Pipeline: Pipeline, Issue #317

Tue, July 8th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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THE AIT/PLANETLAR TRIFECTA

[Last of the Independents]LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS (LOTI) is a new graphic novel from the fine folks at AiT/PlanetLar. It tells the story of a bank heist that goes awry, as they always do in these stories. What happens when you rob a bank, only to find more money in it than you thought? Well, the people who own that extra money certainly get ticked. And they can afford big guns to send after you. LOTI is the story of a trio of bank robbers who fall into that trap and run for their lives.

It's hard to believe that LOTI is Matt Fraction's first original graphic novel. It carries all the sophistication and thought of a veteran writer. It's not that the book is as deep as anything Hemmingway or Steinbeck wrote, but that it shows a writer whose knowledge of his craft is sound. He brings us right into the story, defines the characters through their actions, and keeps our attention with snappy dialogue and a plot that keeps moving. There are none of the plot lulls or stutter steps of a new writer here.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that he has Kieron Dwyer drawing it. Dwyer doesn't let the streamlined script turn into a blueprint for a series of splash pages. His storytelling is very much influenced by the cinema. All of those little things you see in heist movies show up here. There's a scene early on in the heist when two characters walk into the bank. It's a simple shot, right? But Dwyer takes the time to divide it up into four panels to show us a small moment -- Justine looking both ways as she enters the door to cover their back. It's a little thing and something that another artist might have just ignored in the script, but it's something that makes the book really come alive. The devil's in the details, as they say.

LOTI is printed brown, not black. Everything about it screams for one of those western movies with minimal color. Picture a dry dirt road running through the middle of town with a plain sky and some dust blowing across the screen. Picture a Sergio Leone western and you might begin to get the right feeling. Dwyer outdid himself to present this book in a style that matches its tone. Rather than resorting to publishing the book in full color or with lots of gray tones, it looks like he drew the book on brown wrapper paper, the kind you might find a school kid's textbook wrapped in. Then, it's just a matter of drawing everything in ink, using some whiteout to approximate highlights, and dropping out a color register in the printing so that all the lines look brown instead of black. It's an effective technique that, more importantly, matches the style and tone of the book it is done for.

The book is presented sideways; It's bound on the left edge and opens wide. There aren't any double page splashes in the book, but Dwyer does make great use of the extra wide spaces to create cinematic shots during the action sequences. When horses race cars and guns are blazing, Dwyer pulls out all the stops to make it feel like you're reading a movie. He doesn't forget the power of the sequential art. He brings in techniques from another medium to communicate the story, as it should be. Fraction's graphic novel here is a mini-movie. It wouldn't take all that much money to film this thing, and its pacing and dialogue is written for the screen. You have catchy one-liners and easy-to-follow characters and plots, but it's not stupid or dumbed down to get there.

LOTI cements Larry Young's growing reputation for being the Jerry Bruckheimer of comics, a title he's no doubt long lusted over. Between this and COURIERS, he's the producer behind a fine line of action-packed movies on paper. I'll let Brian Wood and Matt Fraction battle it out to see who wants to be Michael Bay and who'll end up as Tony Scott.

[Switchblade Honey]Arriving at stores next week is the long-awaited Warren Ellis-penned graphic novel, SWITCHBLADE HONEY. This one has everything you like about big dumb spaceships shooting at each other, but with smarter pseudoscience, better characterization, and an extra dose of attitude.

The plot is simple: the earth has lost a war with an alien race and desperation compels the humans to throw one last ship at the enemy. The ship is staffed from a population of prisoners who were less than cooperative with the original game plan, but best suited to carry out a one-ship guerilla war.

Their leader, John Ryder, is your typical Warren Ellis archetype. He's a cigarette chain smoking arrogant British man who knows exactly what he's doing. And when you're working on a ship with a by-the-books pilot, a druggy electronics station engineer, and a weapons expert who doesn't always like to fire them, you need one confident person to guide you through, because there's trouble coming. The only weakness in the plot is that none of these prisoners are truly bastards. They're in jail for political reasons. Their secondary characteristics make them unsettling, but those are mostly in reaction to the political hell they've been trapped in.

Ellis has done his research in putting together a book that, on the face of it, follows all the plotlines that such space war books need. He has the well-equipped ship with big weapons and the right conflicting characters. He uses the gravity slingshot of a planet and some science to pull off a couple of big scenes. But it's all filtered through a writer who wants to rip apart all the nice aspects of those conventions, and go his own way with them.

