Pipeline: Pipeline, Issue #377

Tue, August 31st, 2004 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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THERE'S A COMIC REVIEWED IN HERE SOMEWHERE

When I first started reading comics, I idolized the artistry of Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, and Erik Larsen. But I also redrew panels from William Van Horn and Don Rosa Duck stories. I freeze-framed episodes of DuckTales, Tiny Toon Adventures, and Animaniacs that I had on tape, to learn to draw them. I even did that with The Jetsons when their animated movie came out. I was sure I was going to be an artist when I grew up.

Things changed in high school, but I still doodle to this day. When I doodle, most of what I draw is the stuff I learned from far too many weekday afternoon cartoons, not what I learned from the comic books.

So if you were to ask me today to draw a comic book for myself, I would choose a more animated style. With the current wave of animation professionals currently drawing comic books -- from Darwyn Cooke to Mike Kunkel -- there are role models galore to choose from. They're producing some of the freshest and most vibrant work in comics today. They're bringing something new to the table that may honor the classic comics work, but isn't strictly beholden to it.

The latest in that line is Kazu Kibuishi's DAISY KUTTER. Although at first it might look like another attempt to cash in on the anime-flavored sci-fi western theme that keeps popping up lately, it's really something completely different. The first issue is all set-up, but not in the way that so many stories waste that set-up. There are events happening in this issue that begin the overall story. We meet Daisy Kutter, we see her get into trouble, and we know how she needs to get out. That part will come next issue.

For now, we have a very likeable lead character, the owner of a small western general store in a town inhabited by humans and robots alike. She's trying to get away from her complicated past as some sort of hired gun, but it keeps coming back to her. And on one particular poker night, her life changes.

Yes, for as big as poker has become in the past year, this is the first major use of Texas Hold 'Em I've seen in a comic book so far. I suspect we'll see more coming up shortly. The biggest problem with scripted gambling is that there's no gamble to it. We, as the audience, know the end is fixed to suit the writer's need. There's no need for any logic.

But in real poker, it's all a gamble. You might win, or you might lose. Even when you only have one card left in a deck of 42 remaining cards, you still have a chance. It doesn't break suspension of disbelief for that card to show up. And if it does break that on you, then you haven't played or watched enough poker in your life. Crazy cards come up at the weirdest times.

Kibuishi goes so far as to explain the rules of Texas Hold 'Em in a genuinely entertaining manner. Daisy narrates the segment, and the hand it's narrated over is likewise interesting. You can hear the voice over like you would in an animated film. It doesn't feel expository, and it doesn't stop the story.

The overall feel of the book is very comfortable. There are no overly wordy panels, because Kibuishi knows how to draw a beat per panel. This is pure storytelling, the ability to pace the images to go with the words. He's not afraid to draw a dozen panels on a page, and he never makes them feel cluttered. Each panel is a beat. There's no cheating here. It's very much like storyboarding for animation. Each drawing there represents a moment. In comics, one drawing can represent more than one moment with some slick dialogue. Kibuishi, though, stays true to his animation training, which results in a very smooth read.

DAISY KUTTER: THE LAST TRAIN #1 comes highly recommended. Viper Comics is the publisher. The packaging is very slick, with a square binding, a cardboard cover, and a good stock of paper to hold Kibuishi's gray washed penciled artwork. It's only $3.99 for a 31 page main story, with a 13 page dog detective backup story by Phil Craven.

A HAUNTED HOUSE WORTH READING ABOUT

One of Oni's most recent graphic novels is THE TOMB, a haunted house story from Nunzio De Filippis and Christina Weir, with art from Christopher Mitten. It's a solid effort, with an authentically scary house at its core. I enjoyed both the little scares that jump out at the reader as well as the mystery at the heart of it.

This is a book that should not work. There's King Tut mythology in here. College professors studying mythic lore. There's yet another ankh in a horror book. And, really, can we find a new powerful symbol to use in ever horror book imaginable now, please? Didn't Neil Gaiman establish the ankh as Death's thing? Shouldn't we just let him have it?

Horror is just tough to pull off in comics. So much of horror in other media relies on timing (movies and TV) and imagination (prose especially, but also movies and TV). A comic book can't dictate timing, and it usually shows you everything.

