Pipeline

Tue, September 8th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

PIPELINE RETRO: PITT

Lots of crazy things happened in the comics world during the 1990s. Stephen Platt went from doing a couple of "Moon Knight" issues -- even then, not quite a first tier title -- to being an Image darling overnight. Leather jackets and eye patches became the norm. No crosshatched line was too much, and no pocket could be left off of a belt or a thigh.

And then there's Dale Keown's career. It's a bit wasted, isn't it? Maybe there's something more going on behind the scenes that we don't see. Maybe he's making fantastic money doing development for Hollywood or something, but Keown should be in a far far better place in the comics industry than he is today.

Keown was a genuine star in the early 90s. His run with Peter David on "The Incredible Hulk" is still a standout part of an otherwise legendary series for the character. From there, he left the security of Marvel for the Wild West of Image Comics, supposedly due to the enticement of fellow Canadian, Todd McFarlane. Keown created his own series, a supernatural boy-and-his-monster comic called "Pitt." The series' schedule almost immediately floundered. "Pitt" #1 was released in January 1993. The second issue plodded to sore shelves in July. "Pitt" #20 came out in February 1998.

Like most books of the day, it sold in crazy numbers whenever it did come out, but it was wildly inconsistent in tone and schedule. Without his "Hulk" inker, Mark Farmer, and without the editorial restraint of the Comics Code Authority or Marvel Editorial, his art got wilder. Perhaps it's the strength of Image Comics that he was allowed to follow his muse, right? At least he didn't create another superhero character. . . Keown was more into blood and chains and heavy metal album covers of the 1980s, from the looks of it.

The book slowly petered out, and Keown disappeared for a couple of years before returning to comics via Top Cow. While he's drawn an interior or two for "The Darkness," he's mainly been relegated to the role of cover artist at Top Cow.

The "First Look" edition of "The Darkness/Pitt" came out in December 2006.

"The Darkness/Pitt" #1 came out at the end of August 2009.

Dale Keown is an amazingly slow artist. Nothing's changed since 1993.

Saddest of all, he's fallen in the "Cover Artist" trap. Why draw interiors when he can just draw pin-up after pin-up for higher page rates?

Let's relive those "glory days" of Pitt this week. We'll go issue by issue, and keep our fingers crossed that we don't lose our minds along the way somewhere.

PITT #1

The printing is rough. That's the first thing that jumps out at you. It's not that things weren't scanned in well. In fact, I have to believe they were still using film in 1994 when this series started. I'm guessing the paper stock didn't take the ink too well. The black lines often look like the pages absorbed too much of it and the ink line got a little wider from the bleeding. It affects the lettering greatly in spots, and Chance Wolf's lettering isn't all that terrific to start with. It's hand-lettered, and it shows in all the wrong ways. The sound effects don't look like they were thought out in advance. The balloon shapes and the layouts aren't slick looking. I doubt the average reader would notice it in most spots. But I noticed it, and it drove me nuts.

The coloring is spot-on, though. I like the colors used by Joe Chiodo (and "Color Separated" by Olyoptics -- remember when that was a separate job?) throughout the issue a lot. There's an over-reliance on the Photoshop gradient tool, as it was the trick every colorist overused back in the day. (Gradients and lens flare got a workout in those early Photoshop days.) But I like it here. It doesn't threaten to steal any scenes.

Keown's art is wonderful. He's inking himself here, not Mark Farmer. Farmer smoothed out Keown's line work. Keown obviously wanted to rough things up a bit, and so the extra crosshatching and dirtier lines came out right away. It's not an all together bad look. He's not hiding his underlying pencil work. It's just different. Given the parade of inkers the book took on in an attempt to find a schedule later on (if memory serves), it's a shame he couldn't stick with it.

