Mercenary Mind: Issue #2

Mon, May 15th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Justin Gray, Columnist

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HELLO MAINSTREAM

Finally comic books have fully transcended from cult to mainstream. This is the end of a long and protracted struggle for legitimacy! You know what I'm talking about. You can't turn on the TV or open the newspaper or some trendy magazine without seeing someone wrapped in spandex, possibly adorned with a cape and or mask. The rest of the world has invaded your secret den and aren't laughing and pointing, as they might have done in the past. Actually I can't be sure if that is true or not because I've met so many closeted fans stepping proudly into the light with newfound confidence to admit they read comics all along. Anyway, Hollywood execs are telling you how cool you are for being light years ahead of the curve on this one. The multiplex's are summer homes to these great constructs of the American mythos, raking in tons of cash as well-known actors spend weeks at the gym drinking grass smoothies and preparing for their all-too-tight costume fitting. Quick note to actors - if you're in a superhero, movie it doesn't mean you have to over act, get all shouty, growl lines of dialogue or make animal noises. Seriously. Nothing is more painful than watching an Oscar winner hiss at a dog. Okay there are more painful things to watch, like say "Man-Thing," but you know what I mean.

Everyone has their eye on your long boxes now. Even as you sit there reading this, clever corporate marketing ninja are stealthily implanting their product logos into the pages of your favorite monthly superhero comics. Somewhere in the dungeon think tanks of big tobacco, tar fingered corporate execs have taken time away from midget porn to tinker mercilessly with CANCERMAN, a superhero that gets his power from smoking three packs a day. Of course they will inevitably run up against the mentality that comic books are for children and for once that might be a good thing.

So it's here, the legitimacy and recognition. Now that the spotlight shines so brightly on the four-color world, what will come next? What happens when they run through all of the established properties that can sustain films or TV shows? What happens if they want a new Spider-Man or a new Batman for a new generation, a generation that has already seen the old origins told and retold? Yes, those characters are "timeless," but remember, Spider-Man, Hulk, the X-Men, Doctor Strange, Iron Man and many others emerged from the minds of people who felt the industry wasn't cool or hip enough to connect with a 1960s audience. What happens when the people who are so enamored with comic book properties ask - Where's the new stuff? Hopefully they'll have gotten off their asses and made "The Monolith" into a movie by then.

MY APPEARANCE AT A BIG GALA EVENT

I was invited to a fundraising gala/dinner/cocktail hour thing for the charitable organization called Gift of Life. Actually, I wasn't invited, the Associate Director was invited and the legal bonds of matrimony make it my responsibility to accompany her to such events. Allow me to explain. The Associate Director works in the big city, she does big city things in a massive control room with all sorts of buttons, monitors and diodes - not unlike a really hot mad scientist. She has a big city title: "Associate Director," which I'm told is corporate speak for VIP. This is stenciled under her name on her business cards.

I'll skip over all the stuff I don't understand and can't explain to say she's an audio/video editor. She uses things called Avid and Final Cut Pro to build video presentations and commercials and stuff. One such video is for the Gift of Life foundation and that's where it all comes together on a big screen in a room full of people hosted by actor Ron Rifkin from the well known TV show "Alias." The Gift of Life is a wonderful organization and while I thought I knew what I was in for, I did not have a clue.

Okay. So. I am in a suit. I do not like suits. I am a jeans and t-shirt kind of guy. A suit makes me feel like I'm wearing a costume designed to strangle. My shoes are slippery and feel like torture devices. Ties are the equivalent of a dog collar and leash for humans. My fellow males are also suited and leashed for the occasion, which is good because I'm trying to blend in. Unfortunately I feel like an imposter for a number of reasons. The first reason is that the tickets to the gala are $500.00 bucks a pop and I'm a special guest. The second reason is I'm one of probably ten non-Jewish people in the massive ballroom so I feel as though I'm going to be exposed as, what the Associate Director's uncle likes to affectionately call me, a goyim.

"Goy" [plural: goyim, adjective: goyishe] is the standard Hebrew term for non-Jew. Literally it is the Hebrew for "nation." Spoken aloud with a disgusted inflection, it's pejorative. So is the word 'Jew' in similar circumstances.

Anyway, after the cocktail hour where I pound a few to calm the nerves, we head into the main ballroom and the ceremony begins almost immediately with the introduction of Ron Rifkin, who prepares us to meet three pairs of people. The Gift of Life organization is aptly named. I'll give you the overview taken directly from, Giftoflife.org, which states:

The Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation was established in 1991 as a donor recruitment organization to help save the life of New Jersey leukemia patient Jay Feinberg. Between 1991-95, the organization launched an ambitious campaign to recruit donors of Eastern-European Jewish ethnicity throughout North America and abroad.

Over the course of four years, 60,000 donors registered with the National Marrow Donor Program in the United States, as well as other national registries in Canada, Israel and many other countries through Gift of Life's campaign.

In 1995, the very last donor tested turned out to be Jay's match, and he was transplanted in Seattle at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Although it started as a grassroots effort to save one life, the campaign facilitated transplants for hundreds of other patients also in need of donors.

At the gala, donors meet recipients for the very first time. It is a profoundly moving experience to see a person who was quite literally on death's doorstep, clinging to hope, undergoing radiation and chemotherapy, coming face to face with the person who ended their pain and suffering and saved their lives. Each recipient gave a brief speech detailing the things they would have missed, a grandchild's birthday, a daughter's wedding, an opportunity to spend more time with loved ones, things that would not have been possible if that one in a million person hadn't given them some of their own blood. As someone who writes fiction about super heroism, where costumed men and women dedicate their lives to protecting and helping others, I came to question myself and the work I've done to date. It is easy to get caught up in the corporate machine when you're a mercenary. It is easy to lose sight of the central idea behind superhero fiction. I've resolved to make some changes in future work based on experiencing first hand the effects of genuine heroism displayed by real people and not their metaphorical counterparts. Stay tuned.

