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Tue, February 23rd, 2010 at 2:28pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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IS HITLER DEAD YET?

The work of Jason is easy to describe: It's dead-pan anthropomorphic craziness. It bounces from one high concept to another, using talking animals to tell the stories, without it mattering that these are dogs and cats and rats talking to each other. In "I Killed Adolf Hitler," we follow the story of a hit man with a couple hundred daylight kills under his belt whose next job is to off the German leader of 60 years ago. Things, as they so often do, go awry. Most importantly, this isn't a somber meditation on the morality of killing Hitler using time travel and the havoc that might wreak. For a change for this type of story, that's all skipped over to get straight to the "action."

"Hitler" mixes elements of classic time travel science fiction fare with personal melodrama and a strange sense of humor that's unlike anything else in comics today. You laugh as he lines himself up for the kill shot on someone outside his window as his neglected girlfriend describes everything she wants him to think she's doing to herself. And then they both, er, fire their shots at the same time. Then he breaks up with her. That's just the first two pages. Yes, it's a mature readers title.

Giving away any more of the plot might give away too much of this graphic novel. Suffice it to say, it doesn't get wrapped up on the inherent inexplicable changes to the time stream that time travel should have, while still utilizing it as a plot point. The logic is internally consistent, never delivered in a long sermon by a dog with a white lab coat on. It just makes sense, and leads to a whimsical and emotional finale. It might feel like a cheap time travel story that adds nothing new to the canon, but I think it's a time travel element that serves its purpose in the story, and gets out of the way. It's not proud of its own splendid intellectual commentary. It's approachable by one and all.

Jason's cartooning is not experimental in the least. It's straightforward. In this book's case, that means four tiers of two panels (all the same size) on each page for 70 pages. Jason doesn't use extreme angles to ramp up the drama. Even in the case of a hand-to-hand fight, the virtual camera remains fixed to its spot a few feet away at eye level. Characters appear stiff, but have remarkable animation and emotion. The coloring fills the page without distraction, using mostly flat colors in a muted palette. It works well with the book.

Jason pulls off some nice storytelling tricks when you aren't looking. He doesn't break panel borders or even change a panel shape or page layout, but he varies his storytelling techniques here and there to great effect. In establishing this word where a hitman operates openly, Jason runs through a series of hit jobs, at first taking three panels per person, but quickly moving to two and then one. The pacing of his story is refreshing, never getting bogged down, never moving too fast. There's a cinematic feel that way, in the way his characters don't overact, his "camera" stays at a fixed aspect ratio and "screen” size, and even a series of cuts can be pictured in your head so easily.

The book itself is great. It's a paperback with those foldover French flaps that help keep the cover from getting too dinged up. The cover stock is a heavy and textured paper stock. Don't know what it's called, but it feels great and isn't used anywhere else in comics that I'm familiar with. This feels like a book produced by a book publisher, not a comic book publisher stuck in the direct market. I wish some of those comic book makers would consider a different format like this one in a while.

"I Killed Adolf Hitler" is available today in full color from Fantagraphics for $12.95. I've been digging deeper into Jason's works and hope to talk about more of them in the weeks ahead. There's a lot to recommend there.

THE BIG DC REORG

So far, the most shocking and surprising move of the last week has been DC inviting Rich Johnston to have a chat with top executive brass. I've been struggling for an analogy to this situation, but can't quite come up with one. Is it like the Amish welcoming back an ostracized Mennonite? Is this like Apple talking to Adobe about adding Flash to the iPad? Is this The Justice League inviting Lex Luthor for a sit-down chat, to tell Lex about how they plan on monitoring the world's problems for the next six months?

Overall, the Executive Team approach has some ideas that look good on paper, but might not be the massive change many people were hoping for, and some had even expected. This is likely another one of those cases where some people will be disappointed not because of the decision's intelligence, but because it wasn't what they expected. See any Apple product announcement backlash for similar examples.

It is, however, an incremental change that might have merit. It carries on the business as usual, but with two strong fan-favorite creative forces in the executive team, one of whom is promising to lead DC into the digital age. So the status quo at DC -- which is fairly successful in these "Blackest Night" times -- can remain, while new initiatives and ideas can creep in along the sides. It's not the braver All-Or-Nothing move many might have preferred and that those of us in the punditry biz would salivate over, but it could help move the football down the field.

DC no doubt needed to keep Geoff Johns around, and giving him this position in the company is a sure way to lock him in for a while. Jim Lee is often described as the best ambassador comics has; there's no more friendly a personality, or excitable an artist. When he walks into a room at a convention, everyone just smiles. It's infectious. He's also a smart guy with business experience and a technical acumen. Bringing him in to work on digital initiatives is a good idea.

Yes, Lee has other job duties (including making comics), but I think the biggest impact he could have not just on DC but on comics, in general, is in that realm. Not shockingly to those of you who've read this column for the last year or two, I think digital comics are the Next Big Thing, and something that both Marvel and DC need to devote more energy to. If Lee can spearhead a DC digital comics initiative of any kind, it'll keep Marvel on its toes with its own program. An escalation between the two companies on this front can only move the whole industry forward.

Just don't let Lee get distracted with another friggin' on-line role playing game.

Prediction: The first Digital Market-Only DC Comic will be "All-Star Batman and Robin The Boy Wonder" #11. And I bet they can do a better job digitally with the black bars over the swear words, too!

Dan DiDio is an interesting study. He was an internet meme two years ago, as calls for his firing echoed through the comics blogosphere. (Seriously, there's even a MySpace page devoted to it. Remember MySpace?) Not only is he still here two years later, but he's been promoted. Wasn't he supposed to be the fall guy for everything wrong at DC? File this under either "Impressive" or "Scary," depending on your point of view.