Brandon McKinney's art is solid, paying great attention to all the technical detail both of the exterior views of the ships and the detailed technical instrumentation of the interiors, such as the bridge. His character work shows no problems with keeping people differentiated. They all look different, and there's a lot to be said for that these days. His panel-to-panel storytelling is right on the money, and the silent panels where he draws the big action scenes are easy to pick up on. Seeing ships flying and shooting in outer space isn't easy to depict. Having three dimensions of mobility means additional complications in the storytelling. McKinney makes it look effortless, to the point where Ellis doesn't need to add any further captions to explain the scenes.

SWITCHBLADE HONEY is a $10 graphic novel in black and white (and many shades of grey.) It's the right price point and an entertaining book. If you're a disgruntled TREK fan, this should be right up your alley.

[Scurvy Dogs]Andrew Boyd and Ryan Yount's SCURVY DOGS #1 (distributed by AiT/PlanetLar) is a funny book that helps to solidify the creators' mantra that "pirates are the new monkeys."

The book has two stories filled with one-liners and visual gags. The first story, "The Captains Night Out," is by far the funnier of the two. It clocks in at a quick eight pages, never taking a breath long enough to wear out its welcome. In it, the captain tells the tale of his successful defeat of a leper ship. The second story, "Nine To Five," doesn't carry the momentum through to the end of the issue. Here, the pirates are forced to disembark and get real world jobs. While the captain is funny when trapped in Cubicle Land, the rest of the pirates have mixed success in their jobs and the whole thing goes on for too long at 14 pages.

Yount's art serves the story, often as two-dimension and simplistic as the jokes. It's nothing that distracts from the gags, though, and never fails the story. The book isn't meant to be deep. It's meant to be a breezy laugh fest. In that, it succeeds. A second issue is due out in September, and is solicited in the current edition of PREVIEWS. If you see this one in the store, stop a moment to give it the flip test to see if it makes you laugh.

OF DUCKS AND DISNEY

[Uncle Scrooge #319]It's been four long years since America last saw the printing of a new Uncle Scrooge or Donald Duck comic. The dry spell ended two weeks ago with Gemstone Publishing's release of WALT DISNEY'S COMICS & STORIES #634 and UNCLE SCROOGE #319. Both books are re-debuting with strong material, featuring headliner stories from the best of today's crop of Duck creators, and a pleasant assortment of stories that are bound to please most everyone. They won't all make everyone happy, but since these titles are anthologies, that's OK. The important thing is that the books are back, they look better than ever, and the stories are worth the money.

I'll start with UNCLE SCROOGE, which has always been my favorite of the Duck titles. It begins with a brand new tale from Don Rosa that's a sequel to a chapter of The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, "The Vigilante of Pizen Bluff." This time, Scrooge is after the lost Dutchmen's Mine. As Rosa details in a text page after the story, it's meticulously researched, even if nobody is bound to believe a word of it or don't notice that all the facts used in the story are based on the real world Dutchman's mine. That doesn't hamper the drama or the humor of the story. Rosa pulls off both at once, again, including the shtick of Donald having glue stuck to his hand, while Scrooge and the nephews work their way through the clues to get to the hidden mine.

Some of the fun of any of Rosa's adventure stories is in following the action in the background very carefully, because Rosa fills his backgrounds almost to excess. Sometimes, it's a silly sight gag. Other times, it's a counterpoint to the main action, of the reactions of the outsiders to Scrooge's single-mindedness. Through it all, Rosa doesn't waste an inch of space. It's a 24-page story with enough material to fill six issues of most superhero comics today. The four-tier approach to storytelling that Rosa uses allows him to carefully plot his story out without skipping over anything. You follow everything step by step. It's part of what made Carl Barks' work so easy to access for a reader of any age. There were no hokey comic book shortcuts in his storytelling. The story lived on the page, and Barks took his time to spell it all out. Thankfully, it's a tradition that lives on to this day. When Rosa does "indulge" in a half page splash, it looks larger than it really is, just because it's a break from the usual smaller images. The impact is heightened because of what it's working against. He uses that to his advantage. When the Ducks stumble across the mine, at last, the meticulously detailed landmark looks twice as big because it's given a full half page to shine.

It's going to be painful to see read future Rosa stories broken back up into 8 page chapters. Thankfully, the monthly format means you only have to wait two months to read all three chapters.

Barks' "Terror of the Beagle Boys" is reprinted here, a short and silly ten pager whose ending is so predictable that Barks throws you for a loop when he twists it back on itself with a classic and ludicrous plot device added on top of everything else. The story pages here look markedly different from everything else in the book. I don't know what materials were available for scanning when it came time to reprint the story, but it lacks the crispness in the black lines that the other stories in this issue have. It looks like it was scanned in from a previous printing, but that's not good enough when the rest of the stories surrounding it are so well presented. They pop off the page. This Barks story, unfortunately, looks like it's caught in the mud.

[Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #634]WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #634 leads off with a new William Van Horn story that brings Donald Duck into the world of a detective noir mystery. It's one of Van Horn's odder efforts. It's different from anything else I've ever read in a Disney comic. It's filled with in-jokes, cameo appearances, and a seemingly nonsensical plot. However, Van Horn keeps it entertaining with his bouncy art and his wonderful sense of word play. Donald struggles with his internal narration throughout the story in ways that only Van Horn could properly play off. "[It was] A silly question that evaporated as I was drawn to the gloomy old house! Drawn like. . . like an ant to a marshmallow. . . or, or a moth to a flame, or . . . well, you the idea!"

Yes, every line in every duck comic book ends in an exclamation point. You learn to ignore that after awhile.

Other stories include a Noel Van Horn written and drawn Mickey Mouse story that's entertaining, but not very dramatic -- maybe melodrama is an apt description. Gladstone Gander stars in a tale from Michael Gilbert and Vicar, that's humorous but also carries a message about humility. Mau Heymans has a five page Donald Duck gag story that's possibly the best-looking story aside from the Van Horn story at the top. Heymans is sharp in drawing the nephews consistently and precisely. The ink line is crisp. Pat and Shelly Block write a story about Grandma Duck that's short enough to not wear out its welcome, featuring art from Alferez. And the Junior Woodchucks return in another scripted tale from Carl Barks that's recently been redrawn by Daan Jippes in a style that evokes some of Barks' finest character work. Like the final story in this month's UNCLE SCROOGE comic, it features the ducks golfing.

One last note about both books: The lettering problems of the previous Gladstone run have been cleaned up. The awful Whizbang font is gone, and a couple of letterers known for their super hero work are putting words in the Ducks' balloons. Jon Babcock applies his Orzechowski-esque style in a pair of WDC&S tales, and Bat-letterer Willie Schubert works his magic in both books. I think I like Schubert's work better, as it looks less superheroic to me. Both are readable without being annoying. Van Horn, as always, letters his own stuff. John Clark hand letters Rosa's tale, as it was done at the end of the last Gladstone series.

All in all, the first efforts out of the gate under the new Gemstone label are impressive ones. While they did take some chances, such as the Fethry story in UNCLE SCROOGE, they stuck with their strengths: Barks, Rosa, and Van Horn. The production values are stronger than ever, thanks to the new lettering. Not only do we have the Ducks back on the store shelves again, but I feel safe that they're still in good hands and that the future output -- including digests and the normal 32 page format -- will help to expand the audience for these books.

As a bonus, Gemstone was kind enough to supply Pipeline with a copy of both WDC&S and US. Since I already bought my own, I'm going to give these two away to one lucky winner in North America. Drop me an e-mail with the subject header of "Duck Giveaway" and include your name and mailing address where the books should go if you should be the lucky one to win. Out of respect for the licensing issues, I have to limit this contest to North America only. I'll pick a winning e-mail at random on Saturday morning on my way out the door to go to the post office. All other entries will be deleted and your addresses will not be saved, sold, or given away to anyone. Good luck.

TALES OF THE REALM #1

Robert Kirkman was kind enough to offer up the opportunity to read the first issue of TALES OF THE REALM this weekend. The six-issue mini-series is due to begin in September from one of CrossGen's imprints. (I can never keep those labels straight, and there's nowhere on the web or in the solicitation that indicates which imprint this falls under.)

Kirkman creates a world in that will seem remarkably similar to what many people who follow the world of Hollywood are familiar with. All the politics and backbiting and star treatment is present in this comic. The only trick is that this version of Hollywood exists in the middle of a fantasy world. The castles and enchanted forests aren't just set pieces, but also the local neighborhood. The ogre can complain to his union rep about being typecast to the point of racism and get results. But the human stars of the successful television series, "Tales of the Realm," can also whine about their struggling movie careers as well as what it's like to work on fantasy sets.

Kirkman's easy-to-follow plotting is well in place here, as TOTR is a breezy read that's not insulting. There are plenty of ideas and a few interesting characters to be found in the book. You won't get bored with the book, as it moves at a crisp pace and things reappear later that you thought had already been forgotten. The issue is all set-ups, but it's entertaining. With a new "universe" like this, the first issue has to establish that world and the people in it. If the writer can pull that off convincingly, he stands a chance of keeping an audience for the rest of the series. The trick now will be in seeing how this all pays off in the next five issues. For now, Kirkman has piqued my interest.

The art by Matt Tyree is perfectly suited for the book, a nice blend of cartoony and realistic art. He can draw everything from a vaguely Jack Kirby-looking blue elf creature to a purple troll, large castles, and regular human beings. Some of the art has a slightly Kevin Maguire look to it, which can only help on a book like this. The coloring complements his art nicely. It's bright enough to keep with the tone of the book.

