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Tue, May 18th, 2010 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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INVINCIBLE IRON MAN OMNIBUS

That rant against phototracing you read in this column recently stemmed mostly from my frustrations in reading "The Invincible Iron Man Omnibus" over the course of the last month or so. Salvador Larroca's art made me want to occasionally pull my hair out, mostly for how awful it looks to my eyes, but occasionally for the way I'd get used to it, accept it, and then get yanked out of the story again when a panel would be almost obnoxiously phototraced. How could I grow so complacent?

I think the answer to that is Matt Fraction's story. I was enjoying it so much that I let the art do its job and tried to ignore its shortcomings, even though there was at least one groaner panel per issue. But Iron Man is a character whose comic I've never read a sustained run on. I think the Kurt Busiek/Sean Chen "Heroes Return" run is the longest in my collection, but it was also the first "Heroes Return" series I dropped. I enjoyed the book at the time, as I recall, but never was captivated by it.

In fact, this new run of "Iron Man" comes close to being for me the equivalent of the Mark Waid/Mike Wieringo "Fantastic Four" run -- taking a book I never was in love with and spinning it in a direction that made me care. Unfortunately, Larroca's work is the furthest thing away from Wieringo's work as you can get in comics. (Disney versus Xerox?) So the analogy doesn't work.

To be fair, I do enjoy Larroca's armor drawings, and the storytelling itself is not bad. He's not making amateurish mistakes and throwing the eye all over the page. His art isn't wildly inconsistent. His anatomy is spot on. And he didn't miss an issue in over a year and a half, which is a novelty in this business today. It's just that his art is, well, not my thing as far as styles go. That's particularly disappointing because he's had styles in the past I enjoyed.

Putting aside the obvious art flaws for the moment, let's talk about the reading experience. Reading a collection is different from reading a monthly book. Reading 19 issues of a series inside a month instead of over a year and a half is a much different experience, even over reading a smaller six issue trade collection. I felt like I was reading a novel with this book. It's a long storyline, wherein Tony Stark erases his mind to keep Norman Osborn from learning his secrets. It really did remind me a lot of reading a novel, where each issue functions as a chapter, and the overall storyline carries out across time but with a ticking time bomb in the background to keep everything moving along.

Fraction doesn't ignore the month-to-month necessities of comics, though. You can still see the cliffhangers every 22 pages or so, and I learned to expect them a couple of pages out. There's a rhythm to reading comics that comes with experience that I'm not sure can be put into words. At the same time, though, I didn't read this book in such discrete chunks. Often, I'd stop in the middle of an issue and pick it up later and carry on. This is something that was anathema to me a few years back. Today, I deal with it as a necessity of life as a family man with less open time. The good news is, it never impacted my enjoyment of the book. Fraction kept the core cast succinct enough that I never got confused over who was who, or who was in the middle of doing what godawful thing to whom.

I can imagine that some people who read the book from month-to-month might have thought it dragged out too long, or that Fraction wasn't moving the story ahead fast enough. Reading the story in one big chunk like this, though, I think it pulls together nicely. Like I said, it's like reading a novel, with Fraction carrying one narrative through something like 400 pages. In this day and age of rotating creative teams and writing for the trade, that's saying something.

This was also my first cover-to-cover reading of an Omnibus formatted book. I'm a big fan of the slightly smaller, 12-issue hardcover collections. Omnibus books end up being slightly out of my price range, usually, and mostly collect books I already own or could own in smaller editions. But I gave it a shot with "Invincible Iron Man" because I had a lot of catching up to do. 19 issues between two covers was a pretty good test. (Also, Marvel seems to be phasing out those 12 issue collections, and they weren't available for this series.)

My main worry was the thickness of the binding sucking in the edges of the pages in the middle of the book. I needn't have worried. While a few panel borders might have been shadowed into the binding in the center of the book, it never affected my reading of the story. I didn't have to try to break the binding to read anything. I didn't miss any words in any balloons. Maybe this happens in books collecting 25 issues, but I was fine here.

The book wasn't too large nor too heavy to hold. I tend to read my hardcovers with their dust jackets removed, but it still had a comfortable feel in my hands. The oversized art was easier to look at, and the lettering didn't look absurdly large like it often does in books when the page size increases like this. Larroca favors uncluttered multi-tiered panel arrangements for the series, so the panels are smaller and everything just looks tighter. It's a nice -- and possibly unexpected -- bonus.

The bonus section in the back is nicely done. Seeing alternate covers presented without the logo treatment means you're getting the best possible view of the art.

"Invincible Iron Man" is a great series, sharply written and blending some modern concepts along with distinctly Marvel-flavored action sequences. Fraction puts Tony Stark through the wringer here, but adds to the character with a strong supporting cast.

And, if nothing else, the entire book is worth reading for the final two pages, which made me laugh out loud. They make perfect sense, but it's nothing I would have ever thought of. A surprise that smart is an excellent way to end the book.

Now I have to make a tough decision: Do I wait another year for a second volume of the Omnibus, or do I pick up the next Marvel Premiere Edition-formatted hardcover to continue the story much sooner? The second Omnibus would look better lined up on my shelf, more so than a random collection of various sized books. But I like the story enough that I'd hate to wait another year for a possible (there are no guarantees) Omnibus.

