Pipeline: Pipeline, Issue #504

Tue, February 6th, 2007 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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ANOTHER MASTER OF MODERN ART

Kevin Maguire was fresh out of Marvel's Romita's Raiders program when he landed the plum assignment of drawing JUSTICE LEAGUE AMERICA. It turned out not to be quite what he had in mind, but it become the stuff of modern comics legend. Sometimes, history happens when you least expect it.

But remember that this was early in Maguire's career. In the time since, he's never held down a steady monthly art gig longer than six issues. He's a moth in the comics world, attracted to flames when he sees them, alighting for a moment or two before flittering away to the next.

And, occasionally, he got burnt.

For a man so well thought of and so well received by the industry, his career has been completely scattershot. He's worked at Marvel, DC, Image, Acclaim, and Dark Horse. He's left projects unfinished. He's disappeared for stretches at a time. He doesn't have a high profile on-line and he doesn't give too many interviews.

In short, Maguire is a bit of a mystery.

That's what drew me, moth-like, to the burning embers of MODERN MASTERS: KEVIN MAGUIRE. The chance to read a career-spanning interview with an artist whose work is so fluid and so set apart from the fads, the excesses, and the trends of modern comics is a delight.

Unfortunately, it all seems to rather bore Maguire. This is not a grown-up fanboy eagerly lapping up his assignments and committing each to memory. He doesn't have a long term memory for many of the projects fans remember him best for. But, then, think back on your career. What were you doing at work 15 years ago -- or at school? Can you remember that teacher's name or that boss's name who gave you the big assignment? Do you remember how it came about and how you did it in graphic detail? I'm sure you can't, but we comic fans tend to be obsessive about these things and expect others to be, as well.

That's part of what fascinates me so much about Maguire. He's clearly a man who cares about his craft. He's meticulous with his lines and wants to see them represented properly. Yet, he's not the kind of artist who holds his career neatly at the front of his memory. Often times, drawing comics is just a job for him. And while he picks the ones he thinks he might like more often than not, he gets the jobs done and moves on to the next thing that catches his fancy. All the details surrounding each are mostly forgotten as he moves on to the next job. Maybe it's the lack of previous in-depth interviews that explains Maguire's forgetfulness in the face of so many of author George Khoury's questions.

The book is not a wash. I don't mean to say that it's 100 pages of interview questions longer than the answers, with no new information imparted. There's plenty of stuff in here, but at times you can see Khoury prodding Maguire along, trying to excite his memory or pull stories out of him. There's a lot of career covered in this book, as Maguire has played hopscotch throughout the industry in his career. There's talk of TRINITY ANGELS, JUSTICE LEAGUE, CAPTAIN AMERICA, TEEN TITANS, GEN13, JLA specials, DEFENDERS, STRIKEBACK!, X-MEN, and more. I had forgotten more series Maguire has drawn than those that he did. That's interesting to me.

And when it comes to the most recent works -- such as his return to the JUSTICE LEAGUE, DEFENDERS, and that X-MEN mini I had forgotten all about -- he's open with his opinions on where they worked and where they went wrong. The recent comics still stick in his memory. He talks of the difficulty in reuniting with Giffen and DeMatteis, and how they had to reconcile the different work process for the good of the comic. If you're looking for dirt in this book, it's the last couple of chapters where you'll find it.

While in parts, this book is a celebration of a Modern Master, it's also a cautionary tale of a man whose career has merely wandered for the last twenty years, not one that's been aimed in a particular direction and gained more critical plaudits for it. It's kind of scary, too, to think that the defining run of the man's career is likely his very first, on JUSTICE LEAGUE. Let's hope something comes along for him in the near future that excites him enough to give us another lengthy run on a title to remember for a long time to come.

The book is fleshed out in the back by 25 pages of sketches, pin-ups, original art, and more. It includes three pages from a Batman story that was canceled before it ever got published.

MODERN MASTERS: KEVIN MAGUIRE is available in comic shops everywhere (one hopes) for the small fee of $14.95, from TwoMorrows Publishing.

