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Tue, February 1st, 2011 at 1:58pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist
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DAYTRIPPER: BEST COMIC OF 2010?

This week, the "Daytripper" trade paperback will hit your local comic shop, and it'll be well worth reading. I got my copy early, and I sit in awe of this achievement. What Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba have created between the covers of this book is tremendous. It's wise beyond their years, and more accomplished artistically than what many artists twice their age are capable of producing.

"Daytripper" was a 2009-2010 ten issue mini-series through Vertigo from everyone's favorite Brazilian twin brother team. It traces the life of Bras de Oliva Domingoes, from birth to death. To death. To death. To death. Bras dies at the end of every issue. It's not because he's supernaturally gifted or any such cheesy cliché of science-fiction or horror. Instead, it's a literary conceit. As I understand it, each issue of the series ends on a turning point in Bras' life, and with that his old life must die. And so it does, for nine straight issues with the tenth issue giving us the final and "true" end of Bras' life, I think, though even that is up for interpretation.

I can't imagine what it was like reading this cold in monthly installments. At the end of the first issue, the main character dies? But the second issue is a flashback, so that explains why he's still around and why -- wait, he died again?!? What the -- ?!?

I knew about the death thing going in, so it didn't jolt me as much as reading the monthlies might have. Instead, I got to working with the story in my mind to understand what was going on and what it all meant.

The book hits a wide variety of topics and themes, including Bras' relationship with his parents (especially his father), his career frustrations, youthful exuberance, a couple of failed relationships, the birth of his child, and the draw of work versus the needs of his family. They're universal themes, and blending them all together like this gives every reader something extra to grab onto. Each one adds something to not just the fabric of the story, but more importantly the character of Bras.

Bras is an interesting figure. The son of a writer who becomes a writer himself, we meet him as he's manning the obituary desk of a local Brazilian newspaper, tying neatly into the death theme throughout the series. We follow him onto bigger and better things, and track back his life to childhood. We see how his professional and personal lives meet and where they diverge. We see that he's not always perfect, but he is terrifically likable.

Moon and Ba pull this off without being repetitious. There are threads that weave throughout the book in subtle ways, but the major story of each issue stands alone nicely and doesn't follow a set pattern. The deaths are sometimes purposeful, sometimes laughably out of left field. The stories include smaller family dramas and larger more soap operatic moments, and even a plane crash. You can tell how effective the storytelling is when we get to issue #8, in which Bras never appears on panel. It's a standout issue that shows the power of the storytelling, using powerful quiet panels and strong narrative captions.

There are lots of subtleties to the art in this comic that a lot of modern creators could only hope to match. First and foremost, Bras looks like Bras at every age, and we run the gamut here from a little kid to a retired adult. It's not done by surrounding the character with period fashions and the lingo of the age to indicate time period. In fact, the book goes out of its way to avoid that. Instead, Ba and Moon drawn Bras as Bras throughout the ages. He's clearly and identifiably Bras, but looks different in each stage of his life, as the lines come into his face, the hair turns gray, etc. His haircut changes a little bit here and there, and the fashions fit his lifestyle, but it's never about matching his look to the real world's trends. He's not wearing bell bottoms at age 10 and acid wash jeans in his 20s and flannel in his thirties. If anything, it's like every period in his life happens at the same frozen moment in modern time. If you're a literalist who would be bothered by that, I feel sorry for you. I enjoy it for allowing the reader to focus more on the story and the characters and less on the Find The Neat Pop Culture Reference tricks.

Ba and Moon even draw family members surrounding him in ways that they look related. That's a nifty trick, particularly in comics today. Ba and Moon can draw comics that are easily followed without the crutch of bright colorful costumes. They pack the backgrounds with detail to help place a scene in a specific place, or help make a location feel more real to the reader. These aren't sets of artistic shortcuts. These are actual places these characters go to inhabit. It's a skill the artists have that a lot of others in the field lack.

