Pipeline

Tue, May 5th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

GATECRASHER, 2000-2001

Augie's celebrating 20 years of comics reading and collecting this year. As part of that, he's digging through his long boxes and re-reading comics he enjoyed Back In The Day and hoping they still hold up. The track record so far has been pretty good: ShockRockets, Ka-Zar, Deadpool, and She-Hulk.

There must have been something in the water at the turn of the millennium. "Gatecrasher" debuted the same year as "Shockrockets" and featured alien invaders, a young male lead with an awkward family life and an uncanny ability to manipulate gears/electronics/engines/technical doo-dads, and plenty of action/adventure. The biggest difference comes in tone. While "Shockrockets" had a modern twist on old school pulp sci-fi adventure stories, "Gatecrasher" was more the "Porky's" of the genre.

Did I mention it was published by Wizard Magazine?

To be perfectly clear, it was published by Black Bull Entertainment, which had absolutely no relation to "Wizard," the very popular comic magazine of the time. Except presidents. And COO. And Production Director. And ads. And attitude. And audience.

But please don't confuse the two. And please don't think I'm saying one ripped off the other. I wouldn't say that at all. It's just another coincidence in comics. It's funny how those things work, but they do that sometimes. That's all.

Black Bull didn't last terribly long, and its death was a relatively quiet one. There were no grand pronouncements or fond farewells. They just sorta stopped publishing comics.

In its brief time, though, Black Bull did produce a couple of memorable comics. One, "Just a Pilgrim," is being reprinted now by Dynamite Entertainment.

The other major publishing effort was, as you've guessed by now, "Gatecrasher," a hormone-fueled sci-fi aliean war against humans romp by no less than Mark Waid, Jimmy Palmiotti, Amanda Conner, Paul Mounts, and Chris Eliopoulos.

"Gatecrasher" lasted a grand total of ten issues. The first four comprised "Ring of Fire," the set-up mini-series. An on-going series followed that (jumping ahead in time from high school to college), which was quickly demoted to "a series of mini-series" when they announced that issue #6 would be the last issue, shortly before another issue never came out. I'm not sure I can remember why the series died, though one might suspect the lack of a television series finally did it in. Mainframe had optioned the series. They were best known for producing "ReBoot," the first weekly computer animated series for Saturday morning television. The "Gatecrasher" series never made it to the small screen.

And, just to point out how small the comics world is: the guy from Mainframe Entertainment who signed the deal? That would be current DC Guru, Dan DiDio.

In any case, "Gatecrasher" stars Alec Wagner, an otherwise typical teenager who has a big secret: He's really part of a top secret team that's devoted itself to keeping evil aliens off Planet Earth through jumpgate technology. This, of course, complicates his love life.

The end result is a blend of soap opera and space opera. I'm not sure the series ever got the balance exactly right, but it was still an enjoyable thing to read from issue to issue. Having read it today back to back with "Shockrockets," though, I have a whole new point of view on it. "Gatecrasher" is downright silly by comparison, a superslick production that's a fun roller-coaster ride that, no doubt, appealed to me more as a fresh-out-of-college kind of guy than maybe it does now. "Shockrockets" is a serious adventure comic with better fleshed out characters and a storyline that shows better signs of progression in four issues than "Gatecrasher" does in ten.

The biggest point of comparison doesn't have anything to do with "Shockrockets," though. It's the fact that Alec is a redressed Peter Parker. There's no denying the comparison. He might be a little better looking, but every other character trait is there: his parents are dead, he has a secret life, and his social life is destroyed at every opportunity by his need to save the world. The only problem is, his mysterious departures are so frequent and so little-explained that it's hard to believe anyone would want to deal with him. It's a problem the series has from the get-go. You want to sympathize with Alec, but there's very little there to go with. He's victimized by his secret life at every turn, he has occasional smart moments, sometimes saves the day by sheer luck/human illogic, and then is in trouble when he gets back to his normal social life.

And then the authors try to make the readers believe that he could keep a girlfriend, or that his high school sweetheart, specifically, would still pine after him, even after he's left her in the cold countless times, including at their prom. It's like she's there just because every great story has to have that one unrequited love.

Waid and Palmiotti wrote the book with input from Gareb Shamus and Fred Pearce, who have since gone to write -- er, introductions to issues of "Wizard," I guess.

In his recent Ain't It Cool interview, Mark Waid describes "Gatecrasher" as being written by committee; I can believe it. Reading all of the issues in a row at once, there's a certain lack of focus to the series. It's like they couldn't decide whether this book was a superhero sit-com, a la "Impulse" for the teenaged set, or a rollicking alien invasion storyline custom made for Hollywood pick-up. They do slip in arc forwarding bits and pieces in the issues that otherwise seem like one-off divergences, but I get the feeling those were an afterthought, more often than not. There are also plot elements that get brought up, teased, and then forgotten. I think the biggest of these is Alec's technological savvy. It seems to come and go when convenient. It's established right there in the opening scene of the first issue as a quick way to define the character. You'd think it would be a major part of the series, but it often fades away to make room for "Crazy Teenaged Boy Having Hijinks."

The strongest issues of the series, I think, are the issues that are self-contained. Most prominent is the second issue of the series, with its "Red Sonja" parody, "Blue Tonya." It's juvenile and it's crass, but it's funny and sweet all at the same time. She's a buxom warrior goddess who will bed any man who can defeat her. But all is not as it seems. Waid and Palmiotti have fun with the concept and pull out tropes from the classic comic series to pick on. The story is self-contained and barely ties into the on-going arc.