However, this team knows that enough to use it to their advantage, cutting scenes at just the right times, using page flips to its advantage, etc. It's not perfect, mind you. There's at least one splash page that falls flat for not being a big enough moment to justify its existence. Over the course of the entire 145-page story, that's a good enough percentage.

I read a photocopy of the final book that Oni was kind enough to provide. I wrote notes in the margin as I read it, mostly with questions about story points that didn't seem to make sense at the time. I'm happy to say that all of those questions were answered by the end of the story. That makes this a good read.

I had to treat the book as an alternative history text, though. It proceeds from the now proven false premise of rampant Iraqi Museum looting. I'm sure when the book was written, that was hot in the news. When it was mostly debunked a week later, it was hidden in small type in the back pages. Still, it turns out to be a turning point in the life of the lead character for the book, plus the moment that solidifies her character. It's not mere set dressing for the purpose of making a political statement. Give them credit for that. Treat the book as AltHist, and you'll have no problems.

The lettering services the story, although I had my nits to pick with it. Most notably, the balloons aren't consistent in their placement. On some pages, they're butting up against the panel borders. In others, they needlessly overlap the borders (bad!) or are floating just beneath, just avoiding a tangent line. The overall style is slightly Kirkmanesque, although the balloon tails are drawn completely straight. It's a subtle thing to tell with today's computer lettering, but it's generally more accepted to curve the tail just a tad. Off-panel voices should also have tails pointing in their general direction, so as not to create the disembodied voice effect.

Mitten's art is remarkably consistent throughout the book. At a book of this incredible length, it had to be a grind to put it all together. Much of the story is made up of scenes with characters stuck in a room, talking. While there are plenty of little breaks for action or dramatic changes in scenery, it takes a professional artist to never make it look like a chore. Mitten does a good job in varying things up enough to never create a rhythm to be used against him. He didn't resort to all the storytelling cliches to put the book together. When all heck breaks loose in the end, the action is easy to follow and I never got lost.

All in all, THE TOMB is a haunted house horror book I can recommend if you're looking for this kind of thing. It's easy on the eyes and engaging to the mind. You can try to play along with the characters, but you'll still probably miss some of the surprises. Oni published it this summer in their smaller format for $14.95.

CONVENTION RECAP: SKETCHBOOKS

For the next few weeks, I'm hoping to make a regular segment out of looking at books I've picked up at the conventions this summer. I'll start that this week with a look at the sketchbooks artists had for sale. They included scrappy Kinko's-produced affairs, comic books filled with sketches, and squarebound professionally printed art books.

I touched on Franchesco's sketchbooks here last week. There are two of them, with the second having a nice conspicuous blank area on the front cover to get a sketch on. He's known for his drawings of well-endowed females, and that's what you'll mostly see in the books. However, there's a lot of other work, too, from fannish drawings of superhero characters to some more subdued and tasteful female forms. You also get interviews with the artist where you'll learn why, for example, he goes by just his first name.

Did you know Franchesco draws both Xstacy and Veggie Tales? This really shouldn't surprise me. Holly Golightly works on Archie Comics, after all...

ROUGH SKETCH #1 is Frank Cammuso's contribution to the form. Printed at half page size, the 20 interior pages are held together with a thicker cover stock, limited to 150 copies. The book is devoted entirely to MAX HAMM, including the character's original six page story as first seen in EXPO 2001 and then a series of sketches of various characters from the series. Some of it is full inks, while others are rough pencil sketches. With Cammuso's very animated style, the pencil sketches are where all the gems are found, as you can see the artist defining his shapes and roughing in the details. I love uninked art, and this book is filled with winners. Aside from captions naming characters, there's no other text in the book. I don't remember how much I paid for this one -- $10, most likely -- but it's a worthy edition. As a bonus, the book slides into a manilla envelope labeled "Evidence."

Carlo Barberi named his sketchbook "A Collection of Sketches by Carlo Barberi." This "limited edition" features 28 pages of art, wrapped up in a heavier stock cover. It's the same size as Cammuso's volume, and is all pin-up art, most likely commissions the artist has done over time. Some of the art was for sale at his table. Characters range from Spider-Man and Wonder Woman, to Transformers and Lara Croft. The inside covers include rough sketches for cover layouts. The book ran $8 from Barberi's table in Chicago, and is enjoyable if you like his art style. If you're not into the Humberto Ramos/Carlos Meglia school of art, then this won't obviously be for you. The cover is a Wolverine/Elektra pin-up inked by Derek Fridolfs, who just opened a gallery of his work.

