Pipeline: PCR Extra #27

Fri, August 13th, 2004 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

REVIEWS, PART TWO

As you read this, I'm likely at the Wizard World convention in Rosemont, Illinois. Due to the San Diego con at the end of July, I've fallen behind on my limited reviewing duties. This week saw such an influx of reviews that the column had to be split into two parts. This, dear reader, is the second part. You can see the first batch of reviews from earlier this week right about here.

CAPTAIN MARVEL #25 is the capper on Peter David's much beloved series. While the series never caught on despite some interesting stabs at publicity, it ends on a very strong note. The final issue brings on Keith Giffen as artist, with Al Gordon inking and Chris Sotomayor coloring.

David's wicked sense of humor shines through in this issue, mixing a desperate attempt to wrap up continuing plot threads with biting industry sarcasm, parody, and some meta-commentary. That's why Giffen is such a natural choice as artist for this one. It's everything he needs to shine. You don't write an issue of shiny happy people and ask Giffen to draw it. No, you write a story about an angry man facing cancellation and separation from his God-powered alter ego. Throw in the dark humor and a broken fourth wall and you've got a Giffen-tilted title.

This is the best looking art I've seen by Giffen in a long time. It's beautiful. One thing I don't think Giffen gets enough credit for is his facial expressions. He's not quite Kevin Maguire, mind you, but this issue features a greater variety of facial expressions than you see in 90% of the rest of Marvel comics today, combined.

There's also a broad range of body language and postures. While so much of this book is talking heads crammed into six to nine panel pages, it's never boring. Giffen doesn't repeat himself. He doesn't cheat with pointless extreme closeups. It's all there on the page and it's all good, including a hidden Ambush Bug cameo.

Sotomayor's coloring softens Giffen's art up, too. His color palette for the book is light in tone, almost pastel in spots. Even though Gordon is listed as an inker, the finished art doesn't look inked. Gordon's ink line is open and light, not trying to overpower Giffen's pencils or call attention to itself.

CAPTAIN MARVEL #25 is one of the more successful series-ending comics in recent memory. David's sense of humor combines nicely with Giffen's surprisingly deft emotion-driven art. It's a shame we're not getting more.

DISTRICT X is, in a way, Marvel's version of GOTHAM CENTRAL. It is also, however, a good example of the difference between DC and Marvel. When DC (more specifically, Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka) creates a book like this, it's the story of a police squad with some recurring crazy villains and heroes parading through. When Marvel (actually, David Hine) does it, the point of the book is the mutations and the craziness of Mutant Town, as seen through the eyes of a local cop. As a bonus, that local cop is married to a mutant and partnered up with a mutant. Of course. The first was a surprise to the reader, while the second was a surprise to the character. Isn't that always the way with the Claremont style X-books?

DISTRICT X does, however, stand up on its own merits as a Marvel comic set in the mutant corner of the universe. It is creative and unique in its family of titles. David Yardin brings in a very European feel to his artwork, sticking to a panel grid that rarely explodes into the usual dynamic Marvel style of everyone acting like a chicken with their head cut off.

The third issue did have one glaring flaw in it, though, that I had to point out. The flaw was so large that I laughed out loud, incongruous as it was to the rest of the series so far. Hine strives to point out the similarities of the Mutant Rights movement to the black civil rights movement. After a couple of panels of Bishop hitting the reader over the head with the exposition, there's a final panel on the top tier of page 13 that has to be seen to be properly laughed at. Yardin draws a scary looking Bishop enclosed in a panel with lots of black in it, red color radiating out from Bishop into the black background. It makes for one of those faux scary B-horror movie type effects. His dialogue runs, "Being a mutant is like being black. You can be a black check out clerk or the black heavyweight champion of the world... but first thing you are is black. Same thing with mutants."

Funny, I thought Mutant was the new Gay. Someone introduce Ian McKellan or Bryan Singer to David Hine, quick!

There's no segue to the next panel after that. It's an overhead shot of the police procedural already in progress, without any continuation of the conversation. Talk about awkward...

The fourth issue came out this week. DISTRICT X is still a worthy read, especially for people who don't think of themselves as X-Men fans. It exists on the periphery of the line, much like SHE-HULK does for THE AVENGERS for the Marvel Universe as a whole. You often find the freshest and most creative books hiding out over there. This one's no exception.

