posted a Mother Of All Rants last night in which she goes off on the insular, self-referential, and petty nature of the comic blogosphere. How she's stopped reading any number of comic blogs because it's just gotten frickin' old, seeing the same discussions repeated over and over, hearing the same arguments with just different players. How "news" not infrequently sounds like high school gossip. And, of course, you can't blame her one bit because the comic blogosphere IS filled with exactly that kind of nonsense.

But the thing is: that's not new.

Even in the pre-internet days of comic fandom, people were engaging in flame wars and re-hashing the same discussions over and over again. In the days before comic fandom, science fiction fans were doing the exact same thing.

The earliest work specifically on fandom that I've personally read is All Our Yesterdays by Harry Warner, Jr. It discusses the history of science fiction fandom up through the 1950s, then having the decade-out perspective from 1969. What struck me about the narrative was that, if you were to go back and change the names and dates, it would read almost exactly the same as a history of comic book fandom. And if you changed the references from mimeographs and fanzines to blog feeds and message boards, it would read like a contemporary report on the current outlook for fandom.

There are exactly the same types of interests that bring people together, and it's exactly the same type of inter-personal relationship skills that give rise to conflicts. People are reaching out to other people and trying to make substantive, emotional connections via a shared common interest: in this case, comic books. But all these people are all individuals, with different histories and different perspectives and different emotional levels of development and different agendas. And the more people you bring together, the greater the likelihood that some of those elements will run in direct conflict with one another.

I've seen the same thing played out in miniature with my band. We all came together because we all enjoy playing music, but conflicts began to arise as we got into specifics. What direction should the band go in musically? How exactly should a song be played? How should we run practices? How well should we know all our songs before we'd be comfortable playing in front of live audiences? How should we market the band?

Now, no one's able to say what is "right" or "correct" in those types of situations. We've all got our own opinions, and each one may be totally valid for each one of us as individuals. And, likewise, each one may be totally invalid for anyone else.

The same holds true for comic book fans on the internet. I've been a part of online comic fandom for over a decade and, after a while, I got sick of seeing the same questions and discussions over and over again, just like Val. It got to the point where I'd just started answering online questions with just a URL pointing back to the first time I'd answered it. But that was me being snarky. A lot of those questions, I don't doubt, were being asked for the first time as far as some people were concerned. I don't have any interest in re-hashing the "Is Lockjaw a dog?" bit yet again, but it could well be something that a kid who just read a copy of Thing #3 is thinking about for the first time. And they have every right to ask that question and look for an answer.

But as we grow older, we move beyond our comfort zones. And as we leave those comfort zones, we also need to leave behind the things that try to drag us back into them. I only visit my old message board haunts once a year or so any more. Any more, I just scan the headlines on Newsarama and rarely dive into any of the articles. There's nothing wrong with what's in those sites, but to me it just smacks of "Same shit, different day."

Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying, "Insanity: the belief that one can get different results by doing the same thing." If you keep going back to the same places and expect to see different things, you're either nuts or deluding yourself.

And, ultimately, that's one of the (several) reasons I started this blog. The topics I wanted to see discussed weren't being brought up, by and large, so I decided to tackle them myself here. (And, to little surprise, the topics I bring up here generate very little discussion. Which would partially explain why I couldn't find them anywhere else!) The further beauty of writing my own blog is that, even if I get tired of the general internet discussion, I can forge my own direction with it. It is my blog, after all!

What it boils down to is not being beholden to the masses at large. I can, and frequently do, take cues from the internet blather, but just use those notions as springboards for other ideas, not as a topic in which I can parrot my earlier sentiments. Good on you, Val, for refusing to get dragged back into outgrown comfort zones.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Neko Press In USAToday

A lady-friend sent me a link to this article from USAToday discussing the issue of Gen-Xers having difficulty saving money for retirement. Of interest to you, the comic book fan, is that it humanizes the issue by focusing on Neko Press artist/publisher Billy Martinez.

Death Note On NPR

NPR just ran this report on the marketing behind getting Death Note into movie theaters. Vaguely related, they followed that up with this report about Hello Kitty.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Far Arden

I read Far Arden on my (slightly extended) lunch hour today, and I've been trying to think of a good hook to hang a review around. My first drafts had references ranging from Jack Kirby to The Mosquito Coast to Mummenschanz. But nothing really seemed to fit as a reasonable analogy to Kevin Cannon's book.

See, the problem is that Far Arden doesn't lend itself to comparison very easily. That's why I started by trying to make connections to other works which don't compare well to anything else. Seriously, how do you tell someone about Mummenschanz? Believe me, I've tried many times and I always break down and just show them a video.

"OK, they've got these mask made out of clay. And... Here, just watch this."

Here's another one: try explaining Andy Kaufman. Not possible.

