Pipeline: Pipeline, Issue #410

Mon, April 19th, 2004 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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WHITHER HUMANOIDS?

DC has dropped their distribution deals with both 2000 A.D. and Humanoids. It's almost been discussed to death in the past week since the announcement was made, but I have a couple of points I want to raise.

First and foremost, why aren't these books succeeding in America?

DC went for the marketing solution. Their quick fix was to shrink the books down, fatten 'em up, and keep the price point low. In theory, that's not a bad idea. It's much easier to get someone to try something new when it's at a more affordable price. More specifically, the books have to have a "perceived value." There are those who will blanch at paying $15 for 64 pages, no matter how large the paper, how perfect the printing job, or how detailed and lively the art is. 64 pages, to an American audience, is a $5 or $6 prestige format book. Period.

The problem with this idea is that it destroys a large part of the appeal of the books. These are art-driven books. The stories are often wonderful and bizarre and surreal, but there's just as large a point of emphasis on the art as on the story. When you enter one of these bizarre worlds, you want to see it. You need to buy into it, and it's the art that makes it so appealing. Shrinking down the art in most of these books is a huge mistake. Looking at Francois Schuiten's artwork in the DC-modified format is nearly a waste of time. The washed out fine ink lines are a tragedy of art. There ought to be an act of Congress to prevent this kind of thing. Ditto the art in BOUNCER, a beautiful western with a nasty little twist. You can't compress those country vistas and not lose something. If you're buying the books in any part for the art, you're going to miss something.

The very fact that I can so easily compare the new printings to the old indicates another major problem. It's no secret that these books weren't top sellers in America before DC gave them a shot. The core audience, though, is loyal and feverish for more. What was DC's first move upon making the distribution deals with both Humanoids and 2000 A.D.? They started reprinting books that we already had. With that move, DC started its leadership by flushing the core audience away. There's plenty of stuff that hasn't been reprinted in the past four years. DC focused, instead, on the same old, same old. If you already have the "Hollowed Grounds" stories in three separate beautiful oversized books, why would you pay to buy them again under one soft cover in a smaller format that washes out the art?

Yves Chaland's books. Francois Schuiten's books. The majority of the Bilal books. They've all been printed in the past four years. And DC thought printing them again in a smaller format would appeal to the same audience? (Chaland's work mostly holds up, owing to its "cartooniness.") There's plenty of new material available out there that doesn't require previous volumes to follow.

There's also plenty of work featuring current DC creators that they could have played up harder. They did release some earlier Mark Millar and Alan Moore stories through the 2000 A.D. imprint, but they never really built it up or cross-promoted it.

There may not be a simple solution to this problem for DC. These books may just never break through to a larger audience in this country. I'd hate to think that's true, but we saw little out of DC to help push that along. They focused on the price point and book size. If we accept that as the core problem with the books, then how could we have fixed this in a way to eliminate the problems I mentioned before? I think the tradeoff would be to keep the larger page size, make the books softcover, and then add the extra stories together. For example, print the three "Hollow Grounds" stories together at full size, but make it softcover. The consumer likely won't save any money, but the "perceived value" quotient will be much higher. The art remains pure, more material is churned out quicker, and the consumer gets a better deal. Even better, do that with three stories we haven't been able to buy already. Get people both new and old excited about these books before catching some of the newer readers up to speed by reprinting the stuff they've been hearing about from the older readers but that was out of print.

This is all Monday morning quarterbacking, of course. What's done is done. Sadly, the most heated discussion on the line of books came at DC's "discontinuation" of the lines, instead of its original takeover or the production of any book in the interim. Thankfully, 2000 A.D. is being quickly picked up, and SAF Comics is still dripping translated oversized material into the American market. NBM continues to print some amazing books, most notably the Schuiten art book. They also pick and choose the books they shrink down. Lewis Trondheim's art doesn't always require the oversized pages. Books like ASTRONAUTS OF THE FUTURE and DUNGEON work well at the smaller size. Books like MR. O and LI'L SANTA are saved for the full size. It's the right format for the right material.

In the meantime, I have a small book at my bedside that I'm using to teach myself enough French to fake my way through an untranslated French or Belgian comic. Thanks to the glory of Amazon.ca and Amazon.fr, I have easy access to all of the bandes dessinees I could possibly be interested in. It's going to be a bit slower going, but I look forward to reading those original Smurfs stories, some MARSUPILAMI, and discovering more of the artists that we just don't see over here. (In other words, I'd love to see something besides Enki Bilal's work.)