If I'm being a real grown-up, I treat this as a novel series, where the next book likely wouldn't be out for a couple of years, anyway. Thinking of it that way, wait-for-the-Omnibus is a fitting solution for the way I've described the book so far. But there's the comic geek inside of me that gets fidgety at the thought.

It's the eternal struggle when you wait-for-the-trade, then, isn't it?

THE WEBCOMICS PROJECT, INTERLUDE ON CREATIVITY

I had a bad thought this week, but I can explain it.

Once upon a time, I thought I'd grow up to be a writer or an artist. The artist thing got kicked out of me after one bad art class in high school, but the writer thing stuck, even to this day. It just didn't pay as well as computer science, which I also enjoyed in my formative years, so the writing became a sideline.

Still, all my writing today is non-fiction. There once was a time, even through college, when I dabbled in fiction. I created my own little worlds, dipped a toe into fan-fiction, even submitted some of it for publication. No, nothing came of any of it, but I was interested. I read books on writing, practiced a bunch, and spent time daydreaming up new things to write about. Somewhere on my hard drive, there is a folder filled with text files of all those "great" ideas I once had, many of them still perfectly viable, I think.

But it's harder and harder for me to think in those terms anymore. I'm not entirely sure why. Creativity, I think, is a muscle that needs exercise. If you put it away for a while, it's a skill you might lose, much like learning a language. Use it or lose it. If I saw those notes from my past, I probably wouldn't have a clue what to do with them.

Every now and then, though, the itch comes back. I tell myself I can write something small, like a short story. Get it out my system, at least. But while I have a spark and an idea, I've got nothing else. I can't think of anything to go with it. I develop paralysis by analysis. My critical mind stomps on everything I come up with as being too derivative, too obvious, too cliched.

Am I just being brutally honest with myself? Or is this the reflex of someone who's spent the last 13 years in judgment of others' creativity? Am I afraid of giving them ammunition to hit back with?

But having sat in judgment of dozens of webcomics in the past month -- most of which were too brutally bad to even bother discussing here -- it's terribly easy to think, "I can do better than that." And as much as I'd rather create a full-fledged comic book with its own world and its own dynamic, I had a thought:

A webcomic would be easier.

To a certain degree, this isn't fair. From a production point of view, it absolutely is. Printing a comic and distributing it to the Direct Market is a nightmare. Marketing it is tough, even with a gajillion blogs and comic news websites that will put any old press release on its front page.

But there's still the act of creation at the start. A blank screen or a blank sheet of paper -- it makes no difference. And while webcomics have a far looser guideline for what makes for great art -- xkcd is stick figures, for goodness' sake -- the art side of things is still overwhelming.

Look at any of the most successful webcomics around today and you'll see something deceptively simple, yet wonderfully complex. They'll have a supporting cast a mile deep, characters who have matured and changed, storylines that spring forth naturally from the constraints of the world the characters exist in. Can you develop all of that stuff before the first strip is drawn? Or the first comic book?

Of course not. Well, you could, but do you really want to spend the next five years developing something and showing nothing? That's counter-productive.

The thing with the successful webcomics is that they've grown organically from where they've begun because their creators simply published them. Often. Like the best of open source coding projects, they release early and release often. By the end of their strip's first year, you often see the changes. The characters look more comfortable. They have more poses. The black lines seem more steady, the style more polished. The jokes are branching away from merely pop culture-centric name dropping humor and into more truly character-centric gags.

None of that would likely happen if the creator decided to work on it until it was right and never released it.

So should I be so hard on those who are proving their worth in the public eye? Should I only review webcomics that are a couple of years old, then? Am I being unfair to new webcomics? Or should I just take that into account in my reviews of them?

I think it's the latter question that will inform future reviews. I've always tried to review comics with an eye towards what they're trying to accomplish, as much as what they do accomplish. I think that's the key to understanding so much of media today, whether it be television shows, movies, or comics. There's a reason things happen. Whether they're external or internal influences, nothing happens in a vacuum. This is also why one shouldn't review two wildly different comics in the same way. You can't discuss "Watchmen" the same way you'd discuss "Love and Capes" or "Uncle Scrooge." I suppose you could, as a joke, but it would get old fast. Elements of craft remain similar (panel-to-panel storytelling, basics of human anatomy where applicable, flow of word balloons down a page), but the reason a story is told or the audience it's being aimed at is reason for a whole different style of review.

So, yeah, The Pipeline Webcomics Project is on hold for a week or two while it reorients itself.

I had a busy weekend, going to both a carnival and a zoo. As a photographer, these are the weekends I live for. So please check out my photoblog (AugieShoots.com) for some of the highlights from those events, and my regular blog (VariousandSundry.com) for some lessons learned from the weekend's shooting exercise. I didn't use the iPhone at all over the weekend for it, but I post my iPhone photography at AugieShoots.tumblr.com when there's something cool to show.

E-mail me! Or come chat at the Pipeline Message Board, and catch up on nearly 13 years of columns in the Pipeline Archives.

TAGS:  pipeline, invincible iron man, iron man, matt fraction, salvador larroca

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