The biggest problem with the first issue is, perhaps not surprisingly, the story. We're introduced to an awful lot of characters that don't seem all that well connected, or are connected in some way that we can't possibly understand. There's a difference between being sly and clever, and just being obtuse. "Pitt" #1 is obtuse. For starters, Timmy has dreams of Pitt. Pitt is real, though, and talks with some alien oracles or something. Those alien oracles are promptly slaughtered by other mean-looking aliens, who eventually wind up on earth.

The earliest sightings of Pitt on earth lead to a police investigation, in which we're introduced to a half dozen copes, including the female one named after Keown's "Hulk" editor and Marvel's Editor-in-Chief at the time, respectively, Bobbie Chase and Bob Harras. Oh, yeah, then there's the male pig, the doughnut-chomping one, the old tired guy, their captain, and random background characters in the squad room.

But, hey, it's just a first issue, and who can blame a first-time writer for wanting to show off all his toys right away? Now that we've seen so many of them, perhaps the second issue will start making the connections we need for a more coherent story.

Sam Kieth contributes a pin-up for this first issue. He was doing "The Maxx" at the time for Image, and had also done a fill-in issue of "The Incredible Hulk" at the time Dale Keown was the regular artist on the series.

PITT #2

Whoa, it's like someone just wiped the grime off my glasses. The world is bright and shiny and, honestly, somewhat garishly colored.

"Pitt" #2 featured a bunch of changes. For starters, it used slick glossy paper. Any problems I had with the ink bleeding into the page in the first issue were gone for the second, that's for sure. Secondly, Joe Chiodo changed his color palette. And he liked colors. Lots of them. The darker earth tones with highlights of deep orange are gone now, replaced with a bright daylight rainbow of colors, particularly bright oranges and blues. None of the art or the coloring is hidden on the page. It jumps right out at you.

Honestly, I preferred the darker look of the first issue.

The other major change is that Keown brought on Joe Rubinstein and Scott Williams as his inkers. This results in a wildly different look from the last issue. The volume of black ink used on the page, for starters, is significantly less. Some of the extra feathering of ink lines is gone now. It looks to me like Williams does most of the work. I can pick out his lines on more pages than not, mostly thanks to reading his work over Jim Lee's pencils for all these years. Rubenstein goes for a much straighter approach to Keown's line, resulting in a book that looks closer to this "Incredible Hulk" work. By comparison to issue #1, this issue looks cartoony.

Storywise, Timmy and his grandfather return. Pitt spends two pages having a dialogue with his inner voice, posing all the way. The female cop from last issue turns out to be more than she looks. And we see more of the evil dude from those Iron Maiden covers showing up in space, somewhere.

Chance Wolf's lettering is still too big for the page and his special effects work goes from decently cool to awkward and ugly.

Keown is using all of the page space he can with "Pitt" here. We get three double-page panels in addition to a splash page or two. This is often at the expense of storytelling. There are times when the "camera" gets so close to the action for the "cool shot" that you're not exactly sure what's going on. (As it turns out, Pitt is eviscerating the rocky-looking alien with his every punch. That green stuff is the alien's blood, proving him to be of Vulcan descent.)

There's a letters page in the back, with the then-fashionable gradient background color to obstruct the eye, as well as a couple pieces of amateurish fan art from people who never made it to the comic big leagues, 15 years later. The first letter references the delays in publication of the first issue. So I checked the cover dates of the issues for this series:

"Pitt" #1: January 1993
"Pitt" #2: July 1993
"Pitt" #3: February 1994
"Pitt" #4: April 1994
"Pitt" #5: June 1994
"Pitt" #6: September 1994
"Pitt" #7: December 1994
"Pitt" #8: April 1995
"Pitt" #9: August 1995
"Pitt" #10: January 1996
"Pitt" #11: May 1996
"Pitt" #12: December 1996
"Pitt" #13: Don't have it
"Pitt" #14: June 1997

Four years, 14 issues, plus the "Hulk/Pitt" one shot. Ouch. The best Keown ever did was five issues in 1994. No wonder he does mostly covers today.

