Pipeline

Tue, December 30th, 2008 at 2:28pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

ONE PUNCH!

In his most recent CBR column, Keith Giffen told readers to move on from the "One Punch!" gag from "Justice League" #5. I agree with him. His and J.M. DeMatteis' "Justice League" run featured so many great gags that it's foolish to have so many people linger on just one. But it did make me wonder why that one gag resonated so much. Was it because Batman is such a fan favorite? Was it because everyone hates Guy Gardner? Did Kevin Maguire's art do something so skillfully well that the world stood up to take notice?

No, I think it's something completely different. Those opening few issues of the series were, relatively speaking, light on the comedy. Sure, there were punch lines and snarky comments galore, but the whole thing was still caught in the middle between humor book and action book. The Giffen/DeMatteis-era "Justice League" is a great book in the end because it's funny, but also because there's still a story underneath all the jokes, rife with character and tension.

In "Justice League" #5, the "One Punch" line comes after some of the dreariest, most purply-prosed writing the series ever saw, complete with its own mixed-case lettering style inside variously-colored caption boxes. The whole "Gray Man" storyline -- pages filled with a man moping about small town Vermont, captions narrating his every dreary thought -- was such a drag on the title that the simple gag stood out. "One Punch" is over-the-moon funny because it appears like an oasis in a barren wasteland.

That's my theory, at least.

And now I've committed the sin of devoting another 250 words to "One Punch." Sorry about that, Keith.

A LOOK AHEAD AT 2009

I've refused to do a Top Ten list for 2008, but that doesn't mean I can't consider what's to come in the future. The problem is, Pipeline has always been fluid. It evolves with what interests me in a given week or month or year. To predict my mood for the next year is to try catching a slippery eel with bare hands. But, what the heck? I'm an internet columnist. This is the kind of thing we like to do.

The biggest movement this column saw in 2008 that I foresee continuing into 2009 is a growing look backwards. I don't mean for Pipeline to become a nostalgia column. There are still plenty of interesting comics being produced today that are worth looking at. I'm not giving up on modern comics, by a long shot. I still want to talk about the new and exciting stuff, and I want to consider the news of the day. But I also want to consider all of those things in the grander cycles of the comics industry. While that's not strictly nostalgia, I'm sure some people will see it that way.

As I recently wrote, comics are getting to be way too expensive. My solution to this has been to dig deeper into my collection to extract more entertainment from material I've already bought. So many great comics have sat in long boxes, unread, for years. So many trades sit unread on my bookshelves. That hardly seems beneficial to anyone. Why keep them all if I'm not going to look back at them?

I have to think that I'm not alone in this. Look at all the collections coming out in 2009 from DC, alone: "Starman," "Alan Moore's Swamp Thing," "Y The Last Man," "Fables," "Gotham Central," etc. This is a great time for higher end presentations of modern classics. People clearly want to keep that stuff around in a nice re-readable format.

There also seems to be a minor generational shift in comics readership happening today. Those who came (or came back) to comics after the worst of the 90s are now starting to look back with fondness to the books of "their" era -- of the last decade. Couple that with a move towards "writing for the trade" and you have a large amount of material to be looked back at in new formats.

In 2009, I'll be marking twenty years of reading comics, which started in the spring of 1989 with "The Amazing Spider-Man" #318. There are a lot of comics in the span of those twenty year to look back at. Sometimes, fresh eyes will reveal how awful they were. I might find stuff that stands the test of time that have been forgotten. And, every now and then, I'll just laugh at the excesses and craziness of the comics of yesteryear. Why wallow in the misery of today when we can point and laugh at the foolishness of yesterday, and perhaps even learn something from it?

2009 will also mark the twelfth year of writing this column, so look for some flashbacks and updates to old writings. Some of it is, to my more experienced eye, dreadful. I'll see what I can do about all of that.

The only thing you won't be seeing (or hearing) in 2009 is the Pipeline PREVIEWS Podcast. I've put that one on hiatus. Honestly, it's something that my new baby-filled schedule has broken. I'm sorry for all of you who enjoyed listening to it, and to my co-host, Jamie Tarquini, who put up with all my scheduling issues and technical difficulties over the past couple of years. You'll see more of that "Previews" material make its way back into the weekly column, though probably not as exhaustively as we once did in the podcast. Perhaps someday in the far flung future, we can return to digging through those hundreds of pages for the gems of the future.

The weekly podcast will continue in its current form.

STORYTELLING DIFFERENCES: THEN AND NOW

"Spider-Man Visionaries: Todd McFarlane" Volume 2 compiles issues #306-#314 of McFarlane's legendary run on "The Amazing Spider-Man." I've been paying special attention to the "Inferno" tie-in issues, just because they're so crazy and cool. Take this scene, where Peter Parker sticks his head out of a taxi while driving through a tunnel and punches out a shark. You can't beat that:

From The Amazing Spider-Man #311. ONE PUNCH!

