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Tue, August 12th, 2008 at 2:24pm PDT | Updated: August 12th, 2008 at 2:26pm

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

THE HIGHWAY UPSTAIRS

"The Black Diamond: Get in the Car and Go" is a book best reviewed and explained by its own introduction, written by Graeme McMillan. I think he nails everything you need to know about the book in those three pages at the start. But I won't let that stop me from opining on the book, anyway.

"The Black Diamond" was an experiment for its publisher, AiT/PlanetLar, and writer, Larry Young. It began life as a six issue full color mini-series. This trade paperback collects those original issues (minus the back-up stories) into one book for the first time. It's an interesting read for the process and the ingenuity seen within it. Here's the thing: the main storyline and the high concept is just the rod in your closet. It's all the clothes hanging off the rod -- some neatly pressed, others slightly wrinkled with character -- that are the interesting parts. The plot is an excuse to have scenes of characters talking about different things, and one or two big set-piece car chase-and-crash things. Even better, the author knows this, relies on it, and invites you to revel in it with him.

Don't pay attention to the rod. Look at the hangers.

This is already the oddest review I've written in some time.

The "Black Diamond" in the title of the book refers to a coast-to-coast highway built high above the land to help get people from one side of the country to the other in as little time as possible. In time, a new infrastructure developed on it. A new culture. A new way of life. Now, some nefarious and well-connected people want to clean it up and regain control. Meanwhile, the wife of a dentist in California is kidnapped in Washington D.C. and the dentist has to get cross-country as quickly as possible.

What could be a neat high concept thrill ride of a book is, instead, an almost disjointed series of scenes and incidents. "Black Diamond" is an original graphic novel that was previously serialized, and it's also an anthology series telling one story.

Confused yet?

Don't be. Everything is easy enough to follow, but you have to wrap your mind around what the book is, as opposed to what you might expect it to be, going in.

On top of that, Jon Proctor's art style has a very "designer" sensibility to it, in the same vein as Jonathan Hickman's art. Proctor uses photoreference for his figure work and tells the story in a very stagy and graphically designed way, leading up to a finale that's the "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" of comics done as a series of propaganda posters. It's effective for the book because, like I said, the book is so much an anthology unto itself.

Did I mention the color scheme? Take the colors you may be used to in "Ex Machina" these days. Crank it up to 11. It's a garish green and orange scheme that doesn't attempt to be realistic. It's as in-your-face as the story so often is. It might turn you off, but it's better to adapt to it and push your way into the story, for that's where the rewards are.

"The Black Diamond: Get in the Car and Go" is another piece of experimental high concept storytelling from the word processor of Larry Young. If you're into this kind of thing, you'll enjoy the book. If you want a straight-up high octane summer blockbuster action thriller, this one's not going to work for you. (Go read that "Monster Attack Network" book, instead, or the original "Astronauts in Trouble" book, or even "Couriers.") That said, The Black Diamond would be an excellent platform to spin such an action thriller off of.

The book should be in stores this week, I believe.

THE WRITING OF STARMAN

"Starman" is the "Babylon 5" of comics in some ways, isn't it?

Did I just lose half of my readers? I'm sorry. But "Starman" was a long-term preconceived story arc for comics at a time before Vertigo specialized in it. It happened before "Transmetropolitan" and "100 Bullets" and "Ex Machina" and "Y the Last Man" and some other books that Brian K. Vaughan didn't write that I'm blanking on. There are bits in this Omnibus that won't pay off for another collection or two. Robinson introduces a rich and textured cast in this first year and a half without being obvious about it. Remember how ill-received the Tailies were in "Lost"'s second season? They came out of nowhere, were foisted upon an audience that just wanted to learn more about their old favorites, and quickly took over the series. "Lost" learned from that and integrated future new cast members a little more smoothly (see this past season's cast additions).