PITT #3

Another change in the creative team, and this one is a big difference in a positive direction. Chris Eliopoulos joined up as letterer. Suddenly, the lettering was in proportion to the page; the sound effects were cleaned up and restrained, by comparison. The whole thing became a bit more legible overnight.

Sadly, it's not enough to help the story, which continues to plod along. Oh, things do happen. Pitt spends seven pages at the start preventing hunters from killing a deer, all the while befriending a dog. The attractive female police officer of the first two issues finally gets her on-panel shower scene, complete with cleverly wrapped towel. And Zoyvod lands on earth somehow through another's body, and kidnaps Timmy.

There's also a six page unrelated backup story from co-writer Brian Hotton. It's unbelievably bad and amateurish, from the script through the art and down to the lettering. Sure, I'll throw in the coloring, too, there. But you can only do so much with the material that's handed to you, you know?

Joe Rubinstein is the sole inker for this issue, which I think is the best one to date, from the visuals.

Ads in the back give you, Pitt Reader, the chance to buy Pitt skateboards, Fossil watches, and ash-cans. The pewter figurines came out much later. No, I'm not kidding. So does the Pitt CD. Keown is a big musician, though I have no idea what kind of music was on that CD. Anyone have it handy? (It was also available in cassette form, in case you were slow to the laser in the mid-90s.)

PITT #4

It's finally dawning on me what the problem with this series is. Pitt is always reacting. He's the title character, the protagonist. Problem is, he doesn't do anything but react to other things and then show up to punch some people/monsters. Usually, the issue starts off with Pitt beating up some bad people completely unrelated to the main plot of the series. It's bikers or bank-robbers or drunken deer hunters. Then, the main plot picks up and Pitt reacts to it at the end of the issue.

This issue doesn't go according to that formula, but it's still less than satisfying: Pitt runs to help Timmy. This results in a multi-page monster fight scene. In the end, Pitt does nothing to push the plot along. He's basically beaten and something else happens out of left field to end the confrontation.

Not very satisfying. But pretty. Keown is back to inking himself, which gives the issue a slightly dirtier feel, but still closer to the lines of Robinstein's inks than Williams'.

The cover to this issue is a reminder to brush regularly and floss. Also, chewing Trident might not be such a bad idea. . .

PITT #5

In this issue, a woman is preyed upon by three street toughs, Pitt stops them, then gets caught up in a fight with a giant rat creature for nearly half the issue. Two superhero looking characters show up at the end to take him in, which you just know means the three will be engaged in fisticuffs by the third page of the next issue.

PITT #6

Pitt throws his first punch on page two, ahead of schedule.

Entertainingly, Extreme Studio's much-hyped "Prophet" series has a special ad in the back of the book. "Due to the tardiness of the artist we are resoliciting the book for September. We hope you'll agree that Stephen Platt's artwork is worth the wait."

Nothing like taking out an ad to throw your artist under the bus, eh?

Perhaps even better is the back cover, spotlighting the Image attitude of the day. It's impossible to think of them going with something like this today, but enjoy:

"C'mon, admit it… You thought we'd be gone by now."

That's so very true.

PITT #7 - #10

Let's try to keep up with the comings and goings here, though I warn you it won't be easy:

"Pitt" #7 is my favorite art issue of the bunch, as Pitt and crew wind up in the Arctic fighting more aliens. There's some double page spreads, monster mayhem, and pleasant enough humans. Keown inks himself here, with colors from Steve Oliff, who did the best job on Keown's art.

Issue #8 would change credits to "Computer Colors" with the following list of names:

Brian Haberlin, Tyson Wengler, Ashby Manson, Juan Carter Rodriguez, Lateef Op, Judy Hosobushi, Catherine Burchi, Richard Isanove, and Cynthia Morris.

I've heard of late comics picking up their schedule by using a team of inkers, but I've never seen so many colorists credited on a single comic before. Were they crediting the flatters?