In Far Arden, there's this story about a guy named Army Shanks and he's sort of a pirate, but not really. And he killed his nephew's dad. Sort of. But his nephew doesn't really know about this until he's made into a fox-boy. And Shank's love interest, who causes no end of consternation for his ex-wife, is actually an unwitting assistant and faux girlfriend of a hapless agent of his long-time nemesis. And there's a treasure map that doesn't lead to treasure. Which is fine since it gets destroyed anyway. So they all follow a golden narwhal instead, and everybody who was dead no longer is. Except they are, and they help to kill everybody else. Except Shanks because he was using an oxygen tank after being pulled from the deathMRI. Oh, and a circus performer named Anger wrestles a polar bear.

Now, most of you would read that and say, "What the effin' 'el is he talking about?" And those of you who have read it already are just nodding and saying, "Yeah, that's pretty much the gist of it."

See what I meant about trying to explain the unexplainable?

Now, as crazy as this sounds, the story makes complete sense as you're reading it. Which, given the overall storyline, is pretty impressive in and of itself. But Cannon goes for extra credit by following everybody's stories more-or-less simultaneously, which leads to a lot of scene changes. And he manages to pull it off so expertly that, even with all these storytelling challenges in his way, he's deftly breezes through all of them and lets the reader become immersed in the tale. I was well over half-way through the book before I even began to realize just how elegant and unobtrusive all the storytelling elements were; that's how well they were executed.

The character of Army Shanks is a one that readers can really sink their teeth into, I feel. At no point does he come across as a cliche or some sort of amalgam of other character archetypes you're familiar with. He very much seems like a real individual with a multi-faceted personality. He's a man with all the personality conflicts and defects and emotional confusion that make us human. And even when he surprises you by bringing a dead fish to a party at the governor's palace, it doesn't seem at all out of character. The other characters, for the most part, are all also real with their own conflicts and confusion.

The story, in its entire 378-pages, is posted on Cannon's web site for free. I understand, though, that he's looking for an established publisher, but has in the meantime printed 100 copies himself which, I believe, he's still selling for $20 a pop. It's a very nice package, and well worth that, I think. Do yourself a favor and take some time to read this. And do Cannon a favor by buying a printed copy of it.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Iron Man In Real Life

AP writer Mark Jewell recently penned this story about Rex Jameson's work in developing a real life version of the Iron Man armor. No word yet on how soon repulsor rays will be available to mass markets.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

High Five Fist of Atomic Robo Moon

Say, now... it looks like Brian Clevinger is coming to the same brilliant idea that I suggested a little while back. Now since two geniuses have thought of this (Clevinger and myself), how can this NOT be a good idea?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Vince Fago Post Script

If you've studied Golden Age comics more than a bit, you've almost certainly run across the name of Vincent Fago. After working for Fleischer Studios, he headed over to Timely Comics in 1942 and did any number of funny animal books. He became the defacto Editor-in-Chief (though not officially called that) when Stan Lee went into the Army. Dr. Michael "Doc V" Vassallo has an excellent summary of Fago's early work here.

But after Lee returned from World War II, Fago is all but forgotten in comics history. One might conclude that he left the field of comics altogether. In fact, he continued drawing funny animal comics through the 1950s and then worked for Golden Books in the 1960s.

But what's even more rarely mentioned is that in the early 1970s, he started his own publishing firm, Pendulum Press, and began putting out comic book versions of classic literature. He scripted most of the books himself, adapting and abridging the originals as closely as possible given page limitations, and then got talented "newcomers" like Nestor Redondo to illustrate them. (His Wikipedia entry incorrectly states that he illustrated these books himself. While I don't have them all, none of the ones I do have cite his having anything to do with the artwork.) Indeed, for many of the books, he acted only as editor and got others to write the scripts.

Fago's stated intent was, like the Classics Illustrated series before him, to use the comic medium to encourage children to pick up the great works of Western literature. I don't know of any actual research done to see if this indeed works on a large scale, but I can vouch that it did work for me. Two of his books I received as a youngster were 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Treasure Island -- both of which remain as two of my favorite stories. And Fago's versions were so powerful that I still find closer association with those stories than the incredibly commanding performances of James Mason or Robert Newton in the Disney versions. (Though I will admit that Mason's and Newton's voices do carry through my head when I hear those characters!)

I thought his hardcover, black & white versions were short-lived and I had a great deal of difficulty first finding anything about them online. Indeed, I'm still not sure how many and which of these books were ultimately produced. But I was quite surprised, in going through my father's collection, to discover that Fago had evidently re-published the books with new covers in the early 1990s as prestige format comic books...
Curiously, while these books use the exact same art, there's no scripter credit in the newer version. They've also been colored (to the detriment of the series, if you asked me) but no coloring credit is noted either. Fago's own name as editor is stripped of the series, leaving only art credits.