While these issues are collected in one trade paperback, they're definitely written for a different kind of comic reader. They're not written for the trade. It's interesting to watch David Michelinie at work, interweaving plots to keep the momentum of the book going from month to month. Each issue tells a complete adventure of Spider-Man, but there are little one and two page scenes that set-up a future issue or pay off a character moment. The transitions are occasionally clunkier than all get out, but the ambition is there to keep the trains running and keep any major story from jumping the tracks.

Michelinie's script, likewise, is filled with the kind of expository internal dialogue necessary to bring any first time reader up to speed. Sudden one page stops in the story so that the main character can tell himself the origin of a villain are common. It's the kind of writing that wouldn't hold up today. Nobody expects a random comic to be someone's first issue. They pay lip service to it, but they write for the trade paperback crowd. Very few stories are complete in one issue. They are three to six issue story arcs.

There's also some level of Rule #1 -- "Show Don't Tell" -- being violated here. All that dialogue and all of those thought balloons help fill in the gaps of the storytelling. Whether that's due to bad storytelling on the artist's part or the writer's script can't be deciphered without looking into the original script and instructions to the artist. It's neither here nor there, really. I'm just amazed at how often characters explain to themselves just what it is they're doing. That kind of writing doesn't fly in today's market, but it was common 20 years ago. Heck, it probably worked ten years ago.

Here's my question: Is the quest to pack that much story and that much action into a single issue the cause for such expository scripting? Today, a single fight scene might be given six pages to breathe. It might even take place over multiple issues. In the late 80s, the fight scene had to wrap up in a couple of pages so the characters could move onto the next plot point. Instead of showing the rampant destruction of the city in page after glorious page of painstakingly photoreferenced streets of New York City, you'd get a couple of pages of characters flying through random skyscrapers and rubble laying at their feet. In their thought balloons, the totality of the damage would be laid out, as well as the character's trajectory -- as it happens! Physically, we all know this is impossible, but it's a conceit of comic book storytelling that we once lived with.

This is a relatively simple page of action from issue #312. Spider-Man shoots a web to Hobgoblin's glider, goes for a ride, and is whipped into a water tower. Three panels, big action, bold images, and an unfortunate "WHANK" sound effect ends it all.

The storytelling is a little questionable here: That water tower is never established before Spidey is thrown into it. On the other hand, Hobgoblin does change directions on the page between the first and second panel, helping sell the idea that he's turning around and using Spider-Man's web against him. I can picture this sequence being sold with a couple additional panels today, letting the action happen a little more slowly in order to explain it better to the reader. I can see an artist using a series of wide panels to show the vertical action as it happens, maybe even "locking down the camera" while the action unfolds down the page but across the panels.

Or the artist might use a couple of smaller panels to show Spider-Man changing direction more explicitly, or Hobgoblin twisting around. But is that even necessary? Do we need to establish the water tower, if Spider-Man's internal monologue in the second panel leads us to the sudden crash in the last? Isn't that surprise ending best served by the surprise appearance of one of McFarlane's trademarked NYC wooden water towers?

Or is it just bad storytelling? If so, is the lapse due to the craziness of the monthly grind of comics storytelling -- and McFarlane often did full issues in pencil and ink twice a month during his run -- or the restrictive and artificial page count? Or, I repeat, is it just bad storytelling?

There's so much that goes into the comics that we buy from month to month that I think many of us fail to consider. All monthly comics are compromises. There's only so much time, so much paper, and so much money to go around. This doesn't forgive poor artistry or poor writing, but I think it's more to consider the next time you read a comic. Ask yourself: How much hacking is permissible? And would you put up with more hacking in exchange for timelier books?

From The Amazing Spider-Man #313 and #312

One completely unrelated thing: McFarlane sure loved his Rembrandt Lighting, didn't you think? Named for the famous painter, "Rembrandt Lighting" is a photographic term meaning lighting a face to show one side in bright light, and a triangular shape of light under the eye on the other side of the face. Rembrandt used it a lot, and it's still a favorite amongst photographers when working with lighting equipment.

You can look it up on Wikipedia, if you don't believe me.

Please note that all scans in this column come from the original comics, and not from the trade paperback, which sports more solid color and thicker line weights.

Ah, New Year's Resolutions, meta thoughts, and artistic education. Also: Guy Gardner and a shark got punched out. This has been a very good week.

Next week: It is my mission to review a current comic next week. Stay tuned! Happy New Year!

Don't forget to check out my Google Reader Shared Items this week. It's the best of my daily feed reading, now with commentary!

The Various and Sundry blog carries on, with my first thoughts on Guitar Hero: World Tour, new DVDs, and a whole lot more. Tease: I'll be announcing my new blog there first.

My Twitter stream is like my public e-mail box. I check it daily, looking for responses and new conversational threads. Heck, you're more likely to hear back from me if you ask me something on Twitter than my own e-mail box. Crazy.

And I have two special projects on the way, with announcements to be made at a later date. . . One might just show up next week.

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:  pipeline, keith giffen, guy gardner, amazing spider-man, todd mcfarlane

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