Pipeline: Pipeline2, Issue #143

Fri, March 22nd, 2002 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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HARD COVER FRIDAY

I love hard cover books. Thankfully, my comics budget is flexible enough to accommodate them. This year, more great hard cover books are being produced than ever book. Marvel's program guarantees us a couple of new ones each month. NBM and Humanoids, in particular, continue to amaze with their output of translated graphic novels. Image is stepping up to the plate with LEAVE IT TO CHANCE going to print in the hard cover album format and Erik Larsen getting serious about producing SAVAGE DRAGON hardcovers without the shocking sticker price they've printed at in the past. DC keeps chugging along with its sparse hardcover output, even concentrating on some original graphic novels in the format, such as THE HUMAN TARGET.

It's a good time for hard cover aficionados.

This week, I'm looking at three such books of different genres and publishers. Two are relatively recent, and the other is from late last year. All are still available at a well-stocked comic shop near you.

CITIES OF THE FANTASTIC: BRUSEL

[Brusel]...is a story of a parallel Brussels, Belgium. In this one, the mad rebuilding of the city has gone to extreme lengths, to the point where a mockup of the new city has been developed that you could walk through, complete with elevated roads, high rise hospitals, and more. (Picture the end of BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM, when Batman and the Joker do their Godzilla riff. It's something on that scale.) What are the consequences to the people and land of Brusel of such massive renovation? That's what writer Benoit Peeters is exploring.

The joy of the book, though, is in looking at artist Francois Shuiten's magnificently detailed and highly imaginative building designs. This is a book where the artist might easily be forgiven any faults in his anatomy for superior draftsmanship in the architectural detail. Amazingly enough, he doesn't need to be. The characters that inhabit this world are drawn solidly, and fill space nicely next to the backgrounds. Coloring is very muted. The book is filled with earth tones, with nothing too bright to pop out at you. Even the yellows are subdued. It fits in well with the world, which is seen to be teetering on the brink of collapse throughout the story.

The storyline follows a florist, Constant Abeels, who has perfected the plastic plant, an invention that brings hope to those who want year-round plants without maintenance or upkeep. The problem is that his shop is destined for destruction to make way for the new high rise Brusel, and he's getting too sick to fight it anymore. And what's going on with the massive effort to rebuild the city? With a faltering budget and looming deadlines, it's not looking too good to get finished on time or on budget. There's a social dynamic, too, as there are those who hope the redesign of the city will allow for needed upgrades to technology used to heal the sick who are poor in conditions more resembling modern medicine than the Dark Age-like cattle call that hospitals at the time resemble. Abeels serves as the viewpoint for all of these things, as he stumbles through the politicians, the revolutionaries, and the downtrodden.

The translation (by Joe Johnson) is done up in computer lettering (by Ortho) that, sadly, is only a couple of steps removed from Whizbang. At least it's in all-caps.

(In a wonderful piece of karma, the book is printed in Belgium.)

COTF: BRUSEL is a beautiful hard cover presentation. The pages are a slightly glossy stock, in an oversized format. The price is $20, and that includes a lengthy text introduction to the Cities of the Fantastic Series, and Brusel, in particular. There's also a nice list of web sites you can visit for more information. If you like this one, NBM has translated three other books in the series, which I know I'll be gobbling up soon enough. They are interconnected, but I didn't have any problems reading BRUSEL without any prior knowledge of the series.

I could also recommend Humanoids' hardcover album, NOGEGON, about a world existing in perfect symmetry. The focus is on the high concept rather than the cityscaping, but the imagery and architectural detail is just as fantastic.

MURDER ME DEAD

[Murder Me Dead]David Lapham sets out to draw a comic noir with all the trappings of classic film noir. In that, he succeeds admirably. Most impressive are the visual cues built into the comic. Everything is drawn in a heavy black and white style. There are no ink washes or Photoshop effects. It's all ink work, in pen and brush and whatever tools might happen to be near the drawing board. Gray areas are suggested by crosshatching and close parallel lines filling in spaces. It's not fancy or post-modern. It's good old-fashioned comic book draftsmanship, done with flair and gritty style. Even the lettering is done by hand, in all capital letters with squared off balloons cut to match. Lapham sticks to a grid, mostly two and three tiers per page. There are no "comic book effects" used here. Nobody breaks out of a panel or gets thrown through multiple panels. This is restrained storytelling in the service of a story that needs to maintain its classical noir feel, first and foremost.

The story itself is set in small Los Angeles homes, tight New York apartments, a dirty jail house, jazz clubs, and smoky backrooms. What more do you want? How about an assortment of organized crime hacks, bar room bouncers, rough and ready inmates, smooth musicians, and gruff bartenders?

