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Tue, February 22nd, 2011 at 1:58pm PST | Updated: February 24th, 2011 at 8:19am

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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TWO ON DECK FROM IMAGE THIS WEEK

Hot on the heels of the "Emperor Dragon" storyline, Erik Larsen resets the table and starts cooking dinner with "Savage Dragon" #169. Sorry, I think I strained a metaphor somewhere in the middle of that sentence. But I needed to buy some time while I give you a Spoiler Warning for the previous issue. It's not necessary, but just in case you're trade waiting, I thought you might appreciate the warning to come back here in a few months.

As much as the previous issue was the kind of thing only a long-term "Dragon" fan could appreciate on every level, the opening sequence in this issue is a giddy old school Image "Dragon" fanboy's dream come true. Larsen has mentioned in interviews for almost as long as I can remember that he could see the day where Dragon's son would take over the book from him. Heck, I think he posited that thought before Malcolm Dragon was ever conceived. Today, we're there. We're at that point that some probably dismissed. Others are likely still looking for the reset button. OK, there is one potential reset button sitting out there, should Larsen ever want to push it, but I just don't think he's going to. I think "Savage Dragon" is now meant to be Malcolm Dragon's book. Come back in a year and we'll discuss if I'm a push-over.

The thing that seals the fanboy deal for me is the opening fight scene between Dragon's son and the son of the guy he fought in the opening pages of "Savage Dragon" #1 -- the miniseries, even, not just the regular series. Those first seven pages have been seared into my memory since the early 1990s, and seeing them updated today with "the next generation" either gives me a sense of accomplishment, or the sense that I'm getting old. The only thing missing is a descendant for Glowbug.

It's funny that Erik Larsen, the guy who wrote the often hyper-violent and occasionally bawdy "Savage Dragon" for so long is now writing "Dragon's Creek," a teenage soap opera, where the superhero action is equal to the school yard drama, the unrequited lost and a sense of misplaced family.

So, yeah, "Savage Dragon" #169 is a fun read, and I think the now-completed "Emperor Dragon" storyline has served its mission to reset the book, tie up a bunch of loose long-standing ends and start a new direction fairly cleanly. I only hope Larsen arrives at a look for Malcolm that he likes, because Malcolm looks like four different people over the course of this book. Either Larsen's style is changing to meet the needs of the scene, or he's still having issues drawing a Dragon Junior and working all that out on the page. We'll see what happens in the months ahead.

The other Image title I wanted to mention for this week is "The Mission" #1. I knew nothing about it before I read it -- I had no idea who the creative team behind it is, I had no idea what the high concept was, I had no idea that the book was even being published and I don't even know what the "Collider" logo means.

I say all of this not to make myself look ignorant and closed to the world of comics. No, I say it because it's wonderful to read a comic with no preconceptions. I literally had no idea what I was getting into when I turned to the first page. In this modern world of Previews and a thousand on-line marketing campaigns for every comic being published, it's tough to isolate a book like that.

I loved the story, just because it's so easy to put yourself in the lead character's shoes and guess along with him every step of the way. Sure, you know that the guy who gives him the manilla envelope and the "mission" to kill the stranger described within is more serious than the protagonist gives him credit for. (Otherwise, what kind of story would this be? Might as well write a 20 page dream sequence and call it a day.) After that, there's the very serious question of, "If it's your life and your family's life versus this random guy who you were told is no good but you can't prove it for yourself, what would you do? Could you kill a guy to save your own family?"

Writers Jon and Erich Hoeber twist that knife beautifully, and then give you an answer of sorts by the end of the issue, though it only opens the door even wider for a greater exploration of this world. That's something I look forward to, so long as the "battle of heaven and hell" element of the book doesn't become too much of the focus. That's the kind of story that will get my eyes rolling quickly.

The art is from Werther Dell'Edera with colors by Arianna Florean. The final look reminds me a bit of Michael Avon Oeming's work -- deceptively simple line work, some thick black inky sections, with brighter colors to prevent anything from being hidden. It serves the job well.

"The Mission" #1 is a great first issue of a comic, giving you a high concept, a cliffhanger ending, and the feeling that something is happening here. It's not all origins or biding time until the pieces can be moved into place.

(After writing this review, I discovered that the writers of the comic are responsible for the screenplay adapting Warren Ellis' and Cully Hamner's "RED." "Collider" is Marc Guggenheim's line of IP-driven comics inside Image.)

XIII PARTE THE FIRSTE

The first volume of "XIII" (now published stateside through Cinebook) is a frustrating and satisfying experience all at the same time. Obviously, the entire book is a gigantic mystery: an amnesiac man washes up on shore, is attacked by gunmen and winds up on the run, searching for his life. There's a lot going on in this first issue, including plenty of deaths, a few action scenes, and at least three different antagonists for XIII. If you like getting lost in mysteries, you'll like this book.

The problem is, there's so much going on all at once, the book flies by and feels very thin by the end. You're paying $12 for 48 pages, laid out in three panel tier pages. This is a book that very likely would have benefitted from the same double-sized format that early volumes of "Largo Winch" maintained. Unless they can get the price on this relatively-tiny paperback down under $10 (hint: Amazon), I almost can't recommend it for frugalities sake, alone. The final story runs 18 volumes. That's a lot of thin books to pick up at higher pricing than they should be at.

