Pipeline

Tue, September 28th, 2010 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist
4

AMERICAN VAMPIRE

I'm not a vampire fan. I'm also not opposed to the concept. What with all the various vampire series, movies, comics and whatnot going on today, it's tough to avoid them completely. In fact, avoiding vampires, in general, is as hard as being a Marvel fan and avoiding Deadpool. Sure, you might do it for a while, but eventually it will catch up to you and smack you across the face. Repeatedly.

Such is my experience with "American Vampire," the first hardcover collection of which is due in stores tomorrow. The book received lots of attention early on due to Steven King's involvement in it, scripting his first comics work, which only served to overshadow the strong work from series creator Scott Snyder and artist Rafael Albuquerque. This isn't to say King's work is bad. It isn't at all. It's good, in fact. Just don't let his name be the sole determination in getting your interest up in this series.

"American Vampire" is set in the golden age of Hollywood, following the story of Pearl, an aspiring actress who is overworked and underpaid. Along with her actress-wannabe roommate, Hattie, she's trying to make ends meet until her big break comes along. Then the vampires get her. I don't think I'm spoiling anything there. It's right on the dustjacket for the hardcover, after all. Becoming a vampire, of course, changes things for Pearl, who attempts to juggle the demands of vampire-dom with a possible boyfriend and, well, she can forget about her career.

There are elements of vampire politics at play, as well as variations on the classic vampire mythology and an adventurous and horrific plot. It blends together nicely, never becoming reliant on any one element to carry the story, which is mostly a revenge story, really.

The second half of the story, written by King, tells the origin story of vampire Skinner Sweet. He's a rough and tumble kind of guy, a train robber in the old west who gets infected and overcomes great odds to continue terrorizing the area. King's story is narrated by a dime novelist, adding an extra layer of doubt and character to the story while telling a horrific tale. King's attention to detail and plotting in his half of the series is strong. Skinner comes across as interesting, if not exactly likable in the way that you'd want to have a beer with him. He goes through a few trials by fire (literally, in some cases), and comes out as an experienced tough-as-nails vampire who doesn't care who likes him at all.

Yes, there are a handful of wordy pages, but I've seen much worse coming from prose writers who are green to comics. King admits to his learning curve in the introduction, and it sounds like the team he was surrounded with for the book helped him smooth over some of those speed bumps.

Rafael Albuquerque illustrated both halves of the story, cleverly adjusting his style for each. In scenes set in Skinner's past, Albuquerque's art takes on a hazier, rougher feeling. It uses gray washes, and the coloring from Dave McCaig helps add to the effect. But aside from the visual spectacle, the storytelling is strong. Characters are distinct and actions are clear and identifiable. While I'd prefer if his panels stuck to a grid layout more often, my eyes never had a problem following the story from panel to panel. And when those oddball panels did jut out across a tier of others, it never felt like they did just because there was extra space left on the page.

Overall, it's an entertaining package, if you're looking for something different in your vampire diet. It packs in all the elements of vampire lore, places them in a new location and time, and then steadfastly avoids the clichés of the modern craze towards "bright and shiny" vampires.

The hardcover is well packaged. The dustjacket has a matte finish, which takes a little getting used to, but serves the artwork on it well. King provides an introduction. All covers are reproduced full size as chapter stops, with variant covers shown in a gallery in the back. Scott Snyder writes up an "Afterword." Four pages of script (two from each writer) are shown alongside the final black and white artwork. A half dozen character design and sketchbook pages finish things out.

For $24.99, it's an attractive and complete book. The story comes to a natural end, with an obvious lead-in for the next storyline. I think I'll be sampling the next story, too, as this is just the first volume for an on-going series, though King's portion of it is done. The collected edition is on store shelves this week.

WILDSTORM: SOME OTHER BOOKS

Yes, the death of WildStorm as a publishing concern means we get to look back on the last 20 years (give or take a couple) of their output as a whole. Someone somewhere must be ready to start up a blog to go issue-by-issue on this. There's a ton of interesting material to mine for such an effort. There's also a bunch of crap, but such is life.

I've extolled the virtues of Wildcats 2.0 and 3.0 here before. I once wrote a column with my outline for what "Gen13" should have been ( "Gen13 as Dawson's Creek"). We all love "Sleeper" and are happy that WildStorm provided an outlet for works like "Astro City" and even "Strangers in Paradise," for a short time. I did a full write-up on "Planetary" just this year (Volume 1, Volume 2), and covered "StormWatch" in 2008, along with reviews at the time of "The Authority." Don't know that I ever did an overview on Adam Warren's amazing "Gen13," but know I reviewed an issue or three at the time.

I've covered a lot of WildStorm books in the 13 years of this column's existence, down to one of my favorite overlooked Image books of all time, "Savant Garde" by Barb Kesel and Ryan Odagawa.