TALES OF THE REALM is a light-hearted book that should complement THE CROSSOVERS well. Keep an eye out for it this September. It's also not too late to pre-order it with your local retailer.

HULK HATES PAN AND SCAN

I finally saw the HULK movie this weekend. The movie has been analyzed and critiqued and battered plenty by now. Fair enough. As someone interested in home theaters, though, something struck me that I haven't seen anyone comment on just yet.

Ang Lee's use of the comic panel as a filmic technique is the single best way to screw up the people in power who will want to release a "pan and scan" version of the movie to DVD. The peon whose job it is to pan and scan across all those panel borders and scene transitions is going to have a devil of a time doing it without making the film look like utter crap.

Most movies are merely ruined when they're changed from their original aspect ratio to a pan and scan presentation. This movie will be destroyed.

BWAH-HA-HA

[Formerly Known as the Justice League]You can, indeed, go home again.

There have been a series of reunions over the past few years. Frank Miller returned to The Dark Knight. Chris Claremont returned to the X-Men. Peter David wrote a Hulk comic. Erik Larsen drew AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. The Suicide Squad returned. All of these books received mixed reviews. The phrase "you can't go home again" echoed through every review. The idea is that nostalgic items are best left in the past. You can't recapture lightning in a bottle. These highly memorable books are products of their time.

When DC announced that Keith Giffen and company were returning to THE JUSTICE LEAGUE, a book they revitalized more than a decade ago, most of the reaction was very positive. People who remember buying the book as it came out still love it. Others like myself, who found it at the end of the run or who found it through the quarter bins afterwards, looked forward to seeing more of this hilarious take on DC's characters.

Then again, expectations were high on all those other projects I mentioned at the top. Could FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE JUSTICE LEAGUE hope to recapture that same magic? So much of that series was set in the era of the Cold War and its end. An international JUSTICE LEAGUE seemed like such a wild idea at the time. Nowadays, it's nothing. And funny characters? While we're out of the worst of the era of grim and grittiness foisted upon us following the releases of WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, this is still hardly a market that's healthy for funny books.

Forget all the nay-sayers, though. Be prepared to laugh again, because FKATJL is the funniest book of the year so far, and the creative team behind it doesn't seem to have missed a step in the more than 10 years since they worked together regularly as a team. Giffen has updated the concept, placed it firmly in current DC continuity, and given us enough memorable moments (L-Ron working at Big Belly Burger, for example) to not embarrass the legacy of the series. J.M. DeMatteis is as witty as ever with the dialogue, and Maguire's well-respected capacity for drawing facial expressions is put to the test in this book. This is, for the most part, a talking heads book. Maguire can pull that off visually, and Giffen/DeMatteis can keep the dialogue rolling so much that you aren't squirming in your seat like you were for the first hour of the HULK movie.

The only change in the book has been the coloring. The credits were on the last page of the book, so I didn't know who did them as I read the book, but I knew I liked the color scheme. It was calm and warm. As is typical with a talking heads book, there aren't many backgrounds to detail in color, so lots of solid colors behind the characters had to be used to bring out the art and also reflect the mood or emotion in the panel. I thought the colorist did that well, also. When I finally got to the credits, I wasn't surprised to see the great Lee Loughridge's name listed. Surely, one of these days, he'll be nominated for an Eisner Award. I really hope someone remembers Loughridge's name next year when it comes time to formulate nominations.

The only odd thing about the book was its paper stock. The interior paper is one step above newsprint, if that. The cover is almost cardboard stock, like that used in SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT this week. I wonder if there was a paper shortage at the printer's this week, or if someone goofed. I liked the heavier stock, but it doesn't seem like the cost-efficient one to use on a $2.50 book.

FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE JUSTICE LEAGUE shows that it is possible for creators to "go home again" and not look like old fogies for doing it. This is the only creative team for the book, and they pulled it off well. Now if only Bart Sears could get a Leave of Absence from CrossGen to do FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE JUSTICE LEAGUE EUROPE, we'd be all set. In the meantime, don't worry about tarnishing your memories of the classic series. This new issue does the old series proud. Perhaps a renewed interest in this style of comic might convince DC to reprint more of the originals in trade form.

PCR Extra returns on Friday with a look at some of the highlights of the programming for the San Diego Comic-Con next week.

Pipeline Commentary and Review comes back next Tuesday with whatever reviews I can squeeze in before taking off for the con.

Pipeline will provide daily coverage from the floor of the San Diego con, as usual. Look for new columns on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday next week, plus the usual Tuesday entry right afterwards.

Various and Sundry is chugging right along, with a review of the new Michelle Branch album, a reminder of "Mathnet," a Bob Newhart recommendation, how to throw playing cards, embarrassing MicroSoft videos, and more.

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.

Somewhere around 500 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.

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