Otherwise, more of the same. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. The movies and the comics might tie together more tightly. It's almost boring and cliché at this point, isn't it? I hope something crazy and radical and exciting comes out of this announcement in the months ahead, but the odds aren't great.

Still, I bet DC comes up with a lot of interesting announcements in San Diego this summer. If they don't want to wait that long, they can just pick a random weekend and announce it at a Wizard World convention. If they tip Gareb Shamus off two weeks in advance, I'm sure Shamus can go and buy one in time. . .

THE RETURN OF BANANA TAIL

This week, the new "Previews" catalog comes out. In last month's catalog, though, one release went overlooked, I thought. So before we start looking at the next catalog, I wanted to bring up that missed title. Coming from Image Comics and Jim Valentino's "Shadowline" imprint of kid-friendly hardcover books is "Banana Tail's Colorful Adventure."

Banana Tail, for those of you who may have long forgotten his last mention in this column (hint: 2004), comes to us via comic book inker, Mark McKenna. Mark is a regular on the convention circuit, and one of the nice guys I always looked forward to visiting with on those con-filled weekends. And, as the father of a one year old daughter who devours picture books, I have something of a keen interest in this type of material.

So I shot Mark a few questions about the book at the last minute, and he was kind enough to answer them for me.

Augie De Blieck Jr.: Who is Banana Tail? What's the elevator pitch on the character? Why are the kids going to want to read his adventures?

Mark McKenna: Banana Tail is a li'l monkey who my Dad created in the mid '90's. BTail was supposed to literally have a banana for a tail, but I tried it out and it was just too weird for me to continue with, so I opted for him thinking he's turning into a banana because one day he wakes up with a yellow tail. The origin for Banana Tail is all laid out in his first storybook, which is available on Bananatail.com.

I know that kids will respond to the adventures of Banana Tail and friends for numerous reasons, one being that he's awfully cute. And, if a child is not a monkey fan but likes zebras or li'l rhinos, well, we have those too!

The other appeal that I've engrained in the stories which I know kids will love is that I've developed stories that teach lessons while being enjoyable. The first book is about being different, but it's cool to be different. The new book is about how to handle dilemmas with friends. The trick is, that I don't have an adult animal come in to solve the young animals problems; They solve the problems themselves. I think, as a developing writer, I'm learning these things as I move forward and write more stories for and around this trio of friends.

ADB: Banana Tail is a character you've been working on for years now. What brings him to Image now?

MM: Coming from a long time background in comic book biz and being alerted that Image Comics co-founder Jim Valentino had started a kids book line, it seemed like a perfect fit. It was an old friend and roommate, Fabian Nicieza, who mentioned Image had a kids book line, Silverline Books (an imprint of Shadowline). When I sent them the introductory info along with my website info, plus the "Banana Tail" books I had already self-published, Jim and Kris [Simon, editor] thought that the character was appealing to children and would make a great addition to their lineup.

ADB: So, is this a comic book, or a picture book? Some kind of hybrid? You have caption boxes telling most of the story, but there are word balloons in there, too.

MM: I wasn't sure about adding word balloons and captions for young kids, but Silverline Books publishes books that bridge the gap between picture books and graphic novels, specifically designed for young or reluctant readers. So it was their idea to incorporate both, which I’m happy we did.

I went over the text with my sister in-law, who is a second grade teacher, so we got the text to where it could be somewhat challenging to a young reader, yet stretch their abilities, as well.

ADB: You've chosen CGI art over traditional pen and ink this time. Why go that way?

MM: I had three art directions in mind for the new book. The conventional pencil, ink, and color style I had worked with on the first storybook. The other idea was a cut and layered color paper treatment that an artist I know did beautifully. And, of course, this third style: 3D CGI art.

I realized two things right from the start: I wanted to move at a fair pace and I didn't want to have the art as an economic hardship for me, seeing I wasn't doing it myself or with a pencil artist. The other thing is that I know that children's book publishers are constantly on the lookout for the next new style or something that is unique.

The clear choice became the CGI look. In fact one of the teachers at Full Sail University down in Winter Park, Fl., Matt Smith, I met at the Pittsburgh Comic Con years ago at an awards dinner when he was an animation student at the college. He told me he wanted to animate a short using Banana Tail back then. I really never thought anything would come of it, then one day Matt sends me this 30 second CGI piece he did using Banana Tail. I was in shock that he was a man of his word. That kind of got the ball rolling. Matt introduced me to Steve Akehurst and his crew that are all teachers at FSU who call themselves the 4th Armada, and were looking to do outside work and build up a side business in the entertainment biz with all of their expertise and skills.

ADB: The book is aimed at younger readers, obviously. Will you be doing the rounds of local libraries or schools in support of the book? Any crazy promotions or appearances to pimp?

MM: I am available to do schools, book stores and libraries, absolutely. I’ll do the usual rounds at comic cons and when the book is available at major book store chains I will set up appearances at the local Barnes and Nobles and Borders Books.

Thanks to Mark for sitting on the questioning seat this week. "Banana Tail's Colorful Adventure" will be in stores April 14th, sporting a $12.99 cover price for its 32 colorful pages.

So wraps up another week in the Pipeline. Coming up in the next week: More podcasting, more reviewing, more punditry.

I'm continuing the Pipeline Purge by putting some comics up on eBay this week. So far, I have lots of people watching, but not too many people bidding. Looking over the whole eBay comics scene has been an interesting education lately. More on this to come. . .

And in my spare time: I'm podcasting, Twittering,

photoblogging, and text blogging..

E-mail me!

Talk at the Pipeline Message Board, and catch up on nearly 13 years of columns in the Pipeline Archives.

TAGS:  pipeline, jason, i killed hitler, mark mckenna, banana tail

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