Colors come from Dave Stewart, whose work epitomizes the concept of getting out of the way of the art while telling the story. It's a quiet and unassuming color scheme he uses throughout, but with nice almost watercolor textures for added mood and feel. The color sits well on the paper, but I can't help but wonder how much better they'd have looked with a paper stock upgrade.

Take a look at this page from early in issue 9. Stewart sticks to what appears to be a simple yellow color scheme, half indicating the early morning nature of the scene, but also letting Bras' wife pop out of the panels she's in with her purple outfit. Look closely and you'll see the reflections on the cabinet doors, and the watercolored textures in the tile wall or in the blank backgrounds. Then check out the acting on display from the pens of Ba and Moon. Look how surprised Bras is in the third panel, and check out the daggers his wife shoots at him in the final panel. Those two little shaky lines next to her cheek add up to a lot, don't they?

The stories are more than the sum of their parts, as your accumulating knowledge of Bras' life brings you closer to the story. The way the "plots" interweave over the 12 issues is masterful. The only story bit that seemed out of place is a repeated element in the series -- Bras' meeting with a dream-like figure on a boat in the water during his college days. I didn't think the story needed to have some sort of oracle mixed into the middle of it, and that vague magic-type thing took me out of the story. I much prefer the more grounded feel of the rest of the book.

If I wanted to pull one other negative out of the book, it's that comic book writers and artists inevitably believe that all of their characters have a career path as either a writer or artist. Nobody in comics ever aspires to middle management or the CFO position of their company. They want to be artists or writers.

While I would have preferred to see a hardcover version of this collection, I can't fault DC for keeping it a trade paperback to keep the price as low as possible. $20 for the ten issues is a bargain, including a one page introduction drawn by Craig Thompson. The paper stock used is not terribly heavy, but the art holds up just fine, but I'm spoiled by so many higher end hardcover titles these days. I'd love to see this book in an "Absolute" format. I know there's not a chance in hell of that ever happening for a title like this, but the work is deserving of the special care and attention that such a format would give it.

So is "Daytripper" the best comic of 2010? If it's not, I'd love to read the book that trumps it. It would have to be spectacular.

HERE WE GO AGAIN

Eric Powell released a video on Friday that was about the fastest and most retweeted thing I've seen hit the comics world in a while. It is his pitch for creator-owned comics, complete with a recreation of that classic corporate-owned scene between Doctor Light and Sue Dibney. And, like most such "manifestos," it was immediately met by the typical internet hail storm of semantic arguments, and complaints that the video didn't cover every possible nuance.

Of course, just getting those old discussions rolling again is likely a big part of the point to the video. If so, the only mistake Powell has made thus far is releasing it late on Friday. He should have waited for Monday, when he might have gotten a bigger piece of the news cycle.

In any case, most of it is old news. While I admire his energy and agree with his point (up to a degree), it's nothing we haven't been over and over and over again. Yet nothing ever changes. Marvel/DC in-cannon superhero books sell, 99% of everything else stumbles to the finish line, if they're lucky.

Let me bold-face this for you: The Direct Market is not built to sustain, support, or encourage such independent and creator-controlled endeavors.  The ones that do succeed do so in spite of the Direct Market, usually with sales from outside your local comics shop.  "The Walking Dead" now does first printings of 100,000 copies of its trades.  How many copies of the latest trade sold through the Direct Market?  Not a quarter of that.

We have to come to grips with the fact that the majority of patrons of the Direct Market system are not comic fans, but rather superhero fans. I'm not sure that there is a way to change that successfully. If every creator tomorrow quits their superhero gigs and tomorrow launches a creator-owned non-superhero comic published outside of Marvel and DC, I think the Direct Market would collapse. It's the nostalgia of superheroes that keeps the whole ships afloat, not creators or new ideas or reading habits.

This is not my anti-superhero jeremiad. This is reality.

I still enjoy superhero comics, but they're not 100% of my reading material. Actually, they're less than half. In some months lately, it's been closer to a quarter. I look at what I've read so far this year and it's nearly zero. But that's not some manifesto I'm working towards. That's just what's piquing my interest lately. I run with that. I'm not trapped on the hamster wheel of today's continuity-crazed superhero comic, but there are comics I look forward to reading someday in a collected edition. Brian Bendis' "Avengers" titles with Alan Davis and John Romita Jr. come to mind.