UNCLE SCROOGE #332 contains the latest chapter in Don Rosa's occasional foray into the "Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck." This time, Scrooge is at the Panama Canal, butting heads with fellow adventurer Teddy Roosevelt on the occasion of the first ever presidential trip abroad. The two characters are a natural fit, as Rosa explains in a special text page at the back of the issue. Most of the story is based on fact, from details about Roosevelt's trip to Panama to the advent of the Teddy Bear, and the Secret Service's involvement with the president. It just all happens to take place in a world of talking ducks, dogs, and more.

Rosa's story is entertaining, with no inch of page space wasted. Backgrounds get filled with visual gags as the plot moves along in the foreground. Rosa's sense of comedic timing is on display here, even in the middle of an adventure tale. Scrooge's sisters threaten to the steal the story throughout, particularly Matilda's love for Rough Riders in uniform.

There is some light continuity in the story from previous chapters of Rosa's "Life and Times" stories, but it's nothing that would lose a new reader. The story works well on its own, and is worth the entire price of the $6.95 issue.

In fact, it almost has to be. The Magica DeSpell and Gyro Fearloose stories that follow are not the most engaging, although the Grandma Duck and Uncle Scrooge backup stories make up for them, mostly.

Still, this is Don Rosa's issue, complete with his art on the front and back cover.

SPAGHETTI WESTERN tells the tale of two old-fashioned horse-riding cowboys who sidle up to a bank to rob it. The twist is that this book is set in the present day, making the two cowboys look slightly psychotic. A bank teller, a couple of customers, and one lone security guard make up the cast of characters. How did the cowboys get there? Will they rob the bank? Can they get away with it?

If you're a fan of Sergio Leone's movies at all, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of SPAGHETTI WESTERN, Scott Morse's new western graphic novel from Oni Press. Morse goes all out to approximate the look and feel of the genre in his comic book. The book is bound on the side, and the pages are even presented letterboxed style. It's also wrapped in a sleeve to help it stand up better on store shelves, just like AiT/PlanetLar's LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS was last year. Is this the new in-thing for comic book westerns?

It's not enough for each page to be naturally wider than tall; Morse goes in and adds solid borders to the top and bottom to better approximate the 2.35:1 screen ratio that Leone used so effectively. The story progresses quickly, but the action is still spread out over a fair number of pages. You'll read it quickly, but you'll notice at the end just how little time passes in the story from beginning to end. This is the good and stylish form of decompression. It's done with a point, in homage to a movie style.

Morse's art is, likewise, stylish. There are strong character and building designs present, to the point where you can almost whistle the background music to yourself as you read the book. The opening pages give us a look at the small dusty broken-down town. It's not terribly important and might have been done in a single page. However, Morse is holding firm to the concept of the spaghetti western here, and those long pans across the landscape are a part of the look and feel of the genre.

In the end, SPAGHETTI WESTERN is a successful experiment in storytelling. Morse tells a compelling story in a way few others would dare to choose. The book is worth the $11.95 for people who will "get" the homage. If you've never seen THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, it might seem strange to you. In that case, go rent the recent DVD release of the Clint Eastwood classic. It'll help you understand this book so much more, and make you a better person.

NINETY CANDLES is the recently-released one shot from Xeric Award winning cartoonist Neil Kleid. It's an interesting and entertaining book, with a couple of "buts" thrown in for good measure.

I love comic books done in different formats. I like comics that take a chance in some way on a new way of telling a story, and NINETY CANDLES does just that. Like SPAGHETTI WESTERN, the book is bound on its side. It's a much thinner book, but the page size is slightly larger.

The story follows the birth, life, and death of a comic book artist. We see many of the expected trials and tribulations, many of which feel like they were inspired by Siegel and Schuster's situation around the time of the SUPERMAN movie.

The formatting stunt, though, is that each year of the artist's life is captured by a single panel and a line or two of dialogue. Two panels are shown per page, giving you a speedy look at an 85 year lifespan, along with a few pages of follow-up with his heir. Kleid did a page a day, starting without a script and working as he saw fit over the course of a three month span. That's why he terms the comic book "improvisational."

The results are good. The whole book is tough to quantify, though. It doesn't speak to me the way, say, TENDER VITTLES does. And part of me wants to groan at, "Oh, man, another comic book about comic books."

But the overall effect is pleasant. I did get involved in the character's life over the course of those many years, and I was entertained. Really, isn't that all you can ask for?

The book is self-published under Kleid's Rant Comics label, for just $5.95. You can find more information, reviews, a preview, and more at Kleid's web site.

