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Tue, December 2nd, 2008 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: December 5th, 2008 at 8:46am

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

RETURN TO MARVELS

Literally years in the making and nearly the comics equivalent of vaporware, "Marvels: Eye of the Camera" #1 ships this week. Yes, this is the sequel to the much-loved "Marvels" mini-series that launched Alex Ross' career and remains one of the highlights of 1990s comics. Kurt Busiek returns on scripting duties, but Ross took a pass.

Thankfully, they found as suitable a replacement for Ross as you might imagine. Filipino dentist Jay Anacleto steps in to handle the art chores, colored by Brian Haberlin. Anacleto's style is full pencils, right down to the shading. Haberlin's colors keep the images soft and let the pencil work show, giving the book a slightly painterly look without aping Ross. It's the kind of style that doesn't need, nor should it ever use, an inker. Reminds me a little of Gene Colan in that way.

Maybe it's just because we haven't seen any work from Anacleto in so long while he's been working on this book, but it's the best looking stuff I can remember seeing him do. And he doesn't get much more to draw in this first issue aside from normal people in 1963 talking about superheroes and life. The gaudy costumed adventurers aren't commonplace in this issue, though the opening shot of The Fantastic Four looks surprisingly appropriate in style and dress to the time period.

(OK, Phil Sheldon's wife has an unfortunate case of gigantism in her head, but perhaps that's the hairdo that's throwing me off.)

The story is set at the end of a historical lull. The superpowered craziness of the war era is long over, and the next big thing hasn't started yet -- until a fateful trip into space hits some cosmic rays and The Fantastic Four are born. Shortly thereafter, New York City fills up with costumed folks, and mutants begin bubbling up across the country.

All of this affects Phil Sheldon, who was just starting to resign himself to the life of a family man, bringing home the bacon and toiling to keep the roof above his family's head. These events -- and one or two other things I won't spoil here -- conspire to change his life.

That's what this series is all about, and I'm sucked in but good. They even go so far as to use Comicraft's Hedge Backwards font for the book -- that's the font styled after Richard Starking's own hand lettering, which adorned the original "Marvels" mini-series. It's a nice piece of consistency across the two mini-series.

I enjoyed "Marvels: Eye of the Camera" immensely, and hope the next couple of issues employ Anacleto's art to show us the patented "man on the street" world view of Marvel NYC we've come to expect from this series. Seeing Anacleto take that on while Busiek wraps it all up in a thoughtful and moving story is my hope for this series. Both have excellent track records, so I'm fairly optimistic for that.

WATCHING THE WATCHMEN AGAIN

Like everyone else in the known universe, I'm wrapped up in "Watchmen" fever. "Making the Watchmen" sits atop my Christmas wish list and my "Absolute Watchmen" is open on my desk. "Watchmen" seems like the kind of book you should reread at least once every other year, if not every year. It's tough, though. It takes a certain commitment of time and patience, even as good as the book is. I tend to budget a half hour for each chapter, usually owing to the text pages at the back of each one.

The first time I read the book, I went immediately to an archive of rec.arts.comics posts made as the issues were released. It was an invaluable tool in seeing what reactions the book received, and in discovering some things I missed along the way. I still recommend reading them, though I'm sure there are more succinct ways to learn about "Watchmen" today. Sadly, links related to the movie drown out all other "Watchmen" info on Google searches. I can't find those handy USENET archives anymore. If someone else knows of the link, please drop me a line so I can update this paragraph, or pass it on in next week's column.

I've been keeping notes as I go. These aren't meant to be full reviews of the individual issues. This is one man's journal of reading "Watchmen" and his thoughts along the way. Sometimes, they'll link directly into the story. Sometimes, they'll dance around it.

This week, I'll be looking at the first three chapters. The next three chapters will follow in the weeks ahead sometime. This is, to put it politely, a long term project.

Chapter One: "At Midnight, All The Agents. . . "

In the end, the "Watchmen" movie cannot live up to the graphic novel without having something of Orson Welles-like invention and creativity behind it. So much of the greatness of "Watchmen" -- and I'm not the first to have ever said this -- comes from the storytelling methods used by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Note the way that the first and last pages of this opening chapter are the same -- start close in on the happy face button, and pull back out until, nine panels later, you're high above the ground, with a point of view set outside a skyscraper. The happy face is in identical places across all nine panels for both pages.