But there's more to be mined there. I've been sorting through my collection lately, mostly noting how out of sorts it is. I must have a half dozen different longboxes with stretches of "WildStorm" titles in them. (Just to show how increasingly vague my filing system has become in recent years, I have "Walking Dead" issues in at least as many different boxes.) Let's look at a few forgotten WildStorm efforts:

"Wildstorm Spotlight" was created in the wake of "WildStorm!," an anthology series that had three short stories per month. As you might imagine, deadline difficulties made such a beast impossible to manage, so "Spotlight" was born, to tell one story per issue. The debut issue was written by Alan Moore, and tells the tale of the final days of the universe. It's a solid science fiction/fantasy short story. I felt like I was reading a pulp magazine or a short story anthology collection. It just so happens that the viewpoint character for this story is Majestic, who's so old that he can't even remember the name of that planet he lived on for a long time so long ago. ("It began with an 'E'.")

Majestic and a small group of powerful aliens are all that's left in the universe, all aware that they're all that's left in the universe. With a mere three days to go before every last bit of light is gone, they must say their good-byes and go their separate ways. It's at once both a fascinating character play (What better way to define a character than by how they choose to live their last days?), and a great high concept. Moore's scripting is the star of the show, as usual, with lots of eloquent prose and word play mixed in. The story isn't without a sense of humor, notably in the person of "Manny Weiss, known also as The Wandering Jew." The stereotype is a little on the nose and comes and goes, but as a counterpoint to the bold and muscular Majestic, the little suited human with a yarmulke is a strong contrast.

And don't even ask about the Syphilis strain... It's a bacteria, so it's alive. Every life is sacred. Aw, just read the book. The two love scenes in the book happen off-panel. One is on-panel, technically, but the "camera" is pulled back a few miles, so you don't see anything.

In the end, the story does come back to a bit of WildC.A.T.s lore, but even if you've never read the series, you'd get the point here.

Art is by Carlos D'Anda. It's definitely of the WildStorm house style, mixing bits of Travis Charest with Jim Lee and maybe a touch of Brett Booth. It works just fine with the story, particularly considering how new to comics D'Anda was at the time he did this book. (He had one two previous credits to his name when he was thrown this Alan Moore script. Talk about trial by fire!)

Honestly, the biggest hiccup in the book is from its own editor, Mike Heisler. He also lettered the book, and it's wildly uneven. Some balloons look like a last minute addition done quickly under the wire. Letter sizes appear to shrink and grow according to the bits of space Heisler is trying to push them into. And, let's face it, this is a Moore script. There's a lot of lettering to push.

Overall, though, it's a fantastic break from the usual WildStorm fare, done in the style of a science fiction short story with a heart of gold. It works well, and it's a shame it's completely unavailable to readers today, aside from a random quarter bin somewhere. I know the situation with Moore is iffy, but DC needs to get this into their digital library someday.

The inside back cover of the issue features several of J. Scott Campbell's original art pages from "Gen13" #13 for sale, in the $150 to $450 (Spawn is featured) range, with a cover going for $1000. Those would have been good investments to make in 1997, I think.

And just to show how hyperbolic advertising could get in the 90s, take a look at this example:



Trading cards as a "true classic." Ah, yes, because I do think of "Gen13" alongside the Beatles and Rolls Royce. I think that name might stick, once the animated movie hits the big screen.

(Check out more vintage WildStorm ads from Pipeline in 2008.)

Another great lost modern classic is "Mister Majestic," from the mixed-up word processors and drafting boards of Brian Holguin, Joe Casey, Ed McGuiness, and Eric Canete. Issue #5 staged a Majestic fight scene as if it was happening in a video game. This was years before "Scott Pilgrim." I wish I could find those issues to scan in some examples. Casey did some interesting work at WildStorm beyond just "Wildcats."

I reviewed issues #1, #3, #6. Thankfully, there is a trade paperback available for the series, but I don't think it includes the last couple of Canete-drawn issues. In today's market, I think a complete collection - including a story by Alan Moore, and other issues drawn by Canete and McGuinness - would stand a chance. Make it hardcover for $30 and I'm in.

Scott Lobdell did a series of mini-series from WildStorm that's too often overlooked in the recent recaps. Most successful was his "Ball and Chain" mini-series, with artist Ale Garze. It told the story of a separating husband and wife who need to stay together to keep their powers. The dynamic was strong and the inherent drama was obvious, but it worked. It was a great example of a romantic comedy, done with superhero trappings. The property made it to TV pilot season, before not being picked up. Don't know if that pilot ever leaked out onto the internet anywhere. Funny thing, though: "Ball and Chain" is back in development at SyFy. It was announced this summer. Must have been lost in the glut of San Diego news.

Two other series of note that WildStorm did a decade ago featured younger female protagonists:

The first was "Jezebelle," a six issue mini-series about a sexually non-committed teenage girl whose boyfriend kills himself. Well, that's how it starts. Then there's the demons, the goth friend, the wild costume, the spells, and the part where one learns life's lessons the hard way and changes one's ways. Written by Ben Raab, it wasn't terribly notable but for two things: First, it was drawn by Steve Ellis, who you now likely recognize from "High Moon." You can see just how far his art has come in the last few years. Second, Raab utilized a technique in each issue where the start of the comic spoke directly to the reader for a page or two. She was pictured in a room looking right out at you, giving you her honest thoughts. Yes, it's also cheap exposition, but it worked. At the time, I speculated that it was a technique lifted from "Titus," the hilarious FOX sit-com of the day. As it turns out, Raab was inspired by "Once and Again," the network drama starring "The Rocketeer" Billy Campbell and Sela Ward.