But Robinson pulls off a pretty big cast without you, dear reader, ever noticing it. Characters who start out as mere cameos develop later on in storylines that they naturally belong to, suddenly becoming important to Jack and the other characters surrounding him. The history of the Starman character is beautifully represented, as Robinson weaves everything together effortlessly. Characters you think might be one-offs or forgettable eventually get a brief spotlight and become very interesting. Robinson does a good job with dropping clues and foreshadowing things without being obtuse and frustrating. The "set-up" doesn't feel like a "set-up." It's all smaller stories told in service to a larger whole.

The final story in this volume plays a bit with chronology. I wonder if this was written in the wake of "Pulp Fiction" given how it skips around the timeline. Each issue starts in the same scene, just a minute or two off. Read in a row, it's a little repetitive, but in a monthly book it was a nice reminder of the setting. But I'll give Robinson credit for not falling into traps: The 18 issues presented in this hardcover vary considerably in their story structures. There's a whole issue devoted to the Golden Age. There's an issue of Jack meeting with his dead brother. There's a multi-part action-packed storyline. There's a tale set in the past starring the book's antagonist. There's a single issue tale centered on Jacks' day job. (And we haven't even gotten to the Disco Starman issue yet!)

Some stories are linear. Some jump all over the place. Some are all flashback. It's a strength of Robinson's writing that he can pull them all off. Even if he was simply using the book as his playground of writing styles, he made them work. That's impressive.

One of the hits against this collection that I've heard centers on Robinson's prose. This first year is often loaded down with lots of superfluous copy, delivered via caption boxes. Normally, it's something I'd ding a book on. With Robinson and "Starman," though, I think it fits. Robinson was attempting to do a great many things with this series. He wanted to establish Opal City as a character, and often did so with his poetic passages dedicated to describing the city's different areas and general flavor. (Tony Harris did an amazing job with the architecture.) He also wanted to bring you inside Jack's head. Jack's meditations on collectibles and antiques and, honestly, junk added a flavor to the series that nobody else has since replicated or tried to.

At a time today when comics are such a fast read, I enjoyed stopping on each page to soak it all in. I liked the little details and the overall feeling Robinson imparted on the book through sheer force of words. As nice as Harris' art was for the series, it couldn't possibly do the job alone.

I'm not a DC guy. "Final Crisis" is fast proving that to me. I don't know much about the Golden Age at all, past what I read in the trade paperback collection of the Robinson mini-series from15 years ago or so. But Robinson made this book easily accessible to the likes of me, and created something that I want to go back to. "The Starman Omnibus" is a beautiful reproduction of the material, and a much-needed addition to anyone's DC library collection.

Next week, we'll talk about how frustrating DC can be in scheduling this series.

A HAT TRICK OF RANDOM THOUGHTS

  • When hardcovers became a normal comic book publishing venture a few years back, I loved dust jackets. They made the books look more professional, more "normal." However, I find myself taking the dust jackets off the books when I read them. They slide in my hands, they get creased or dog-eared far too easily, and they add a new moving part to an object -- a book! -- that I don't want to deal with.

    Lately, the hardcovers I enjoy most from a physical object point of view, are the ones where the hardcovers have the graphics on the book, itself. Think of the "Superman/Batman" books, the "Queen and Country" hardcovers, or the "American Flagg" hardcover. (Chip Kidd is annoying with those strips of dust jackets, but I don't mind taking them off and throwing them away. They're marketing materials, in my mind.)

    I don't think dust jackets are going away any time soon, nor will they influence my purchase of a book, but I find my tastes changing over time regarding them.

  • Are new creators still trying to "break into the comics industry?"

    I worded that very specifically. There are so many more options open to creators today than there were ten or twenty years ago. Many avoid the established "comics industry" and do it all on their own with a webcomic. "Breaking into the industry" used to mean getting a story published at Marvel or DC. Today, you can self-publish, or you can hook up with Image or Dark Horse or countless smaller publishers. Have those people worried about "breaking into the industry," or are they just trying to get their stories published?

