OFF THE SHELF
I don't think I'm alone when I admit that I have way more unread comics sitting around the house than I should. Whether it's from raiding quarter bins at conventions over the years or taking advantage of sales or meeting creators at cons and walking away with one of their books, the pile is never-ending. Just in trade paperbacks, along, I'm sure I have enough unread material here to fill a six foot by three foot bookshelf with five shelves.
Every now and then, that bothers me and I start dipping into that material. What have I been missing all these years? Plus, there's no worries about comics being $2.99 or $3.99, when the new stuff is already paid for and new to you.
In that vein, I found a couple of treasures sitting together on the bookshelf this past week. If you're looking to get away from the on-going universe-spanning sagas and their 120 tie-in comics this week, here are a couple of suggestions -- one a space opera, the other a murder mystery fraught with religious conspiracy.
You know what I've been missing lately? Sci-fi spaceship adventure. I miss "Star Trek" and "Babylon 5" and "Switchblade Honey" and umpteen million science fiction short stories I read growing up. I miss the creativity and the energy of high action shoot-outs in the inky blackness of space. Heck, I miss "Star Wars." And Amazon's recent sale on the "Firefly" Blu-ray set left me wanting to upgrade my copies.
I miss this genre, whatever you want to call it -- sci-fi, fantasy, space opera, I don't care.
That's what prompted me to finally pull "Runners" off my bookshelf, where it's sat half-read for the last six years, a few years after I had picked up the first issue in the five part series from creator Sean Wang at the Small Press Expo. So, yeah, this was a reading experience a decade in the making, but a much-needed one.
Thank goodness, it was exactly what the doctor ordered. The book has it all, from spaceship battles to lively action to a great sense of humor and a lot of characters who are defined beyond "This is a guy with green skin. He carries a gun." Let's not go overboard: This isn't Shakespeare and not every character has an origin laid out for us, complete with epic family tragedy and motivating experiences. But that's OK. I'm sick of origin stories. Throw me into the adventure and let's have fun; I'll pick things up as I go along.
Again, this isn't without some worry -- there are a lot of character, situations, ship names and environments to acclimate to in a hurry. But once you let go and just enjoy the story, the rest fills its way in.
"Runners" is about a group of scalawags who band together to carry cargo from point A to point B and get in crazy adventures along the way. They're not squeaky clean, carrying a crew that includes two ex-bad dudes and taking jobs regularly from a crime boss. A mistake of their past is about to catch up to them and the path of destruction they leave in their wake is anything but minor.
Please keep in mind that this book came out years before "Firefly," but the ideas weren't new to "Firefly," either. Just think of Han Solo, at the least.
In any case, writer/artist/letterer/publisher Sean Wang handles the tropes well, making the ship owner a very sympathetic character and one who isn't without compassion, but still has a hard nose and a keen business instinct. The human-looking character has a plasma arm or something that changes shape, at least. One alien is a deadshot with a weapon, another is the big bruiser, a third is the technical expert. It's all standard stuff, mixed together in an interesting way.
But what sets it apart is that Wang tells the story well, both from the script and his art. The script does a great job at working both as an episodic series and as something that builds up over time. There are one or two lines of dialogue that didn't make complete sense to me early on that pay off big time near the end, for example. Each issue ends on a cliffhanger, or at least an "A-Ha" moment. And then the grand finale is a rip-roaring chase scene on multiple levels involving multiple parties firing at each other for different reasons. It's manic and I love it. If you want ships with forcefields, escape pods, laser blasters and lots of running and jumping and fighting and blasting, this book should work for you.
The thing that a story like this always kills me with, though, is creativity. I read a story like this and I want to go out and create my own, though I've learned in multiple attempts in my younger years that it's never as easy as it looks. Granted, today it's a lot easier to draw a spaceship battle on a comics page -- design a couple ships in Sketch-Up and the technical work is done. Storytelling is still key, but you can play with that and experiment with it until you get it right. At least you're not redrawing whole ships every time.
Wang's art style is very organic, but he can also pull off the ships and the cityscapes and the devices without looking like two different artists. Everything fits together nicely. Wang's aliens are variations on humans, of course, but in the way that comics can do it without budgetary restrictions, with lots of extra noses or tentacle legs or whatever it takes. It's visually interesting.
