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Tue, May 20th, 2008 at 12:59pm PDT | Updated: May 20th, 2008 at 1:01pm

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

PARDON MY FRENCH: SKY DOLL

Sky Doll

French comics have returned to the American Direct Market mainstream, as Marvel dips its toes into the waters with "Sky Doll" #1 (preview). It's the start of a three issue mini-series that kicks off Marvel's new publishing program with French publisher, Soleil. It's a visually appealing first issue that throws the reader into a world fraught with power-mad people, religion being used for all the wrong reasons, and some characters who are flawed, but mostly sympathetic.

Creators Barbara Canepa and Alessandro Barbucci are interviewed for two short pages at the end of the issue, and do a very good job summing up the events of the first issue, and placing it in the proper context of what they were going for. This is, to them, a book about religion, culture, sex, and humanity. Some parts are handled too simply for my tastes, or without any sort of redeeming value. Religion comes off completely as a bad thing in this issue, without anything to speak up for it. Not every story has to represent both sides of whatever issue it's tackling, but there are times when the book lapses into cliches and simplistic arguments that are a turn off.

The thing that's not a turn-off, though, is Barbucci's art. It's a very pleasant and colorful display of animated characters, both humanoid and alien. Mostly, they're alien. If you liked the visuals of "The Fifth Element" (which, itself, was based on French sci-fi comics), I think you'll find something appealing in "Sky Doll," which has a wonderful imagination working behind it. I could look at the futuristic cityscapes and ship designs in this book all day. I love the characters, who have an almost Disneyesque appearance to them. (This isn't too far a reach, as the creators of "Sky Doll" are also the creators of Disney's "W.I.T.C.H.")

I liked the pacing of the book. The story runs over 40 pages, but it reads quickly. There are lots of bold graphics and large panels without too much dialogue crowded in. The creators aren't using their original page size as an excuse to cram more talking onto the page. They use it to cram more design into the art, fuller characters and architectural details, and overall more powerful graphics. Even in this shrunken American form, the art leaps out from the page at you, and the quick dialogue bits keep you turning the page without ever getting bogged down in heavy exposition, as so often becomes necessary to explain futuristic alien worlds. This also means that you spend a good chunk of the book feeling lost and waiting for explanations of What It All Means, but that's OK. Sit back, enjoy the visuals, and wait for the story to come.

"Sky Doll" does have some robotic nudity and adult themes, but they're hardly pornographic. This is as tame as you could get for a Marvel Adult property. Heck, the Marvel Max titles are probably a harder R-rating than much of what's in this book. The story is a little scattered, partially because there's so many characters to set up in a relatively short space. But the visuals carry the day and give hope that the next two volumes can begin to carry the plot of a runaway robot and a religious rebellion.

As a bonus, the last few pages of the book feature previews of the other French titles Marvel intends to bring to market for the rest of the year. It's a promising glimpse into the future.

MISCELLANEOUS COMICS

Finally read "DC Universe" #1 this weekend. I had much the same reaction that Matt Fraction admitted to having in a recent Word Balloon podcast -- "That's Barry Allen?" I didn't start reading comics until after the original "Crisis on Infinite Earths." My knowledge of that character is limited. I'm not entirely sure I would have put two and two together after reading the issue, had it not been for the mainstream media coverage and on-line excitement about it. I might have figured it out, just given Crisis history and the symbolism, but I really went into the book expecting to see a human being, not a lightning bolt across the moon and some vague caption boxes.

And why is the return of DC's most favorite dead character set up behind a strip club? That doesn't seem all that heroic to me. . . Again, I'm probably missing something from the character's history.

I'm going to give "Final Crisis" a shot, but this one shot -- despite some nice touches, like the ROY G. BIV spread -- doesn't really excite me for it.

Three quick thoughts about books coming out from Marvel this week:

"Fantastic Four" #557: This is the conclusion of the first story arc by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch. It's an excellent example of pacing. We're so used to storylines in monthly titles these days lasting six issues for the sake of the later trade paperback that a story concluding at part four seems almost counterintuitive. But it works for the story. Millar doesn't attempt to stretch and pad this thing out. He presents an interesting and logical conclusion to the evil Captain America robot rampaging across the earth, thanks to Reed's intellect. Hitch, meanwhile, gets to draw the heck out of giant fighting robots and lots of superheroes. Thanks to Millar's restraint and Hitch's images, this one is a winner.

"Captain America" #38: I like Brubaker's use of continuity to tell this story. I don't know a thing of the story he references here to explain the issue's main mystery, yet I don't feel cheated by it. I feel as though Brubaker is working hard to not cheat by referencing previous events. I can appreciate that, and also the fact that he stopped the story long enough to explain it to the readers. He's not assuming we're all continuity geeks who "should know" this stuff in advance. I’m willing to be taught along the way, so long as it isn't the book's only trick. And this isn't.

"Mighty Avengers" #14: This issue features The Sentry. Yup, I'm as sick of the guy as you all are. Marvel needs to chuck The Sentry into the sun, forget he ever existed, and just hope its readers forgive them for this horrible distraction. Does the Sentry do anything besides stop every storyline dead in its tracks?

ORIGINAL ART - TODD NAUCK, PART TWO

When last we looked at pages from my original art collection, we focused on the baseball-themed work of Todd Nauck on "Young Justice." This week, I want to go back much further. Let's look at some of Nauck's earliest works at Extreme Studios for Image Comics.