The introduction to each book, and the "Other Books In This Line" list at the end, note that there were to be 72 issues in the series. However, I can again find only the barest of information about this online, and what I can find suggests that the series was discontinued after the sixth issue.

I've only got a couple versions of some of these stories in comic book form, but I'm half-tempted to seek out other iterations to see how Fago's version holds up against the others. They all certainly had great material to work with, but it'd be interesting to see how fared in a sort of head-to-head competition.

But more importantly, the work that Fago (and others) did to bring great literature to a younger audience is noteworthy. And sure, the comic book versions are "dumbed down" a bit from the source material, but getting these books into the hands of kids is only guaranteed to entice them to seek out more. And I suspect that Fago's biggest hinderence to not doing that more successfully was simply one of distribution. After all, the world's greatest work is worth nothing if nobody can find it!

Back to my original point: if you run across the name of Vince Fago and how he did all these wonderful funny animal books, I'd like you to take a second or two to remember that he wasn't JUST a funny animal cartoonist. He was a man who had an impact on kids, like myself, whose first introductions to prose novels were his comic books.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Winter World

Ah, yes... 1988! The Cold War was still in full swing, the Iran-Contra scandal was permeating the headlines, used hypodermic needles and syringes began washing up on the shores of New York, George ("No new taxes") Bush was elected President of the United States... Comic and cartoon fans saw the deaths of Milton Caniff, Daws Butler, Charles Addams, Roger Hargreaves, Alan Napier, and Charles Keeping. It was a pretty cynical and depressing time to grow up. Not surprisingly, this was reflected in many forms of pop culture: music, film, TV, and of course comic books.

The Cold War -- and the perpetual, looming threat of mutually assured destruction -- spawned any number of post-apocalyptic stories. Many of them included/featured a desolate wasteland desert, scavenged technology, war-ravaged "muties" and a seemingly obligatory flashback/narration explaining how the world we knew ended. Some of these stories, like Akira, were done masterfully. Others, like Yor, Hunter From the Future, are best left forgotten. Most them, though, fall somewhere in between. Such is the three-issue Winter World mini-series from Eclipse Comics.

The story is about a "trade rider" named Scully and his pet badger Rah Rah. In a trading deal gone sour, he picks up a young girl named Wynn, but they both soon find themselves captured as slaves by the area heavy/hooch merchant. Scully escapes, but finds his conscience getting the better of him. He convinces a nearby tribe to back him on a rescue mission and, several fight scenes and explosions later, Scully drives Wynn and Rah Rah off to find Wynn's long-lost family/tribe.

The whole premise begins with the Earth having frozen over, and the humans that are still around are left scavenging whatever they can find. Vegetation is scarce since most of the ground is too cold to support it, and one of the few sources is a glass-covered baseball stadium that serves as the antagonist's lair. So, combined with the "muties" that wear scruffy clothes and old football gear as armor, it's not too far removed conceptually from any of a dozen other Post-Apocalypse tales. Except for the fact that it takes place in a winter wasterland instead of a desert wasteland, it reminded me more than a little of Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone.

That said, there are a few things working in it's favor. Chuck Dixon is a pretty solid writer and generally does "gritty" or "grizzled" relatively well. Despite the, even by then, over-used plot set-up, he did a good job of defining the characters and the setting. More importantly, he does so WITHOUT resorting to flashbacks or extended narration. Although the time-frame is a little vague in #1, there's a scene in #2 in which a tribe has gathered around an old Pizza Hut, not realizing what it was. And even Scully, who by those standards is extremely well-educated, only knew that it was some kind of food service location; he was under the impression, though, that pizza was an animal that was killed and eaten. That scene is, I think, an example of good storytelling in that we're shown that A) we're still on Earth, B) it's far enough in the future that people have forgotten what pizza is, and C) it's not so far in the future that a Pizza Hut or baseball stadium will fall apart. This is good storytelling craftsmanship, and Dixon should be commended for it.

The art works reasonably well. I do like Jorge Zaffino's illustration style, and he keeps the story moving along smoothly. I did stumble a bit, however, over a fight sequence towards the end but, by and large, there were no issues here. But in general, I would say the art throughout the series was good.

The books aren't in high demand, so they shouldn't be too expensive if you find them. However, they're also 20-year-old comics from a now-defunct publisher about a subject other than superheroes, so you might have a little difficulty in tracking them down. It might be worth a look-see for the right people. The storytelling is timeless, so there aren't lots of unique 1980-isms, but it does have some thematic sensibilities that were prevalent in 1988. So it might prove to be a fascinating read for those curious or nostalgic for that time period.

Will Elder, RIP

Journalista is reporting that comic legend Will Elder died earlier this morning. No word yet on the cause of death.

Elder is known for his work work on various EC comics and the early issues of Mad magazine. He, with Harvey Kurtzman, later created Little Annie Fanny for Playboy. Much of Elder's work has been reprinted in recent years, notably in the 392-page retrospective Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art.