It's been a long time since this first volume of the series was produced. The good news is, Wang restarted it as a webcomic in 2009, updating it at the rate of two pages a week and in full color. It's still running and I plan on plowing into those archives next.
Here's the bonus trick: If you can't track down this trade paperback, the entire contents of the story are presented on the website, as well, along with Wang's blog commentary along the way. I might dig deeper into those archives just to learn more about the series' production. Just go to the Series Index link in the menu bar of the website and choose "Vol 1 Bad Goods."
Humberto Ramos is a stylist who should be out of favor in an industry so desperate to make its every comic look like a series of screengrabs from a movie that the artists are just pausing DVDs and tracing stills. Ramos comes from a more European school of cartooning, direct from the late Carlos Meglia's wing. It's like European manga -- expressive faces, blocky bodies and interesting art that doesn't try to be "realistic," but rather interesting. I'm happy to see his popularity increasing once again with his higher profile "Amazing Spider-Man" work, which is part of what drew me to pull out "Revelations," from 2006.
After his Cliffhanger series, "Crimson," and its follow-up series, "Out There," Ramos reunited with his "Spectacular Spider-Man" writing partner Paul Jenkins for a six-part Dark Horse miniseries titled "Revelations," originally planned to be another Cliffhanger series.
It's a classic Euro-comic, fit for an album printing. As American writers rely on the evils of big business to provide the boogey men necessary to dominating superhero comics, the European writers prefer to deal with The Church. In "Revelations," Detective Charlie Northern is called up from Scotland Yard to investigate a suicide in the Vatican City that obviously was not a suicide. What he uncovers is Catholic church corruption and curiosities. Thankfully, it's not a mean depiction of the church. In fact, by the end, the bad guys almost don't seem so bad. Jenkins didn't resort to all the usual easy targets, instead keeping his story focused and adding in one fantasy elements to create the drama and mystery. You won't walk away from this book thinking Jenkins set out to make an anti-church polemic. Northern, in fact, goes through one of the most interesting character arcs I've seen recently in the span of these issues.
Ramos' art takes a distinct leap in this miniseries, thanks in large part to his colorists. Edgar Delgado is one of those overlooked colorists whose work I always enjoy, and he's joined by Leonardo Olea whose work I honestly am not familiar with. I don't know how the breakdown of duties went with the book, but the end result is a fabulous mix of textures and hues. The book looks like it was colored with pencils, with lots of scratchy lines and Gene Colan-esque flourishes to the shadow work. Maybe a better comparison is to Andy Kubert's work with Richard Isanove on series such as '1602' and 'Origin.' It's a beautiful softer look that full of color in ways so many comics aren't today. There are a couple of moments where things get a little too busy when the rain fall special effects are colored in, but other than that it's a great style. I wish Ramos had more time to work on something new along these lines.
The lettering from Richard Starkings and Comicraft looks a little large on the page, but I like the font selection and the uneven weight given to the balloon outlines. It's a subtle thing, but it works. I also like how the word balloons so often butt up against the edges of the panels and disappear, despite the panels not having borders more often than not.
While there are some typical "thriller" elements to this story, the mostly talking heads book doesn't ever drag out. Jenkins shows great control of pacing with this series and it takes every trick in his proverbial bag to keep the reader's focus when it could so easily get wrapped up in the tremendous art. It is Ramos' art that threatens to steal the show, though. This book is honestly the best I've ever seen his art look and it's only $18.
Next, I think I'll go track down "Kookaburra K," the imported and translated book published by Marvel's overlooked Soleil line.
I had a tough time accepting Kickstarter as anything other than a way of begging people to fund vanity projects, at first. If you believe in your idea and think it'll be popular enough, the onus should be on you to put up or shut up, right?
I recognize now that I need to think about it in another way: Kickstarter is just another method to pre-sell items before they're complete. It's very much like Diamond Distribution in that way. Since most projects I've seen include a copy of the item the Kickstarter project was created to fund at a certain level (cover price, if you will), then all the website is doing is helping automate the process of collecting pre-sales and providing a level of assurance to those funding the project that they won't need to give up a dime until the project is a go.
This, of course, is no relation to Kickstart Comics, which is pre-funded by Hollywood to create IP for the tall Hollywood dollar while throwing a few pennies to comics creators for their one-off efforts.