Pipeline: Pipeline, Issue #399

Tue, February 1st, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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PIPELINE PREAMBLE

We're one week away from the four hundredth column. I have no tricks up my sleeve for that column yet. Sorry.

I do think this column is pretty cool, though. For the first time in Pipeline history, I have reviews here of three new trade paperbacks that, at the time of this column's appearance on Tuesday, are not yet available on store shelves. I've had the occasional advance copy of a trade paperback here and there, usually in black and white photocopied form. But three printed trades? This is new. If you're looking for something different at the comics shop this week, I can give you three qualified recommendations. One is a comic strip compilation. One is an urban action book. And the third is a gritty psychic cop drama. Let's start with that one.

THE MIND'S EYE

SMALL GODS (Image, $9.95) is a cop drama with a fantasy layer added on top. It takes place in a universe populated with people possessing psychic abilities to one extent or the other. The telepaths and empaths were restricted from becoming cops, for Constitutional reasons. The precogs -- those who could see the future -- were allowed on the force, albeit with certain precautionary backup for the sake of jurisprudence. This story follows one precog cop, Owen Young. He was born to be a cop, and his precognitive abilities are a big help, although one that traps him in a way. If you could see a crime happening in advance, would you be able to do anything BUT report it or attempt to stop it? Wouldn't it drive you crazy?

I was surprised at how easily I was drawn into this story. For starters, I'm not a big fan of stories centering on psychic powers. Like magic, there are too many easy outs for the writers to take with it. Thankfully, Rand doesn't take any of them. I also had some initial worries in looking over the book the first time. Juan Ferreyra's art, at first glance, looks like it's been over-Photoshopped to hide deficiencies. That distracted me. Once I started reading the book, though, it all fell into place and I realized that wasn't the case. The only thing that tripped me up in the comic is my own inability to realize the difference between a precog and a telepath early on. Rand does go to great lengths to set up that important distinction early on in the first chapter, but I was reading too fast to realize it when an important development related to that occurs in the second issue.

Rand focuses on both the personal and political sides of the story, without getting caught up on the powers, themselves, too much. What might be a deus ex machina near the end is actually something well planted earlier in the story. This is a solid writing effort.

Rand also gives the story a nice sense of escalation. As the story goes on, the stakes become higher and the actions needed to achieve a "happy ending" get more and more drastic, forcing the protagonist to decide between matters beyond just romance and ethics, and into life and death. The story is complete inside this trade paperback, though there are obvious hanging threads that will need to be dealt with in a follow-up volume.

Juan Ferreyra's art is heavily toned with grays. They are effectively used to establish a color scheme in a black and white book. They also create three-dimensional shapes, separate planes in a panel, and add textures to items that would otherwise appear flat and clean. Taking those in order: The grays establish a color scheme just by helping to differentiate between tones. In some cases, darker tones indicate a night scene or a shadowy room. The three dimensional shapes occur in places where the tones wrap around items in a scene. Since there are elements of noir crime drama in here, light pouring in through window blinds is a necessity. Those stripes of light, in one scene, are wrapping around the sleeping body of the protagonist, giving him extra shape. It's obvious that his arms aren't flat even before the toning, but the inclusion of the tones emphasizes the point and helps to create a more naturally "real" feel. The traditional use of gray tones in indie comics is to keep the pages from looking too stark or simple, as well as popping things out of the panel. A brighter-lit object will pop off the page a bit more than a darker object set in a dark scene. It's a cheap and easy way to indicate this, in addition to varying line weights. It's one of the hardest things a colorist has to do in comics -- create a color scheme that varies from the literal to the metaphorical. No, that character isn't blue-skinned, but if the blue helps establish the mood and place the figure in the right spot in the "space" he's occupying, then it's the right way to go. Finally, some gray tones can indicate texture. I'm looking at characters who wear jeans in this book and see the way soft gray lines are used to indicate folds in the cloth. I see the shine off a pair of gloves a character is wearing, and I know he's wearing leather gloves and not latex gloves on a crime scene.

Jim Keplinger's lettering is clean and easy to follow, although the chosen font's art deco inspired look can be distracting at times. Certain letters are twice as wide than others, and some balloons look off-kilter because of it. Those "O"s are gigantic. On the bright side, since nobody else is using that font right now, it helps to give the book its own look.

SMALL GODS: KILLING GRIN collects the first five issues of the Image Comics series for a paltry $9.95. It also includes a sixteen page backup story, "Outside the Box," drawn by Mahmud A. Asaa. It's less successful from both an artistic and narrative standpoint than the main story, although it does have its charms.

