Pipeline: Pipeline, Issue #436

Tue, October 18th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE

David Cronenberg has a movie out now called THE HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. As you may have heard, it's based on a comic from DC's relatively short-lived but prolific Paradox Press line. DC reprinted it this year under the Vertigo banner. It's an affecting crime story that starts out somewhat Hitchcockian, but ends a bit more horrifically, mixing in questions of trust, honesty, family, and what a man is capable of when his back is against the wall.

Hitchcock made a career out of movies with protagonists suffering from mistaken identity. Writer John Wagner starts with that here, showing us an almost Rockwellian small town man, Tom, working at his small coffee shop/diner. A chance encounter and an act of self-defense brings him national fame, something he modestly shirks away from. The real truth, though, goes back to his formative years and the secrets he's kept from everyone. And, as you'd expect from any story worth reading, the past is coming back to catch him.

If that sounds like major spoiler territory right there, don't worry. I haven't told you any more than what's in the back cover copy. It comprises barely the first quarter of the book. While that part is filled with iconic moments of its own that may have been spoiled for you already in the movie trailers, there's a lot more story to go. We need to learn what lies in Tom's past, and what the ramifications of that will be in the present.

John Wagner keeps things moving along, cutting back and forth between time frames without ever confusing the reader or boring him. Things move along quickly without feeling rushed, and the drama progresses through the book. The ending is bloody and brutal, and might just ruin the book for the more squeamish. In all honesty, it seemed a little over the top for the rest of the book, and I'll be most interested in how they end the story in the movie version. Things will no doubt change, as any story must for a new medium. Judging by the reviews of the movie, for example, they've added a couple of sex scenes that are not to be found in the book. Is this for character building, or just added salaciousness from the director of a film about people turned on by car crashes?

The book is drawn by Vince Locke, whose artwork I had never seen until a couple of months ago. That's when I chanced across an issue of DEADWORLD in my stack of stuff for the Short Box Chronicles. (Issue #2 just came out from Image Comics.) Locke's art is presented in an attractive black and white style. It looks sketchy and unfinished, but that's just an illusion. Your eye fills in the gaps and smoothes out the lines to give the book a great visual. You won't see much else like it in comics today, particularly in black and white. Too many artists would be running to PhotoShop to add gray tones to a work like this. Locke's line work, though, works best when shot bare.

In a way, it reminds me of Richard Piers-Rayner's artwork in another Paradox Press book, ROAD TO PERDITION. It's not nearly as technical and precise as that, but there are similarities in the storytelling. Characters have distinct looks. People act like real people, and not posed models. Backgrounds are abundant. The panels are limited in their number to help keep things from looking cramped on the smaller size pages. Bob Lappan is also around to letter the book, which helps with another strong visual cue.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is in stores today, with a nice big "NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE" tag across the top of the cover. It's another instance of DC making a cover design that doesn't scream "comic book" at you. It's rather reserved and eye-catching. The book is digest sized, and a heck of a deal. It's only $10 for just about 300 pages. They kept pace with the manga market pricing scheme, but using better paper that's an extra half inch wide and tall. If you're looking for an interesting crime story told well with just a touch of the obvious "circle of violence" theme to it, this is your read. It's on shelves today.

SEASONAL GREETINGS

HAPPY HALLOWEEN, LI'L SANTA is a glorious 50 page album from NBM Publishing. Written by Lewis Trondheim and drawn by Thierry Robin, it's the second silent outing for the cutest version of Santa Claus ever to be cartooned. This time, he runs into a batch of Halloween-themed characters and a mean pack of lumberjacks out to rape the forest and kill anyone who gets in the way. Subtlety is not a strong point in this book, and in fact is its greatest weakness. We'll get to that in a moment. First, there are a lot of virtues to this book that need extolling.

Trondheim's Santa Claus is a happy little man. A penguin acts as his butler. The Abominable Snowman is a good friend, if often a cause of trouble. The elves adore working for the man, and the people in town wave with a smile at the sight of him. He's a bit clumsy and possibly nave, but he's a warm-hearted guy you can't help but love. The album is filled with little moments to help cement all of those virtues, from Santa running into a tree repeatedly to picking some hay for the dragon to feast on. It all fits in around the spine of the story, which is fairly light. This is more a character-drive story, if anything. If you're looking for a tight plot-driven story, this is not the book for you. It's safe enough to read to a child, as well, if you can guide them through the storytelling.

The best part of the album comes from Santa Claus' interaction with the Halloween characters. I'm tempted to refer to the lead character from that group as "Jack" since this whole set-up just reeks of NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. The resemblance is superficial, though, and no plot points are repeated. The two worlds are just too different not to cause hijinks: Santa operates in the daytime. The monsters and ghouls of Halloween work best at night, with off-key music, scary faces, and surprises around every corner. Their idea of a housewarming gift is a scary jack o' lantern, whose light keeps Santa awake and whose creepy smile scares him.

The art is by Thierry Robin, whose cartooning skills are amazing. You need a special artist to pull off a silent book done in 16 panel pages. Not many could do it. The only other one I can think of off-hand is this book's writer, Trondheim, who did a 60-panel grid with the sublime MISTER O. (I reviewed that here a couple of years ago.) Not only can he communicate a story without a single word as a crutch, or so much as a thought balloon with iconography in lieu of words, but he can do broad comedy and slapstick. There's an entire page devoted to Santa stumbling over, into, and under a tree. By the end of the page, he's so frustrated that he leans over and sticks his tongue out at the impassable foliage. I can't do the page wonders with these words, but it's great gestural drawing all the way through.