Stan Sakai's USAGI YOJIMBO sketchbook is a $10 jobber, presented on crisp white paper, running 24 pages, plus covers. There's a great variety of material in here, including loose sketchbook material, cover roughs, and character guides. Sakai's loose sketchy style contains more energy and activity than does most comic art today. It's that incredible. The pages filled with head turnarounds of characters are interesting from a technical standpoint. Sakai annotates the whole thing in his familiar lettering style.

After flipping through this one, I can't wait for Dark Horse's ART OF USAGI YOJIMBO hardcover in a few weeks. . .

The ROB LIEFELD SKETCHBOOK, VOLUME 1 showed up in comics shops last week. I picked it up at Liefeld's table in San Diego. This one is a full color comic, with plenty of character pin-ups from both books you might have read (YOUNGBLOOD) and a bunch of series you've never heard of (including a few with Biblical themes). There are some interesting ideas in the book, and a couple of rehashes that I'm not sure the world needs to see. TRUE DANGER, for example, is LONE WOLF AND CUB, but with the mother as superspy. The baby on her back is frightening to look at, too. (To fit in that papoose, the baby would likely have no legs.) I like the TESTAMENT: NOAH character design (picture Noah as Santa Claus with power tools) and a couple of new characters that carry the distinctive Liefeld trademark character designs. Published by Arcade Comics, it's yours for $5.

MICHAEL LARK: DRAWINGS AND SKETCHES 2004 is a glossy piece of half-page sized work that I picked up in Philadelphia in the spring for, I believe, $10. It has 24 pages of art in it, mostly all pin-up commission types, and a few sketch pages. Some of it is straight-up comic book stuff, while others feature likenesses of Alex Guinness, a couple of boxers I know I'm supposed to know, and some movie actors from 60 years ago. You can see Lark playing with his style and with lighting throughout the book. The book is limited to 300 copies, of which mine is #198. There's a good chance he's already sold out, but it's a beautiful book from the artist of GOTHAM CENTRAL.

Artxilla is a collective of artistically inclinded buddies: Ed McGuinness, Sanford Greene, Lesean Thomas, Keron Grant, and Mike Bencic. ARTXILLA TASTY TREETS is a 32 page comic book printed on glossy paper, featuring sketchbook material and character designs from McGuinness, Grant, Greene, and Thomas. Each artist gets a few pages and, generally speaking, fills it with character sketches. Lots of fantasy and anime-influenced stuff in here. All of it very pretty. Most if it is in penciled form. The back cover is left blank for sketches from the creators present at the booth. I think this was a convention-only item, but there's always the Artxilla website to keep you busy with other material.

FRAGMENTS is the most beautiful and most complex of the sketchbooks to be found this summer. Featuring the art of Pixar animation artists Ronnie Del Carmen and Enrico Casarosa, the squarebound book is just over 90 pages, complete with a dust jacket cover. It's full color on solid white paper, featuring a cross-section of annotated materials: Life drawing, character studies, media experiments, and more. It's part artsy, part commercial, but all of it is enjoyable. There are some nudes in here, so younger readers beware. It's all done tastefully, though.

According to Casarosa, this book was done in an attempt to create a virtual art show. Rather than renting a space in the city and limiting it geographically, of course, this book can find its own audience from a more diverse population. This is also the most expensive of the sketchbooks at cons this year, at $25. However, it's a beautiful little art book, and is still available if you'd like to purchase it.

QUICK REVIEWS

FOLLOWING CEREBUS #1 is the new comic magazine follow-up to the CEREBUS series. It's published by Win-Mill Productions (in association with Aardvark Vanaheim), the same people who brought you two issues of THE CEREBUS COMPANION a few years back. This time, they're using the end of the series as a launching point for analyses of the book. The winning portion of this issue, though, is the interview with Gerhard. The oft-reclusive background artist discusses his frustrations with drawing the series, how he once quit, how he works out a page, and more.

I'm hoping they devote an interview with Sim to the topic of lettering in a future issue. I'd love to hear his thoughts on the topic. I hope the Eisner judges remember Sim's lettering work next year, since it'll really be the last year Sim will be eligible for the category.