Note, also, Moore's way of overlapping scenes, where dialogue from one ironically comments on the other being told between panels. It became such an overused tick that people forget where it came from, I think. Nobody did it better than Moore, even when he was reaching for it. In this chapter, for example, the detectives are talking about The Comedians' death as they approach an elevator. There's an elevator attendant there specifically so this exchange of dialogue could happen:

Attendant: "Which floor ya want?"
Detective: "Oh, uh, ground floor, please."
Attendant: "Ground floor comin' up."

That last line of dialogue is in a caption box over a flash back panel of The Comedian flying out a window and plunging to his death.

The other interesting thing to read in the book now is the casual nature of so much of the conversation. Moore has a great ear for dialogue. His characters often speak with slight stutters and stammers. It makes the work feel more natural. In some ways, it's a precursor to the likes of Brian Bendis, whose Mamet-inspired dialogue pushes harder on the repetition and the forced stutters and stammers.

There's a density to the storytelling here that might not be apparent at first blush. This is an alternate universe that strikes closely to the real work of the mid-1980s. A newspaper headline describing the Soviet reaction to America's invasion of Afghanistan is a neat inversion, but it goes much deeper than that. Newspaper headlines, book titles, and offhanded comments in the dialogue lead one to realize how different a world Watchmen's is from our own. It's something Moore expands on as the book goes on, but you can even see it here at the outset.

Rorschach is obviously a reaction to conservative politics at the time, from Reagan in the States to Thatcher in Great Britain. It's why he's such a ham-fisted parody, but Moore can get away with it even from conservatives because the writing is so slick. Read Rorschach's journal aloud sometime and note the cadence, the alliteration, the turns of phrase. It sucks you right in, even when you know what Moore is after and how simplistic and silly it is.

Hurm.

It's been a long time since I read this book, so I can't claim to remember the original coloring job. I can say, though, that the new "Absolute" pages are beautiful. The white paper holds the inks well. The color style is true to the time the book was originally published, but it feels cleaner and more solid than ever before.

Chapter Two: "Absent Friends"

"Watchmen" gets compared to "Citizen Kane" a lot, and it's not just a rote thing. There's good reasoning behind it. "Citizen Kane" is a masterpiece of storytelling, with every detail of every frame being analyzed for the last 80 years since its release. Orson Welles really was that good at that young an age. He did new things, different things, ground-breaking things in the world of film that we take for granted today, so many years later. Quick -- how much of "Citizen Kane's" story do you remember? I bet you remember more of the visuals from the movie -- certain still frames, certain visual effects, certain movements of characters across the frame.

"Watchmen" is a lot like that. I find myself anticipating moments of storytelling as I read it again now, more than the story, itself. It's the way Moore and Gibbons use the same camera angles on the first page as well as the last in the first book. It's the way this second chapter takes place at a funeral, with flashbacks running from character to character. You can see the "camera" panning across the scene, and then zooming into each character, before he or she is isolated in frame and the background signals the transition to a new time frame.

The thing with the story that's so mesmerizing is the way Moore can weave the tapestry. There are a dozen characters in this book, whose stories we're following in at least three different time periods. Moore bounces back and forth between characters and between settings with ease. You're never lost. You never think a scene was done just to tease something later. It's a full scene unto itself, and it whets your appetite for what might come next, even when it doesn't pay off for a few issues. (He goes about this in a hyperactive style in Chapter Four that's very impressive. More on that another time. . . )

And check out those text pages in the back. That's where Moore really deconstructs the world of superheroes, starting with two selections from the autobiography of the original Nite Owl. The text presents the characters through the scope of "the real world," introducing concepts and discussions that today might seem rote, but which at the time were likely a deeper reading than anything DC had ever published in to the methods of superheroes, from costumes down to behavioral traits.

The storytelling style of "Watchmen" doesn't seem cliched today. Two decades after everyone started copying the book and started using its storytelling tricks in such simple manners, "Watchmen" still holds up. It's amazing to me just how quickly this book reads, despite being on a nine panel grid with as many talking heads scenes as it has. You can't help but be inspired by each new scene and each new detail to read forward.

I'm glad I still have ten chapters to go.

Chapter Three: "The Judge of All the Earth"

Is there anyone who looks forward to the Pirate Comic chapter? Really? Because just seeing the start of the pirate comic on the first page of the third chapter of "Watchmen" made me wince. No, this isn't the one to fear. That's Chapter Six, as I recall. But, still, I wasn't ready for that much reading when I started this one. Maybe I'll go find that website again where the guy blanked out all the non-pirate related material from that chapter, just leaving the pirate stuff. Maybe reading it on its own track once will help me to understand the point. I'm still not sure I do, to this day.

