Pipeline: Pipeline2, Issue #83: CrossGen Part 2

Fri, January 26th, 2001 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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CROSSGEN PART 2

Last Friday, I began an exhaustive (and, at times, exhausting) look at the CrossGen family of titles. You can find reviews of SIGIL and SCION linked there. This week, I'll be taking a look at the other three current monthly titles, and make some general observations at the end.

MYSTIC

[Mystic #1]…was the most anticipated of the first four CrossGen titles. It was, after all, the only one with a big name artist attached to it. Brandon Peterson was the regular artist on UNCANNY X-MEN at one point, as well as doing stints at Top Cow and DC. Now he was CrossGen's artistic director. They handed him a title featuring a beautiful woman to draw. Things could be interesting.

This is the sorcery book. It is set on the planet Ciress, which is ruled by a council of seven high masters of magic. Magic is commonplace, found casually on the street. The Guild leaders are at the tops of their crafts, and are possessed of the spirit of their Guild's eternal spirit. The series begins when Genevieve Villard appears to become the leader of her Nouveau Guild. (Art nouveau styles are commonly used throughout the book to good affect.) Things go awry, however, when her sister, Giselle, is marked with the now-familiar CrossGen sigil and ends up consuming the spirits of all seven guilds. Needless to say, this ticks off the present guild masters, who make it their raison d'etre to get their spirits back at any cost. The first storyline revolves around Giselle accepting her spirits, learning her magics, and defending herself. It isn't easy. Giselle is the opposite of her sister. She prefers to stay away from magic, but must learn to accept her new powers and her role in the world because of them.

All sorts of wackiness and nuttiness surrounds her, from the artist man in her life to the debonair, potentially dangerous handsome stranger who wants to teach her to harness her magic. Then there's her pet squit, Skitter, who actually talks to her. It's an inventive corner of the CrossGen universe and can be quite fun to look at. Peterson packs the backgrounds with little details that might otherwise go unnoticed, from flying cars to flying dragons, and creatures of all types.

Like most of the CrossGen books, it seems, Ron Marz starts the story off a little slowly. I remember complaining originally that nothing was happening as I read these issues from month to month. Reading them all together in one sitting is a bit of a help, but there's still a feeling that everyone is too busy plotting and strategizing to actually do anything. Also like the rest of the CrossGen books, there's lots of stuff set up in the early issues that don't have payoffs right away, but you know will come back a little later.

[Mystic #6]The biggest failing of the book so far seems to be Giselle. She's not as strong a character as she could be. She's very vulnerable to a smooth talker and she's too dismissive of her closest friends who've been proven correct in the past. She's a bit of a lost character, although she can really pour it on when need be.

This book also has the distinction of being the first CrossGen title to exhibit ties to another part of the CrossGen Universe. One or two of The First are involved in this title. That's all I'm saying, for fear of spoilers. While it's an interesting thought that we'll learn more of the meta-story going on in this universe, I'm not sure how enthused I am about it being sprinkled in throughout the books. (I certainly don't want stuff bleeding over from THE FIRST, but more on that title later.)

Brandon Peterson's art – which is probably the real draw of this title for many – is just as fun as you'd expect it to be. The storytelling is well designed and fun. The art is a great blend of character and background. His opening two-page spread in the eighth issue is breathtaking. Peterson (with inker John Dell) doesn't leave an inch of the page untended to, and keeps everything technically solid. Some might question the anatomy of the females in the book, but it's never as over the top as it has been in some of the other mainstream titles that I've seen. (And THE FIRST is much worse. Again, more on that in a bit.) Yes, Giselle's outfits are often revealing or overflowing, but there's never any panels which make you wonder about her back pains or cause you to think of this strictly as a T&A title. Yes, it's a sexy book, at times, but never gratuitous or over the top and distracting. She's not going to look down and choke herself.

After eight issues, I can honestly say that the book is a good piece of fun. It doesn't take itself entirely seriously, commenting on the ludicrousness of its situations every now and then. Ron Marz does a good job of handling a potentially cripplingly large cast. There are, after all, seven Masters to deal with right from the start, in addition to the more social friends of Giselle. For the most part, the distinct characters of the Guild are treated as one unit and allowed to blend into one another. They may be explored further at a later time, but they're certainly not competing for page space. Unlike the rest of the far-ranging CrossGen universe, this book stays mainly in two spots, on the planet and in the lair of the Guild Masters. There are no high-flying adventures to other lands. It's pretty straightforward.

MERIDIAN

Meridian #2]...is the book that many felt was the early leader out of the gate. It was a book that starred a female character. It was the book that could attract a whole different crowd than the others. Joshua Middleton drew it beautifully, with the help of Dexter Vines on inks and no small addition of Michael Atiyeh on colors. Barbara Kesel is the guiding writer here.

The book is perhaps the most intimate of all the books. While it does take place against a backdrop of cities in the clouds, the main thrust of the story is a much smaller family squabble. There are elements of this story that would have made for great Shakespearian theater. Heck, even the evil uncle even has his own a muse. I keep expecting a Greek Chorus to pop out from behind a curtain someday. The family strife and tragedy – something the main character seems to have been hidden from most of her life – is coming home to roost now.