TOMMY THE DINOSAUR

TOMMYSAURUS REX (Image, $11.95) is an overlooked gem from last summer being given new life through a pair of Eisner Award nominations. Doug TenNapel's graphic novel is nominated this year as both "Best Publication for a Younger Audience" and "Best Graphic Album - New." In a set of mostly boring nominations, this one piqued my interest enough to go back to reread it.

The (roughly) 100 page graphic novel tells the story of a boy whose sole best friend in the world is his pet dog. When the dog meets a tragic end at the front bumper of an oncoming car, Tommy is distraught. His parents send him to Grandpa's farm for the summer. Grandpa is the lovable farmer type, who's phased by nothing and filled with all the warmth and kindness we'd all love our grandfathers to possess. When Tommy stumbles across a Tyrannosaurus Rex and adopts it as a replacement for his lost pet dog, havoc erupts.

Sounds outrageous and silly, doesn't it? Well, it is. But that's all part of the charm of the book. TenNapel knows this storyline isn't set firmly in the reality of our world, and plays with that. The small town folk are both blas and extremely excited about this dinosaur discovery. When the animal becomes the focus of a political campaign, Tommy is forced into action.

The story is mostly light-hearted, although it does deal with issues such as the death of a beloved pet, loneliness, and bullies. Those who disagreed with perceived political tracts hidden inside of TenNapel's previous volume, CREATURE TECH, will find no such things here. This is as inoffensive as it gets, just a great story for the kids pulled off with creativity and flair.

TenNapel's artwork is clean and consistent. The major characters are not easily confused. The artwork takes a few chances, notably with some chalk lines in a few scenes, and a heavy use of spotted blacks at the appropriate time. TenNapel's ink line is "gloopy." This isn't a slick book. It's the product of one man's quirky art style, and that works for me.

The only hesitation I have with the book is its designation as a "younger audience" book. Generally speaking, I'd agree with that. There's a wonderful sense of adventure and family in the book. The lead character is generally a good kid, and some morals are learned through the story that are good for kids. There is, however, one "dammit" in the book (ironically linked to prayer) and one reference to "sex." I am not a parent. For today's generation of kids, that is likely very tame. But if you're looking for a book completely safe for your young child, you might want to take that into account.

The entire book is 112 pages, all in black and white. It's a 2004 release from Image Comics, but your local shop might still have it in stock. It's also still available for reorder through Diamond at your local comics shop. Look in the latest PREVIEWS for line item APR05 1821, or in the old STAR system under JUN041379.

IMAGE PAIRS UP KIRKMAN

Robert Kirkman's two most popular books have new issues in the store this week. Neither disappoints.

INVINCIBLE #22 is a bit of an experiment. He goes so far as to thank his letterer, Rus Wooten, in the letters column at the end of the issue. This is the issue where he and artist Ryan Ottley attempt to pack as many panels onto each page and cram as much dialogue in there as possible. While it means a lot of talking heads pages, it also means a nice focus on Ottley's ability to convey emotions via facial expressions. Body language is a little stiff, but the faces tell the story just fine.

Kirkman is putting the lead character, Mark, through his paces here. Mark attempts to emulate ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #13 in this issue, by telling his girlfriend his big secret while sitting in a bedroom. Of course, duty calls to interrupt, she's left hanging and confused, and a resolution has to wait just a little bit longer. Don't worry -- there's more than enough space in this issue to bring the plot point to a conclusion. It might surprise you.

INVINCIBLE is an enjoyable breezey read. This isn't high art. It's popcorn comics, chock full of character moments, some derring do, lots of teases for future storylines that have been in progress for months now, and art that's easy on the eye and straightforward. Extra credit goes to colorist Bill Crabtree for keeping the color scheme bright, and the sculpting limited to two-dimensional schemes. This book wouldn't look the same with something more three-dimensional added on top of it, or any attempt to "model" characters on real people. In the end, INVINCIBLE is a monthly dose of superhero fun, the kind that DC seems to have forgotten, and that Marvel has a selective memory for.

On the flip side, THE WALKING DEAD (now at issue #18) is Kirkman's "serious" book. It's still a zombie story, but there's not too many laughs in this book. It's dead serious, pun intended. The funny thing is how closely is maps to INVINCIBLE. It has the monthly cliffhanger, the ensemble cast, the serious twists, and a very similar pacing. INVINCIBLE is a little more scattered, though, as the cast is a bit more spread out with new villains scheming via subplots for months at a time. THE WALKING DEAD feels more immediate, with the entire cast together in the same area at all times. It takes a little more concentration to follow all the personal conflicts and situations. To that end, Kirkman devotes the final six pages of this week's issue to a scorecard for his series' characters. That's right -- you can't tell the players without a scorecard anymore. It's a valuable refresher, even for those of us who've followed it from month to month with little problem.