"JONAH HEX" IS AN ONGOING SERIES.

There's a question that needs to be addressed here and now in big bold letters because both Jimmy and I are asked it at every show, "How many issues is 'Jonah Hex' going to be?"

"JONAH HEX" IS AN ONGOING SERIES.

As of right now we have completed twenty-three scripts and there is a trade in the works.

We were green lit past twelve issues right around the time issue #3 was released and we couldn't be happier that "Jonah" fans have rallied around the book in the middle of crossovers, re-launches and some of the coolest comic events in recent memory.

"JONAH HEX" IS AN ONGOING SERIES.

Speaking of "Jonah Hex," I've got another special guest for you. I'm a big fan of his work and you should be too. I present artist and illustrator, Mister Phil Noto.

Phil, welcome to the MERCENARY MIND. You're illustrating and coloring the interiors of an upcoming issue of "Jonah Hex" for DC Comics, which I believe is available this month for preordering.

The story involves a family of ferocious swamp people and at times is extremely brutal. In fact the first draft was so graphic and disturbing the opening scene had to be rewritten. I believe this is a departure from anything you've illustrated in comics thus far. People are going to see a different side to your art. What's the experience been like?

PHIL: Yes, brutal is a good word for it. I liken this story to the "Home" episode of "The X-Files." Compared to other books that I've done featuring girls running around tight clothes or bikinis in tropical climates, it's definitely the darkest work I've done in both mood and art. It's been a nice change.

Nothing wrong with bikini's in tropical climates. How much of the layout for your issue of" Jonah Hex" is dictated by those hack writers and how much is directly influenced by your storytelling?

PHIL: I don't listen to those hacks at all. Just kidding. Actually, most of the writers I've worked with are very good in terms of layouts and pacing. When reading the script, sometimes certain pages or panels will jump out at me and I'll have a definite idea of how to draw them.

Do you prefer more detailed scripts or do you like to have lots of room for interpretation?

PHIL: I'm most comfortable somewhere in the middle. With good writers there are enough details so you don't have to do a lot of preplanning in the layout stage, but I like to have a certain amount of freedom to change things. That being said, I usually stay fairly close to the script only making changes to maybe 20% of the book.

Are you a fan of the western genre?

PHIL: I'm a big fan of the spaghetti westerns, although those films' are usually to the real west what "Apocalypse Now" was to the real Vietnam War. I also love the real gritty stuff like "Deadwood," "Wild Bunch," and "Unforgiven."

Is it a challenge to illustrate the real life historical visuals as opposed to more science fiction or super hero oriented material?

PHIL: It's a bit of a challenge to illustrate the more historical type stories, but with the Internet and DVDs, it's much easier than it would have been say 15 years ago.

When I write, I usually listen to music. For instance when working on "Hex" I have a special iTunes compilation of spaghetti western soundtracks and obscure old country songs. Do you listen to any particular kind of music when you work and does it change depending on the subject matter?

PHIL: I usually work with the T.V. on. I watch a lot of movies, all ages and genres. If I'm doing any writing or thinking up story ideas or concepts, like you, I'll come up with a certain soundtrack to inspire me first.

I think your style has a certain poetic simplicity, by that I mean you visually capture the broad strokes of a story by focusing exclusively on the most important elements. Is that accurate?

PHIL: I'll often approach a book as if I was storyboarding a movie. I try to picture would be on the screen, close-ups, establishing shots if it were filmed. Now, a lot of times you just can't do a bunch of widescreen panels but that's where page layout and composition come in. It's sometimes fun to figure it out the best solution. It's almost like doing a puzzle.

How often do you use photo reference?

PHIL: I try to use photos as much as I can. I don't necessarily draw in a super realistic style, but photos are always a good foundation to use before I draw in my own style. Using reference over and over helps you to eventually draw a lot of stuff right out of your head.

I see also you blend realism with a unique animated style. How much of that is influenced by your time working for Disney?

PHIL: It's just kind of a coincidence, maybe something a little subliminal. It's easy to use a clean line style after working at Disney for so long, but in terms of actually affecting my style, I'm more influenced by European comics and 50s and 60s illustration.

You also color your own work, as is the case with "Jonah Hex." Do you prefer to handle the coloring whenever possible or have others do it and do you give color notes?

PHIL: I like to color my own stuff when I can because I'm able to go in and add color details and textures when I want. It also allows me to go back and redraw something if I find that it's just not working in the color stage.

A lot of people are familiar with your work on female characters and I know you get tons of requests at shows for sketches of popular female superheroes. With this issue of Hex that opportunity doesn't present itself because you're mainly drawing male characters and alligators. Is it a refreshing change?

PHIL: Yeah, it's a nice change. It's also great practice for me to draw so different from my usual subject matter. And who doesn't love to draw inbreeds and alligators?!

Indeed! Thanks Phil.

You'll also be happy to know that Phil will be illustrating a two-part Jonah Hex revenge epic entitled the Ballad of Tallulah Black.

In closing I present to you Matt Baker's Phantom Lady as she was printed in Dr. Fredric Wertham's infamous, "Seduction of the Innocent," representing a leading argument as to why comicbooks were the corruptors of American youth.

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