Elder was 86 years old.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Loot Logging

When I visited the folks this past weekend, Dad started giving me his comic book collection. With the dog and luggage, I could only get six long boxes in the car out the 16 or 18 boxes he has total. In the small amounts of free time I've had the past few days, I've started going through the ones I brought home and logging those issues into my database. (Fortunately, Dad kept his collection pretty organized, so I can quickly and easily drop in long runs.)

But, in going through my new-found loot, I'm finding some curious surprises. First is that there are a surprising number of superhero comics. Dad always expressed that he wasn't keen on the superhero genre, which I had no argument with even back in the day, but he's also got a complete run of Mike Grell's Green Arrow and a good chunk of various Batman titles. I knew he had The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke and a few books like that, but the whole Azrael/Knightfall storyline? Hmmm...

Then, there were a couple of surprises that turned out not to be surprising. "What? Dad bought Youngblood? Oh, wait. He only got the first couple of issues. He has some taste after all."

Some were surprising in just seeing some quality of creators represented. So far I've come across Wha!?! by Steve Ditko, Berni Wrightson: Master of the Macabre, Richard Corben's Den, and a variety of books with covers by Dave Stevens. Not to mention some classic comics like the original issues of Hellraiser, Watchmen and V for Vendetta. I'm not surprised that Dad would've gotten that type of material, but it was pleasing to see those specific issues pop out.

Then, there's the oddball stuff that just seems totally out of left field. A biography of Jeffrey Dahmer. '93 Vampire Bikini Comic Calendar #1. (Signed and numbered, no less!) And, of course, who can forget Jeffrey Dahmer vs. Jesus Christ?

But I think what I found most surprising was that some of the books he had were ones that I read as well. Coupled with reasonably long runs, I had always assumed these were well-known or popular titles, at least as far as independent comics go. But when I went to log them into my database, many of the issues had yet to be entered in by anyone. The Trouble With Girls. Fish Police. Wordsmith. Cripes, wasn't there a Fish Police TV series featuring John Ritter and Ed Asner?

In any event, I've certainly been thrilled to add a decent chunk of comics to my collection. But it's more fascinating and interesting to just go through what was somebody else's collection. Why did they get this? What prompted that purchase? What type of person reads these types of comics? More interesting still is that I know most of the answers to that (since I'm quite familiar with who bought the comics in the first place) and yet there are STILL some questionable/surprising/shocking finds. It definitely provides some unique insights into who my father is -- or, rather, was when he made those purchases.

If you ever have the opportunity, I highly encourage you to inspect somebody else's collection of comics. I think you'll find it a unique experience, and you'll almost certainly learn more about the person by doing that than talking to them for hours on end.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

In Response To Spurgeon

Tom Spurgeon posted this piece up on the cost of comic books today. He concludes...
They're too expensive to facilitate a multi-level, satisfying buying experience -- the experience that structurally they cultivate -- for all but a declining few. The squeezing of profits through elements like pricing that outpaces inflation leads to an ossified marketplace that has come dangerously close to fully abandoning its role as the fertile, chaotic creative ground that feeds the medium entire.
Alan David Doane responds by pointing out that a lot of pirated free comics are still too expensive.

I'd like to add my two cents to the debate here by saying that both Tom and Alan have valid points, but they're also both hindered by thinking in terms of an increasingly outdated business model. (To be fair, just about all publishers, writers, artists, etc. are working under the same misconceptions.) The idea that we, as consumers, are paying whatever the cover price of a comic is for the content within it. The latest episodic adventure of Batman, the small slice-of-life reflections of Paul, the slapstick comedy of Groo... whatever type of story you want to read. However, that is NOT what you're paying for. The content you're looking for is, for all intents and purposes, free. What you're paying for is your preferred delivery method -- in the case of comics, frequently, a 32 page pamphlet.

The internet has opened up the ability for just about anyone in the world, regardless of skill or creativity, to publish whatever they like with effectively no start-up costs. That might be a blog, a podcast, a comic, a book, a movie... just about any type of content one might want to put out for the world to see/hear.* They can put their ideas, their creations, out for public consumption. There's no charge to publish, so there's no charge to consume. However if you, as a consumer, want to experience something more than just the ideas being presented -- if you want some tangible aspect of those ideas -- that is going to cost you.

Take a look at the Foglio's Girl Genius. (Yes, I know they get trotted out every time the discussion goes to successful web comics. I'll have more examples if you just bear with me.) You can go to their web site and read the entire series from page 1. You can read ancillary stories that have never been published in paper form. You can download audio plays. All by the creative minds who came up with the idea. All for free. All legally available for free.