FOR SOMETHING A LITTLE MORE ARTSY

I'm a relatively simple comic reader. I like being entertained by my comics. I like stories with points, with plots that go from point A to point B, no matter how many steps they take inbetween. I like larger than life characters and I like the Characters Next Door types, too, but I don't like characters who just muddle through.

It's completely against my nature, then, but I really fell in love with Manu Larcenet's ORDINARY VICTORIES. This is a graphic novel originally published in France, but reprinted by NBM a couple of years ago. It won the Best Graphic Novel prize at Angouleme the year it came out. It's one of those serious graphic novel types that I don't often cover in this column. On the other hand, it's a translated Euro-album from a cartoonist with great skill. That's right up my alley.

But it's not a book with a straight line plot or a strong third act resolution. It's not a book with a protagonist heading out on a quest for something, or getting wrapped up in a larger plot that he has to work his way out of. It's a couple of years in the life of a photojournalist who has burned out and is looking to find his way again. He has a medical problem. He has a psychological problem. He's lost his muse. His father is sick. He makes a new friend and then throws him away when his past is revealed. He has a new girlfriend but isn't so sure he can act like anything but a single man. And the old house he lives in has its faults, too.

So, you could make the argument that this is a book about an artist in search of his muse, and the various things that tug him away from that goal. But that would be shortchanging the book, and would lead you to a disappointing ending. Instead, this is a book featuring an array of characters who feel real, not like conveniently created collections of traits meant to fit into a predefined plot structure.

ORDINARY VICTORIES is, in many ways, a meandering series of slice of life short stories that hook together to show how one man's life changes over a longer period of time than what you normally see in fiction of this length. And that's OK. Despite his shortcomings, Marc is a sympathetic character. He's made all the more believable by his shortcomings, actually, which keep him from being a victim.

Despite there hardly being a "rooting interest" in the book, it is a story that I really got into. I liked the way Larcenet transitioned from one time period to the next, giving subtle but obvious clues about the time shifts very quickly. I liked the way things happened naturally in the story, and the way the characters acted naturally but not without conflict. And I felt badly for them when life made its inevitable left turns.

Larcenet's art is built on a standard four-tier structure. He doesn't deviate from that at all, except to occasionally combine two levels into one for a half-page splash. His panel composition choices lean towards mid-range waist-up angles. His characters have big noses, feet, and heads that threaten to bobble off their shoulders if they're not careful. At first, it feels like a slightly more detailed daily comic strip. But no shrunken-down comic strip could ever afford the artistic style Larcent displays here. His pen line is far too thin. His backgrounds are detailed and authentic. He doesn't draw in every little thing in a room for the sake of filling up space. It helps add to the realism of the novel. There are stunningly gorgeous landscapes in this book. Ditto for cityscapes. Ditto for apartment and house interiors, where shelves are stocks, clutter sits on counters, and the material used for the floor is clearly delineated.

But it's still all done in a style that most people would call "cartoony." I'm not sure I could ever discount that description. But it's the style of cartooning that follows in a direct line down from the works of Asterix and Tin Tin. It's a style of art you don't find here in America at all. And that's a darn shame.

Credit also has to go to the colorist, Patrice Larcenet. The book jumps between color keying, in which whole scenes are dominated by shades of a single color, and more vibrant bright colors filling the pages more literally. (The sky is blue, the skin tone is peachy, the waves of grain are amber.) It's all solid color, with no gradients or special effects. But they're all carefully chosen and often delineated to create shadows and add depth to the page. In some ways, the restraint that's often shown reminds me of the coloring of Chris Ware in his books. It's very well done.

Finally, visual compliments also go to the letterer, credited as "Ortho." I didn't realize that it was computer lettering until I was a fair part of the way through the book. The font selection is very rough. The style looks like shaky handwriting. Certainly, nobody would attempt to create a font that idiosyncratic and that sloppy looking, right? But it fits the style of the book perfectly. This is a book that looks hand made. The art is cartoony with sketchy parts and this style of lettering matches that. I'm not a big fan of the balloon choices (and those tails, in particular), but it does remain consistent with that hand-crafted look.

