Pipeline: Pipeline, Issue #54

Sun, June 14th, 1998 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

THE FLA$H

Mark Waid appears on the cover of PARADE magazine, included with today's Sunday newspaper. It lists him on there as a 36 year-old "comic-book writer" pulling down $250,000 a year. When I showed my parents this, they actively encouraged me to start writing comics. Go fig.

THE INTRODUCTION

Way back when, in the first incarnation of this column, I had occasion to do special columns called "Augie's Arc Reviews." In those, I'd review a recently-concluded mini-series or story arc in some given comic book.

This week, I'm bringing that back. I've got a couple of series I've just finished reading, and thought this would be a good time to discuss them. But before I do that, I have one comic I just read that I have to URGE you all to buy today because it's just That Good.

DESPERADOES

Jeff Mariotte and John Cassaday's possible swan-song is DESPERADOES #5. The set-up of the plot is reminiscent of an episode of HOMICIDE from this past year, but it goes in a completely different direction from there.

Before I go any further, let me set it up by telling you this: If you've not read the first four issues of DESPERADOES, there isn't a problem. You don't need to. There's a recap to those issues on the inside front cover, but you could probably even read this issue without reading that. It's not necessary.

Additionally, this is one of those "Done In One Tales." I'm more and more convinced that the art to storytelling is in this type of story and not in serials. It all follows the oft-mentioned "Babylon 5" model I talk about here. Every episode has a well-defined story to it. When viewed together with another dozen episodes or so, a whole new layer (or five) is added.

Jeff Mariotte has created some characters who act as individuals and have different traits. Betts is the impulsive and angry man. Brood is the leader, looking for answers. De Grazia is the tough-as-nails woman of the group who, in addition, probably has something developing with Brood, much to the consternation of Race Kennedy, whose feelings for De Grazia are anything but subtle. He does add, however, knowledge of the law to the group and a more careful and steady presence.

This is a western tale with X-Files-like overtones of mysticism or the fantastic to it. No aliens or anything. Just interesting stuff.

John Cassaday is an amazing artist. By inking himself, he adds new

dimensions to his art and keeps everything clear, unlike most self-inking artists who end up obliterating their art of worsening their weak points. Thanks, I assume, to the color wizards, some of the backgrounds in key parts of this issue look fantastic and more, er, painted.

It's just a damned shame this may be the end to this excellent series.

It's also nice to see the bounties on the poster on the first page

just happen also to be members of CompuServe's Comics and Animation Forum. Nice touch.

AUGIE'S ARC REVIEWS: 1998

We start off with one of WildStorm's entries into the whole HEROES REBORN mess, FANTASTIC FOUR. I bought the first 10 issues of the series before giving up on the whole thing. The problem is I stopped reading them after about the third or fourth issue, figuring I'd go back eventually and read the whole thing in one sitting. So I have.

The good news is that the last couple of issues were better, overall, than the first couple. Improvement is a good thing.

It fits back to the Babylon 5 model, almost. Stories are told in one or two issue increments. And by the tenth issue, you can see where they've been leading. One leads to the next and everything has some small part to contribute to the overall story of the coming of Galactus.

I've heard some complaints that all these stories were just re-enactments of the classic Lee/Kirby ones. I've never read those, so I get the opportunity to read these from a fresh perspective. The first half-dozen issues have the best art. Small wonder -- Jim Lee drew them. And a fine job he did. Brett Booth does a medium Lee impression, but things just look lumpy and out of shape at points. Still, he does a decent job of telling the story. He doesn't have the same amazing visuals that crept into Jim Lee's pages, but the flow remains there.

The thing that bothers me about the whole thing and which prevented me from giving them an overall positive value is the writing. It's over-written. It's got the usual Brandon Choi trademarks, including pointless abbreviations which require you to read another caption to figure out what's being said. People talk too much with too much jargon and every little thing is spelled out in needless and irritating detail. The end result just reads damn slow. Part of it might very well just be poor plotting. I won't discount that notion. But the pacing stinks. There's so much going on and so many people to keep track of.