  • JONAH HEX #33 was not wordy, dagnabit. I thought it wonderfully evoked the feeling of a Jack London novel. Palmiotti and Gray's script felt authentic, while Darwyn Cooke's art was wonderful, as always.

MODERN MASTERS WANNABES

A couple of weeks back, I asked for your suggestions of interview subjects for TwoMorrows' "Modern Masters" series. Two names floated to the top repeatedly, and both make a lot of sense.

Paul Smith's name was the first. He has done some remarkable work in his career, most notably on "The X-Men" in the 1980s and later on "Leave It To Chance" with "Starman" scribe James Robinson. I still miss that book. It made for a handsome series of oversized hardcovers, the likes of which nobody in America would publish today because people don't like books that aren't "standard size" or smaller. Grrrr. . .

Smith had a nice profile a few years back in, of all places, "Wizard Magazine," but otherwise seems to come in and out of comics when you least expect him. Currently, he's working on "The Spirit."

The other name that came up a lot is Steve Rude. It's such an obvious choice that I can't believe I didn't think of it. With "Nexus" struggling to get back up to speed and Rude having done interviews with TwoMorrows magazines in the past, I imagine this choice would be even more obvious than Smith.

Other names came up in e-mail, many of which I feel silly for not listing.

Russell S. writes in to name Jae Lee. There's an artist who would have an interesting story to tell, from his earliest days in "Marvel Comics Presents" and "Namor" to "Hellshock" and "The Inhumans," before skipping ahead to the Stephen King work he's doing now.

Also: Steve Epting. He's one of those great "overnight successes" thanks to "Captain America." I remember seeing his art for the first time on "The Avengers" close to 20 years ago, though.

Among a long list of names, Russell also brings up Carlos Pacheco, Salvador Larocca, Tommy Lee Edwards, Jason Pearson, and Gary Frank.

Jerry M. wants a Terry Moore book. But he also names Ed McGuinness, another choice that came up frequently in e-mails. I'd love to hear the stories of the early days of "Deadpool," myself.

Jerry also goes back a little further for Brent Anderson, who has a large body of work behind him at this point. You can go all the way back to "X-Men: God Love, Man Kills" and then launch forward to "Astro City."

I know I'd read all of those books. Thanks for the suggestions, guys!

PIPELINE PODCAST FOR 06 AUGUST 2008

We returned to the Top Ten list format last week for an interesting array of titles, including the return of two publishing lines (Gemstone Ducks and Archaia Studios Press) and a new "Final Crisis" issue. The whole podcast runs just under 13 minutes.

10. Mask Omnibus TP Vol 01
9. Killer #7 (of 10) 8. Tor #4 (of 6)
7. Franklin Richards Summer Smackdown
6. Invincible Iron Man #4
5. Ultimate Origins #3 (of 5)
4. Final Crisis #3 (of 7)
3. Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane Season 2 #1 (of 5)
2. Criminal 2 #4
1. Storming Paradise #2 (of 6)

I'm told the developments in "Ultimate Origins" were significant. I can't keep any Ultimate Universe histories straight in my head anymore, so I have no idea what events in this issue were truly new or different or monumental. My memory is shot, in other words. But the art was beautiful.

And "Final Crisis" #3 is baffling to me. I just don't know who these characters are, so I have a hard time following the action in the opening sequence. The book isn't meant for me, so I can't be too harsh.

Next week: Spoilers and "Previews" and more.

The Various and Sundry blog is still updating daily. Read about how I can make the Nintendo Wii into a device for expectant mothers.

I've become more active in discussing comics stuff on my Twitter feed of late, though I also muse on anything that catches my fancy at any given moment.

The daily news bits that grab my attention in the worlds of tech and comics and more can be found at my Google Reader Shared Items. Several items are added to that page every day. I'm an RSS feed junkie.

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

TAGS:  larry young, black diamond, starman, james robinson, twomorrows

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