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Tue, September 9th, 2008 at 2:32pm PDT | Updated: September 9th, 2008 at 5:39pm

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

STAND IN THE PLACE WHERE YOU LIVE

"The Stand: Captain Trips" #1

I've never read a Stephen King book, besides "On Writing." I've certainly never found the will or the time to read through "The Stand," of which I know only a few things: it's been adapted into a television mini-series or two, it's post-apocalyptic, King fans adore it to pieces, and it's insanely mind-numbingly long.

As such, I get the fun of reading Marvel's latest King comic book adaptation on its own merits unaware of what's coming next, without any preconceptions of who these characters are and what they're going to do in the next issue or even in the next series. At this point, I don't even know the main characters from the supporting characters from the bit parts, which leads to a nice shocker in the first half of this first issue.

It all works out to my advantage in "The Stand: Captain Trips" #1. The book has a large cast. While at first it seemed like every two pages would introduce us to a different regular character, that rhythm is disrupted as soon as it's settled into, and a bigger story starts to develop.

First of all, King and comic writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa do a great job of introducing "real" people into this story. King works hard at making everyone seem like an average person living in an average world. The character names are nothing spectacular. There's no cute alliteration or strong descriptors in the names. ("Jack Flash" or "Peter Parker" would be sore thumbs here.) The characters visit everyday places like a Texaco gas station and a Dairy Queen ice cream parlor. It surprises me that the lawyers at Marvel didn't make them change the names or obscure the logos.

The dialogue and the caption boxes, both, sound like simple narration, done in a humdrum commonplace style. There is a definite meter at work, but it's nothing that draws attention to itself for being anything other than ordinary. There's no made-up slang or affected accents. Credit to the playwright, Aguirre-Sacasa, for that.

It's not boring at all, though. I was drawn quickly into the world, and the selection of story even has a visual flare to keep things lively. It's not just talking heads, though there is a lot of that. The plague that will form the centerpiece of this story, no doubt, has a visual element to it. There's a big clanging car crash in the middle of this issue. The flashback tale of the life and career of the songwriter, Larry Underwood, is free-flowing and colored in a nice 70s retro style.

Mike Perkins' art is a great fit for this style of story. He's got that realistic streak nailed down, with the light-handed coloring by Laura Martin adding to it. This isn't as fine an art piece as Jae Lee's work with Richard Isanove on the "Dark Tower" books. (The first issue of that third mini-series is due out this week, as well.) It's much more down to earth, and doesn't need the coloring quite so much to give it the visual flare. The art looks like "Captain America," (which Perkins previously worked on) but with coloring tones closer to "Invincible" with extra bits of sculpting. (We'll get back to "Invincible" and its coloring style in a little bit.)

The comic includes some pencil sketches of the main characters in the back, with commentary by Aguirre-Sacasa and Perkins. It's a nice tease for upcoming storylines, without blowing the whole thing. I'm going to try to avoid any more coverage of this comic for fear of being spoiled, I think.

All told, I enjoyed "The Stand: Captain Trips" #1. I'm hoping that future issues continue to surprise me this much. Of the two Marvel projects centered on King's work, I have to think this is the more approachable one, from both a story and art standpoint.

MEET THE NEW MEDIA, SAME AS THE OLD MEDIA

You get used to the "Bang! Pow! Zap!" headlines from the stalwart old media. It doesn't make their lack of creativity any less stultifyingly silly, but you get to be numb after awhile. Plus, those headlines create a signal that the story you're about to read is likewise written from a position of journalistic incompetence or ignorance.

When a member of the "New Media" blows it, though, it raises my hackles. For a group that so proudly proclaims itself more responsive, more open, and more creative, there are some very old concepts behind the curtain that make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on edge.

Take, for instance, Leo Laporte. The man runs arguably the biggest podcasting network not already owned by the "Old Media." The flagship show, "This Week In Tech," has hundreds of thousands of subscribers. I'm one of them. I am a geek for technology as much as a geek for comics. (I can more easily afford the comics, though.)

This week, as you might imagine, Google's new Chrome browser was a topic of discussion. In case you missed it, Scott McCloud did a giveaway comic that Google sent around explaining why they're making a new web browser.

At the 11:20 mark of this week's TWiT podcast, Laporte says of the comic, "Apparently, we're not bright enough for them just to, you know, write a paper or something. We have to have it in pictures."

Have you stopped slapping your forehead yet? Aren't I supposed to run that graphic here of Jean-Luc Picard burying his head in his hands?

Let me spell it out: Scott McCloud is one of this generation's most gifted storytellers. He is a technologist, a graphic storyteller, and an educator. "Understanding Comics" is one of the best textbooks for the art of sequential storytelling ever done. It's useful not just in our favorite medium of comics, but for any visual medium. His influence has reached out beyond the insular comics community.

McCloud has proven that he can instruct and educate inside of the comic book format. And the Google Chrome comic is a sterling example of that. It illustrates some pretty high-minded and technological ideas in ways that anyone can understand. Even entrenched geeks can learn from the comic. It's about the infographics. The merger of ideas and pictures is one that isn't done because people are too dumb to just read about it and "get it." It's done because it's useful.

I think we're all visual learners. How many of us have ever gone to YouTube to see a video to understand how something is done? Does that video mean that we're too stupid to understand the written word?

