Pipeline: Pipeline, Issue #337

Tue, November 25th, 2003 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

STUMBLING INTO A THEME

This weekend, I found myself perusing my bookshelves in a search for something different to read. What I came across was a row of graphic albums that, for the most part, have been sitting unread since San Diego. You know how it goes: Once you read one, you can't stop. Next thing you know, you've read four or five novels this way and you're still craving more.

As it turns out, three of those books were from NBM Publishing, and I thought it an interesting enough tie to bring them all together for this week's column. Whether you're looking for something humorous or literary, this week's column has something for you.

If not, come back next week. I'll have some new fixation by then. In the meantime, stop by the Pipeline message board and let us know what your latest fixation is. Is there a particular character or creator that you're really reading up on now? A particular format? Era? Or am I the only one who gets stuck in these temporary ruts??

EISNER TILTS AT WINDMILLS

Will Eisner is 86 years old and still draws comics. The man had a successful cartooning career before the start of World War II, and he's still going today. This isn't just the far-past-his-prime creator repeating himself to the die-hard fans, either. Eisner's still creating new graphic novels and winning awards. His past graphic novels are all in print, and DC is lovingly reproducing his SPIRIT archives in a series of attractive hardcovers. Dark Horse published a book of his interviews earlier this year, SHOP TALK, featuring a star-studded cast of subjects, from Milton Caniff to Neal Adams.

Eisner's is an awe-inspiring career to be marveled at. The man is truly a legend in his own time, and that's not just some label stuck on his forehead by an eager marketing goon. He's the real thing. If you haven't read his textbooks on the creation of sequential art, you're missing out on a lot the field has to offer. If you've read UNDERSTANDING COMICS by Scott McCloud and thought you've read it all, you're wrong. Pick up COMICS & SEQUENTIAL ART by Will Eisner and you'll see many familiar things codified and explained. It's smart stuff. I still go back to that book from time to time just to read his brilliant version of Hamlet's "To Be Or Not To Be" speech.

[The Last Knight]In 2000, Eisner created THE LAST KNIGHT, a playful and speedy adaptation of Miguel De Cervantes' DON QUIXOTE. Clocking in at only 32 pages, this full color story highlights the most memorable parts of the classic piece of literature, adds a scene to create a new ending, and serves masterfully as an introduction to one of the most memorable pieces of literature you may have even been forced to read in high school or college.

While I don't think this is Eisner's best work, it's still leagues ahead of what anyone else would have done with the material. I'm not a fan of the water color look used in coloring this book, and a lot of the lettering comes off too sloppy for me. Some of the characters come off more stiffly than usual for Eisner's pen's excellent "acting" ability, but I think much of that has to do with the period costuming and detail. His strongest work comes when he's not wrapped up in drawing the armor or the colorful period costumes of the book.

Still, the storytelling is masterful, and the layouts are meticulous. Eisner proves that you don't need a border to frame a panel, and I think that's an important distinction. He opens up the scope of each page that way without looking like a stunt or a storytelling gimmick. Others may try it (look at Brent Anderson on ASTRO CITY), but Eisner masters it.

If you're a fan of DON QUIXOTE, I'd also recommend something outside the world of comics. Monty Python's Terry Gilliam attempted a movie adaptation of the book, which collapsed under its own weight, after filming for only a week. There's a DVD documentary called LOST IN LA MANCHA, which details this sad story. Eisner illustrates the one scene the movie attempted to film on pages 18 - 20 of his book.

THE LAST KNIGHT is not a perfect work and some will no doubt take exception to the liberties Eisner takes with the original story, but it is a worthy addition to the Eisner Library. The Master once again proves that just about anything can work as a comic

CHRISTMAS ALREADY?!?

This past weekend, some radio stations in the New York City broadcast area started programming their wall-to-wall Christmas music format. It's not even Thanksgiving yet, but the holiday shopping binges are starting already. It gets earlier every year, doesn't it? Farbeit for me to ignore this trend. Thus, the next review:

[Li'l Santa]LI'L SANTA is a delightfully imaginative comic romp by Thierry Robin and Lewis Trondheim. Santa Claus has never been more playful or more sympathetic than he is in the 46 page story presented here. It's a "Day In The Life Of" type of story, starting with Santa waking up (after hitting the snooze button a couple of times) and ending with his return to slumber's great embrace. In between, he deals with dispensations of presents, rowdy reindeer, toy material shortages, some goodwill to men, and even a flaming dragon who threatens to destroy everything. Oh, and did I mention the snowmailman, who refuse Santa's offer of some hot tea in favor of ice cream?

There isn't one complete story arc in this book, as much as a series of smaller events that add up over the course of a day. The story is episodic in nature, and is told completely in pantomime. (That's the American definition, not the British children's show style.) There's not so much as a thought balloon in this book. No words, no signs, no cheats like you saw in Marvel's silent month stories last year. This is pure cartooning mastery on display. The characters are agile and limber, and Robin shows great skill in moving them gracefully across the pages.

