Pipeline: Pipeline, Issue #502

Tue, January 23rd, 2007 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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WHAT GRAPHIC NOVEL I READ RECENTLY

ROCK BOTTOM is the original graphic novel from Joe Casey and Charles Adlard that appeared in numerous Best Of lists at the end of 2006, but which sat unread on my shelf until a couple of weeks ago. My bad. My very very very bad. This is a book that deserved to be read ages ago, and that I should have recommended to you when there was a better chance for a stray copy to still be left on your retailer's shelves. The book isn't out of print, though. It might not be handy to grab one on Wednesday when you pick up the rest of your books, but you can still order it through your retailer and get it in a week or two. It's worth it.

If you've seen some of the preview pages for the book that circulated the 'net way back when, you saw how beautiful Adlard's art style is in this book. But the chaotic Geoff Darrowesque art didn't truly represent the overall project. This is a science fictional story of a man slowly turning to stone, and all of its implications. We see his attitude towards life change. We see the people he's leaving behind, for good or bad. We see the medical community react to his condition. And we see the public reaction when he's forced by circumstances to reveal himself. It is not the story of a man who discovers new powers and uses them to fight crime in some city's back alley. It's much more thoughtful than that.

Thomas Dare is the protagonist, a jazz pianist with a sordid past. No, nothing criminal. He's just a man who's lived a rough life and made some mistakes. Casey works his way quickly into Dare's head and gives the reader plenty to chew on. With each twist, we see the drama ratcheted up and our empathy for the weakening man grow.

That's just half of the book, though. The other half has to do with the reaction of those around Dare to his condition. Casey pays particular attention to the medical community, who seizes upon this anomaly for their own benefit. Maybe it's just because I've worked in the pharmaceutical industry for too long, but I found that to be an interesting angle to take on the book.

And despite all of that heaviness, it's a book with a wicked sense of humor. Dare and his buddies aren't afraid to crack a joke or inflict sarcasm on one another, much like friends do in real life.

I was impressed with the direction Casey took this book in. It's much more Michael Crichton than Stan Lee. Such restraint in the face of potentially bombastic material is the sign of a strong writer looking to explore the human condition more than a Michael Bay blockbuster.

Charles Adlard, it must be noted, changed his style for this book. It's more of the ligne claire style popular in European comics. It mixes in bits of Rob Haynes and Scott Kolins, artists who work in lots of thin lines without thought to large black areas weighing down the page. The overall effect is breath taking. Even the panel borders are hand drawn, with just a little bit of shakiness and off-centeredness to keep things feeling more organic.

In the end, ROCK BOTTOM is a great looking book from an interesting point of view. What could be depressing and fatalistic is, instead, a clever tale filled with interesting characters. And for $13, you can add this black and white bad boy to your shelves, thanks to the kind folks at AiT/PplanetLar.

WHAT YOU HAVEN'T READ YET THIS WEEK

Love is tough. Ask C.B. Cebulski. He'll tell you. If not in person, it'll be in the form of his new comic book, C.B. CEBULSKI'S WONDERLOST. It's out from Image Comics this week, and I think it's an entertaining accomplishment, if occasionally cringeworthy. Believe it or not, that's a compliment.

I've always believed that doing an autobiographical comic is the hardest kind. Imagine opening yourself up to an audience of a hundred people and telling them all the stupid things you've done. Imagine that audience, instead, being in the thousands. Then picture everything you've told them being in print for their friends to read and pass along. Imagine the friends you're discussing in your stories might possibly be sitting in the cheap seats cloaked in shadow in the back of the room.

It scares the bejeezus out of me. Maybe it's just because I'm a generally private kind of guy. I may write 10,000 words in a week between this column and my blog, but I'll say very little about my personal life. It'll only be in broad strokes. While a good bit of my humor is self-deprecating, I can't imagine telling all the stories that make me look like a jerk to a room full of strangers.

That's what Cebulski does in this book, though. The book is made up of six short stories set in his latter high school and early college days. It's his "coming of age" story, with his earliest fumblings with various members of the opposite sex. Sure, we all have those stories from our awkward years. And some of them might even be as entertaining as the ones Cebulski tells us here, but I can't imagine pulling them off as well as he does.

Cebulski strikes an amazing balance. He shows himself off to be an occasional jerk in his youth, but without being completely unsympathetic. He's honest, and that's the most important part of an autobiographical comic. If you're not believable and the readers smell a dead fish, the book is going to be dead on arrival. I believe Cebulski in this book because he owns up to his shortcomings, and tells us what he honestly learned from these experiences. That's important.