ORDINARY VICTORIES is an outstanding achievement, well worth the awards and the acclaim it's garnered. Larcenet's art is fantastic. And for just $16, NBM is giving you an awful lot of full color comics mastery. If you see this one on the stands, at least flip through it. Give it a chance.

There might be some preview pages at this link, but NBM's website doesn't seem to be functioning as I write this. Click the link and take your chances.

ONE FROM THE SUPERHERO SIDE OF THINGS

BATMAN: LEGEND OF THE DARK KNIGHT #214 is a done-in-one story featuring Deadshot written by Christos Gage, who you might remember from Deadshot's last mini-series appearance. It's a nice short story, with a unique take on the Batman/Deadshot relationship and a few good character moments thrown in along the way.

The reason I wanted to specially highlight it here is for the art of Phil Winslade. He handles the pencils and inks for this issue and the results are stunning. It begins as Batman dangles a turncoat mob informant over the side of a Gotham City skyscraper. The detail on those three pages is impressive, as Winslade draws every single window of every single building. Winslade could draw GOTHAM ARCHITECTURE MONTHLY featuring 32 pages of buildings sitting flat on the page and I'd buy it. His attention to detail is outstanding. Even after that opening, the buildings of Gotham are featured as a character in the background. Most impressively, the characters standing in front of these busy backgrounds aren't easily lost. I'm not sure exactly how -- maybe Michael Atiyeh's colors? -- but the storytelling is clear. The pages are mostly densely packed, often with close-ups dominating pages with 8, 10, or even 12 panels. This is the kind of work you just don't get enough of in comics today: detailed renderings with natural-looking people that aren't a series of swipes and obviously photo-referenced images. Why Winslade isn't one of WIZARD's Top Ten artists is beyond me.

This is just a Very Good Comic, and I'm afraid it might be lost in the stormy seas of large scale company crossovers, which wouldn't be fair to either Gage or Winslade.

If all of that doesn't convince you, then let me try this angle: It's the final issue for the series. Pick it up as a collector's item and maybe it'll rise in value. But after you buy it, read it before slabbing it. You just might enjoy it.

FIVE YEARS AGO. . .

Can you believe it's been five years since Peter Parker told Aunt May his big secret?

Half the fun for me of doing this segment in the column every week is in seeing just how much stuff has happened in the last five years. Things that you think happened just yesterday or just last year actually took place 60 issues ago. Take this review from Pipeline #243 (05 February 2007):

This week's releases features AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #38, the much anticipated issue where Aunt May and Peter Parker have a little chat about Peter's double life.

Comparisons between ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #13 and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #38 are inevitable. Both feature Peter Parker divulging his secret to someone close to him. Both are extended conversations between two people. And both are high points in their respective series' runs. There are differences, though.

Those of you following CIVIL WAR might get a giggle out of this paragraph, too:

Yes, there have been an unfortunate number of stories lately centered on characters' dual identities being exposed. Superman, Spider-Man (multiple times in recent months), and even Batman have been through it. I have a funny feeling we haven't seen the end of this trend, either. So long as the stories are told with such reverence to the characters' histories and respect for the reader's intelligence -- something that's been jerked around often enough in the past on such occasions -- then I'll continue to be entertained by them. As soon as these revelations become crass marketing ploys, I'm done.

This time around, though, the Spider-Man unmasking seems to be sticking.

In that same column, I also reviewed the entirety of the Marvel Mangaverse event that had some fun stuff in it. It featured art by the likes of Kaare Andres, Jeff Matsuda, and Lea Hernandez.

As a bonus: Three years ago, I wrote about Mark Waid's tenure on FANTASTIC FOUR and Garth Ennis' third PUNISHER hardcover.

More Pipeline next week! I promise! I have a TokyoPop book here I think some of you might be interested in. And there's a shelf of graphic novels I'm working my way through. And I still want to keep on top of the weekly releases.

There's plenty to choose from, that's for sure.

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

My blog, Various and Sundry looks like a lot of Reality TV show reviews with sporadic tech/geeky things thrown in. I'm working on that, too. Gotta mix it up, keep it fresh, nobody's reading this column anymore so I know I'm talking to myself but hi how are you? Drop me a line sometime, won't you? Thanks.

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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