But this is also the part of the book where you can see the conspiracy starting to set in. Doc Manhattan is driven away here, thanks to tabloid journalism, a feeding frenzy amongst the press, and an emotionally stunted super-powerful man who doesn't understand humanity. The thought that he's a danger to those around him drives him away. You don't always have to kill a guy to get rid of him. Sometimes, it's enough to convince him to exile himself to Mars.

In some ways, this feels like the simplest chapter of the book so far. Rather than looking at the whole cast of superpowered characters, we focus in on Doc Manhattan, while we shine the spotlight a little more on the newsstand vendor, the kid reading comics, and the "End Is Nigh" guy, who is convinced that the world is ending tonight, but still wants to make sure his paper is saved for him the next day. Little things in this book which once felt like background details or set dressing get personalities as the book chugs along. That's fascinating. Other characters from the series so far return, but they have relatively bit parts. Sally, obviously, sets the plot in motion. Jupiter's daughter leaves Doc Manhattan and throws herself at Blue Beetle, er, Nite Owl.

Things are getting ugly, no doubt.

I'll stop here for now. There's nine more chapters to go in this thing, and Chapter Four starts looking a lot like the Watchmen movie trailers we've seen so far. I have no doubt we'll open on those comparisons when we return to "Watchmen" later this month.

SEVEN YEARS AGO

I bought 21 comics this week (December 5th, technically), seven years ago. Looking back today, that sounds crazy. I used to joke about buying comics by the pound. Now, I remember where that came from.

Let's look at some of the highlights from the week:

"The Adventures of Barry Ween Boy Genius 3: Monkey Tales" #5: Some might say that this is where Judd Winick peaked. I haven't kept up with enough of his DC work to verify that, though I greatly enjoyed his just-completed run on "Green Arrow/Black Canary." I do wish he'd get back to this kind of material, though. He has a good sense of humor that needs a blank slate to go crazy on.

"Alias" #4: Also known as "Three issues after Power Man and Jessica Jones had on-panel whoopee in a non-missionary manner."

"The Authority" #27: This would be the end or near the end of Mark Millar's troubled run on the series. Remember when DC and Millar got along? It was long before this issue.

"Batgirl" #23: This is a sadly forgotten series that had a really nice run for a couple of years. I'd like to see a collection of it, particularly that first year. Written by Jonathan Peterson, with art by Damion Scott. It comes straight out of the Chuck Dixon school of comic writing, which is fine by me.

"Dark Knight Strikes Again" #1: It was the beginning of streams of invective being hurled across the internet. It was the best of times, but mostly the worst of times. A time of great Photoshop filtering. A time of the internet breaking in half again. A time of George Will caricatures.

I cracked open the hardcover collection over the weekend for the first time in years. I accepted the art for what it was back in the day. Now, it's about the ugliest thing I've ever seen from DC. It's painful how simplistic and dull the whole series looks. DC got taken for a ride by Miller on this one. I hope it reads better than it looks, but I'm not going to spend time researching that any time soon, thanks.

"Fray" #5: It took forever for the final issue of the mini-series to come out -- literally years, as I recall, due to the artist's departure for the CrossGen compound. And now Fray is back in the current "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" series, whose final issue of the Fray arc was significantly delayed. Paging George Santayana. . .

"Red Star" 7.5: Remember when this was a hot book? Very pretty, but I couldn't tell you thing about its story anymore, aside from that it was a science fiction take on the Soviet Union. It popped up again in "Previews" again not too long ago, but I don't think it found any traction. If that issue ever came out, I don't recall seeing a single review of if on-line.

"The Sandwalk Adventures" #1: Jay Hosler's tale of Darwin and his talking mite explains concepts of Natural Selection and Evolution. Hosler's story of the eye came out earlier this year, and I regret to admit it's still sitting unread in my stacks. Ugh.

"Ultimate Spider-Man" #16: You want to talk about consistent? On the first week of December in 2003, "Ultimate Spider-Man" #50 shipped. Not only did they hit the same week of the month for their ship date, but Mark Bagley drew 34 issues in two years. That's ridiculously good, and I've loved most every month of it.

"Ultimate X-Men" #12 shipped the same week, which shows that the problem of both books in a line shipping on the same week is hardly a new one. This isn't limited to Marvel, by any stretch. Robert Kirkman is juggling enough books to put out a new one each week of the month. Instead, "Walking Dead" and "Brit" shipped together last week. Kirkman's promising guaranteed ship dates in 2009, which never work. You can promise a specific month and get away with it, but there are too many variables to hit 100% service on items ordered. Lots of those variables are simply out of the creator's hands. You can guarantee that your printing press won't break down, or push you off the queue to handle a higher-volume client. I think it was Top Cow who learned this the hard way a few years back.