And yet, the Foglios are making a living drawing comics. How? By selling the tangible goods related to their story. You can buy the original pages of art. You can buy collected graphic novel versions of the story. You can buy t-shirts and mouse pads and coffee mugs. All of that costs you, the consumer, money. But what are you paying for? You're not paying for the image of Agatha Heterodyne, you're paying for the raw materials that image is on. Whether it's bound sheets of paper or molded plastic, you're paying for stuff. Actual, tangible stuff.

George Carlin used to have a routine about all the stuff people have. But he was, in effect, making fun of consumerism. The act of amassing larger and larger piles of stuff which is only representative of our thoughts, ideas, and experiences. Or, more accurately, representative of other people's thoughts, ideas and experiences which we would like to share.

Because what is reading a comic book, but an experience? There are any number of ways we can participate in that experience and share it with others. But we frequently choose to have that experience represented as a series of 32 page pamphlets, shoved in a ever-growing number of long boxes. We're paying money NOT for the experience itself, but for a tangible representation of that experience.

Here's another example: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. You can download a copy of the original text of the book here. You can download a copy of someone reading the text here. You can download a relatively recent comic book adaptation of the original story here:

All of these are completely free and completely legal, and will sit unobtrusively on your hard drive.

Alternatively, you can head over to Amazon to buy a copy of the book here. Or the same story with annotations. Or the Cliff's Notes version. Or a pop-up version. Or a DVD of Disney's version. Any of which will cost somewhere between $5 and $25, but you'll have a tangible version to place on your bookshelf.

Alternatively, you could shell out substantially more money to obtain a rare 1899 copy of the book. Or a 1918 copy. Or an original animation cel from one of the various movies. You still get a tangible version, plus you get the ability to place it under glass and have your friends "Oooo" and "Aaaah" over it.

In any of those scenarios, you get essentially the same story. The same thoughts and ideas Lewis Carroll put down almost 150 years ago. But some will cost you a good deal more than others, and for what? For a different delivery method. For a different object. For a different piece of stuff.

I could go to the Folgio's web site every other day and read their latest story developments one page at a time. Or I download an audio version of Alice and listen to it while I walk the dog. But I actively choose to buy Girl Genius as it gets published in a trade paperback format. I actively choose to buy a new/different edition of Carroll's masterpiece. I am willing to pay for a specific delivery method for content which is freely available.

And that's the point that Tom misses. Sure, three bucks is too much for a 32-page gamble on what may or may not be a decent story. But that's NOT how people sample comics. They read Rainbow Orchid or Tozo or Hereville or Templar, AZ or whatever online and, then, if they like it, they drop a few bucks for a printed copy of it. Sure, some people will always have an impulse purchase in their LCS from time to time when they see something that strikes their fancy. But that's not the primary business model going deeper into the 21st century. It can't be because, as Tom points out, it's too cost-prohibitive from a consumer standpoint.

The corollary to this, of course, is that the current system at Diamond doesn't work. It's built and structured around an untenable model in which not only are samples unavailable, but the purchases must be made months in advance, often before the product is even itself complete. That it's sustained itself this long honestly surprises me to no end. Many people have complained about issues with Diamond over the years, but as creators and publishers recognize better ways to generate income (i.e. the "Airship Entertainment Publishing Model") Diamond will become less and less relevant to publishers' revenue streams.

Which actually presents something of an opportunity. Comic fans will want to be able to sample more and more comics, but they won't want to have to go to each publishers' web site to download samples. I think someone will be able to clean house in another decade or so if they were able to A) establish themselves as a one-stop repository for all publishers' sample/downloadable comics, and B) also set themselves up as a retailer so that you could not only sample, but order whatever comics/graphic novels you like. Sure, you'd get some folks who read the digital versions and never ordered anything, but it would go a long way to creative diversity in the field and helping to support the smaller, independent folks who otherwise wouldn't get the shelf space that's normally devoted to marvel and DC.

And that's where Tom's argument falls apart, I think. He recognizes the problem in the current, antiquated system, but doesn't bring in the new/current business models that are replacing the status quo to see that we're actually getting more creativity, more diversity, and at a lower sampling cost.

* Admittedly, the 'net is still lacking dimensions for taste, touch, and smell but I'm largely talking about comic books here. The content of comics only has the dimension of sight. The smell and touch of an old comic, while certainly notable to the experience, is generally not intended or designed by the creators. The only portion of the comic reading experience they even attempt to influence is sight -- which is wholly replicable online.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Back In The Days When The Funnies Were Really Funny

I was visiting the 'rents this weekend (today being Mothers' Day and all) and Mom pulled out an old newspaper to show me. She had recently found it in cleaning out their basement. It was a special edition of The Cleveland Press celebrating it's 75th anniversary in 1953. Much of the content focused on what had changed in the Cleveland area since 1878...
Towards the end, they also ran a page of comics from days gone by. The title running across the top of the page was "Back in the Days When the Funnies Were Really Funny"...
What's immediately striking is the notion that this paper is over 50 years old, and people were complaining then about how the comics weren't really funny anymore. It's an arguement that continues to this day, with the change being that the comics people think were funny then are the same ones these people thought were thoroughly unfunny compared to what had come before. It's a common notion -- the whole idea of nostalgia and remembering the best of times while forgetting/ignoring the worst. But it's plainly evident here.