Yes, it's "The Bourne Identity" taken in a different direction. It's very media-friendly, including a made-for-tv movie with Val Kilmer last year. Marvel did a trade paperback collecting the first few volumes of it a few years back, and nothing more ever came of it. The idea of "you can't trust anyone" might be enough to make your head hurt, but it's so well drawn and so evenly done that I enjoyed reading it.

The original material was very clearly drawn in the '80s. Some of the women in the book look like they're dressed from central casting of a John Byrne "Superman" title, but those were the styles: poofy curly hair, large glasses, large sweaters and more. It's not distracting, but you will notice it. Think of the book as a period piece and it's not a problem.

If you like "Largo Winch," "XIII" isn't a bad next choice of reading material. It doesn't have the humor and isn't quite so over-the-top as "Largo," but it does offer up serious thriller excitement and action.

FOUR ART LESSONS FROM LUCKY LUKE

There's a lot an artist could learn from Lucky Luke, which I reviewed here a few weeks back. Here are four quick elements:

Character design. Morris has an amazing variety in his characters. Faces, body shapes, clothes. It's like every character is a caricature of someone. And though I believe some of the cameo characters likely were modeled on real people, it's mostly just Morris' gift for cartooning that makes it possible.

When you look at the Daltons, you have four brothers with the same design, but with varying heights and attitudes. The youngest has a bit of a Napoleonic complex, while the oldest is much more laissez-faire. You can often see that just from the looks in their eyes.

The silhouette trick. The characters are so individually defined that you can easily tell them apart from their silhouettes, a fact Morris utilizes from time to time. Lucky Luke is easy to pick out -- the slim cowboy with the big hat, floppy hair, gun at his side, and spurs off his boots. It contrasts well next to overweight judges, short morticians, rigid Generals, etc.

Cartoony exaggeration at the extremities. The hands and head get it the most. Since those two parts of the body can be used to maximum storytelling effect, it's a smart way to go. Gestures are a little easier to read, and the facial expressions back up the dialogue in convincing ways.

The storytelling. Morris sticks to a four tier page, though he does include larger panels from time to time that span two tiers, and helpfully provides arrows to guide the eyes. The "camera," if you will, stays a medium distance away, showing up 3/4ers to full body shots of the characters at all times. It helps to show off the way the characters act. Without extreme close-ups, the viewer is never taken in and out of a scene. Generally, Morris establishes his shot and then moves halfway in and holds his gaze there until the end. By taking the fancy "camera movements" out of the storytelling, he invites the reader to become a bystander in any scene. With a consistent vision, your focus is less distracted by fancy storytelling tricks. You get swept along with the story so much quicker. It's similar to the way Uderzo works on "Asterix" or Sergio Aragones on "Groo."

And now you all know what a circular firing squad looks like. It has nothing to do with this week's column, but it made me laugh. I wanted to share.

One last general thought on "Lucky Luke," while I'm thinking of it: This series is good work on Cinebook's part. They're publishing it at a steady pace, with one new book every couple of months. They've chosen the run on the title that would be most agreeable to foreign audiences -- the run of issues written by Goscinny, who wrote all the most memorable "Asterix" stories. And they reprint the book without modifying it greatly, right down to the simplistic color scheme that could use an updating, but would likely be overdone, no matter who did it.

It's also clear for content: Lucky Luke is still riding his horse and rolling a fresh cigarette as he goes. Cinebook may do some redrawing of panels to cover up nudity here and there ("Largo Winch," for example and, I assume, "XIII"), but at least they haven't gone so far as to try to wipe out evidence of smoking in a book set in the American Old West. Even the more exaggerated and unfortunate racial stereotypes remain in the book. That I know of, Cinebook isn't refusing to publish any book because of that reason.

KABOOM! SEEM FAMILIAR?

Yesterday, BOOM! Studios announced the new name for their kids-friendly imprint. It's no longer "BOOM! Kids." Now, it's "kaboom!" I'm assuming the all-lowercase part is intentional. Maybe it's done that way and with the exclamation point to separate it out from Jeph Loeb and Jeff Matsuda's comic book, published by Rob Liefeld's Awesome, "Kaboom." Matsuda last drew the character on his blog in 2007.

I saw the logo, though, and I thought of something completely different.:

For you kids at home, "Coleco" stands for "Connecticut Leather Company." They were the cool cats who made the "ColecoVision" home video game machine in the early 80s, famous in my neighborhood for such games as "The Smurfs" and "Mr. Do."

"Nintendo" came around after the bust that claimed Coleco's home arcade life and revitalized the video game industry. This was its original logo.

The font looks like Excite-Bold, though the exclamation point is completely different.

Maybe it's not the font, but more the rounded rectangular edges? Let's go back to our Yo-Yo's for the Duncan logo:

Isn't free-associating typography and design fun?

CREATOR OWNED

There's been some noise lately about creator-owned comics once again. I think I said my piece about it in this column a couple weeks ago, but I thought I'd go back into the archives to bring up some favorite creator-owned comics I've reviewed in recent months. Here's a quick listing of a few, all of which are recommended:

Next week: More of the same Pipelined goodess. I hope. If not, write me and let know. My ego is fragile, but it can take it.

Over at VariousAndSundry.com, more "America Idol" chatter.

At AugieShoots.com, you get my experiment with histogram-based photography, a cool workshop video, a super speed water-spitting walrus, buying new gear to make you a better photographer, and more.

TAGS:  pipeline, erik larsen, image comics, savage dragon, the mission, lucky luke, kaboom!

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