A couple issues later, a case of mistaken secret identity leads to an awkward situation for Alec at a Halloween party. And then the aliens invade. And the series is cancelled, so you'll never know what happened with that.

Amanda Conner's art is the star of the show, showing how you can mix action/adventure with a certain level of cartooniness to pull off both comedy and drama -- often at the same time. Her characters are well-defined and individualistic. Even when a character is made up of a compilation of clichéd stock traits, the person comes off unique in the world of "Gatecrasher." The level of coloring and lettering and inking (Palmiotti also inks) thrown on top of her pencils make the whole package sing. It even works when character shrink into the background a bit and their eyes are replaces by black dots -- Conner adds emotion to their faces in other ways, from eyebrows to mouths to body language.

It frustrates me that I can't find a way to describe it better or at more length. I love Conner's art, as infrequently as it might show up on comic stands. (I'm looking forward to the "Power Girl" series just for the art.) Maybe it's one of those things that's easier to show than to explain. Seeing is believing, right?

Paul Mounts' colors are a sight for sore eyes. They are slick, glossy, and bright. They fit in with the tone of the title. So many colorists today are so concerned with realistic and grim earth-toned coloring that the art gets turned to mush. Mounts appropriately paints the pages in what must look like neon hues to today's comic readers. It's not gaudy or overdone. It's clean and consistent, adding shine to artwork that calls for it. There are lots of bright blues and steely silvers used in this title. It's not over-rendered, though it does call to mind the popular Liquid! Style of coloring that Christian Lichtner pioneered in the late-90s.

It's great to read a comic where you can see the art through the colors. Things are a lot better digitally than in print on that front, which is just another reason to move digital with your superhero comic reading, if the Big Two publishers would only allow it. . .

Comicraft did the lettering on the first issue, and then Chris Eliopoulos handled the rest. It's all-caps lettering at its finest, and something that helps steer the book away from the "stock Wizard look" while still being familiar to "Wizard" readers.

I think "Gatecrasher" is a flawed work, but an entertaining one. If it took the time to define its characters a little more deeply -- not necessarily into something from high literature, but something with more hooks for the average reader -- and focus the storyline into tighter story arcs, that it would be a worthy reunion project for the creators involved. I think a trade was published of the original mini-series, but it would be long out of print right now. I don't know what the rights status is on the property, but I'd love to see a hardcover collection of all ten issues, complete with all the covers and pin-ups.

Yeah, it's unlikely, but it sure would look lovely.

RANDOM THINGS

The design of the comic is clearly done by the same people who designed Wizard Magazine at the time, or at least used similar fonts, colors, and layouts.

There were letters pages! And they often would run three or four pages. Being a Wizard publication, that often includes action figure stand-ins of the comics' creators having madcap adventures in strips running across the bottom of the page. The letters fit the tone of the comic, being crazy, aiming for the humor, and often succumbing to the lowest common denominator of that humor.

Hmm, sounds just like Wizard, doesn't it?

The funny thing about writing this review is that I discovered a couple of letters I had printed in the backs of these issues. Eight additional years of reading experience might make me a bit more jaded today, but I covered many of the same points in those letters. Glad to see I'm consistent on something.

I wasn't doing anatomical jokes in my letters, at least.

After that, the issues would always include two pin-ups by other comic creators and occasional informational and reference material, such as designs, info dumps, etc.

All in all, the monthly books were a good value for $2.99.

Only Wizard-related ads appeared in the books, and the back cover was an enlargement of the Black Bull logo. I'm not sure if this was a sign of a certain design aesthetic or a Lack of Sales Department.

The front cover -- always two in a month, featuring the likes of J.G. Jones, Art Adams, and Mark Texeira backing up Conner -- also sported a little tag line in the upper right corner, which I really liked from a design and marketing point of view. It doesn't tell you much about the story or try hard to sell you on the issue, but it adds character and helped the book stand out.

Lots of head shots of the creators are strewn about the front and back comic. The pic of Amanda Conner with long hair looks particularly strange. In an early issue, she says that she drew Mia with the hairdo that she'd want to have if she had the guts to chop her own hair off. A few issues later, pics of Conner in the back of the comic show that she did, indeed, go through with that plan. Waid, Palmiotti, et. al. had no extreme makeovers, though Waid does have a goatee today.

THE PIPELINE PODCAST TALKS WITH ERIC WIGHT

For the past few days, I've been posting the three parts of my interview with artist/writer Eric Wight. He first shot to fame in the comics world by being the ghost artist on "The O.C.," did some small stories at DC and Dark Horse, and then broke out with his TokyoPop work, "My Dead Girlfriend." Sadly, the book "died" after the first volume, the victim of contractual disputes that neither side would back down on. Wight talks about it at greath length in the second part of the podcast.

Tonight, Part Three of the podcast debuts, as Wight talks about his new creation, "Frankie Pickle and the Closet of Doom." Simon & Schuster published it, and stores began stocking it today. It's a hybrid comic about a boy whose imagination gets away from him in normally mundane tasks.

To give you a sample of Wight's work on the book, check out some of the preview art we have from the series.

Maybe next week I'll tackle something that came out this year. Maybe.

My photoblog, AugieShoots.com has featured some pictures of spring lately, in addition to Winnie the Pooh, a lake, and a fisherman. It's completely random, but that's life.

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 eerily calm, sadly.

And there might still 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, gatecrasher, black bull, eric wight

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