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Tue, April 28th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: April 28th, 2009 at 2:38pm

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

SHOCKROCKETS, 2000

"Shockrockets" was Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen's first contribution to the all-too-short-lived Gorilla line of comics over at Image Comics in the year 2000. (They also did "Superstar: As Seen on TV," a one shot released in 2001 that was previewed as an ashcan back in 1999.) "Shockrockets" is a concept custom-made for an animated television series with a complete line of toys backing it up. It has a careful assortment of diverse characters with individual and cool ships, plus a science fiction hook while still being set on Earth.

It's better than that makes it sound, though. The book holds up well as a piece of science fiction action/adventure storytelling with a great hook and strong characters. This isn't a quick cash-in attempt by its creators looking to sell a failed movie pitch script or anything. Still, it would make for a pretty cool movie...

Sadly, it only lasted six issues, dying with the rest of the Gorilla line. And it ended with quite a bang and a big enough twist to drive fans onto the next issue or the next mini-series or whatever Busiek and Immonen would want to do. Dark Horse reprinted the issues in a smaller format trade paperback in 2004, and that's the edition I'm reviewing here. The entire story is included, with the covers functioning as chapter break splash pages. The entire package is well-designed and nicely reprinted. While I'd have preferred to see it at a larger size, not a smaller one, I begrudgingly admit that the book holds up well at the reduced size. Richard Starkings' trademark "Hedge Backwards" font is a big enough one to carry a smaller paper size.

"Shockrockets" is the story of Alejandro Cruz, a poor boy with an aptitude for fixing mechanical and electrical things. Like many his age, he idolizes the Shockrockets, a team of hot shot flyers using ships created with the same enemy technology that nearly defeated the earth in a recent war. Through accident and tragedy, Cruz becomes the latest Shockrockets pilot, and it's his outsider point of view that lands him in great trouble with his co-pilots while making him uniquely qualified to save the world.

The thing that strikes me most in rereading the book now is the storytelling style it uses. Kurt Busiek is a graphic novelist, when you think about it. He's a writer whose work feels informed by prose fiction and the Silver Age era of comics. He likes words and he's not afraid to use them. He knows enough to let the art tell a story and to give the artist big splashy moments to draw, but they're in service to a very carefully controlled and well-explained story. He's one of the modern masters of the caption box as thought balloon, able to bring us into characters' heads without boring us. A Busiek comic is something that must be read and absorbed, not merely skimmed through. All the nuances and reasoning go on in the dialogue and thoughts of the characters you see on the page. It's a technique that allows Busiek to create deep characters that are easily understood by the reader and whose readers, thus, are never confused by the characters' actions in the story.

More amazingly, each issue is narrated by a different character, with the exception of Cruz narrating both the first and last issue. This allows Busiek the remarkable feat of using the new character as the point of view character while still making Cruz the centerpiece of the story. It's an ages-old technique in storytelling to let the reader learn about a strange new world as the new character sees things. It's also cliched and often boring and obvious, as characters explain themselves for no good reason to The New Guy. Drives me nuts. But Busiek dances around it, by showing us Cruz's adventures through the eyes of those around him, including his boss, the lead engineer of the Shockrockets' home base, and a fellow pilot. It allows Busiek to explore other areas of the world without forcing it onto the reader, and it's a nifty trick. The world Busiek has built here feels logical and fantastic, even when it's dark and dismal.

He also does a good job in building up the story, slowly acclimating Cruz to his surroundings before bringing everything crashing towards an end that only Cruz can avert. The last two issues of this mini-series were as adventurous and grandiose as you'd want from an aerial adventure tale, without sacrificing any of the character work. Dress it up slightly differently, and the storytelling would work just as well for a World War I bi-plane battle or a dogfight in deep space.

Cruz goes through a hero's adventure in the span of these issues. He's thrust into the middle of events he doesn't quite understand and, for reasons I won't spoil, can't run away from it. He's not sure he likes being on the inside, particularly when his fellow Shockrocket pilots have a hard time accepting him, particularly for the way he came on board. With a little encouragement and some timely advice, Cruz learns what he has to do, and discovers a way to win the day. Busiek structures the book in little arcs, each building upon the last, until the biggest fights bring the storyline to a conclusion. The initial questions of the series are answered inside this one book, though there are enough lingering questions and loose strands that one could pull at for future stories, without being distracting in the course of this one.