Issues #7 and #8, by the way, added a new credit: "Production by Top Cow." Issue #9 was, instead, "Produced by Full Bleed Studios." I thought this might have coincided with Top Cow's brief departure from Image, but it didn't. Top Cow would leave the next year.

That's not where it ended, though, as issue #10 began a run of issues self-published by Keown through his "Full Bleed Studios" publishing company.

In retrospect, I'm confused.

In the end, though, it makes sense that Keown returned to comics through Image and, specifically, Top Cow.

Steve Gerber, by the way, is the credited writer for issue #9 and the first four pages of issue #10. Page 4, it should be noted, is the middle of a fight scene, so I get the feeling the departure wasn't planned in advance.

Issue #9 features Billy Tan inks on the first half of the issue, with Mark Farmer stepping in for the back half. Talk about your contrasting styles!

HULK/PITT

Let's skip ahead to the last historically interesting "Pitt" issue, which was the 1997 crossover, "Hulk/Pitt." The one shot reunited the great "The Incredible Hulk" creative team of Peter David and Dale Keown. Sadly, Mark Farmer didn't come along to ink it. Instead, Dan Panosian did the job. Panosian is the wrong inker for Keown for many of the same reasons Scott Williams is. Panosian, at the time, was far too influenced by the "hot" and "kewl" styles of the day, which meant lots of needless crosshatching and small lines, where a slicker style like Farmer's, or a moodier style like Rubinstein's, would have worked ten times better. Keown's art doesn't lend itself to the "Image Style" of art that people like to label the bad stuff as being. But that's what Panosian produced. He was Example A of all that was wrong and ugly in comics at the time.

Plus, you have to get past the Phallic Pitt head on the cover.

While I can blame it all on the inker, there are a lot of pages in this book that I doubt were fully formed when handed over to Panosian. I'd almost take bets that Panosian did "finishes" more than inks on a good portion of this book. Keown, as previously mentioned, wasn't a particularly quick artist. I can easily picture his resorting to layouts in lieu of full pencils to get this project published in time.

Peter David does his best to string together a story, using Timmy as the conduit to bring the Pitt Earth together with the Marvel Universe. He gets through it, but it's nothing memorable. And, again, you have to concentrate to stop from being distracted by the awful artwork. Just awful. Keown's work has never looked flatter.

This was a square bound one shot special, so it's tough to get a scan of it. Just look at the covers to see what happens. It's ugly out there.

TO SUM IT ALL UP

Dale Keown should have stuck with "The Incredible Hulk." There'd be a lot more crazy Keown fans in comics today had he done that. "Pitt" might have stood a chance with a decent writer and a consistent -- well, a consistent anything. Inker. Tone. Storyline. Release schedule. Creative team. Publisher/Producer. Take your pick. The first eight and a half issues tell one story. It's not done very well, and it's often painful how things come from out of nowhere to push a plot along in a very straight line. But there's a complete story in there somewhere. As an art book, a collection of those nine issues would make for a nice hardcover.

I'm happy to see Dale Keown drawing interiors once again, though the fact that it took literally years to produce two issues means I'm not getting my hopes up for much more besides covers for a while.

And we'll always have "Pitt," a confusing jumbled mess of a property that still leaves many of us 90s fanboys with a sad place in our hearts. It could have been so much more. . .

One last factoid: In the back of "Pitt" #11, Dale Keown talks excitedly about how he color separated the cover for the issue with his PowerMac 8500 and Photoshop 3.0. He was quite happy with being able to zoom in to handle the details.

My photoblog, AugieShoots.com is going back to Myrtle Beach this week, but look first for some experiment shots and a new moon shot.

My Twitter stream (@augiedb) is still dead in the water. That, Twitter! At least they're more reliable than GMail these days.

The Various and Sundry blog is where I talk about my latest gadget lust. Ooh, that Canon 7D is nice looking.

Don't forget to check out my Google Reader Shared Items this week. It's the best of my daily feed reading, some 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, dale keown, pitt, incredible hulk

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