Rand and Ferreyra have developed an intriguing universe with this story. With a careful touch, it could develop into a long-lasting series. SMALL GODS is a book flying under one too many radars. I hope more people give it a shot with this cheap entry-level volume. You can find five page previews of all five issues

THIRD TIME'S THE CHARM

If you liked the first two COURIERS books, you're going to like THE COURIERS 03: THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY FUNWRECKER (AiT/PlanetLar, $12.95). If you liked the first, but weren't as happy about the second, then you're going to love this one as a return to form. If you hated the first two books, feel free to skip ahead to the next section. There will be nothing for you to see here. Move along.

OK, it's just us COURIERS fans now, right? Good.

I have to admit that I was disappointed in last years' COURIERS 02: DIRTBIKE MANIFESTO. I thought that Moustafa and Special's trip to upstate New York smacked more of two dimensional backwoods hick stereotyping than any attempt to tell a story. I got the sense of an urban bigot ripping on anyone west of the Hudson River as being closed-minded shut-ins. Beyond that, the art wasn't exactly inspirational, appearing sloppy in too many places. Most of all, it took two city characters and attempted to mine some humor by throwing them into a foreign environment to see how they'd react. I prefer reading stories with strong characters doing their best work. It doesn't bother me when they get beaten up pretty bad at the end of the second act, only to overcome all odds and win the day in the third. It's my personal preference. I like stories where characters do what they're good at. Artificially hobbling them is often instant death for a story.

For me, COURIERS 03 harkens back to the first story. We have Moustafa and Special going crazy in New York City. There are helicopters, car chases, high-powered automatic weapons, and a devil may care attitude of unbelievable arrogance that all those bullets will miss. That's what makes this book so much fun. These are people who are very good at what they do and know it. Not that I want to see a "Very Special COURIERS" anytime soon, but I have to think that will be their undoing eventually.

Brian Wood's story brings us back to the beginning. It's 1993 and Special is about to meet Moustafa for the first time. This is the "Secret Origin" story for THE COURIERS, and Wood makes no bones about it. He includes the prerequisite training scenes, apprentice fighting back against the master, and The Big Challenge. In this case, that doesn't mean going up against your enemy or solving a crime. No, it means waging war in the big city, and trying to survive it with a healthy dose of wit and speed. Wood propels the story along, not giving the reader too long a chance to stop to think about the inherent ludicrous nature of the storyline. His foul mouthed wit comes in handy once or twice (I loved the first caption on the first page for some reason), and the dialogue between characters is curt and snappy.

Rob G's art often matches the lower Manhattan alt-indy comics crowd feel of the book. If urban youth with attitude is your thing, this is likely how you'd picture them drawing a comic book. It's not structured with anatomical certainty and consistent proportionality. So what if heads are too big for their bodies, and characters look flat from certain angles? That's not the point of the book. When the madness hits the fan and everyone is in motion, Rob G shines. The speed lines, the sound effects, and the illusion of motion all come together to do best what needs doing in this book -- unbelievable action. The influences of Japanese comics and animated films show through. If you can't suspend your disbelief to read this book, then you should definitely skip it. It is, however, infinitely more fun to kick your feet up, sit back, and enjoy the story.

Rob G uses a lot of Photoshop gray tones in the book, though not to quite the same affect as Ferreyra does in SMALL GODS. These tones are used to keep the page from looking plain as flat black and white pages. They add visual interest, but don't get as detailed or as purposeful as Ferreyra's. G doesn't stop there, either, using the "blur" effect to indicate speed, compositing pictures of the city for occasional backgrounds, and inserting posters into bedrooms and signs onto the streets.

COURIERS 03 is a welcome addition to the series, bringing us back to its roots and never settling down. No matter what you think of the book, you'll have to admit that it's never boring. There's not a page that doesn't sparkle in some small way. All that remains now is the countdown to COURIERS 04. Is that too much to hope for?

GAMING ON PAPER

PVP RELOADED (Image, $11.95) is the second collection of Scott Kurtz's popular gamer comic strip series. This one encompasses issues #7-12 of the books published at Image, minus the letters columns and color back covers. It's a steal for the price, which represents a six-dollar savings over the individual issues at a very small loss of material.

Like the comic, the book is formatted "sideways," with two strips to a page. That helps to bring out the subtle artistic nuances of Kurtz's line, showing us his mastery of line weight, forced perspective, and architectural detail.

Nah, I'm kidding. Every strip features the same characters at the same distance to the reader talking to each other. Every once in a while, a background will have black geometrical shapes in it, or perhaps a straight line to indicate a horizon. In other words, it's a perfect fit for today's newspapers where, ironically, it doesn't show up. If you live in Kansas City you might find it on newsprint, otherwise you're screwed.

I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make this into a negative review. The fact of the matter is that Kurtz is not Frank Cho. You don't read PVP for the busty babes and detailed gorillas cavorting with wiener dogs and talking ducks. You pick this book up out of an interest in gaming, and stick with it because the characters -- as simple as they might be -- quickly grow on you. The quirky cast is perfectly set up for gags set in the world of a gaming magazine: both old and young, male and female, Mac and PC, realistic versus idealistic. After a while, you realize that the last few pages have had nothing to do with gaming at all, but you've seen been laughing and enjoying the book. Kurtz has slipped a sit-com into a title that masquerades as a Geek Fest. That's his brilliance right there.