Last month's issue had a real subtle turning point. OK, so it wasn't that subtle. A quick look at the cover showing Rick pounding the crap out of someone puts lie to that notion. It was a different kind of turning point, not one of a dramatic death or life-changing decision or a past come back to haunt someone. This had more to do with the way society in a Zombie world should run. The eighteenth issue, then, was one I looked forward to for Kirkman's handling of it. Some might complain that there's a bit of a cheat in this issue, but I don't think there is at all. A decision is made and the ramifications of the last issue are dealt with, but then the characters take over and other things happen. Is that vague enough for you? Kirkman mentions at the top of the letters column that the characters took over from him and changed the direction of the issue. I believe it. The direction of this issue changes naturally. It evolves. This isn't a writer putting characters through their paces for the sake of a story. It's much smarter than that.

Credit also has to go to Charlie Adlard (with Cliff Rathburn) for the art in this series. The characters are all individuals, with a great range of emotion and occasional moments of understated subtlety. They don't move from extreme pose to extreme pose, and those subtleties make the series feel more real and, thus, scarier.

I'd love to see a hardcover presentation for this series along the lines of INVINCIBLES' upcoming release. I think a lot of people might benefit from having a bigger chunk of this series under one cover. The trades keep selling through, so there's clearly some benefit to it.

AND IN PREVIOUS WEEKS

I've done nearly 50 graphic novel/trade paperback/hardcover book reviews this year already. It's something I plan to keep working on through the rest of the year. This week, though, I take a bit of a breather to run down some single issues of comics that might otherwise be lost in the shuffle. If you're looking for much shorter reviews of the week's books, I'll often post my first impressions of them in the appropriate thread on the Pipeline Message Board. I also post newsworthy and oddball stories and links to other web sites over there as I find them. I don't have a comics blog, just a message board.

So let's take a look at some recent books of interest:

Black Bull's THE NEW WEST #1 is has a wild hook and strong execution. It's a two-part mini-series written by Jimmy Palmiotti and drawn by the great Phil Noto. It's the story of post-apocalyptic Los Angeles and a private detective doing his job on horseback in a world without electricity. (That's not exactly it, but it's close enough.) Don't question the set-up too stringently. It will likely fall apart completely under too much thought, and that would be doing a great disservice to an otherwise entertaining book. This thing already has crashing planes, samurai sword fights, and an insane love interest. If you can willfully suspend some of your disbelief, this book should entertain you. Generally, the reader will bite on one fantastic premise if everything else falls into place. For me, everything else in THE NEW WEST falls neatly into place. It's noir mixed in with westerns and samurai fiction. No pirates, talking gorillas, or zombies, though.

The revelation in the book is Phil Noto's art. I've been raving over his cover art in this column for years. His transition to interior art hasn't always been the smoothest, as he's had to put aside some of his design-oriented habits from his cover work to learn to tell a comic book story. This book represents an evolutionary step in Noto's storytelling. It works cleanly on its own. Some of the larger styling excesses have been pared down for the sake of the story, without destroying what makes Noto's style unique. Coloring it himself, he does a great job in working color schemes through specific scenes. It's a good looking package.

The back of the issue includes a four-page sketchbook section of character designs. There's more than 30 pages of story in this first issue, set at a $4.99 price point. I don't know that this would make a very economic trade paperback, so please don't wait for one. A prestige format 64-page job might work for this book in the end, but even that's suspect.

Two issues are out now of THE SHAOLIN COWBOY. This is Geoff Darrow's odd samurai western comedy from Burlyman Entertainment. The first issue was a terrific little art piece. The second issue brings out Darrow's sense of humor, creating a whimsical and hilarious look at an oddball world filled with a sword-wielding cowboy, a talking donkey that's not nearly as annoying as SHREK's Donkey, and a evil mastermind who happens to be a talking crab with mad fighting skills. As ludicrous as it sounds, it's even funnier to read. It's a cross between MONTY PYTHON and AIRPLANE!