The other thing is that the stories are funny, even when you're so embarrassed for their author that you want to go hide in a corner for the next three months in his behalf. The stories all revolve around his fumblings with women, and much of the material isn't exactly for the kiddies. Nor is it soft core porn, so don't sweat that. He shows us enough to get the point across while remaining honest. Things aren't covered up for the sake of sparing anyone's feelings. And while, yes, Cebulski acts like a "typical guy" multiple times in the stories, he also shows a slightly more tender side that makes him likeable, even when he slips. We've all been there -- you do and say strange things when you're hanging out with the guys that you wouldn't necessarily want known by others. That's life.

Leinil Francis Yu contributes a cover, but six different artists illustrate the stories. None is a clunker. Contributions come from Paul Azaceta, Martin Montiel, Alina Urusov, Khoi Pham, Jonathan Luna, and Ethan Young. Urusov's art is heavily inspired by anime, but the black and white nature of the book really hurts her art style. I think a full color version of the story would be easier to read and, in fact, think this story was drawn with that in mind. Azaceta's art looks like it's drawn with a Sharpie marker, but is very effective. He did his own hand lettering that fits in with the art style beautifully. Luna's story almost looks like it was drawn by Adrian Tomine. It has a very similar simple straight-line style. Very strong work, yet still obviously a Luna brother.

The book is due out this week for $5.99. It's squarebound and black and white throughout. There's a big fat "#1" on the cover. With big enough sales, it's safe to assume we'll see more. Cross your fingers.

WHAT ELSE I READ THIS WEEK

THE SPIRIT #2 is just as good, if not better, than the first issue. Darwyn Cooke wastes no time in bringing P'Gell into the series by featuring her here, and it really works. It's surprising the way he's not only able to use her feminine wiles for the story, but also give her an interesting back story that makes the reader fall for her all the more. It reminds me of the way Paul Dini re-defined Mr. Freeze in BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. Freeze became a vastly more interesting character after that, and not just a series of bad cold puns, or a scary guy with a nifty gun. He was someone you cared about. Cooke does that in 22 pages with P'Gell in a way that's both convincing and believable.

He also gives The Spirit a sense of awareness of himself and the craziness of his situations that's very entertaining. You can't help but like this guy after these two issues.

Cooke's art (inked by J. Bone) is beautiful again, too. This is textbook cartooning. I hope they stock copies of this issue at the Kubert School, because it's the kind of thing that every aspiring artist should look for tips in. Cooke is a master of character acting and pacing. He can speed up and slow down pages like a veteran. He can change up styles radically to separate one sequence from the rest.

And he can give you a splash page that's worth lingering over. This month, it's a double-page splash of P'Gell, and bonus credit goes to Dave Stewart for his coloring work. If you look carefully, you'll see how Stewart gives the page an almost cinematic feel. There's a hint of the kind of shots movie directors would use to highlight the beauties of 1940s and 1950s movie starlets. There's a little blur around her face that makes her look even more incredible.

Just be warned: That's a two page Nintendo Wii insert in the middle of the book, and not a weird SPIRIT subplot with a different art style.

You don't need to have ever read THE SPIRIT before to "get" this book. I've only read a few selections from Will Eisner's SPIRIT library, but I still understand everyone and everything in this book. Cooke doesn't expect you to be a veteran reader, or even a moderate reader, of the comic strip. This is a new book for a new generation of reader, slightly updated and presented beautifully.

I'll stop raving now, but do us all a favor and pick it up. I'd hate to see this one get canceled.

ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #104 is a curious thing. It ends the Clone Saga, at last. I've had my ups and downs with this storyline, but I'm glad to have it over with. I'm very happy that the biggest excesses of its storytelling have been done away with already. I think this is a prime example of how waiting for the trade (or premium edition hardcover) would make a story a lot more palatable. If you could see how all the crazy twists from earlier on wind up in one sitting, you're less likely to be upset with its creators. Fair or not, that's reality.

Bendis does a good job in tying up the loose ends and putting everything back in place, but it comes at a slight price: The big superhero throwdown scene in this issue is completely illegible. It looks nice. Mark Bagley's art is strong and Drew Hennesy's inks give it a little extra flavor. But I have no idea what's happening in the big fight scene, how the tide turns, or how the good guys win it. I've read it a couple of times more slowly to look for clues, but no luck.

I can't get into the extremely bright spot at the ending without going into spoilers, but I think a lot of long-term fans of the book will be happy with one of the pleasant little moments we see at the end. The fallout from that will occur next issue. Poor Peter.

FANTASTIC FOUR #542 is the start of Dwayne McDuffie's run as writer, while Mike McKone stays aboard. I liked it. McDuffie, in one issue, provides more character-based reasoning for Reed Richards' actions in this Civil War than any other writer has managed so far. It's a nice touch and much appreciated. Plus, he quotes Isaac Asimov and one of my favorite books in the process. It's a great read, and the kind of thing that makes me want to go back into my archives for more Asimovian wit and wisdom. I'll miss Straczynski's sense of humor in this title, but McDuffie appears to have a nice grasp of the characters and fits right in from the start.