The story starts as follows: Sephie is the daughter of Meridian's leader. Meridian is a quaint old-fashioned town, willfully steered clear of modernization and greedy business practices. Across the way is the land of Cadador, where Sephie's evil Uncle Ilahn presides over a ruthless trading town. It's the anti-Meridian. When Sephie's father dies, Ilahn takes her back with him, to teach her his ways and to help merge the two islands into one glorious conquest. (Oh, did I mention that the planet below is so polluted that it's almost impossible to live there? So the people live on floating islands in the sky.) There is also, of course, Sephie's love interest, the Meridian freedom fighters, the Cadadorian trickery and deceit, and some family secrets about to be brought out into the foreground.

This one has all the political power play angles covered, with the hints of adventure. It isn't afraid to linger in a new locale, even though it introduces them just as quickly as every other CrossGen book. Some of the neighboring worlds are merely hinted at and not shown in great detail. It is only the lands in which the story takes place that get the full-featured treatment. The world of Akasia is as much a science fiction/fantasy concept as it is a home for the poor, but hard working. Sephia lands there (literally) for a few issues that are worth her stay in. The exploration of this world and the rules that govern it are just as interesting as the main plot of the book itself.

[Meridian #4]This is the only CrossGen book that doesn't come to a resting point after 6 or 7 issues. You can't say that the first chapter in the story is over now. The story is still on going. In fact, the seventh issue ends on quite a little cliffhanger. The shock at the end was almost TWILIGHT ZONE-ian. It's a horror. I don't want to give anything away. Just read it when the trade comes out.

Joshua Middleton is out as penciller, and I'm sure is sitting behind his drawing desk at home now and crafting some more powerful prose to post on internet message boards. His art in the first six issues was lovely to look at, though. He had a soft and open style that was easy on the eyes, although occasionally would be a bit lacking in facial detail and sometimes a bit stiff in the action shots. His design sense, though, really showed through in places, such as the opening page of the third issue or closing page on the fourth.

CrossGen Apprentice Artist Steve McNiven has recently been named the official new regular artist of the series. (Greg Land was originally supposed to take over, but has now been given his own book to work on.) While his art isn't as smooth and polished as Middleton's was, it is much better than I feared we would see. He also has one big check in the plus column for making Sephie look more like a 16 year old than a 12 year old. I really think this version of her makes more sense.

Middleton's art really relied on the colorist; Michael Atiyeh and Morry Hollowell did a good job in sculpting Middleton's figures on the page and giving them weight and depth. Take a look at the fifth issue, though. It features coloring by Paul Mounts. Mounts has a unique look in his coloring and it really shows through here. It's the first time I could say that the colorist made a comic look like a completely different title. For one month, I thought I was reading something else. It was absolutely gorgeous, and perhaps the best single issue of coloring I've ever seen. He took great care to deal with all the details and add texture and extra shadowing and mood to every page with his digital paint. It will also remind you of TELLOS, which Mounts also colors. His signature is that distinct.

Mike Wieringo is guest-penciling the next issue. TELLOS partners Rob Stull (on inks) and Mounts show up with him. This eighth issue has the potential to be the best-looking one yet. If you want to sample something of CrossGen, this issue (due out next week) looks to be a good one. Just read the introduction page on the inside front cover and away you go.

THE FIRST

[The First #3]When I first reviewed the first issue of THE FIRST back in November, I held great hope for the title. Although the first issue showed an enormous cast of characters, the main plot of the story was engaging and the art was gorgeous.

That changed in the next two issues when the whole of the story of the first issue was mostly ignored, the cast of characters only grew more large and confusing, and I had to give up on it.

If you can make heads or tails of the first three issues of this book, you're a better person than me. It makes no sense. Barbara Kesel includes way too many characters, without having enough time or space to develop half of them. If you don't read the inside front cover each month, you're going to be missing out on facts important to your understanding of the story. Later on, they'll be explained, but casually and only after much confusion. (I'm thinking specifically of Atwaal's weapon here.)

The only bright spot here is that Bart Sears (with Andy Sears' inks) is doing a beautiful job illustrating the series. It's filled with bold, panoramic panels, two page spreads, intricate detail work and overdeveloped gods. It's large-scale storytelling. On the other hand, it's got some problems with water balloons posing as chests, which no other CrossGen book comes close to, really.

Here's some of what I can gather, story wise: The First have given rise to The Second, or the Secundae. Meanwhile, the First have split into two houses. One's the lower orange part of the yin yang insignia; the other House is the red upper yin yang. They're fighting. But they need to unite for the good of them all, in light of the recent developments concerning the sigils popping up on other worlds. To try to explain anything else would only be to induce a headache, so forget it. Read at your own risk. It's beautiful stuff, but incomprehensible.

This book is for completists only, who think that somewhere down the road it all might make sense.