But why not judge for yourself? I've tried to zoom in and clean up a few of the examples the Press used as funny comics of yesteryear.

The first Everett True comic from 1905...

Mr. Skygack, from Mars circa 1908...

Out of Town from 1922...

Alley Oop (date unknown, but certainly after 1932)...

Friday, May 09, 2008

Wizard World Chicago

I was chatting with a lady-friend last night, and we got on to the subject of comic book conventions. She noted that she'd be curious to attend one to see what the deal was. I mean, when pictures like these aren't uncommon...
... it's easy to get an "OK, I just have to see this for myself" idea.

It didn't take a huge leap of imagination for me to realize that her relative proximity to Chicago would make a trip to Wizard World Chicgao an easy solution. And, hey, it's only in a month and a half! That's almost pretty good timing.

I haven't been to WWC for about five years, so I swing by their site to see what's what these days. A cursory glance suggests that it has changed that much. And I notice that Warren Ellis will be making an appearance, and I'd be curious to hear him speak in person. But one of the things that I figured would make WWC a more interesting con experience for my lady-friend would be to see some of the cross-media population that occurs. But as I'm looking through the list of guests and exhibitors, I'm not seeing much of anyone: the fan relations guy from Lucasfilm and actor/stuntman Felix Silla. No offense to either of those two gents, but it doesn't exactly carry the same impact as, say, a Robert Downey Jr. or a Guillermo Del Toro.

The other thing I noticed was that there doesn't seem to be any convention programming solidified yet beyond the screen of Gotham Knight. Since she and I both tend to prefer planning this type of stuff in advance, I'm kind of disappointed that more hasn't been published/promoted on this front. Granted, some scheduling issues take a while to work out, but how about a "here's what we have lined up so far" page? If you update that as needed, then you get the word out about the types of panels and whatever that you're having and, more significantly from their perspective, you give people a concrete reason to return to the web site repeatedly. Basic internet marketing: you need to keep your content fresh and update it fairly regularly. Publishing promo information as you get is a win/win situation.

This type of thing is probably old news for a lot of you. I've heard rumblings of issues/problems people have with Wizard and their conventions, but I'm not usually inclined to go to the mega-huge-cons, so I don't pay much attention to them. But it's probably not a great sign that I can start to see what those rumblings have been about with so little investigation.

That said, I'll most likely be there at least one of the days, if anyone else will be swinging by. Let me know if you'll be there, and I'll let you buy me an over-priced lunch on the convention floor!

The Legend of Old Salty

I was surprised this week to find Salt Water Taffy "The Legend of Old Salty" in my pull box. Not that it was there in error, but I had seen so many positive reviews of it already that I was under the impression that it was already out and had to be back-ordered. Not so! It was only released this week through Diamond, and other reviews you may have seen before that must have been figments of your imagination.

That's what happens when you get bored, you know. Your imagination kicks into overdrive, and your mind starts creating its own material to respond to. In fact, I've heard of scientific studies that have found that some people, living in particularly quiet areas or having hearing difficulties, begin to hear music even though none is actually being played. (This, by the way, is a separate and distinctly different phenomena than what's experienced with schizophrenia.) Your brain needs stimulation and, in an absence of external stimuli, it sometimes will create its own.

So, when the batteries die in Jack Putnam's GameBoy while being dragged by his family to a small, New England town for the summer, it's hardly surprising that a blurry form seen far down by the shore becomes a bear in his mind, and he races down the hill as a ninja to investigate. He and his brother then bump into a homeless wild man. Or maybe he's a spy! Or a cowboy!

Turns out he's just a fisherman named Angus O'Neil. But he proceeds to tell them the tale of Old Salty, the sea monster of Chowder Bay. Later, when the local taffy store is burgled, Jack naturally jumps to the conclusion that it's the work of Old Salty, who evidently has a penchant for taffy. As Jack and Angus concoct an elaborate plot to capture Old Salty (which involves at various times: building an underwater raft of spinach and egg whites, attaching a radio to a whale, and developing a robot shark) Jack's little brother, Benny, digs a hole that captures two smaller lobsters which they can interrogate.

(You did catch that, didn't you?)

Rather than spoil the rest of the story, though, I'll just say that they don't capture Old Salty, Jack gains a new appreciation for the outdoors, and the trio of protagonists launch out in search of new adventures.

This is the type of story for every kid who got stuck going to a museum or family reunion or road trip or any of those other insanely boring things that parents make their kids do. It's precisely the type of adventure every kid should dream of having from time to time, and one that most of us sadly put behind us in adulthood. Matthew Loux's story is well-crafted, both in terms of overall structure and execution. Jack's journey is one that few people take, but it's also one that's shown as smooth and natural.