Robin utilizes a 16 panel grid: four tiers of four panels across. The art is simplified so that you often have a string of panels with just one or two characters acting something out. When the time comes to expand an image out across two or three panels, the effect on the reader is immediate and freeing. Santa's long walk across the ice bridge is expanded perfectly on the page and in the mind. There's also room for an extra sight gag involving a walrus doing a little fishing. No inch of space is wasted in this book. Layouts are chosen carefully. Not every panel is packed full of detail and background art. It's not necessary. All you need is Santa sitting on a chair reading his mail for 12 panels to convey the plot point. Showing the background would only confuse the reader and complicate the page needlessly. This is one of the challenges of silent storytelling. The reader's eye has to linger over every image so that he doesn't miss the obvious. It's tricky, when you come from a world in which animated series are illustrated radio, and comic book narrative is ruled by chatty writers.

Much of his work reminds me of Sergio Aragones'. They have a similar ability to tell a story without words, but it goes beyond that. There's a similar sense of comic timing, and of including background characters and throwaway gags in the backgrounds of the larger scenes. See the establishing shot of the elf's warehouse, or of Santa's neighborhood, complete with snowman sleigh riding. It's like reading a great children's book, at times. Robin does not pack as much work onto the page as Aragones does, opting for a simpler page overall. I wonder what Robin's work would look like in something with dialogue. Would that allow him to "busy up" the pages? I'd be interested in seeing more.

LI'L SANTA is the kind of work that would make a great television special. Imagine an entire half hour animated special without any lines of dialogue, just well chosen music and sound effects, a la Carl Stalling's classic Warner Bros. work. Yeah, it's a pipedream. Animation doesn't sell without big Hollywood names attached anymore. But I can dream, can't I?

Credit also has to go to the colorist, Isabelle Busschaert, for keeping the book bright and lively. While she uses gradations of colors and subtle shading effects, she doesn't overwork the page. The color scheme is bright, and nothing in the art is hidden by poor color placements. It's a perfect match to Robin's stark line and strong character design.

If you like the kind of all-ages appropriate work that Sergio Aragones can create, complete with originality, whimsical glee, and dense cartooning work, this book should be right up your alley. Robin and Trondheim have created an inviting and colorful book here that should be made a holiday tradition.

Thierry Robin has a web site that shows some more beautiful things coming from his pencil. It includes more Li'l Santa books that NBM hasn't published yet, plus other works in other genres. I'd love to see that "Rouge de Chine" book. The covers are gorgeous and in a completely different style from the cartoony Li'l Santa work.

BONEYARD VOLUME 2

BONEYARD is Richard Moore's engrossing story of an Average Joe named Michael Paris, who inherits a strange plot of land. It's a cemetery occupied by all sorts of movie monster types and genre characters. You get your vampires, your demons, your creatures from hell and the ocean, and more. Moore fills the book with a plot, but laces it with witty dialogue, an intriguing love story between human and vampire, and loads of laughs. Moore's art, refined in comics of a more adult nature, is considerably toned down here, but still not devoid of curvy women. They just wear more clothes. In other words: Abbey's cute, and Nessie is the resident flirt. But you won't see any nippleage.

In this new second volume, the IRS comes down hard on Paris for back taxes owed by his grandfather, the original cemetery owner. As Paris goes crazy trying to figure out a way around this problem, some trouble with the townsfolk leads to a charity boxing match and a surprise benefactor. There are a lot of plotlines left hanging at the end of this volume, but still enough going on to make a cohesive story.

Moore continues to add to the world he's created with BONEYARD. We're learning more about the backgrounds of some of the characters, while being introduced to new ones and bringing back old friends. Everyone will have a favorite character in the book, and I think the little demon, Glump, steals this book. When he loans his pad (a burial plot) to a visiting demon, he's left homeless. Nobody wants to take him in because, well, he's a demon who threatens others in his sleep. Moore shows off his verbal wit with the dialogue here, and a wicked sense of humor with some of Glump's other Roommate From Hell adventures.

Moore's work is inviting and addicting. Two collections of BONEYARD isn't enough, and the series' quarterly pace might seem glacial. However, it's a book that's always worth the wait.

This second volume is printed at a "normal" comic book size. The first volume had its original printing in an oversized edition, but even that's going back to press soon for a new printing at this standard size. It's a shame to see the art back to this size again, but it doesn't affect the story all that much. After re-reading the first volume, the second one did seem a little busier on the page. Moore leaves a lot of detail in his artwork, as deceptive as it may seem. When there's a crowd gathering, he's wont to draw it all in every panel. But if you're used to this smaller size, it shouldn't bother you at all.

All in all, BONEYARD: VOLUME TWO is not a letdown from the first book's brilliant premise. Quite the opposite, it's a book that's flourishing before our eyes, growing more compelling for its characterization and more humorous in its wise takes on classic character types. Richard Moore's art is the cherry on top, giving the book a distinct look that's clean and professional on every page.

This volume runs 96 pages for just $10.

ONE QUICK CORRECTION

The chat alluded to in this column last week will be appearing in this week's installment of J Torres' oh-so-popular Open Your Mouth column, not last week's. There will be far less Filipino presence in the column, but I think people might read it anyway.

Pipeline Commentary and Review returns in December. That's right; next week is December already. Isn't it about the time of year when everyone and their mother puts together some sort of Best of the Year list? Every year I say I'm going to continuously update that list over the course of the year, and every time I don't. This might be painful. There was a lot of great stuff to read this year, and I've forgotten most of it already.

Various and Sundry has been updated all week with lots of links. Really. I did Links Round-Ups on both Wednesday and Friday. Plus, there were updates from my new job, the weekly DVD release list, and the new business model of attempted-profit-by-litigation.

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.

Nearly 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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