Do IKEA's all-pictures manuals mean that the average IKEA user is too dumb to read about it? No, it means that there are certain concepts that might be easier to understand if you can see it. (OK, in fairness, it's also that IKEA is saving money by not translating directions into a dozen languages.)

Do we cry foul anytime a website uses a bar chart? Should stock market websites stop using line graphs because their readership is capable of reading numbers in plain text?

Should "USA Today" just close up shop now? (Well, probably. . . )

I bet you right now that every computer science teacher draws pictures on the whiteboard in front of his or her class. You don't teach linked lists, for example, without drawing lots of boxes and arrows.

Information can be conveyed in a great many ways. There are times when graphics are more effective than plain text. There are times when drawing it out for someone is a more efficient than spelling it out.

And when that time comes, the visual format -- sequential storytelling, infographics, graphic narrative, whatever you want to call it -- is a legitimate means of communication.

It's NOT because you're dumb.

To trumpet one's self as a leader of "New Media" while having such old-fashioned beliefs that comic books are for people not bright enough to read straight text is, well, dumb. Laporte should know better.

INVINCIBLE COLORING

I've spent a lot of time recently organizing the controlled chaos that is my comics collection. The nice thing about finally having a central location for my comics in my new house is that I'm reading more. Runs of books that I hadn't read because I thought I had lost an issue are now accessible.

Such was the case with "Invincible," which I read from issue #41 through #51 in the past few days. That was a lot of fun. I hadn't realized just how much I missed the series, nor how smoothly it read. Even in the times when the dialogue lapses into comic book cliche and is almost groan-worthy, you can't help but smile when reading this book. This is the fun superhero action/adventure book we're all dying for in a day and age of crossoveritis and ever-grimmer Big Two comics. Ryan Ottley's art is as beautiful as ever, with bright vibrant colors from Bill Crabtree that do a lot to define the look of the book. Ottley's open line and Crabtree's restrained coloring scheme add up to something worth looking at month after month.

That said, issue #51 brings with it a new colorist. Crabtree has, sadly, moved on. His colors were a strong part of the overall look of the series since its first day. Crabtree has a style that sets itself apart on the stands. You can recognize his bright colors and his subdued shading before you even read the credits box. It's a style I wish more people would emulate, rather than trying to make everything look harder-edged and "realistic" by overdoing it. Too many colorists try to make everything so "realistic" that the book looks like mud by the time it's done, as one color dominates over everything, with so little dynamic ranges that the book gets visually boring. And when that monochrome is a darker color, no paper stock in the world can save it.

The new colorist is credited as "FCO Plascencia." Thankfully, he's staying mostly true to the style that Crabtree laid out. The very colorful nature of the series -- where multiple costumes compete on a page with wide open skies or plain backgrounds -- is maintained. Shading is minimal, very much in line with the kind of work you might have seen on the comic books based on "Batman: The Animated Series." It's a nice look.

But Plascencia isn't quite there yet. It's hard to tell if he's working to smooth the transition to his more natural style, or if he's trying to imitate Crabtree's style and falling just short. There are two problems I see in the book right now. The first is that Plascencia's colors appear heavier on the page. Crabtree's pages look lightweight and desaturated, with tones starting at such a light color that the shadowy portions created something more substantive. It's a nice trick to pull off, and Crabtree is one of the few colorists who can. (I think Lee Loughridge also does a nice job of this, at times.)

Plascencia's color palette is a little darker, a little heavier. The reds are a bit redder. The blues are more blue. It's probably nothing that would jump up and bite you on the nose if you hadn't just finished reading the previous ten issues in the last couple of days. For me, though, the shift was obvious. It's not bad, by a long shot. It's faithful to the tone of the book, with a slight stylistic shift.

It's just that even a small shift in detail on the shadowy portions distracts from the art. Crabtree blended the shadows in very subtly. There wasn't a hard edge on the art, effectively adding color lines to the art that artist Ryan Ottley hadn't drawn in. Plascencia uses a very strong dark line to separate the shadows from the midtones. The effect is jarring, no matter the style. Rather than subtle variations in hue, there's two colors drawn in, and it can often lead to something ugly.

For example, take a look at this Crabtree-colored series of panels from "Invincible" #50:

Now, see Plascencia's work on "Invincible" #51:

Please pardon the scans. The true color tones might be shifted a bit, but I think you can see the difference between the two coloring styles, all the same. It's in the line between light and dark.

Look at Mark's face in that second panel. See the way Plascencia draws in the hard color shadow around the cheek? You can see it again in the third panel.

Now look back at Crabtree's. It's a similar line on the face where he's adding the shadow, but it's much softer, as fits the overall color and open-line art style.

In the end, the slightly darker colors are something I can deal with. It's those hard cut shadows that bother me.

It's far from a deal killer, though. It's a little quirk that I hope gets ironed out in the issues ahead. There's a preview for issue #52 on CBR now, which displays the same issue. Hopefully, we'll see it adjusted in the months ahead.

Next week: A look at my new bookcase. It's a column only a fellow comic geek could love.

The Various and Sundry blog is still updating Monday through Friday. Expect there to be word of Apple's new announcement there this week. The new DVD release list is already up. And the new television season leads to more discussions.

I'm still terribly busy on my Twitter feed of late, music on comics, house decorating, and life.

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:  stephen king, the stand, invincible, scott mccloud, chrome

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