Loux's illustration style is attractive and bold. The landscape and seascape shots are especially interesting, and make effective use of light and shadow. The character designs work well enough, although I have to admit being a little distract briefly by how similar the father looked to the owner of the taffy store; I thought they were supposed to be brothers initially. But both are relatively minor characters, so I was soon absorbed back into the kids' adventures.

It was an excellent book overall, and I'm looking forward to further adventures in volume two.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Breakfast of the Gods

The basic concept behind Brendan Jones' Breakfast of the Gods is a fairly simple one: what if you had a basic good vs. evil fight among all the mascots of breakfast cereals? Applying modern storytelling twists to what were long-established characters is an easy way to get a "new" story together and often leads to some decidedly memorable new visions...
"Tortoise Beats Hare" (1941)
"Red Hot Riding Hood" (1943)
"Three Little Bops" (1957)

Of course, the danger at this point is that just "updating" a story or the characters is almost as trite as simply retelling the story. I can't tell you the number of lack-luster iterations of Alice in Wonderland I've seen over the years. So, coming to Breakfast of the Gods, I was cautious -- sounds like a clever concept, but does it deliver something solid beyond the one-note gag of Cap'n Crunch vs. Count Chocula? Does Jones have something there besides a single idea?

It turns out that he does. The story itself is solid -- good set-up, nice development. What stands out, though, is his work on character development. The templates he's basing all of the characters on (Tony the Tiger, Frankenberry, Trix the Rabbit, etc.) are pretty shallow, by and large, which is hardly surprising given their origins as advertising icons. But Jones is able to take the one or two traits each one has displayed in commercials and extrapolate an entire identity from that.

For example, on TV Toucan Sam used his heightened sense of smell to find his way to the nearest bowl or box of Fruit Loops. In Breakfast of the Gods, he's something of a scout or tracker, able to find his way through a maze of a jungle with ease. In a more obvious example, Officer Crumb, the Cookie Crisp Cop, is here the main source of law enforcement.

Obviously, with a host of cereal mascots over the years, not everyone can be highlighted equally. Jones pulls in cameos for a LOT of characters that I had long forgotten (Big Yella, the Freakies, Jean LaFoote, the Crunchberry Beast...?!?) but focuses largely on the classics: Count Chocula, Tony the Tiger, Cap'n Crunch, etc. These guys are given character and personality, as I said, that builds off what we've seen in commercials but are now complete. I'm actually quite partial to what he's done with Sugar Bear, and am eager to see that sub-plot resolution.

He pulls off the art surprisingly well, too. With characters created over decades by who knows how many artists, Jones is able to present them all in a way that is both recognizable, but homogenized. The more abstract characters get a little more detail, and the detailed characters become a little more cartoony, but they meet in a fair middle-ground that manages to appease both sides reasonably well. I especially enjoy his rendition of Tony the Tiger (admittedly, an old favorite of mine) and the addition of an eye-patch, due to the loss of an eye in one battle, is a striking enhancement. Jones' illustration and story skills aren't necessarily the best, but they service the story reasonably well; I expect putting another artist on this would dilute some of the nuances that Jones' knowledge of breakfast cereals has been able to drop in.

The story is presented as if it were ready for publication, and that may well have been Jones' initial or ultimate intent. That said, I have trouble seeing this completed in a pulped wood format just from the legal aspect of things. I can't imagine any publisher risking a lawsuit with all those characters that are owned by other companies. It's not really a problem now, since Jones isn't making any money off the book, but I think much of this goes above and beyond "fair use" so it seems to me unlikely that you'll be able to read this anywhere but online.

Of course, that just means that you HAVE to read it for free. Not a bad thing for many people, given today's economy, but I know a number of people who prefer the pulped wood format that seems more designed for. Nonetheless, it's a good story with some excellent characters, and I'm looking forward to seeing the story's completion.

Thank Eisner

Have you read today's Andy Capp...?
What do you notice about it? Specifically, what do you notice about the art?

What I'm looking at is that, despite the comic being three panels long, there is only one background. Artist Roger Mahoney has very clearly indicated that Andy and Chalkie are traversing their own space as well as our own. The joke here is entirely in the dialogue, so it could have just as easily been shown with two talking heads with largely the same humor value...
But instead, Mahoney has made things more visually interesting by drawing a different background in each panel. And he's designed it in such a way as to give the reader a very clear indication of the amount of walking Andy and Chalkie actually do during the short conversation.

This type of exploitation of the media is largely attributable to the pioneering work of Will Eisner, and it's exactly this type of thing that makes me enjoy and appreciate comics more than other media. This simply cannot be replicated in any other art form.