The one odd thing to me about this issue is Val. She's drawn in a very different style than the rest of McKone's artwork. I imagine she's a caricature of someone important to McKone.

WHAT I WROTE FIVE YEARS AGO

Welcome to a new segment for Pipeline. Each week, I plan on taking a look at what I was talking about in Pipeline x number of years ago. The idea was originally suggested on the Pipeline Message Board, and I have to apologize to whoever's idea it was. I forgot to write their name down, so I can't credit them appropriately here. Maybe by next week we'll figure out whose bright idea this was.

This week, I'll look back five years, to a time when I still wrote two columns a week, had no grey hairs, and the Batman books were trying to figure out if Bruce Wayne was a murderer or not.

Let's start with the January 22nd, 2002 edition of Pipeline. That was outing #241, and it began with a look at HEROBEAR AND THE KID. Mike Kunkel's series had reached its fourth issue at that point, and I lavished praise over Kunkel for his cartooning skills. However, I was still a lettering snob:

"Sadly, the lettering is still WhizBang crapola. It's always tough to get the lettering to look right on a book that's not pen and ink. If it's all-pencil or a painted book, the lettering inevitably will stick out a little bit more than usual. Here it's even worse because it's friggin' WhizBang! I'd cut Kunkel a check personally to pay for a decent font from someone, even one of those overused Comicraft ones. At least the lettering has gotten better since the first issue. The font size has shrunken down enough that it's not as annoying as it once was.

I just miss the day when lettering was considered part of proper cartooning. They still teach it to first year students at the Kubert School, you know. It's too bad that so few use it anymore.

The bulk of the column had reviews of that month's "Bruce Wayne: Murderer" storyline that crossed over all the core Batman titles. I had hopes for it:

The story is teeming with possibilities and the kinds of creators needed to pull them off. Hopefully, the crossover will help put a cap on some of the odd over-brooding characterization that Batman has had to deal with lately. Theoretically, the way this event will pull the Batman family together should shine as a light to Batman. With any luck, it'll pull the character out of the strange funk he's been in lately and help explain his behavior.

There's still a long way to go, though.

I can't remember anymore if that actually happened or not. It was near the end of the Chuck Dixon era at DC, though, so it's a sad period in retrospect.

That column also had reviews for the first TELLOS trade paperback, Mirage's latest TMNT #1, LONE WOLF AND CUB #16, and more.

On Friday of that week (25 January 2002), Pipeline2 hit its 135th week. I was still looking back at 2001 in that column, and it featured the best single issues of the year. Greg Rucka's SPIDER-MAN: TANGLED WEB made the list, as did one of my favorite Spider-Man issues of all time:

Peter Parker: Spider-Man #33: Uncle Ben and baseball. It doesn't get much better than that. If I were on the Eisner Award Judges panel (and I can see all of you breathing a sigh of relief that I'm not), this is the issue that I'd be pushing. The series is already on my Top 10 list. This issue is the highlight of it, though. It's the story of a boy, his father figure, and the sport of baseball that binds them for eternity.

It didn't win an Eisner, no. Sad.

A Joe Kelly issue of SUPERBOY made the list, as did WONDER WOMAN #170 (another Kelly script), CODENAME: KNOCKOUT #1 (does anyone remember Robert Rodi's series anymore?), ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #13 (of course), ONI PRESS COLOR SPECIAL 2001, MIDNIGHT NATION #4, and a whole lot more. Looking back today, I think it's a fairly strong list.

WHAT I WAS WRONG ABOUT LAST WEEK - AND UPDATES

  • The GEORGE PEREZ: STORYTELLER book I reviewed last week was published by Dynamic Forces, not Dynamite Entertainment.

  • The first two segments from this month's Pipeline Previews Podcast were released in the last week. I only have one or two more segments to go before we wrap that up and begin Yet Another One for the books shipping in April. Stay tuned.

  • I'm also starting to take suggestions for interviews for the Pipeline Podcast. I haven't done any in a couple of months, and I'm starting to get the itch again. If there's any creator you'd like to hear from, let me know. I'll take all suggestions under consideration, but I can't make any promises.

  • In the meantime, our friends at iFanboy have started a brand new video podcast over at the The Big Time World of IPTV, Revision3. It's very exciting, and we wish them all the luck with it. New episodes are available every Wednesday.

Pipeline will return next week. Promise. It ought to be fun

My blog, Various and Sundry features the scariest fashion idea I've ever seen on a runway. Check out Monday's post for details, and then shudder along with me.

Once again, here are the links to my MySpace page and my ComicSpace page.

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 700 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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