His spelling, clearly, is not. If someone created a PVP drinking game, the first line would be, "Take a shot for each misspelling." You'd be drunk before you made it to a page with double digits on it. There are some real howlers in this book. I was going to cut into the book harder for it, but Kurtz disarms the situation when his father appears in one strip about three quarters of the way through the book to yell at his son for all the misspellings. Thankfully, Kurtz ran that column through a spell checker. Still, I think I'd go back and correct those embarrassing goofs before reprinting the strips in another book.

(I also have no doubt that this very review contains at least one spelling error, now that I've mentioned it. That kind of thing happens every time.)

This second volume contains Brent's attacks on John Edwards, featuring the memorable appearance of my science fiction idol, Isaac Asimov. It also features Brent in a Mac Switch ad, the boys conducting a panty raid on the occasion of ANIMAL HOUSE's release on DVD, Jade quitting the magazine due to sexual harassment, a shot across Penny Arcade's bow (well-deserved), and a couple of random and hilarious panda appearances. Honestly, I don't remember how the whole panda thing began anymore, but those strips never fail to make me laugh out loud.

PVP Volume 2: RELOADED is available this week through Image Comics for a mere $11.95. The monthly series carries on at the same publishing house. If you haven't sampled it yet, give an issue a shot. If you like it, there are multiple trades you can catch up on with. There's also very little in the way of continuity, and a brief character outline at the beginning of this book gives you everything you need to know to get started in the series.

BITS AND PIECES

  • I usually save the discussion about this week's comics for the message board and the podcast. However, I do have to make special mention of this week's release by IDW of the first GRIMJACK collection and the new GRIMJACK #1 comic. After years of requests, John Ostrander and Timothy Truman's milestone series of the 1980s is returning with both new adventures and reprints of the old. I can't wait to read them. While I've been able to pick up JON SABLE and AMERICAN FLAGG back issues at cons for low prices, I can't recall ever coming across an issue of GRIMJACK.

    Being a local, I'm excited to see that John Ostrander is going to be appearing at my local comics shop -- Dewey's Comic City in Madison, NJ -- on Wednesday at 5 p.m. to sign the new releases. You may consider this half plug/half excitement.

    All of this, of course, brings to mind one other niggling little questions: Where are the AMERICAN FLAGG volumes that were supposed to be out more than a month ago? They are still listed as "Coming Soon" on Dynamic Forces' web site, and I can't find a thing about them in a cursory look at Image's site.

  • USAGI YOJIMBO is celebrating his 20th anniversary now, which is the explicit reason for the art book discussed here last week. I've also been alerted by a couple of people to a recent GRENDEL letters column that indicates that a GRENDEL art book is in the works. I called that one without every realizing the answer was already out there. I should be an editor somewhere.

  • OK, so it wasn't "Lorelei Gilmore" in the SIN CITY trailer. That's "Rory Gilmore." Silly me. (Thanks for the correction, Patricia.)

  • It's a busy Pipeline week. On Friday, Pipeline Previews returns to take a look at some of the more interesting trade paperbacks being released in April 2005.

    On Wednesday of this week, the Pipeline Podcast will take a look at some of the non-trade items in the same catalog, and whatever other oddball things strike me in the catalog.

  • Over on the Pipeline message board, Eric G. was nice enough to point out to me that THAT YELLOW BASTARD was not the first book, chronologically, to include color in a SIN CITY story. He's right, and that's what I get for going back to these books years after I read them originally. Miller first experimented with color in his SIN CITY short stories, which show up in the BOOZE, BROADS, & BULLETS collection, which I'm treating as the seventh SIN CITY book.

  • There's a bit of a meme circulating in the blogosphere right now to name your five favorite currently-running manga series. Here's mine: BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL, IRON WOK JAN, BATTLE ROYALE (should I ever catch up on reading it), SAMURAI EXECUTIONER, and PLANETES. Come to think of it, though, those are all the manga I'm currently reading. Take it with a grain of salt.

Next week: Reviews of trades that have already been published, most likely.

The Various and Sundry DVD Podcast continues to look at the week's DVD releases, every Sunday afternoon. Those of you with a podcasting program can subscribe to it right here.

Over at Various and Sundry this week: APPRENTICE madness, AMERICAN IDOL gloriousness, Firefox books, MTV2 redux, Paige leaves TRADING SPACES, and looks ahead to new albums from TMBG, Wallflowers, Weezer, and Brian Setzer. Plus, a ton of DVD newsbits.

All political discussions have been pushed off to one neat side at VandS Politics.

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. I haven't had that account in years, but they've yet to delete the page space. Bizarre.

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