I wonder of Mahoney considered doing the background as an actual, single panel instead of breaking it up into thirds. Let's take a moment to do just that and compare the results...
The joke continues to read just as well -- again, it's not dependent on the art here -- but it does strike me as a tad harder to "read" the visuals. The difficulty, it seems to me, comes from the relative size of the art. There' not quite enough space between the figures to allow readers to readily see that we're looking at three discreet moments in time. The gutters in the original add a sort of visual punctuation that breaks up the space and more clearly signifies to readers that we're looking at two men talking while strolling along the canal.

Of course, that's not to say that strip can't be done like that! The overall layout could have been designed within a single frame and it's likely that Mahoney would have done the background (and the exact position of the figures) significantly differently if that were that case. Indeed, that shack between the first and second panels is there primarily to show the continuation of the background across a gutter; it would not have been necessary otherwise.

Indulge me, if you will, with a few more tweaks and modifications...
I've moved the first figures further to the left, and tried opening up the space between the first and second panels by fading back the shack and removing the clouds. I've also moved the last dialogue balloon farther to the right. It's certainly an easier read than my previous revision but, ultimately, does it add anything to the original? I don't think so. It does nothing to enhance the joke. The question ends up being: is it more interesting, visually, to break up the overall space with gutters and force the readers to mentally complete the image, or to keep the space singular and force the readers to break up the space themselves? Personally, I lean towards the former. The joke relies somewhat on it's natural rhythm of set-up/response/punchline. The gutters reinforce that rhythm visually, even though it breaks the set-up in two and combines the latter half of it with the response. Thus making Mahoney's published design the more successful.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Hereville

I received in the mail last night my pulped wood copy of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword. Creator Barry Deutsch began posting the story online at the end of 2007 and has, as of this writing, gotten 24 pages on his site. Thanks to some promos surrounding the recent Stumptown Festival, though, I ordered myself a copy. Why? Primarily because of the tag line: "Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl."

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the story is about an 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl named Mirka, and how she has to fight a troll to get her sword. Mirka, it seems, wants to slay dragons against her step-mother's intentions so, after rescuing a witch from two teen-age thugs, she's directed towards a troll who owns the finest sword (the required tool of dragon-slayers) in the town of Aherville. Mirka, as the title suggests, is able to defeat the troll and obtain the sword, but the victory is somewhat Pyhrric.

The story is very well crafted. The seeds of Mirka's final victory are planted in the first few pages of the tale, but not in a manner that's immediately obvious. Indeed, even after Mirka's competition with the troll begins, her foregone victory (it's in the title, after all) comes about in a surprising manner. There's a clear lesson here: that your guardians teach you things that will be useful whether or not you can recognize that at the time. But further, that what you learn from them isn't always what you might obviously think you learn from them. (That might sound a little confusing but, trust me, it makes sense in the context of this story. If I were much more elaborate, I'd risk giving away some of the more subtle, nuanced portions of the story which are best experienced, I think, for oneself.) Hereville, like any good story, is able to connect with itself on many points and there's no real wasted efforts.

The storytelling itself is very solid. In fact, there are a couple of particularly nice page and panel layouts. I especially liked Mirka's leaving the town on page 26, and the start of her victory over the troll on page 51 which nicely echoes/bookends an early page in the story. Interestingly, Deutsch's linework improves markedly over the course of the yarn. The basic drawings are fairly consistent, but the inking over top of them changes. Not knowing how exactly he worked on the story, it's hard for me to tell if he switched tools, just got better at using them, or started drawing at a larger size that allowed the artwork to look crisper as it's reduced. In any event, it's an interesting development to witness and serendipitously (I believe) mimics the development of Mirka as an individual.

The other aspect of the book I might point out is Jewish-ness of it. Much of the dialogue is peppered with Yiddish (which Deutsch unobtrusively translates for us Gentiles) and there's a notable sequence early on where Mirka's family celebrates Shabbat. I'm always impressed by writers who can weave a story together, telling people about their faith, without coming across as proselytizing. While the scene does seem at a bit of a dischord with the rest of the story, it clearly puts Mirka's character in perspective and, I suspect, will tie in more as Deutsch continues to develop it.

If I were forced to make one complaint about the pulped wood version, it would be that the book is just a tad too thick to comfortably bind with two staples. I'm sure that Deutsch opted for that instead of a square-bound format because of costs but, interestingly, it's a little too thick because he did NOT skimp on the paper quality itself. The paper itself is at least on par with what you'd find in a marvel or DC book and trying to fold that over 30 times simply makes a book that doesn't want to stay closed. Although, once I've got this bagged and tucked away in a long box, that won't be an issue at all -- it's only a tad awkward having the cover open on its own while the book is sitting on your desk or coffee table. Like I said, it's a minor issue, and not at all relevant if you read it online.

All in all, an excellent tale, and I'm looking forward to seeing where Deutsch takes this next.