This first page comes from "Badrock & Company" #5, part of a six issue series that featured Youngblood's Badrock teaming up with various other heroes from the Image Universe. Here, he's jumping out of a plane with Grifter, of "WildC.A.T.s" fame. It's a nice splash page, given the time frame so early in Nauck's career. It looks a little over-rendered in the inks, but that was the state of comics back in the day. As simplistic a page as it is, it still carries a lot of weight and a dynamic pose for the main character. Badrock's jump feels real. You can see the tension on his hands as he holds on to his parachute. His body isn't posed straight up and down. His legs are kicking out front and back. His bandana flows behind him from the jump. (Is that a bandana? Having the color version of this page might help out a bit.)

Meanwhile, Grifter looks relatively sedate, still kicking one leg up in the air, but going about his parachute jump with a little more nonchalance. The caption boxes and word balloons confirm this.

It might have worked a little better with a big smile on Badrock's face, but at this time in the comics industry, a furrowed brown and an open mouth were often the same thing.

Plus, there's a background there! If you look carefully, you'll even see an establishing panel in the upper left that shows the silhouette of the two characters floating down to the desert.

This second page comes from an old favorite series of mine. It's "NewMen" #7, as written by Eric Stephenson (still with Image Comics) and drawn by Todd Nauck throughout its regular run. Later it was canceled and had a short-lived replacement drawn by Chris Sprouse. Sadly, that storyline was never finished.

This is really the series on which Nauck first made his mark. It showed his ability to draw a team superhero title, create believable-looking characters, and extend out into "comic book reality." He also made a habit of hiding robots from "Mystery Science Theater 3000" in the backgrounds. By today's standards, again, the work would look pretty stiff and immature. Don't forget: this page is 14 years old. Nauck has probably drawn 200 more comics since this one. He's developed as an artist, but it's still fun to look back and see where it all began.

Honestly, I don't remember the names of the characters in "NewMen" anymore, and my copies of that comic are so deep in storage that I might not find them for a long time. I still think it's a hidden gem of that era, though. (Jeff Matsuda did some cover work for the series' early issues, too, if I remember correctly.) This page is a lot more confusing than the first. It features the team deep in conflict, with lots of stuff going on and relatively weak storytelling. It's rather all a jumble. This is a classic example of a page that needs color to tell the story. Otherwise, the reader would be stuck carefully inspecting the page to figure out what's going on, and that bottom panel would distract the eye the whole time leading up to it. The woman with long blonde hair and a slightly lopsided face mask in the third panel was, as I recall, a speedster. The other guy with wings could, well, fly.

The black of the water in the first two panels distracts from the characters more in the foreground. The action changes direction abruptly between the first and second panel. Your eye moves up, following the laser being blasted at the Hawk Guy, who's heading down the page. Then, you have to reorient yourself while Hawk Guy suddenly is flying up the page to save two characters previously seen at the bottom of the last panel. Then the camera pushes in dramatically while Hawk Guy seems to float upwards again. Finally, Hawk Guy gets punched so hard that his lower back turns to rubber and his right foot threatens to kick the back of his head.

Nauck signed the backs of both pages when he completed them, complete with date. Here's the impressive thing: The two dates are 16 August and 25 September, both in 1994. He was doing two books at once. Todd Nauck was the Mark Bagley of Extreme Studios.

Now, if I really felt like embarrassing Todd, maybe I could find a BitTorrent site with a copy of "Glory and Friends Lingerie Special" #1. That came out about a year later. No, I don't own it. No, I don't expect it'll ever be reprinted. And, somehow, I get the feeling it wouldn't ever show up in a career retrospective of Nauck's art. . . (Thanks to ComicBookDB.com for listing it, though.)

PODCASTING UPDATES

It finally happened. My #1 pick for the PIPELINE PODCAST last week (new comic releases of May 13) didn't show up in stores. As it turns out, the release list I use got it wrong. The "Starman Omnibus, Volume 1" hardcover book should be out by the end of the month, though. Please accept my apologies if you look like an idiot now for badgering your local comic shop owner about not having it in stock yet.

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

In other news, we released a new and much-delayed PIPELINE PREVIEWS PODCAST over the weekend. Subscribe to the Pipeline feed and download away! In it, Jamie Tarquini and I spend 40 minutes covering some exciting releases for July 2008.

THE BOOM! GIVEAWAY

I failed to name the winners last week in the latest giveaway of books from Boom! Studios. For the record, then, the "Cover Girl" trade went out to Adam S. in New City, NY. "Tag, Volume 2" went out to Rusty R. in Hyattsville, MD. Congrats to both. I have one more goody bag to hand out, and I'll do that next week.

For those who are curious, winners are picked by sorting all the eligible e-mails and then using Random.org to pick a random number which matches up to a specific e-mail. It's just that simple.

I thank my overseas friends, also, for entering the contest. It's always interesting to get e-mail from places like the UK, the Philipines, Greece, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and more. It's a smaller world than ever, isn't it?

Thanks, also, to Boom! Studios for the generous prize packages.

Next week: Reviews! Sly references! Quite possible, a literary allusion! And a general appreciation for the form of comics. In other words, I have no idea what I'm going to talk about just yet. Let's see what the week brings, shall we?

The Various and Sundry blog carries on, with lots of Twittering, a few new DVDs, a new photograph, some reality TV news and notes, the usual "American Idol" writeups, and more.

If you're really interested in what daily news bits grab my attention in the worlds of tech and comics and more, the best way to track is it at the Google Reader Shared Items. Several items are added to that page every day. I'm an RSS feed junkie.

The only social network I regularly appear on is Twitter. It's a very fun place with low overhead and the least number of annoyances of any Web 2.0 site, aside from an unstable infrastructure.

Everything else: The Pipeline Podcast, ComicSpace, and a Tumblr Blog.

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 800 columns -- nearly eleven years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

TAGS:  todd nauck, soleil, sky doll

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