"Ultimate Marvel Team-Up" #10: John Totlebon draws Man-Thing. Perfect casting, don'tcha think?

"Dork Tower" #15: I've long since lost track of this book, but really enjoyed John Kovalic's early issues of it. Is it even still publishing? (And a one week belated happy birthday to John K., while I'm at it.)

"Superman Adventures "#64: More pretty art by Aluir Amancio. This series was, sadly, ended two issues later. Former DC Batman editor Jordan Gorfinkle handled the writing duties. He doesn't have a credit in comics since then, either. Wonder what ever happened to him? Did he end up in the video game world? Animation? Book publishing? Where do comic editors go after DC/Marvel?

"The Uncanny X-Men" #400: Since we just celebrated the 500th issue of this series, I thought it would be nice to point out the four hundredth was seven years ago now. This was from Joe Casey's short run on the title, featuring artists Eddie Campbell, Cully Hamner, Sean Philips, Javier Pulido, Matt Smith, and Ashley Wood. Not bad, at all.

Also bought this week, seven years ago: "100 Bullets" #31, "Liberty Meadows" #24, "Star Wars: Tag and Blink are Dead" #2 (now available in a trade paperback), "Superman" #177, "The Savage Dragon" #91, and "Young Justice" #40.

THE PODCAST THAT NEVER WAS

I'm sorry to admit that last week's podcast never got recorded, owing to the spectacular "The Shield" series finale followed by the holiday weekend. I did get so far as to produce show notes, though, so I can post the Top Ten list of November 26th here for you this week, with commentary:


  • 10. "Bruce The Little Blue Spruce" HC, $9.99

This is the children's book published through SilverLine Books at Image Comics. Written by Shadowline editor Kristen Koerner Smith, drawn by Jim Valentino. It tells the story of a tree that dreams of being someone's Christmas tree, of being special. It's a nice Christmas book that I think will go over well with my daughter in another year or two. I'm holding onto my copy.

It's worth noting that "Guardians of the Galaxy" #7 had a Valentino cover out last week, as well.

  • 9. "Mouse Guard Winter 1152" #4 (of 6)(Release not confirmed by Diamond Distribution)

As is almost always true when "not confirmed" is next to the listing, this book is actually coming out this week, not last.

Sadly, it means Christopher Butcher's theory isn't right. I liked the theory an awful lot, actually, and was surprised to see this book on the shipping list.

  • 8. "Savage Dragon" #141
  • 7. "Proof" #14
  • 6. Kirkmanapalooza: "Brit" #10, "Walking Dead" #55
  • 5. "Previews "Vol XVIII #12
  • 4. "Ultimate Spider-Man" #128, "Ultimate X-Men" #98 (Ultimatum Tie-Ins)
  • 3. "Umbrella Academy: Dallas" #1 (of 6)

It was announced last week that writer Gerard Way's wife is pregnant and due in the summer. Good luck and congratulations to the expectant parents. As for the comics, I'm predicting that the third "Umbrella Academy" mini-series will be "overseen" or "plotted" or "creative directed" by Way. That first kid is tough to reorganize your life around. Trust me.

  • 2. "Body Bags", $5.99

I wish more had come of that original mini-series. Maybe if Jason Pearson had started it a little earlier and caught the Early 90s Comics Boom earlier, he might have had more momentum and more issues to draw. As it is, "Body Bags" seems like a lost opportunity. I hope this one shot is cool.

  • 1. "Batman" #681

Was there any doubt that this would top off the week? This week's follow-up Bat-book will likely place in the Top 10, too. I don't plan on reading either of them, but there is a certain amount of professional curiosity at work here.

Don't forget -- comics will be released on Thursday this week. Your local comic shop employee will just point and laugh at you if you show up on Wednesday afternoon looking for new comics.

Next week: Pipeline #600! Six hundred continuous columns. No breaks. I'm tired. I'm working on a long review of a favorite and overlooked comic from the mid- to late-90s. Good news -- it holds up well!

The Various and Sundry blog covers home theater setups, Black Friday purchases, Hollywood's crappy copy protection schemes, and nearly 5000 words on the finale of "The Shield." What more could you ask for?

My Twitter stream flows briskly, carrying random thoughts through the ether with the force of white rapids. Very Zen.

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.

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