Read Jamie S. Rich's response to the controversy of the moment. I agree with it completely.

In the meantime, yes, please do go ahead and read creator-owned material. It can only help. Just don't expect the campaign of the week to change the world of Direct Market comics. Let's put that energy into learning how to make money off of digital comics, instead. That's the future, and it's still wide-open. It hasn't calcified the way the DM has.

ODDS AND ENDS

Press Wars: Comic book publicity is a funny thing. For a while there, every time DC made a major announcement, Marvel would trump it with the day with something even bigger. Most recently, Joe Quesada leaving his EIC chair trumped DC's announcement earlier in the morning that -- well, I can't even remember what DC was talking about anymore that morning. After noon that day, nobody cared. (Wait, was it the "Flex Mentallo" collection, due out at the end of the year? Why did they even bother announcing it? If you can't order it for another 8 months, why hype it? Why waste your breath? Oh, wait, it trended on Twitter and caused a hail storm of publicity across the blogosphere. It didn't generate any cash for DC, but they'll get to that. Eventually. Right?)

Last week, DC had "Flashpoint Friday," in which they announced the 15 mini-series titles that will support their next big crossover book. No creator names were mentioned, and the promo art wasn't even inked yet. It's not entirely for certain that these are replacing the current monthlies and aren't being done in addition to them. But it's a nice little info bump for a big crossover that'll be announced in "Previews" shortly.

Marvel countered that afternoon with a phone conference to announce a "Venom" series, where the biggest news was that an editor spoiled a surprise. Whether that "spoiler" was real or planned is up for debate.

And so, on Friday, January 28th, 2011, DC finally won a PR battle. Good job!

General Principle: I've grown tired of hearing people make excuses for comics that are well-written, but fall short in the art department. Comics are a visual medium, and I want both. Color me greedy, but it's why I've looked at previews of some well-regarded books of the last year and decided that I never need to buy them or read them. Sorry, but life's too short.

There's enough well-written and well-drawn work to keep me busy and happy. With the insane number of collected editions being released every week, that reading might stretch back decades. We live in a golden age of comics when there's too much great stuff available to read, present, past, and future. I don't need the rest of it.

So, next week, hopefully: Reviews of more comics with good writing and good art.

Meanwhile, in France: Congratulations to Jean Van Hamme for being awarded the Commander of Arts and Letters decoration in France. He joins a group including Marcel Marceau, T.S. Eliot, Bob Dylan, Ray Bradbury, and Michael Caine.

I have a lot of Van Hamme's work in my comics library now, thanks to "XIII" and "Largo Winch." To my mind, "Largo" is still the best most overlooked comic published in the English language today. It's the kind of work that should appeal to the comics adrenaline junkies, as well as those asking for more mature adventure titles. Van Hamme is good with the story, and he's good working within the context of the art form he's telling those stories in.

Correction: Last week, I patched together a bunch of "Green Lantern" comics into a single image to show how gross they've become. I planned on running that on its own, but then merged it in with the hot new story of the moment as Pipeline went to press, the folding of the Comics Code Authority. I should have taken a second look at the covers: None of them were approved by the shell that the CCA has been for a year or more now. The author regrets the error. But the graphic stands well enough on its own.

Addition: I had one line I really wanted to use in last week's column, but forgot. With "Wizard" becoming a digital magazine now, can we expect a new Frank Miller speech at the Harveys where he holds a magnet up to a hard drive?

Next week: We might be getting back to some Cinebook books, and I have one or two other tricks up my sleeve I'm hoping will pan out at the same time.

Over at VariousAndSundry.com has a "Total Eclipse of the Heart" mini-series launching today. Be prepared for lots of YouTube videos! Also, more "America Idol" chatter and random observations.

At AugieShoots.com, you get more Photographic Fives, some pretty pictures, a review of FlashZebra's TTL sync cords, Lightroom's UI issue, a weekend video, and more.

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