Immonen's art, it goes without saying, is beautiful to behold, with complementing inks from Wade Von Grawbadger. Immonen draws people who look real without being overly rendered or photorealistic. He imbues them with personality and with humanity by making them look "normal," even as finely honed specimens of humanity. There's also a certain style to his art. I'm not sure I can define it. It's not exactly left to the colorist to finish, but it does include the coloring as a part of the art. It's not there to create an inking superstar, though the lines Von Grawbadger provides are key to the overall look of the title.

I'm not sure how he does it, but Immonen pulls off realistic renderings of people without being stiff. I'd guess he was using photo reference work on this book, just because all the characters look so real, and not like Standard Comic Book Types. The shadows work well across all of their faces, and the final ink line from Von Grawbadger has a wonderful ebb and flow to it. It features very thin lines meshed perfectly with variably-weighted lines surrounding them. There's a touch of chiaruscuro that helps it look real, too. It's like Immonen spent as much time "lighting" his scenes as he did in laying them out. You usually don't see that until someone pushes it all the way, like Frank Miller did in "Sin City."

Immonen has since moved away from this style of art, most notably for the cartoonier exaggeration of "Nextwave," which he then pulled back for "Ultimate Spider-Man," which has certain similarities to this style, but also some major differences. Immonen is one of the most interesting artists in comics today, due to his ever-evolving and changing art style. None of them are clunkers. Heck, I want to go back to his Superman comics of the 90s now, too.

Immonen even played with some early CGI renderings of the ships in the book, but it never quite worked, and was quickly abandoned. Inserting CGI art directly into Immonen's fine line work sticks out like a sore thumb. He does much better when he hand-draws the ships, or when he draws the ships with a lightbox over those CGI renderings. That allows him to keep proper perspective and design for the ships while still maintaining a natural feel to the line work in the comic.

Jeromy Cox deserves mention for his coloring, as well. As the book centers on flying ships, you get a lot of nice blue skies and steel gray looking ships, offset with bright reds and oranges from laser fire and engine fire. He doesn't rely on lots of special coloring effects, instead being very true to the art on the page. It's a meticulous job, particularly inside the cockpits and the home base. And it's effective as a storytelling device, popping characters off the backgrounds, adding depth and focus to scenes.

Sadly, "Shockrockets" never saw an issue #7 or a second issue #1, falling victim to the same problems the rest of the Gorilla line did. I was hoping that the release of the trade paperback from Dark Horse in 2004 would spur interest on for another storyline, but it wasn't meant to be. Still, the book stands on its own very well, as do the individual issues it contains. You can't go wrong in giving this one a shot, especially if you've just become a fan of Immonen's art through "Ultimate Spider-Man."

This week's column could also be summed up in two little words: Busiek Wins!

I'm still reading books from my 20 years of collecting comics and having a lot of fun with it. Next week, I want to review a book set in the near-ish future about a young man fighting (against his better judgment) an alien war on planet earth, surrounded by people who distrust him. He's insanely good with hacking electronics, he has an iffy home life, and he's uniquely qualified to be the one to save the day. It's a comic that came out in 2000, featuring slick artwork, lots of blue in the coloring, and a short lifespan.

No, it's not "Shockrockets" again.

I do love a good crazy coincidence.

My apologies for the lack of a Pipeline Podcast last week. I took that time to record an interview that you'll be hearing in the next week. It's an interview with Eric Wight, who you might remember either as the ghost artist on "The O.C." or from his enjoyable TokyoPop volume, "My Dead Girlfriend." He has a new book coming out next week, so we'll be talking about that, what up-and-coming cartoonists should learn from his TokyoPop experiences, and a whole lot more. Keep an eye on the feed for that.

My photoblog, AugieShoots.com has featured some pictures of spring lately. You just never know what will show up next!

My Twitter stream (@augiedb) 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.

The Various and Sundry blog is mostly silent, sadly.

But there might be a new blog on the horizon. . .

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!

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, shockrockets, kurt busiek, stuart immonen

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