MISC.

I've been looking so closely at the titles, I've neglected to talk a bit about the production values and contents. Each book is 32 full color glossy pages for $2.95. There are 22 pages of story in each issue. The inside front cover is a pretty detailed "Story So Far" text page, complete with pictures and character guides. There's a credits page at the end of each story, plus a page or two of letters. The rest of each issue is a hodge podge of CrossGen-related news and advertisements. A history of the company appeared for a little while. Some fundraiser stuff showed up there. Pictures from the convention circuit adorned a page. There is no outside advertisement whatsoever. It's all CrossGen. Even better, the advertisements are all in the back of the book. There aren't any interrupting ads in the middle of the story at all.

I also discovered this week that reading CROSSGEN CHRONICLES #1 thoroughly would aid in your comprehension of the stories told in the four series. Makes no sense why they'd do it this way, but there is some important back-story and events happening in there. For example, Roiya and Sam from SIGIL are fellow soldiers from the last great war between humans and the Saurians. They were downsized and, at the time of the first issue, were looking for a job as security guards for the Sultan whose wife they would eventually escape the planet with.

CC #1 shows bits of business that happen at the end of the first issues of the 4 main titles, and fill in tiny gaps. In the MYSTIC section, for example, Genevieve discovers her sister has the 7 powers within her and walks away horrified by what her sister's done. It's a small thing, but it explains how she knows what's going on later in that series. And in SIGIL, we learn JeMerik's name for the first time.

It does answer some questions, but I'd much prefer the stories be complete in their own titles.

Claudio Castellini draw this first issue, and seems to have gotten lost from CrossGen right after that. The series resumes as a quarterly pretty soon with George Perez behind the art table.

SUMMING IT ALL UP

CrossGen's titles aren't re-inventing the medium. Nobody ever asked them to. And they never claimed to be about that. The closest thing they've come to reinventing is the method of comics production – the bullpen. There's nothing wrong with that. It's an experiment that's produced good results, with a surprisingly small bit of stumbling along the way.

The books are imaginative, with characters in each series that you're able to easily latch onto. Production values are high, with great care taken in the coloring, in particular. The worlds are fresh to look at, and beautifully illustrated, across the board.

If you read all of these books in a row like I just did, you might start to see some level of repetition. There's the cute animal-like sidekick in a couple of the series. There is a theme of the lesser races versus the "human" race. You get familial betrayal. You have romantic interests for everyone. You get generational sagas playing in the background. You have the old versus the new. You have wars aplenty. (THE FIRST and SCION, in particular, are based on this. MERIDIAN is gearing up for one. MYSTIC is more a Civil War, if you wanted to stretch the definition. And SIGIL allows for diplomatic negotiations to be at the breaking point.) Of course, all of these things can be found in any literature, in one guise or another. It's just that in the fantasy genres CrossGen is looking at, they start looking more repetitive.

The one real weakness of the books is that they too often rely on the Story So Far pages to explain items in the book to the reader. That's not how things should be handled, and will make for slightly more confusing stories in trade paperback format where those pages aren't included (I presume).

If I had to pick a favorite book right now, it would have to be SCION. Jim Cheung's detailed artwork carries the book, with Ron Marz's stories exploring a variety of worlds, while not forgetting the character building at the heart of the story. Second favorite would go the MYSTIC, mostly due to Brandon Peterson's art and design style. It gets the lead over MERIDIAN, but just barely. That book still has a lot to offer, and its more simplistic tale of a family squabble and lesser number of settings makes it easier to follow. SIGIL comes in a close fourth, mostly due to some confusion in the early stages of the storyline, and a larger cast of characters that weren't clearly delineated at the start. As I'm sure you can understand, THE FIRST comes in dead last.

There are lots of interesting things around the corner for CrossGen, though. New titles by new creators (including George Perez and Greg Land and Mark Waid) should bring a fresh infusion of energy into the mix, plus a wave of new readers and interest. The forthcoming publication of trade collections of the first set of 7 issues of each title makes for a handy entry point for those new readers. And the dependability of a spotless shipping record is helping sales, not hurting them, despite the occasional (albeit scheduled) fill-in art teams.

There's something to look forward to for everyone here. Judging by the die-hard fans, CrossGen has earned a certain measure of loyalty, and seems intent on keeping it.

My fingers are so tired right now… That's 7,000 words of Pipeline this week. I'm taking the weekend off to catch up on my reading now. The vicious cycle continues. ;-)

There were two previous columns this week on Thursday and Tuesday. Click on the links to read those, in case you missed them.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board, which is getting busier every week, I'm happy to report.

Over 175 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML. Those columns are even migrating over here in drips and drabs. Eventually, they'll all be on CBR. I can't believe Pipeline is entering its fifth year in a few short months…

And, finally, I write DVD movie reviews for the gang over at DVD Channel News. If you're into DVD, check out my stuff there.

Have a great weekend! Come back here on Tuesday so I can correct all the dumb mistakes and typos I'm sure I made here today.

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