Of course, there is also the omni-present government conspiracy and

cover-up, double-dealing, backstabbing and all the rest. The only problem is that this isn't Tom Clancy writing a comic book. So it fails miserably in that regards.

It got a little better after the first six issues when the story simplified a bit and went straighter ahead into space and the coming of Galactus. I don't have the last couple of issues and so can't review how the story turned out. The sad thing is that I just don't care. And that's as much review as is necessary, I think.

On the other side of things, James Robinson wrote an Ultraverse series which I did not read when it first came out. It's called FIREARM and I had the distinct pleasure to sit back with the first 18 issues of it (and the 0 issue of CODENAME: FIREARM) the other day and read nearly straight through.

It was, despite a few flaws inherent in Malibu Comics at the time, an exceptional series, done with flair, drama, style, and substance. I think, given enough time and a couple of editorial changes, it would have been even better than Robinson's current STARMAN mini-series.

FIREARM is the story of Alec Swan, private detective with a big gun in a world of Ultras that he hates. But the Punisher he is not. Nope, he is a sophisticated thoughtful gun-for-hire. Robinson uses the first-person narrative to bring us Swan's thoughts, as often obscure and irrelevant though they may be. A lot of the ideas and themes are echoed in STARMAN, but I believe this was here first by close to a year.

These are not all self-contained stories. The first story takes the first four issues and featured covers by Howard Chaykin. On the other hand, the fifth issue is self-contained and is probably the highlight of the series. In it, Swan tries to talk down an Ultra intent on committing suicide. It's an amazing issue filled with talking heads. Another highlight was the storytelling experiment that was issue 12. It's hard to describe it without spoiling it, but it brings us back to several dangling subplots from the first year's worth of stories, puts them in motion, and sets us all up for the final series of stories, the Rafferty Saga.

The Rafferty Saga ends the series in a blood bath, as Swan makes it a personal mission to track down Rafferty, a man who is cutting a swath through the Ultra community, killing them in a variety of ways.

The series does have an ending, of sorts, with the 18th and final issue. It would have been nice to have a 19th issue with some sort of coda, but that apparently wasn't possible.

And this is where editorial and company politics are to blame, I suppose, for many of the problems with the series. Don't get me wrong: This is a great read. Go ahead and pick up the issues. Read them. Enjoy them. They're great. But you always get the feeling of unfinished business. You get the feeling that if Robinson could have stayed on a bit longer, or if the company could have left him alone, this would have been one of the seminal series of the time. To whit:

I don't know why Robinson left when he did for sure anymore. Maybe it was to devote time to the upcoming STARMAN or something. But part of it had to have been the fallout between the Ultraverse creators and Malibu, the sale of Malibu to Marvel, and all the other ugly things that were happening at the time.

Second, the crossover-itis On at least two or three occasions, the story in FIREARM continued to other series, notably FREEX and PRIME. There goes the self-contained nature of the series. There, also, goes the single-minded approach to the creation of the character, as other writers begin to use him and try -- without much success -- of copying Robinson's style.

There were also the company-wide crossovers that crossed over into Firearm. Robinson managed to keep those mostly out, but the BREAK-THRU crossover created what might be considered an uncomfortable deus ex machine for the first storyline's end.

Third, Cully Hamner seemed to have been the main artist of the series, but he never really was. He finished less than half of the issues. That gets really annoying. There also had to have been at least a half-dozen pencilers, alone. It would have been nice to keep the same guy for 14 or 15 of the 18 issues.

Fourth, there was always something which annoyed me about the printing quality of the Ultraverse titles. The paper was thinner, the colors were odd. I'm not sure.

Seriously, all of these are minor quibbles which would have brought the book up to -- to use a cliche I loathe -- "the next level." I'm more than happy with what it was.

Now if only I could find that really awful movie I've heard so much about that they had made to go along with the first issue. Anyone looking to dump their copy?

Also, does anybody know how long that OPERATION: FIREARM series lasted?

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