The weakest part of the album comes from the bad guys of the story, led by the "Chief Logger." It's every clich in the radical environmentalist's cartooning handbook. The loggers have a enormous machine that prowls through the forest, eating up trees and destroying the land at any cost. The loggers will kill people to get their trees, each of which is whittled down to a tooth pick. There's no subtlety here, and no fairness. Loggers generally are careful about the forest they use because once its gone, they're all out of jobs. In this story -- cartoonish though it might be -- the loggers are barely two-dimensional. The Halloween people are scary, but they mean well and they're nice. It's a clash of cultures when they scare Santa. It's not out of spite or meanness. The loggers, on the other hand, are all fire and brimstone, coming to kill everything and anything they see. It struck a very sour chord with me.

So just hold your nose and muddle through the pages where the lumberjacks appear to give the main characters something to fight against, and enjoy the rest of the cartooning brilliance of the book. HAPPY HALLOWEEN LI'L SANTA is available from NBM Publishing today in the glorious oversized hardcover album format for just $15. If you need any more convincing, check out NBM's preview pages. Just be warned that the colors on the web site are much less vibrant than they are on the printed page.

SOME MORE EUROPEAN COMICS

A link at Warren Ellis' The Engine message board led me to this preview of the latest volume of BLACKSAD. This is the third actual story in the series. Here in America, the third volume being offered is just a sketchbook. This is mind-blowingly gorgeous stuff, fully painted anthropomorphic art with a serious noir type story attached. I can't wait to see this thing show up here.

While I was at Dargaud's web site, I couldn't help but surf through the other titles they offer to take in more of that amazing French artwork that we see so little of here in the States.

Mix a little manga with a little Humberto Ramos, and you get the artist named Terada in a book loosely translated to "Small World." Pay special attention to page six of that preview. Wonderful stuff.

I don't know how best to describe "Le Demon D'Apres Midiā€¦" except to say it has a different kind of cartooning style that I really like. If it piques your interest, I should point out that the cupid on the cover is fully frontal naked. Florence Cestac has other volumes in the same style like " target="_blank">La Vie d'Artiste" and "La Vie En Rose."

Check out the background shots in the jungle and the establishing shot of the city in "O Le Regard Ne Porte Pas." It looks like the book was originally released in two volumes, but you can now buy an omnibus edition of both books that includes 16 new pages of material. Good to see the French market isn't all that different from our own sometimes.

"Mlusine" is an album series starring a cute witch character. I particularly liked this gag page, if only because I could understand it with my rudimentary French skills.

One other album, "La Danseuse du Temps" has a full color six page sample on the publisher's website, with a complete breakdown of the album available on the author's page. (Yes, there is some slight nudity involved. Parents beware.)

THE PIPELINE BLOG

Collecting various links and posts I've made in the past week:

Some quick additions/corrections to last week's column:

1. Dark Horse's "Billy the Kid" comic was drawn by Kyle Hotz, not Kelley Jones.

2. That missing issue of PLASTIC MAN from the second trade was done by Scott Morse, not Kyle Baker. I still have to question why it wasn't included in the trade, though. Is someone in DC's accounting department trying to keep the royalties statements simplified by limiting the creators in a collection?

3. THE LOOKING GLASS WARS: HATTER M is a riff on ALICE IN WONDERLAND and not WIZARD OF OZ. We're still getting too many of the latter, but this isn't one of them.

Hopefully, this column will flow a little more smoothly. If not, you have my e-mail address.

Is this the Turning Point for me? I've been cutting back on my comics habit all year. It's manageable enough now that I skip one stop to the comics shop a month, just because there's not enough new stuff out that week to justify the trip. I double up the following week, and all is good. I can survive off the overstock of comics during that down week.

Just when I think I have it under control, I get my monthly mail order box of comics. This month's box weighed in at 34 pounds. It is a bit of an oddball shipment. It contains an extra week or two's worth of books and titles from three separate PREVIEWS order forms. They all just happened to pile up at the right time to break my postman's back in one go. It included this ridiculous pack of hardcovers:

  • ABSOLUTE HUSH

  • ABSOLUTE WATCHMEN

  • DC's THE WORLD'S GREATEST SUPERHEROES

  • ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN HC Volume 6

  • THE PUNISHER MAX HC Volume 1

  • V FOR VENDETTA HC

  • TOM STRONG HC Volume 5

  • CONAN HC Volume 2

I'm not even counting the three trade paperbacks in there, nor the Halloween ashcans I plan on giving out at the end of the month. (They look great, by the way.)

I don't have the shelf space for all those books. I don't have the time to read them all in one month, even if I didn't buy another comic for the next four weeks. I think it's time to hack and slash at the reading list again. At the very least, I can move EX MACHINA and Y THE LAST MAN onto my "Wait for the Trades" list. We'll see.

Some quick links, with apologies for any dupes from previous columns:

Here's another reason to love or loathe Marvel, depending on your sense of humor: The new HULK VISIONARIES: PETER DAVID Volume 2 book has a credit, "Special thanks to Pond Scum."

That's not a typo. And that's really what they call him. He's worked in the famed Marvel bullpen for years. I had the same reaction to his name as you just had when I met him a few years back on my one trip to the Marvel offices. Weird name, but he is a pleasant guy.

Next week: I'm hoping for another Halloween-themed review in this space, and more.

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. This week's is over here (as of Tuesday night).

Don't forget about the VandS DVD podcast, while you're at it.

Various and Sundry continues its link dumps, with lots of TV talk 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 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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