Darrow's art looks great. The issue is printed on nice heavy plain white paper stock. This book stinks, but I mean that literally. The paper is perfect, holding Peter Doherty's bright colors beautifully. He gets bonus points for dropping shadows off the title and onto the art on the cover. Take a close look and see how the price in the upper right drops a shadow onto the crab's claw behind it.

Speaking of paper stocks, POWERS #10 has upgraded to glossy paper. This seems like such a minor thing, but it makes a world of difference. I didn't realize how much the old stock soaked the inks and colors up. With everything sitting on top of the page, the art really shines now, making the book easier to read. Oeming's art has never looked better.

G.L.A. #1 promised to be Marvel's answer to the Giffen-era JUSTICE LEAGUE stories. They seem like a natural answer to the JUSTICE LEAGUE ANTARCTICA in a couple of ways, actually. Add a dollop of AVENGERS DISASSEMBLED humor to the mix, turn Dan Slott loose, and you wind up with a winning comic blending sly humor and melodrama galore.

I've read a couple other reviews of this book from people who haven't enjoyed it because they didn't take to that blend too well. I admit that the book does seem to be pulling in different directions at times. My sense of humor is dark enough, though, that it all fits together. I like a seemingly silly book with a dark streak to it. For that reason, it reminds me more of Peter David's YOUNG JUSTICE than it does Giffen's JUSTICE LEAGUE.

The book comes nicely together, full circle, to tell a complete story in one issue. The ending was particularly strong for me. I liked the way the pieces fit together. The introduction to this band of misfits does everything it needs to, focusing on a couple of characters, while filling the reader in on what the rest of them are doing there in the sparest possible terms. It's educational for the Marvel Universe student, as well as entertaining. Slott also provides the dark humor through the continued deaths of Mr. Immortal and the introduction of Monkey Joe, the talking squirrel who shows up every few pages to share his omniscient wisdom with us. Not too many writers give us over the top narrators (think Ostrander's HEROES FOR HIRE) or pointless inserts like this anymore. I like it in this style of book. Reminds me a bit of the techniques used in single camera sit-coms, like SCRUBS. Or even THE FAMILY GUY, for that matter.

Paul Pelletier's art (inked by Rick Magyar) is as nice to look at as ever. Giving him a greater range of characters to draw works in the book's favor. I want to see him draw an entire issue devoted to Squirrel Girl now, though, and I'm afraid I can't explain why -- must be those puffy cheeks, or the silly costume.

This is a four-issue mini-series. While it's not as strong as Slott's SHE-HULK, I enjoy it for what it is, and can't wait to see which Great Lakes Avenger dies next.

On the off chance you haven't read it and still care, be warned that this review contains spoilers.

Please allow me to be the last one on the Internet to comment on DC's COUNTDOWN TO INFINITE CRISIS #1. It's an unfortunate waste. It goes to show that when they put their minds to it, Greg Rucka, Geoff Johns, and Judd Winnick can cast a character into a lovable and sympathetic character. They can make you love a character you never knew you cared about. Sadly, they seem intent to do that only on a large scale, just before brutally disposing of that character on-panel. That begins to get manipulative after awhile. After the first issue of IDENTITY CRISIS, it would seem the pattern is locked in. This time, the Blue Beetle gets the treatment.

Did I really just spoil that for anyone? Nah, I didn't think so, either.

There's some nice art in the book, mostly from Rags Morales and Michael Bair. That opening chapter also contains the best little character moments, including Batman, Oracle, Booster Gold, and Max Lord.

The story contains all the great melodrama you want from one of these universe-spanning events. There are serious ramifications for the DC Universe with the way this book is set up, but using Blue Beetle also means that it's been personalized. That's a good writing technique, although it means walking a thin line over a pit of "manipulation."

However, I'm too tired to pore through all the crossover books for an event that's so complicated and tedious that DC has created a separate web site to keep you up to date on what's happening. I might read the OMAC mini just for Rucka's writing and the return of Sasha Bordeaux, but that's about it. Most DC titles are off my reserve list these days, anyway, so it's not that great a loss for me.

The Pipeline Podcast returns this week, but I'm not sure when. Real world obligations might prevent me from getting it done before new comics day. Keep checking back here for updates, but it might not be ready until Wednesday or Thursday night.

Pipeline Commentary and Review picks up here next week on Tuesday.

Over at Various and Sundry: A man is mistakenly accused of cannibalism. Another man dodges a bullet thanks to lip balm. Pitching is a science. ENTERPRISE is still dead. Complete AMERICAN IDOL coverage. And more.

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.

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. Go fig.

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