KYLE BAKER: CARTOONIST, Volume 2 is subtitled "Now With More Bakers." Indeed, this collection of cartoons features more family hijinks than the first one. It's lots of "kids do the darnedest things" type stuff, but Baker's warmth comes across on the page to sell it. It doesn't hurt that he's one of comics' best living cartoonists today. It's different work, for sure, but it's up there with the works of Sergio Aragones, Jeff Smith, and Don Rosa. You can't ask for four more different types of storytelling, but they're all great at what they do, and that's commercial cartooning. There's not much in any of their styles to find offensive, but it's stylish, skilled, and enjoyable work. The legibility of their art, likewise, makes any work by any of these gentlemen accessible to anyone who would be interested.

Thankfully, Baker doesn't shrink down his art to fit more into the $15 package. CARTOONIST is in the same trade paperback format as the first collection was. While some might complain that the book feels thin because of that, I don't mind it. I want to see Baker's line work jump off the page, and using a fair amount of white space and filling up more of the page with less panels helps that effort. It's a fairly quick read, but worth the price. Let's hope Baker doesn't snap and suddenly decide to lower the price point by releasing these books manga-sized. It would be a great loss, unless he likewise changed his art to fit it.

THE ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN SCRIPTBOOK collects seven different scripts from Brian Bendis, starring the titular characters. This includes scripts to all the single issue stories from the main series, plus the WIZARD #1/2 tale, the SUPER SPECIAL, and two issues of ULTIMATE MARVEL TEAM-UP (kids at the mall, and the Fantastic Four gag story). Given that this is Bendis prose, there are a few redacted words in the scripts to cover the colorful lanuage, though the misspellings might have been corrected. (I haven't read the entire book yet, but it does seem fairly proofread for the typical Bendis scripts that I've seen.) Each story is introduced by Bendis in a text page describing what he was going for in each story. In some ways, it's some of the most introspective writing Bendis has done in his career. It's a great chance to get inside the thought process that goes into the making of his comic books.

It's great fun for a process junkie like myself to read the script with the final issue in front of me. I did it first with one of my favorite comics of recent years, ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #13. That's the issue with Peter confessing that he's Spider-Man to Mary Jane in his bedroom. Bagley did an amazing job with the art duties in what is a 22 page story set in one room as one act. Even more interesting is some of the choices he made, and angles he chose not to use that Bendis outlined in his script.

Bendis, for example, has Mary Jane relive the moment that the spider bit Peter from her point of view. Bagley went with something more omniscient. It's possible he thought the forced p.o.v. was too movie-like. Maybe he didn't want to draw a down-angle on a teenage girl's chest for when the spider lands on it. Maybe there was some conversation after the script was finished to change it. We won't know, but it's fun to guess and can be a learning experience for anyone who wants to think about how stories are told on the comics page by professionals.

Bendis also writes Mary Jane slightly more hyper in the scripts. She's bouncing around a bit more. She's more physical with Peter, pushing him in the chest a couple of times. In a way, it's subtly flirtatious behavior, whether Bendis, Bagley, or even the character realized it. By the final issue, though, she's toned back a bit.

There are other smaller examples throughout the issue. There aren't any major changes, but I imagine some were made to suit the monthly deadline. Bendis calls for more medium shots than Bagley uses. Bagley opts for a lot of close-up shots on the faces to help portray the emotions.

In any case, it's still a great issue, and reading Bendis' script will put you in the characters' heads a little bit more, in ways that no artist could hope to convey this format.

NIGHTWING #95 felt truncated to me. It's easy to assume the blame lies at the feet of the impending "War Games" crossover, which is why I'm so wary of using that. The whole relationship between Tarantula and Dick Grayson here feels horribly wrong. Obviously, the relationship is not a healthy one, but this issue just leaps from point to point with very little to string it together. In the end, Dick is smiling and happy and returning to the Bat fold. Great, wash your hands of the whole storyline and quickly clear the decks for the latest crossover series. Too bad. Should we take bets that Dick and Barbara will be back together by the end of the crossover?

That's it for this week's monster reviewing session. Stop back on Tuesday for the Pipeline Photo Parade from San Diego. I'll have a full con report on WizardWorld: Chicago the following week.

Over at Various and Sundry this week: An epic account of my experiences at the O.A.R. concert last weekend. More DVDs are released. George Lucas says one of the most mind-numbingly hypocritical things I've ever heard someone in Hollywood say. 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.

More than 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 also still available at the Original Pipeline page.

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