The story starts with a murder and ends in a firefight. Everything between follows in a logical progression, based heavily on the characterization of its players to dictate their actions from scene to scene. There are twists through the story, but they're not the kind that will make you re-evaluate everything you thought you knew over and over again. The book won't give you a headache or stretch into anything horribly convoluted. It makes sense, and that's a rarity in such storytelling today. As Lapham remarks in his introduction, "Too often today, we think we've become so sophisticated that we mistake clever for complex and reality for truth. A twist is thrown in to fool us whether it makes any sense or not. "

Here's the simplest plot description I can give without spoiling the book: The wife of our main character, Steven Russell, is found dead in their home. She's rich, and he's the immediate suspect. Her family doesn't like him, and he retreats to an old flame. The question quickly becomes one of what she's hiding and what their new relationship will do to him, as well as the implications it might have in his defense of his wife's apparent suicide. Then things get worse. And worse. And worse. You'll probably want to throttle Steven about halfway through the book for his single-minded dedication and determination, but at least you know what guides him. You know his quest, if you'll forgive the Hollywoodese. The characters, particularly Steven and Tara, are fully fleshed out. Lapham knows them inside and out and that shows. Neither are black or white characters. They've got bad pasts, and aren't always making the best decisions. When the two get together, sparks fly and things get dangerous. Your best bet is to just hang on for the ride.

The cast of characters is fairly limited for a story of this kind of size and scope. You'll have about 6 people to keep track of, and Lapham does a good job at keeping them visually distinct to the comic reader's eye.

The hardcover itself is a nice presentation, with a spare dust jacket and slightly yellow shaded pages to give the book a slightly pulpy feel. There's a short cover gallery in the back and an introductory text page. Aside from that, it's all about the 250-page story. If you don't want to spend the $35 on the hardcover, there's also a much cheaper softcover edition of the story. Both come from El Capitan Books.

I read an issue of David Lapham's STRAY BULLETS a few years ago and it didn't really grab me. After reading MURDER ME DEAD, I'm going to have to re-evaluate that position. I'll be picking up the first STRAY BULLETS collection at a convention this summer, for sure.

ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN

[Ultimate Spider-Man Hard Cover]If this is the face of Marvel's hardcover program, then there's a bright future ahead. THE ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN HARDCOVER (Volume 1) is an amazing book. It's a hefty tome, carrying the first 13 issues of the series. It doesn't stop there, though.

The back section of the book has a large number of pages dedicated to behind the scenes material. This is more than just character designs and notes from the artist. This includes Bill Jemas' original outline for the first six issues, and Brian Bendis' original e-mail back and forth with Jemas about the early issues' scripts and directions for the series. It's a wonderful set of background materials that go beyond just sample script pages. (Oh, there are a couple of those, too, to show a "deleted" scene between Peter and Kong.) If that's not all enough for you, there's also a reprinting of the original origin story from AMAZING FANTASY #15 in the back.

This is not a review of the stories presented in the hardcover. I've gone over all that in the past. The last story in the book is on the short list of favorite stories from 2001, and the rest are really nifty, as well. Odds are, you've already read them and are wondering if upgrading to the hardcover would be worth it. I think it is.

The book is slightly oversized, closer to the size of the ULTIMATE MARVEL MAGAZINE. I love this size. It makes the art pop out at you all the better, and makes the book easier and more enjoyable to read. The original coloring translates well onto this paper stock. Nothing is lost. The art looks great, without the worry of blown up art showing off defects in small corners of the page. This isn't like blowing up BEAUTY AND THE BEAST for an Imax screen. No background characters need redrawing.

There is one minor drawback to be learned from this package by Marvel. There's not enough room left in the binding for the art. Particularly as you get to the stories in the middle of the book, it gets harder and harder to see the left edge of the right-facing pages and the right edge of the left-facing pages. The art is full bleed in spots, so I can understand how difficult it would be to just shift the art to the outside of the page, but I wish they would come up with a solution for this so that first-time readers aren't wasting energy pushing the book down at the binding (and weakening it) to see into the edges where the staples once stood.

Aside from that, I'm really excited now. I may even go ahead and order up that FRANK MILLER SPIDER-MAN hardcover I was reluctant to bother with. The packaging is a real selling point, even at $35.

Next week: Reviews of books that'll cost you significantly less than $35 or $20. This will include a preview look on Tuesday of books due out on Wednesday. Marvel has some very interesting titles coming out this week.

Tuesday's column is Pipeline Commentary and Review #250. It'll be the 250th straight uninterrupted week I've written this column. Unbelievable.

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.

More than 350 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 or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.

If you're looking for me this con season, I'll definitely be in San Diego, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia.

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