Pipeline: Pipeline, Issue #425

Tue, August 2nd, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

VOTE SUPERHEROES OFF THE ISLAND

The trade paperback for WILDGUARD: CASTING CALL (Image, $18) is, in many ways, a throwback comic. It's packed to the gills with colorful superheroes with diverse powers. This is like a LEGION comic reinvented for modern times, instead of the future. You have alien invasions and spaceships and mind-controlled superheroes and inter-squad squabbling and misunderstandings leading to fights. The storytelling style is sure to include frequent recaps and repetition of important parts of the story to keep the reader up to date. None of that is bothersome, though, even in the confined space of a trade paperback. The beginning of each issue includes a unique two-page recap relying on talk show hosts or gossip tv spoofs to catch a potential new reader up to speed. Eliminating them from the trade would have been wasteful.

The book isn't dirty. It isn't loaded up with blood and graphic violence. There is no sex and no foul language being used. While I'm sure there will always be parents who object to their kids reading about a fantasy world or a story that includes any violence, whatsoever, this book is very tame by today's standards in the entertainment industry. It's the kind of stuff my parents wouldn't have had a big problem with me reading 20 years ago. The book is accessible to anyone who'd care to read it. If only the makers of Spider-Man and Batman would remember that more often. . .

Now, this isn't all to say that this book is done up like a 1980s superhero book. It's not colored in flat tones with out of fashion characters and attitudes. The hook for the series is that the WildGuard team is being formed as part of a reality television series. Call it trendy, if you wish, but reality TV has been with us for a few years now and keeps chugging along as a format. It's not going away anytime soon. Today's readers understand the format and many of the clichs.

Writer and artist Todd Nauck uses the entertainment world and the reality show bits -- such as the "confessional room" -- to his advantage in the storytelling. What would normally become heavy chunks of exposition become, instead, first person narration to the reader, or light hearted interplay between the WildGuard universe's equivalent of Regis and Kelly.

What it all adds up to is a very fun comic. Nauck's love of superheroes shows through in this comic. At a time when writers do their best to cast superheroes as anything but costumed vigilantes, it's nice to see someone who's not worried about putting himself out there for the superhero genre. Yes, the book is filled with all the clichs you've come to loathe superhero comics for. But that's also what makes it so much fun. It's not done in a clunky way. It's done with a love and respect for the genre.

WILDGUARD: CASTING CALL is a trade paperback collecting all six issues of the original mini-series. It also includes a whole host of extras. Nauck includes his student project comic to show us an earlier version of the book from more than a decade ago. There's also a sketch book, a deleted scene, a short story from SUPER HERO HAPPY HOUR, and more. It's a great deal for the price.

If you like it as much as I did, there's also the follow-up one-shot, FIRE POWER, and the just-completed two-part mini, FOOL'S GOLD. Nauck is busy with monthly duties on DC's TEEN TITANS comic based on the animated series. Previews for all the WildGuard comics can be found on the official WildGuard home page.

ON THE ROAD WITH ONI

LAST EXIT BEFORE TOLL (Oni, $10) is a literary comic. It's not the usual genre comic, where there's a twist and everything's revealed to be an alien experiment. There's not a secret identity revealed in the third act to explain it all. Instead, it feels a bit like an understated drama written for the stage. It's a satisfying read, unlike most of what is written for comics today, and it's slipped under far too many radars already. That includes mine. But with the prodding of Oni artist, Scott Chantler, I picked it up and don't regret it now in the least.

In the story, Charles Pierce is a working schlub, busy with a wife and kid, driving with a cell phone surgically attached to his ear and a briefcase on the passenger seat. He's off to another business meeting a couple states away when car troubles cause him to turn off into a small town for repairs. His life will never be the same, for reasons he's about the find out.

The book is paced very deliberately. Things unfold at their own pace, and plenty of extraneous details are left in for verisimilitude. It can serve to heighten the drama or lull the reader into a rut that writer Neal Shaffer has carefully constructed for you. The book relies on its dialogue. It sets up a few locations, but the entire book is talking heads stuff. You'll need to be patient with this book, but the payoff is great.

I have to be vague on the ending, but I do think it's satisfying, so long as you give the author a little bit of literary license. While the book is firmly planted in reality, there is a bit of a dreamlike quality to it. Shaffer works hard to establish the different kind of world Pierce finds himself in. There is a greater point to the whole thing, and it's spelled out wonderfully for the reader by the end. Again, there won't be a pulse-pounding finish, but there will be a satisfying conclusion.

Artist Christopher Mitten did not have an easy job with this script. There are a few locations to draw, a few cars, and lots of talking heads. The dialogue never gets too confrontational, and all the acting in the book is suitably understated. The overall style screams "indie comics" to me, but I have to honestly say that I don't know quite what that means anymore. The characters are on-model throughout the book, but there is a little bit of stiffness in their poses. Mitten makes up for this with interesting camera angles, though, and more background detail than you might normally see in a comic like this. I can picture a dozen artists who might do one splashy detailed panel of a background, and then do floating heads for the rest of the scene. Mitten doesn't do that.

There's also something about the finished look of the art that nagged at me. It almost looks like the art wasn't scanned in properly, with some amount of pixellation evident throughout the book. I don't think it's that, though. I think the final ink work just lacks a smoothness or a polish to it that we've come to expect from too many other comics these days.