The information in the previous sentence came from the letters column of issue #5, in response to a letter written by - well, me. I completely forgot about that.

Ben Raab was last seen on staff with the SyFy show, "Warehouse 13" and doing the occasional "Phantom" comics work.

The second series with a strong younger female lead was "Jet," written by the team of Abnett and Lanning. This one was more straightforward superheroics, but with a college girl spending her nights saving the world in a fairly ludicrous costume, even for WildStorm at the time. (Even Brian Stelfreeze's covers couldn't make it look less, er, fetishistic.) More important than the story, in this case, is that the series launched the career of artist Dustin Nguyen and his faithful inker, Derek Fridolfs. Nguyen would come to greater prominence with his "Wildcats" work with Joe Casey, but this is where it all began.

I interviewed Derek about breaking into comics back in 2000. As you can see in the second part of the interview, he was just starting work at WildStorm. Judging by his description of the job, that would have been his first artistic pairing with Nguyen.

There are obviously more comics to talk about than just this small handful. And I'm avoiding the obvious and the unread.

I came across a 2001 house ad that featured a Scott Lobdell mini-series that Carlos Meglia was drawing, called "Monster World." Meglia didn't do many American comics, so those four issues are like gold to me right now. I don't believe that series was ever collected. Shame.

More recently, Chuck Dixon and Butch Guice teamed up for a World War II alternate historical drama called "Storming Paradise," in which American soldiers stormed the shores of Japan.

WildStorm published a Peter David story with "Spider-Man/Gen13." The art came from Stuart Immonen whose style, in retrospect, was in a bit of flux. It doesn't work as well today as I thought it did originally. That's too bad.

WildStorm kept Art Adams working for a time, on books that I bet most of us have forgotten by now. Gen13/MonkeyMan was a pretty two issue mini-series, though.

And don't forget that Lee Bermejo came out of the gates at WildStorm with both guns a blazing. "Batman/Deathblow" was a beautiful three part series, with script by Brian Azzarello, inks by Tim Bradstreet, and colors by Grant Goleash. Todd Klein handled the lettering.

WildStorm also introduced us to Aron Weisenfeld, the superlative artist who left comics and wound up in fine art, to briefly return for a short time on "Y The Last Man" covers. Back then, his fine line work and attention to detail was an impressive thing. I tracked him down just last year.

Heck, even "Divine Right" is overlooked today, and that had Jim Lee art on it, though it ended in a weird way in a universe-wide crossover, didn't it? Pity. I'll always be grateful for that series, because it was the only way I could ever afford a page of original Lee artwork. I could never afford any of his "X-Men" stuff, but "Diving Right" was do-able. You can see the page here.

OK, I have to stop now. I don't think I even recognized the depth of the WildStorm catalogue before this past week. Even discounted so much of the WildStorm Universe proper titles of the last five years or so, it's a crazy set of titles. It was a good run, and we can only hope that DC keeps the collected editions in print and viable for a long time to come.

And, hey, if Bob Harras can be the new editor-in-chief of DC, why can't Jim Shooter restart WildStorm in a couple of years?

Kidding.

Or am I?

THREE QUICK THOUGHTS

  • "Walking Dead" going day and date is terrific for the industry. Yay for Zombies on TV!

  • More good news: IDW is reprinting "Shockrockets" as a full-sized hardcover. I reviewed it back in 2000, and then again in 2009, and still loved it.

  • Comics is turning into major league baseball. Anytime a manager is fired, the same half dozen names from managers similarly fired by their teams pops up. It's the same people who rotate from team to team to team. Lou Piniella is finally retired, but I still bet his name will come up in the off-season as someone a team may try to talk out of retirement.

    And, now, Bob Harras is the new Willie Randolph.

    I'm sorry. There's probably a better metaphorical example, but two of you laughed, so I'll take it.

    It's a pretty nice position for Harras to be in. While some still have a bad taste in their mouths from his 90s turn as Marvel Editor-in-Chief, he couldn't be better positioned at DC. For starters, the company isn't bankrupt. Then, he's also effectively replacing Dan DiDio, a man whose head was being called for by the internet just a year ago, with lots of assumptions that he wasn't long for his position.

    I'm thinking Harras should put a sign over his office door now: "Harras' DC: Now With 80% Less Rapes and Swinging Dead Cats." If he can promise a lack of limb amputations, he can have the DC Nation eating out of his hand.

Too much stuff to cover in one week this week. I didn't even touch on Brian Bendis' call to arms for comics criticism. I'll just say this: I've been calling for the return of "Amazing Heroes" for a decade. I was ahead of this curve.

How to get in touch: Twitter @augiedb || E-mail || Pipeline Message Board

Where else I hang out: AugieShoots.com || < A HREF="http://www.variousandsundry.com" target="_blank">VariousandSundry.com

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