For more information on the comic, check out their website.

If you're a fan of Robert Kirkman's writing, but not necessarily a SAVAGE DRAGON fan, I'm not sure either SUPERPATRIOT: WAR ON TERROR #1 or SAVAGE DRAGON: GOD WAR will be your thing. Of the two, I think the former is much more open to new fans than the latter, particularly with its INVINCIBLE cameo. Still, for Dragon fans, both issues are a lot of fun.

I'll talk about Kirkman's YOUNGBLOOD IMPERIAL next week. It's not pretty, I'm sorry to say.

DC has published their collection of Humanoids' THE HOLLOW GROUNDS, with magnificent artwork by Francois Schuiten. By packing all three books together into one trade paperback, they've created a package at a much more affordable price than the $15 each album used to be from Humanoids.

Unfortunately, this rush to economize the series has completely destroyed the reproduction of the art. Shrinking Schuiten's art is like printing JLA/AVENGERS in digest format. Imagine watching an IMAX movie on a 13 inch computer screen from ten feet away. Picture an Escher drawing at very low resolution. Trying finding Waldo on a postage stamp-sized reprint.

It's worse than all of that combined. The artwork looks muddy. The rich brown colors run together, and the fine linework of Schuiten's intricate cityscapes is lost. It's a damned shame. Find the original Humanoids albums on eBay if you want to read these stories. Do not give DC any money for this collection. It's not worth the money, and DC should not be rewarded for this travesty.

As big a fan of Schuiten's as I am, I have to say that you're better off in simply not reading this stuff than in reading it in this form.

I picked up a preview of QUANTUM MECHANICS at one of the cons this summer. This is Art Thibert's upcoming one shot from Image Comics. The preview is 15 pages of story from the book, printed in uncolored form. Thibert's cartooning style is pleasant enough, but much of his panel layout and storytelling looks like something out of a hyperkinetic Chris Bachalo style. There are a couple of double page montages that you have to pay very close attention to the lettering of so as not to get lost. Even then, you're going to skip to the wrong section at least once. Accept that fact now.

Just to prove that the early 90s really are coming back, there's a teaser at the end of the preview for the return of Thibert's BLACK AND WHITE series. I saw a bundle of the issues at the Chicago Con this year that I should have picked up as reference material for the series' eventual return. As I recall, Thibert isn't a bad superhero artist. You have to realize that a lot of the final Jim Lee X-MEN stuff ended up looking more like Thibert than Lee. Lee was credited with breakdowns by the end, and the final product ended up looking more like BLACK AND WHITE than UNCANNY X-MEN. And after years of inking over artists like Bagley and the Kubert brothers, amongst others, some of that has had to have rubbed off.

The entire preview can be found at Thibert's web site. Good luck getting through the tedious navigation on the site, though. Here's the route: Go to the main page, then click on "SKIP" to move past the opening animation, then "Licensing," then "Quantum Mechanics," then wait for the border to be drawn in, then "Comic Book." That gets you to the preview.

CORRECTIONS, UPDATES, ETC.

The Top Cow guy at the final table of the poker game mentioned here last week was Matt Hawkins, who I should have recognized from just his appearance last year on the Top Cow DVD, "Countdown To Wednesday."

Also from last week's column, fear not: The young boys getting sketches at the Avatar booth were getting some sort of generic demons/monsters drawn for them. I think it was Jacen Burrows doing the honors.

Going back to last month's Pipeline Previews column: I have been assured that the excerpt from the Wolverine prose novel is not the final version. It's just a mock-up used for the solicitation. Don't fret that the paragraphs don't all line up, and not all the text might be finalized. The former, at least, will be straightened out for final publication.

Come back on Friday for the return of Pipeline Previews, looking at upcoming titles for November 2004. Twenty years later, it's time for Rueben Flagg's return. I'll be doing a special review of AMERICAN FLAGG for you then.

Pipeline Commentary and Review returns next Tuesday, of course, with more thoughts on the passing scene, reviews of the week's books, and more.

Over at Various and Sundry this week: Whatever happened to E.R.? Is Microsoft a font theft? David Mamet creates a TV show. SLEDGEHAMMER! might be a movie. TV Poker expands again. Microsoft Word should be killed. Lots of live CDs released. 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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