Dawn Pietrusko handles the gray tones on the art with a deft touch. Too many toners can get carried away with very dark areas, or by muddying up the art in general. Pietrusko has a much lighter touch, giving us separation of the foreground and background with just the slightest hints of what color schemes might be in play. She's also responsible for the lettering, which could use some more work. Those straight balloon tails and perfect circles for the word balloons get distracting after awhile. Cutting a pointer in half for someone speaking off-panel is also jarring. On the bright side, she didn't use the crossbar-I inappropriately. That's the first mistake most new letterers make.

LAST EXIT BEFORE TOLL is available today in Oni's favored digest format. It is 96 black and white pages. A five page preview is available at Oni's web site.

A LITTLE ROMANTIC COMEDY

STYLISH VITTLES: FARE THEE WELL is the third volume in Tyler Page's semi-autobiographical romantic comedy. This one shifts gears from the previous two volumes. We already know Tyler and Nanette are together, in love, and inseparable. Going into this volume, we know trouble is coming, as Nanette is about to leave for a prolonged period of time overseas. While there are inklings of that trouble here, that's not what this book is about. This book is about getting us to that point -- the major turning point of Nanette's departure.

We won't know the consequences until the next book. It's not that this book is treading water, but that there's not a whole lot of growth in their relationship this time around. We do meet, however, both their families, and are treated to a more comedic book than usual. Tyler's attempts to drive all over the Midwest to follow Nanette around are laced with the kind of material you might expect in a romantic comedy movie sequence. It's also heart-wrenching, as you know how much he has invested in getting from Place A to Place B.

Page's art continues to morph to accept the demands of his story. This time, he works in a bit more of a manga feel as necessary. We don't get full blown chibis here, but extreme expressions are seen with toothy heads and cartooned-up faces. It helps with some of the more comedic portions of the book, as Tyler tries desperately to keep up with Nanette, and to make time for her in his schedule before she goes away. The rest of the book is a bit more restrained. An opening montage to help recap some of the story from previous volumes doesn't attempt to compare to the scope of the opening from the first volume. Nor should it have to. The sequences set in outer space between the protagonists also continue. They're a bit artsy, compared to the rest of the book's more grounded feel, but they've always been there and so don't jump out too badly at the reader.

I thought the most interesting part of the book was Tyler's growing disconnection from his family. As he creates his own life at school, complete with his own family and girlfriend, the family he returns to for the holidays seems strangely affected. The stresses that we blind ourselves to as children are shown to us as mature and more knowledgeable adults. Things we didn't realize were abnormal or wrong, suddenly are. So it goes with Tyler's medicated younger brother, unemotional father, and almost completely detached mother, who busies herself with her cooking and tries to maintain the peace as if none of the strife surrounds her. It's fascinating and brutally honest. Autobiographical artists have the worst of it -- spilling your guts out like this can't be easy, and keeping an honest and detached eye to the whole thing is even tougher.

FARE THE WELL is the thinnest volume of the three STYLISH VITTLES trades so far at 184 pages. It's only $13 for the black and white volume. While the events hold up on their own in this trade, I'd still recommend picking up the first two volumes first. They're all worth reading. Grab what you can.

You can find previews of all the books on the STYLISH VITTLES web site.

MEANWHILE. . .

  • Odd thought: Maybe the high death rate at DC these days isn't indicative of a blood thirsty editorial mindset, but of a more realistic one. Look at all the superpowered fights that happen in comics on a weekly basis. It's a miracle more people aren't killed.

  • There has to be a comics blogger out there who'll want to pick this one up and run with it: The Atlanta College of Arts is merging with Savannah College of Art and Design.
  • Over at the Pipeline Message Board, I'm compiling the Short Box Chronicles because I've fallen behind on too many comics. I find them in small piles around my computer. So I picked up a couple of short boxes, sorted through them, and dumped the stray comics into the boxes. The Short Box Chronicles will log my attempt to read 100 comics from those boxes as quickly as possible. It's going to take a month, most likely, but it'll be well worth it. Perhaps when it's done -- or somewhere in the middle -- I'll compile it for a special Pipeline column.

  • Also at the message board, the Pipeline Book Club takes a look at the third volume of BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL, titled "Dreamsong."

  • I mentioned this in my podcast last week, but it bears repeating: I follow five different comics magazines in this world: PREVIEWS and WIZARD come out monthly like clockwork. DRAW, WRITE NOW, and BACK ISSUE are supposed to be quarterly or so, but run on schedules of their own. Why, oh, why, did they ALL have to come out in the same week last week?

  • With the latest edition of PREVIEWS now in hand, look for a special Pipeline Previews column in the coming couple of weeks.

  • This weekend is Wizard World: Chicago. I will be there, but I won't be filing daily reports. Look for my con report next Tuesday.

Check the Pipeline message board for updates on the Pipeline Comic Book Podcast. You can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes now, too!

You can still hear last week's podcast through the MP3 file. I'd recommend this one. I thought it came out as close to what I want the podcast to be. It is a tad on the long side, but you'll get all sorts of extra commentary in that time.

Don't forget about the VandS DVD podcast.

Various and Sundry continues its link dumps, while all political discussions are 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 600 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

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